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For all those who missed out on tickets to our sold-out Night Safari with MasterCard last night, I managed to sneak in so I could get the low-down for you on the science fact behind some well-known tales of fear and fiction.

 

In our annual Halloween instalment of the popular after hours Museum tour and lecture series, scientists revealed the truth behind popular stories of body-snatchers, man-eaters and mythological monsters.

 

Upon arrival attendees were broken into three groups: cyclops, kraken and zombies, which corresponded to the topics of the lectures we were about to hear.

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It was nice to see three of my fellow cyclops group members, Martin, Genevieve and Deboarh, embracing the Halloween spirit.

 

First up my group met Gavin Broad, curator of Hymenoptera, who told us about the flesh-eating, mind-controlling habits of parasitoid wasps.

 

These wasps lay their eggs on or in the bodies of other insects, which are then eaten alive by the baby wasps as they grow. In some cases, the incubating wasps are even able to exert a kind of mind control over their host. In a zombie-like state, the hapless creature will actually lash out at anything that comes too close, in an attempt to protect the parasitoid wasps that are clinging to its body and sucking it dry.

 

If your Halloween hangover can handle it, take a look at this video of a couple of wasps that, having used their host plant hopper for all it's worth, make a break for it.

 

 

Next up Karolyn Shindler gave us a whirlwind lesson in ancient mythology and the real-life beasts that inspired legends such as the cyclops, griffin and unicorn.

 

The one-eyed, sheep-rearing, man-eating giant of Homer's Odyssey-fame? He was imagined from the bones of miniature elephants found in caves on Cyprus. In a phenomenon known as island dwarfism, over time the large elephants (which probably swam from mainland Europe) shrank down to about the size of pigs.

 

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Marble head of the cyclops Polyphemos, and a dwarf elephant skull.

In a time before science, it's not hard to understand how people thought the nasal passage from which the elephant's trunk protrudes was actually a massive single eye cavity.

 

The gold-guarding griffin of lore? That one is the result of Protoceratops bones found in the gold-rich Gobi desert. The sheep-sized herbivorous dinosaur, with its parrot-like beak and large head, is quite similar to depictions of the mythical creature that had the body of a lion and the head and wings of an eagle.

 

And the benevolent horned horse? Well, in Europe it most likely derives from the narwhal horns collected by mariners and sold at port markets, and in Asia, it's attributed to an ancient rhinoceros from the Pleistocene era.

 

Finally, we heard from Jon Ablett, curator of Mollusca. He explained that the tales of kraken, the legendary sea monsters so large that they could bring down whole ships, are - and here's the scary bit - real!

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Pierre Dénys de Montfort's Poulpe Colossal (1810) and Jon Ablett with a pice of colossal squid arm.

Kraken, or giant and colossal squid as they're known in the real world, can grow to around 14 and 18 metres respectively. Their arms and tentacles are covered in saw-tooth-ringed suckers and hooks that help them snare prey.

 

The evening proved that, like they say, sometimes the scientific truth really is as scary, fascinating and strange as storybook fiction!

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Can humans go extinct? This was the question that we asked the audience at the last evening discussion event on 25 January. Louise Humphrey, a palaeontologist here at the Natural History Museum, started the debate by pointing out that human extinction has already happened. Homo sapiens may have been around for 200,000 years but all other species in the genus Homo are now extinct.

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Skull of an Homo heidelbergensis, an extinct human species.

 

Anders Sandberg from the Future of Humanity Institute told us that there are more scientific papers about dung beetle sex than human extinction. He suggested that our brains are not well equipped to think about our own extinction, “One life lost is a tragedy, one million lives lost is a statistic, seven million is impossible to comprehend”. Perhaps we are underestimating the risk of our own extinction and should be doing more research into how we could prevent it, after all the dodo didn’t see it coming.

dodo.jpgCould humanity go the way of the dodo?

 

“What is special about us as a species?” asked Mark Thomas, Professor of Evolutionary Genetics at UCL. He argues that it is our reliance on cumulative culture that defines us, not our large brains or creativity. Maintaining certain skills is dependent upon a threshold population size and it is only when skills are maintained that they can be enhanced. If the human population were to decline below this threshold, we would lose those skills. This prompted questions about data storage with reference to the recent news that researchers have successfully stored information in DNA. Anders commented that storing data is only worthwhile if someone can access it. If the human population fell significantly and some technology was lost then future generations are more likely to be able to access books than computers.

 

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Are books the best way to store information for future generations?

 

The discussion moved from human extinction to the future of humanity, could technological advancements save us or contribute to our extinction? Anders warned that technology gives more power to less people and it is becoming easier for a small group of people to cause huge damage to the human species, and our planet. Mark pointed out that if the human population suddenly declined then we would be left with small communities of people who know how to use technology and not how to survive.

 

The evening concluded with thoughts about where the human species might be in the future. Would we be extinct and, if we were to survive, what might future humans look like? The speakers agreed that if we do survive, we will have evolved significantly. At some point in the future the human species will have changed enough for our descendants to look back and see us as a different species.

 

This discussion was part of a series of events that we will be running alongside the new exhibition Extinction: Not the end of the world? Next month we will be Bringing Back the Dead, join an expert panel to discuss the benefits, risk and ethics of bringing back extinct species such as the mammoth and the Neandertal. Join the debate on 22 February.

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The Earth Hall on Science Uncovered night last month. Bustling with cosmic and creative activity, cutting edge technology and prehistoric wonders. More pictures below.

 

Tonight, Friday 26 October, is a very special night for 10 lucky science and natural history fans, as they will be spending an exclusive evening sleeping over at the Museum.

 

At 28 September's Science Uncovered evening we ran a discovery trail called Stamped on Science and 5 attendees who completed the trail were drawn from almost 200 entries and won themselves, and a guest, an amazing overnight experience in our hallowed Central Hall, and tonight is the big night.

 

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One of the many Stamped on Science-ers collecting a stamp on the night.

After they've enjoyed all we have on offer as part of our monthly Friday Lates with MasterCard, the 10 attendees will begin their unforgettable experience.

 

Museum scientists Dr Adrian Glover and Dr Victoria Herridge will guide them on exclusive behind-the-scenes tours and bring out specimens not normally on display to the public while they talk about their research.

 

After a night's sleep alongside the giant sequoia, in the upper Central Hall gallery, the lucky 10 will enjoy a continental breakfast under our iconic Diplodocus skeleton, Dippy. They'll then be taken on a tour of our Zoology Spirit Building and get early access to our ever-popular Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2012 exhibition.

 

Sounds like a lot of fun for those lucky 5 winners and their guests, who were just a fraction of the 9,077 visitors we had through the South Kensington doors (another 554 attended Tring) for our third annual Science Uncovered festival last month.

 

More than 500 scientists, staff, volunteers and visiting experts helped make the event possible and we're sure everyone who attended will agree it was a wonderful evening.

 

Have a look at some of our favourite pictures and see for yourself. Select the images to enlarge them.

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At the Space Station comets were re-created using (mostly) household ingredients: dry ice, gravel (for the carbonaceous materials), worcester sauce (for the organic materials) and Mr Muscle (for the ammonia).

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The skulls and other remains of our ancient ancestors at the Human Origins Station were a talking point for lots of visitors who chatted to Museum experts on the subject of where we came from.

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Making your own cave art was a popular activity and resulted in a colourful display of familiar images and more contemporary hands-on contributions.

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A state-of-the-art digital specimen table uncovered layers of a mummified cat (pictured) and Martian meteorites with the swipe of a finger.

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Discovering the magic of minerals and their structures

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The incredible palaeontological specimens at the Extinction Station station were a hit.

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Scientists enjoyed the chance to chat about their research and show off their specimens, including here at the Ocean Stations (above and below).

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Sea silk, one of the strange underwater specimens on show at the Oceans Station.

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The Antarctica Science Station gave people a taste of the cold conditions scientists, researchers and explorers experience at the South Pole.

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Many of the younger visitors could be found experimenting at being a vet and treating some very cuddly (toy) creatures at the Vets Station.

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Behind-the-scenes tours gave visitors the chance to step into the role of scientist in our labs.

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The tour of the Museum's library proved popular for its special access to historic artwork and texts.

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Our roaming animal handlers let those brave enough hold real live animals.

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The Food Station was as colourful and tasty as we would expect.

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The Sopabox Art sessions attracted curious listeners, especially the discussion about breeding a mouse with the DNA of Elvis.

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Science Fight Club in full sway.

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The night was made all the merrier by the specially-concocted Science Uncovered cocktail, the Pollinator.

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And who found out what this hairy brain-like mystery speciman was?
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So summer’s definitely over, but autumn brings with it our spectacular Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

 

This Friday 26 October's Lates with MasterCard is the first late opening of the exhibition and what an exhibition it is! If you haven’t had a peek at the line-up of winning images, you can do so on our online gallery but there’s nothing quite like seeing the full show so make sure you get your tickets early for this Friday if you’re planning on coming along.

 

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Paul Nicklen's Bubble-jetting emperors is the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year winner. Get up close to this and 99 other prize-winning photographs in the exhibition open late on Friday evening.

 

This month we’re bringing back our increasingly popular Open-mic in the Central Hall and we’ve got 11 awesome performers. They’ll be playing from 7pm until 10.30pm and we’ve got a fantastic mix of artists. With everything from country to rock and pop it’s bound to be a great night. Get a taste of one of the performers, Marie Naffah, in this video, and see some of the other performers' videos at the end of this blog.

 

 

This month we also have some really exciting activities going on at Lates. Join our discussion event exploring the pitfalls and possibilities of a manned mission to Mars in our unique event, Should We Go To Mars? This event is ticketed and you need to book online in advance.

 

Our amazing half-term Campsite event will be opening an evening early for a special preview. With film screenings in campervans, human-sized cabinets where you can label yourself a specimen and a real polar tent in the mix, you can have yourself an indoor-outdoor adventure in the Darwin Centre. The Campsite will be open from 7pm – 9.30pm.

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Get a taste of the Campsite mobile festival of campervans, caravans and pop-up tents, arriving here on Friday evening. Right, join the crazy artists for some entertaining speed-sketching.

We’re also saying bonsoir to our Crazy Artists who are back and crazier than ever with a night of speed-sketching that will knock your socks off.  Can you sketch a squirrel in 10 minutes? Or draw a dinosaur? Or paint a porpoise? The Artists are here to put your skills to the test. Every 15 minutes between 19.00 and 21.00 the artists will bring out a specimen from the Museum’s collections. You’ll have 10 minutes to draw it before they cast their expert eyes over your work and choose a winner to take home a Natural History Museum prize.

 

If all that wasn’t enough, we’re opening the Dinosaur gallery, and you can get into the Halloween spirit in the Creepy Crawlies gallery, which is open for the the first time ever at Lates,

 

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Satisfy your curiosity about locusts (above), ants, butterflies, crabs, spiders, termites and 1000s of their relatives in the Green Zone's Creepy Crawlies gallery.

 

And with all that going on you’re bound to be peckish, so why not warm up with our tasty new pop-up restaurant menu? Featuring venison and wild boar stew, dumplings and mashed potato, you won’t be hungry for long.

 

So it looks like this is going to be one of our busiest Lates ever and I hope you all enjoy it. As always, if you do come along, please let us know what you think on the night or you can email the team at after-hours@nhm.ac.uk.

 

Andy Glynn

Visitor Events Manager


Open-mic performers at this month's Lates

 

Calvin Roche performs a variety of sounds from upbeat to chilled acoustic featuring amazing bass and vocals.

 

Clinton Tavares is a singer/songwriter from Watford that is currently playing open mics all across London.

 

 

 

Daniel Corsini plays acoustic folk with influences from Ray Davies to Kenny Rogers, to cups of tea, to sleeping in the sun.

 

 

 

Glen Kirkham is a star in waiting. His unique high-note harmonies and distinctive acoustic guitar playing produce a stunning synergy of blues and rock/pop.

 

 

 

Icicle Tree are an established folk fusion band from Surrey that plays memorable songs with distinctive melodies, creative arrangements and a truly identifiable style.

 

 

 

Jakob Deist, originally from South Africa but now based in Essex, is an amazing acoustic performer who blends a mix of pop, blues, rock and indie sounds. His new album, The Owl and the Crow, is out soon.

 

 

 

Kaitlyn Haggis, our youngest open-mic performer to date, is a teenage singer/songwriter from North London. She’s been developing her own material over the last 12 months and is currently recording her first EP.

 

 

 

Lucie Zara is a singer/songwriter from Devon. Her music has been described as a fusion of folk guitar, quirky lyrics and soulful vocals.

 

Marie Naffah is bound for big things, according to Love Music Love Life Magazine, who say: “With features on Balcony TV, Absolute Radio, XFM and her track about a girl who has lost her sight featured as top video of the week on NME breakthrough, this is just the beginning for the 20-year-old. You can expect to hear a lot more as she is set to record her new EP over the next few months.”

 

Paul Howley
Original soulful folk, big poppy choruses and some of the smartest lyrics in town.

 

The Frisbys
Often compared to the likes of Fleetwood Mac, the Frisbys write memorable folk/pop songs. Expect delicate folk textures and soaring harmonies from this four-piece.

 

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cocktail-long-1000.jpgAs our mighty Visitor Services team, caterers and planners swing into action for the Museum's biggest event of the year later today, and our Museum scientists make final preparations on their choice specimens, exhibits, equipment and talks for the show, I'm thinking of the things I will definitely be doing in a few hours time when I leave the office myself and visit Science Uncovered. It opens to the public at 16.00 and goes on until 23.00.

 

High on my list is, naturally, sipping The Pollinator cocktail (left) created exclusively for tonight's occasion. Its ingredients can't be revealed, but I've heard it is infused with vanilla and smells delicious, and is inspired by the pollination process... mmm nice! This concoction is available at the Cocktail bar in the Darwin Centre, and right next to the Food Station, which was a really cool place to hang out last year and have some really fruitful conversations.

 

Before heading over to the Darwin Centre, I hope to witness the volcano erupting at the Earth Station in the Earth Hall. And on my way from Earth to the Green Bar, I'll stop to listen to the Soapbox Art speakers in the Lasting Impressions gallery. I'm really intrigued about the possibility of a genetically-cloned Elvis mouse (below left) and perplexed by the prospect of women giving birth to endangered dolphins if the future need arose...

 

Both these somewhat surreal subjects and the speculative uses of scientific advancement, as seen through the eyes of budding Royal College of Art design graduates, are sure to give great food for thought. Soapbox Art is a new addition this year.

 

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'Tails' of mice at Science Uncovered tonight. Left a mouse that could be genetically-cloned from Elvis hair samples... featured in a Soabpox Art session; right a locust devouring a mouse at the Parasites/Pests Station.

On the subject of mice and pests, there will be more to explore at the Darwin Centre science stations. I definitely need to see the locust caught in the act of devouring a mouse at the Parasites/Pests Station, where I heard a rumour there might also be edible chocolate parasites. And I must remember to get some inside information at the Vets Station for a little person I know who wants to become a vetinary surgeon.

 

Another must is the roaming digital specimen table (below) where I'll have a go - if I can get a look in - at unwrapping a mummified cat and examining the core of the rare Tissint Martian meteorite. The table will be in the Earth Hall (where you can also see the Imaging Station) from 16.00 - 20.00, moving to the Earth globe just outside the Earth Hall from 20.00 - 22.00.


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And of course, I'll be drawn to weird fish, ancient skull cups, gorgeous butterflies, giant bugs, native gold, glowing minerals, amazing CT scans and much, much more along the way.

 

For anyone interested in science and in our planet's history, its solar system and its future, this is the place to be in London tonight.

 

Find out about the Science Stations and everything that's on tonight at Science Uncovered

 

Read the news story about the digital specimen table

 

Download the Science Uncovered map [PDF]

 

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Of course, if you're in Hertfordshire and close to our Museum at Tring, you can join in their amazing Science Uncovered at Tring night there too. The Edge of Extinction display and talk about birds, which is Tring's special area of research, promises to be fascinating as do some of their special bird art presentations. Pictured above is the forest owlet that has recently been making a recovery and actually 'returning from the dead'.

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Where can you: create your own comet with a space expert or examine a large land snail back from extinction? Get close to rare cave art statuettes and Martian meteorites outside of their glass display cases? Look a fearsome Dracula fish in the face or marvel at a giant clam? Witness a blood spatter analysis by the police? Let a scorpion sit in the palm of your hand? Examine the insides of a mummified cat on a virtual autopsy table? Get inside the colon of a cow as a virtual vet? Take a tour of the largest natural history art library in the world? Or challenge a leading scientist on the latest discoveries about climate change as you sip on a cocktail? And all during a single night.

 

At our brilliant Science Uncovered festival from 16.00 to 23.00 on Friday 28 September, you can do every one of these things and more ... and also try to win your very own private sleepover here at the Museum.

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The Space Station where vistors can make comets and see the Tissint meteorite from Mars, and the Forests Station with its butterflies, beetles and moth displays are sure to attract the crowds at Science Uncovered. Select images to enlarge.

Stephen Roberts, Science Uncovered's co-ordinator, gives us a hint of this year's highlights:

 

'We have a little under two weeks to go until the biggest evening event in the Museum's fantastic yearly calendar - Science Uncovered. This year, in keeping with the summer theme of pushing limits and new records, we will see new science, new ways to take part and new specimens coming out – all for one night only in this unique festival of science, made free thanks to the EU.

 

'On the evening of Friday 28 September, more than 350 researchers will be in our galleries as part of European Researchers’ Night that takes place across 32 countries and gives us unprecedented access to world class research and the people who make it happen.

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Meeting a Dracula fish face to face - it may be tiny but it's huge for taxonomists - at the Evolution Station, and witnessing the police analyse a blood splatter at the Forensics Station will be other popular highlights.

'In a year that has seen science stories making such a splash it is terrific to have the chance to actually meet the people involved and get your hands on some of their work. From mini-mammoth remains discoverd in underground Cretan caves to amazing Martian meteorites and a live link to CERN's Large Hadron Collider control room or the chance to live-chat with researchers in Antarctica, there has never been a better time to meet the people at the cutting edge of discovery.

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At the Antarctica Station you can step inside a real polar tent and try out expedition equipment, and in the Attenborough Studio we video-link live to the control room of CERN's Large Hadron Collider.

'As well as the science and scientists, some of the most precious specimens from our collections will be brought out for this rare occasion, and there's the opportunity to delve behind the scenes into our collections on exclusive tours.

 

'And, of course, if you would rather get your hands dirty you could help build a comet, recreate cave art or extract your own DNA, to name but a few of the more practical aspects. Not least of which for a Friday night, we have a record breaking 7 bars and, by popular demand, our delicious Restaurant will be open till late.

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Homo sapiens and Neanderthal skulls alongside cave art figurines, rarely shown to the public, will be at the Human Origins Station, along with the researchers who more than anyone can answer the questions as to who we really are...

'Our Museum at Tring is also taking part with a fantastic Science Uncovered night in Hertfordshire, with the promise of curators giving us insights into how to prepare bird skins and skeleton specimens, shows of feather painting and natural history art illustration, and the chance to meet live creatures with keepers from Amey Zoo. Local beer and barbecue-style food are on the menu too. Check our Science Uncovered at Tring pages for more information.

 

'If you have ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes of the Natural History Museum in South Kensington or at Tring this is the night to come along and see for yourself.'

 

Find out what's on at Science Uncovered in London

 

Download the Science Uncovered map to see where things are and to plan your evening in London

 

See what's on at Tring's Science Uncovered

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Summer is drawing to an end and it is with a tinge of sadness that our two amazing special exhibitions, Animal Inside Out and Scott’s Last Expedition, make their last appearance at Lates this Friday. They’ve both had an amazing run and taught us all so much about exploration, endurance and anatomy.

 

If you haven’t yet seen what the insides of a giraffe look like or read Captain Scott’s inspiring and tragic diaries, I’d definitely recommend you make the trip this Friday for the last late opening of the season.

 

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And to celebrate what’s been a spectacular summer of Lates, we’ll of course be bringing back our open-mic night in the glorious Central Hall. We’ve had even more submissions than for previous months and have chair-danced our way through almost 300 youtube videos to pick an outstanding line-up for August.

 

A Girl Called Ruth

 

We’ve got live performances by Sebastian Blake, Hannah Scott, Laura Koonjean, Claudia Heidegger, Resonance, Lili Burr, Mitch Daniels and A Girl Called Ruth. To give you a taste of what to expect, there are some of their videos below to get you in the mood!

 

Laura Koonjean, said, “It’s such a gorgeous, historic venue to play. I am excited to be part of the prestigious Lates with MasterCard. Can’t wait to share some Friday fun and songs with everyone.”

 

We’re also happy to say that our friendly, yet eccentric, Crazy Artistes are back for another spin at speed-sketching in the galleries. Find them in the corridors, quickly draw the specimen they’ve brought out of the collections and you could win a prize from their stash of Museum goodies.

 

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After this month Lates will be taking a break until 26 October when we’ll return with the first late night opening of the Veolia Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition.

 

Andy Glynn

Visitor Events Manager


 

Find out more about Lates with MasterCard

 

 

Sebastian Blake

 

 

Hannah Scott

 

 

Claudia Heidegger

 

 

Mitch Daniels
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Curiosity's surroundings on Mars'This mission has been in the works for 10 years. If it is successful it will be one of the greatest engineering feats of mankind,' declared Museum scientist Joseph Michalski shortly before that feat was pulled off with aplomb in the early hours of today. As NASA's Curiosity rover beamed back its first image from the surface of Mars it was 06:14 BST, but it was only after a 14 minute-long journey via the Mars Odyssey orbiter, Canberra's Deep Space Network, and California's Mission Control, that it reached the large screen of our Mars Landing special event in the Museum's Flett Theatre.

 

The elated joy visible on screen at Mission Control was immediately mirrored by the eruption of cheers and applause from our audience. The relief was palpable, particularly as half of the previous missions to Mars have ended in failure; Michael Balme, panellist and - like Joe - one of the team of international scientists who worked on the mission, would later sum up the morning with, 'I expected the worst but hoped for the best, so today is now going to be like Christmas!'

 

Of the 7 minutes of terror during EDL (entry, descent and landing), if anything was going to go wrong it was the very last moments of the L as this was when an entirely new and untried mechanism for deploying a payload onto a planet's surface was put to the test. Although airbags had been hugely successful for Spirit and Opportunity in 2004, the near 900kg of Curiosity made the same approach highly impractical; instead, the brain-storming at NASA had produced 'sky crane', which Joseph described perfectly following the landing as something that '... looks bonkers, but it worked!'

 

From an altitude of tens of metres above the surface, this mechanism winched the Curiosity rover from its rocket-powered, hovering landing cradle gently onto the surface. In a very British style, Matthew Balme put it as, '... something you would call very Heath Robinson,' or, to paraphrase a tweet that flashed past on my phone at the same time, 'if you had put this crazy idea for a landing in a hollywood script, you would have been laughed out of the studio'.

 

nasa-jpl-caltech-mission-control.jpgThankfully, NASA's team of engineers did Heath Robinson and the rest of us proud and Curiosity has started its Martian-year-long mission (equvialent to about 2 Earth years) with great success. The first black-and-white 64x64 pixel thumbnail image and, soon after, the sharper 256x256 pixel version announced its perfect landing on the anticipated flat, slightly gravelly surface.

 

These were closely followed by shots of its wheel and shadow on the same, and the end of the beginning for this multi-billion dollar adventure was reached. Sadly for our audience, Martian time prevented more than this handful of snapshots being captured during our event as Odyssey promptly disappeared over the Martian horizon and thus the link back to Earth was lost until its next pass over the region some hours later.

 

At this point, our extremely relieved panel of mission scientists and Mars experts started to take questions from the audience. These ranged from the planning behind the mission to the future of Mars and space exploration. Panellist Peter Grindrod had the onerous task of trying to follow the excitement of the landing and did an admirable job.

 

He first explained how sky crane had permitted the EDL team to target a much smaller landing area than those of previous missions. The huge benefit of this focussed, and very gentle landing of a large rover was the amount of scientific equipment it could carry to the surface (his slide below helps put that in true perspective - the rover is huge).

 

rovers-compared.jpgPeter Grindrod's slide of the different rovers that have made it to Mars. Curiosity is on the right.

 

Further prompting from the audience led him to describe how Gale Crater had been chosen as the target for the mission - it was the combination of all the characteristics they were looking for, topographical, geological and chemical, that carried the day for Gale Crater although another 3 very good contenders had been shortlisted following an approximately 6 year-long selection process. It also happened to be Peter's favourite choice, 'I can only imagine the view Curiosity must have now.'

 

He then described in brief each of the 10 instruments on board, including the X-ray spectrometer (the first to be deployed on another planet) that will analyse samples collected from drilling a few centimetres below the surface. 'Context is key for geological analysis,' and so the ability to pick locations and drive the rover to them forms an important part of the mission. At this point, Joe chipped in with 'some sort of organic material would be excellent to discover,' which led Peter to state that, as with all previous missions, it is the things that the planners haven't anticipated that will prove the most exciting aspect of the mission.

 

More questions and more responses from all of the panellists followed, including a great fly-over of Gale Crater in Google Earth (that is, the Mars version) from Matthew to show the geology of the landing area and crater. These taught us that Gale will be an exemplar for many other locations on Mars as similar sedimentary rock formations have been observed elsewhere on the planet. Matthew and Joe told us how the landing area was a compromise between the demands of the scientists ('we want interesting and varied topography and geology - the equivalent of the Grand Canyon!') versus the engineers ('we want flat, boring and windless!').

 

matthew-hirise-image.jpgMatthew Balme shows imagery of Gale Crater on Mars captured by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter

 

Joe described how the marginally smaller size of Mars relative to Earth is a possible explanation for why it doesn't experience any plate tectonics - incidentally, Earth is the only planet in our solar system that does - which is a good reason for going there to study it (we don't have access to any truly ancient rocks here on Earth due to the churn and change that our heated core causes at the surface).

 

The mound in the centre of the impact-generated Gale Crater was, according to Peter, probably there because it was once infilled, and erosion has cleared the surrounding basin while leaving the central peak preserved. This means the base of the mound is the old geology, the top the relatively new. And, of course, the tantalising evidence of previous water flow and clay formation as the principal reason for choosing Gale Crater featured heavily in the discussion as it is this that makes it ideal for the search for a potentially once-habitable environment.

 

A few of the many great questions from the audience are worth highlighting here (I've summarised the replies):

 

Q: 'Why haven't probes sent to Mars looked for life since the Viking missions [in the 1970s]?'
A: Because of the likelihood that very few locations will have any evidence of life. We have to first discover where could there have been life before we ask is there life and we have to be patient. Therefore Curiosity is looking for habitats that could have supported life rather than life itself.

 

Q: 'How long will the mission last'

A: It is guaranteed funding for one Martian year but, due to its nuclear power source, it could go on for many, many years if the instrumentation remains working and is still returning useful data. [N.B. Spirit and Opportunity were originally funded for a 90 day mission as their solar panels were expected to clog up with dust and cease functioning; in reality they lasted 8 years as the wholly unexpected benefit of dust devils on the Martian surface periodically cleaned the panels enabling them to keep charged for far longer than anticipated].

 

Q: 'What will happen to Opportunity now that Curiosity has landed safely?'

A: Opportunity has taken a lower priority for obvious reasons, but its mission will keep going for as long as it sends back useful data and the funding is there [N.B. Spirit got stuck in a location that meant it could no longer charge and it lost power, thus effectively ending its mission earlier].

 

During the post-landing Q and A we also had the pleasure of linking-live for a few minutes to the boisterous Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California to talk with Dr Derby Dyer who worked on Curiosity's ChemCam instrument. She and her colleagues were walking around with big smiles on their faces, and not because of the cookies that had just been deployed in their office at that moment:

 

Q: 'What would have happened if the weather conditions hadn't been ideal for landing? Could the mission have been aborted?'

A: The landing was autonomous so we couldn't have aborted or changed it. However, the weather has been modelled for weeks in advance - if we had spotted potential issues a few weeks ago, we could have made a slight alteration to the landing schedule but there wasn't a lot of leeway.

 

Q: 'What would you recommend someone does to get involved in this type of project'

A: Learn how to be a critical thinker! Go to College [University] and be passionate about the science.

 

We were also joined by Ralph Cordey of Astrium, to talk about future missions to Mars. Astrium's prototype rover for the next major trip to Mars, the European ExoMars mission in 2018, was on display at the Museum today. Ralph explained how the Curiosity mission already contained a European element as it invovles the ESA's Mars Express as one of the orbiters capturing the data from Curiosity for transmission back to Earth.

 

For ExoMars, there are currently three prototypes of the rover: BRIDGET (Ralph believes it may be named after Bridget Bardot), BRUNO - which is being tested in Stevenage - and BRADLEY (Italy). The final rover will be smaller than Curiosity but will be designed to drill up to 2 metres below the Martian surface and look for biomarkers.

 

bridget.jpgMembers of the audience enjoy their look at BRIDGET, Astrium's prototype Mars rover

However, that mission is still to come, and from today we are looking forward to the first real results from Curiosity's in-built science lab and (hopefully) the excitement of seeing photos of its descent to the planet and video of the sky crane deployment as shot from the landing module. But, as must be the case with a 10 year long project, we will need to be patient over the next few days as all this data can't be sent at once and NASA's priority now is to perform tests to make sure everything is functioning as expected. That just leaves me to quote my favourite tweet from earlier today:

 

@Paul_Cornell: As Eugene Byrne put it: 'The nerds just took Gold in the 560 billion metres'

 

View NASA's multimedia gallery from the Curiosity mission

 

Follow @MarsCuriosity on Twitter

 

Find out more about our After Hours events

 

Image rights:

 

After Hours Mars Landing event photos, Natural History Museum

Curiosity's surroundings, NASA/JPL-Caltech
JPL Mission Control, NASA HQ PHOTO

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The Red Planet is on all our minds here at the Museum as we prepare for an exciting live-stream of the landing of NASA’s Curiosity rover on Mars in the early hours of Monday 6 August.

 

It'll be make, and hopefully not break, time for the largest rover that NASA has ever attempted to land on another planet, as the Mini Cooper-sized Curiosity rover (image left, credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech) reaches the nail-biting conclusion of its journey to Mars and begins its mission to find evidence for a life-supporting environment on the surface.

 

We'll be live-linking to Mission Control in California and the audience will be able put their questions to NASA's scientists during this once-in-a-lifetime event. And, if we are lucky, we may even see the first images transmitted back to Earth from Curiosity.

 

Also on hand during our live-link will be 3 former mission scientists and Mars experts, Dr Peter Grindrod from University College London, Dr Matthew Balme from Open University, and Dr Joseph Michalski from the Museum to talk us through planetary exploration, the technology behind NASA’s latest Martian endeavour, and the purpose of Curiosity’s mission.

Tickets are sold out but you can follow the #msl tag on Twitter to keep in touch with global coverage and experience the tension as NASA goes through the 7 minutes of terror of the landing.

 

 

Gale Crater, where Curiosity is destined to land, is known from other Mars missions to have been wet and contain clay minerals. Clays, other phyllosillicates and sulphates are known to form under liquid water conditions with life-supporting pH ranges. The wet environment at the landing site is long gone but the chemical signs of what could have been a habitable environment - and the geological context for it - could still be detectable and this is what Curiosity’s 10 scientific instruments will be studying during its stay on Mars.

 

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The intended landing area for NASA's Curiosity rover in Gale Crater is known to have been wet in the past. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

 

Curiosity's Seven Minutes of Terror

 

So, come Monday morning, it'll be fingers crossed that Curiosity lands safely and goes on to be as wildly successful as Opportunity and Spirit, NASA's last two rovers to journey across the surface of Mars ...

 

See what other After Hours events are happening at the Museum

 

Follow the latest news about Curiosity's mission via #msl on Twitter

 

Unable to join us early on Monday morning? Joseph will also be with the Nature Live team later in the day at 12:30 and 14:30 to give two free talks on the mission, so drop into the Museum's Attenborough Studio for Destination Mars.

 

P.S. Rose is currently on annual leave, but will be back soon to bring you What's new at the Museum.

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This month's Lates blog is from guest Andy Glynn, our Visitor Events Manager:

 

'Summer is almost upon us – hopefully! To celebrate the season, we’ve got some really special activity lined up for this month’s Lates with MasterCard on 29 June.

 

Perhaps the most exciting new element of Lates is our entertainment. We’ve got hilarious free stand-up with award-winning comedian Tom Allen in our new Darwin Centre Café. He’ll be starting at 19.00 and splitting sides until 19.40.

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June Lates specials: Comedian Tom Allen in our Darwin Centre Cafe; Open-mic sessions in the Central Hall will come from Sid Batham, Meg Cavanaugh, Felix Fables members Mike and James, and another 7 artists (left to right). Select images to enlarge

And there’s more. This month we’re hosting our first Open-mic acoustic sessions in the Central Hall. We asked singer-songwriters from all over the UK to send us links to their YouTube videos and Facebook profiles and the competition was tough. Over 100 musicians submitted their tracks and we watched and listened to them all. With everything from experimental soundscaping to heavy rock, there was a broad selection.

 

After much deliberation (and more time on YouTube than is healthy) we narrowed it down to our favourite ten for this month. They are: Sid Batham, Meg Cavanaugh, Felix Fables, Ciah, The Folk, Kitty Ward, Sherika Sherard, Jake Manning, Dayle Clarke and Treana Morris. Here's a taste of what to expect from Meg and we'll be posting a few more samples from other artists next week:

 

 

But Open-mic isn’t our only new addition to Lates this month. In the Central Hall we’ve revamped our menu to offer some of the best of British food and drink. While listening to our awesome music line-up you’ll be able to tuck into a platter of fine British cheese and sample some independent label British sparkling wine, Kentish cider and Camden lager from the bar.

 

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We’re still hoping that the sunshine’s just around the corner so we’ll also be opening our beautiful Darwin Centre Courtyard for the occasion, giving you the opportunity to relax in style and enjoy Pimms on the lawn.

 

And if all that wasn’t enough, you’ll definitely want to pop in and see our incredible special exhibitions, both open for the evening.

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Animal Inside Out (pictured above) is proving to be one of our most popular exhibitions ever and it’s easy to see why. With 90 plastinated animals, it’s an anatomical safari that’s definitely not to be missed. You can buy tickets on the night but you might want to book in advance to secure your spot.

 

And if inside out animals aren’t your cup of tea, you could visit our Scott’s Last Expedition exhibition, (above right) which charts the incredible journey of Captain Scott’s Terra Nova expedition. Tickets for both exhibitions are available here.

 

So, a hundred YouTube videos later, I’m hoping you’ll find this month’s Lates to be a totally unique experience. After all, where else in London can you see an inside out elephant, Captain Scott’s diaries, free stand-up comedy and incredible live music, all in one night?

 

Singer Meg summed it up nicely for us, saying ‘There’s no better place to rock with the dinosaurs!’

 

Find out more about our Friday Lates

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I managed to get off the treadmill of work for five minutes yesterday to take a look at the fabulous new camel on display in the Central Hall (below) as a preview for the soon to open Animal Inside Out exhibition. It stood imposingly, surrounded by admirers taking photographs of themselves beside it ‘and practically kissing it as they did’, according to Julian, our Sales and Systems Manager.

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This was in between his trying to make arrangements to fix a guttering light in the Central Hall, removing some children playing at being pterodactyls on the balcony and discussing with me and Gary, newly promoted to Head of Visitor Services, whether the best place for the camel at tonight's late opening would be in the middle of the Blue Bar (no!). To see where it will be standing, you'll have to come to the Museum tonight.

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Above: Last month's late opening of our Scott's Last Expedition exhibition (left) and the enigmatic Captain Scott who was thought to have died on 29 March 1912, as photographed by Herbert Ponting.

Earlier this week I was at a conference at the Royal Society, which is situated very close to Waterloo Place where there is a monumental bronze statue of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. I gave it a nod as I passed, for not only do we have Scott's Last Expedition exhibition on here at the Museum, but one hundred years ago on 29 March 1912 the intrepid – not to say superhuman – Captain Scott and his companions finally gave up their unequal struggle with the mighty powers of Nature and passed into history. I have just found out that, movingly, the statue was sculpted by Kathleen Scott, his widow, which explains the special resonance that the statue possesses.

 

kiran-photo.jpgWe are marking the anniversary at Lates with Mastercard with a special free poetry and song performance by poet Kiran Millward Hayward (left) and folk-guitarist Jake Wilson in the Darwin Centre café (close to the entrance of Scott’s Last Expedition) between 18.30 and 19.45. Kiran will be performing readings from Last March, a collection of poems about the expedition commissioned by the Scott Polar Research Institute. These readings will be woven around by songs from Jake’s All’s Well, which are inspired by Scott and his men.

 

Scott’s bronze overlooks a rack of blue Boris bikes. As the weather has been so fine I was pretty tempted to hire one of these after the conference and cycle back to the Museum, as long as Lycra wasn’t involved. And, if I was not already going to be here chained to my desk like a camel to a water wheel on Friday, I would indeed be very tempted to bike over to us in the evening for a glass or two at our bars.

 

I hope that you will be equally tempted to join us for what was After Hours with Mastercard and is now called Lates with Mastercard (After Hours is now the title for all our adult evening events, not just the final Friday of the month) and raise a glass or two to the heroic endeavours of Captain Scott and his team.

 

To book tickets for the Scott's Last Expedition exhibition for tonight, please call 020 7942 5725.

 

Animal Inside Out opens to the public on Friday 6 April, and has its first evening opening at the Lates in April.

 

Read the recent blog about Scott's last days remembered in our exhibition. And read the news story about this week's visit from the British Services Antarctic Expedition team.

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AH-ice-rink-in-progress-fairy-lights-700-copyright-natural-history-museum.jpgThe starry pealights in our trees in the Museum garden that indicate to me that our Ice Rink will soon be here also indicate that it is time once more for winter After Hours with Mastercard. And it is this Friday that we kick off our winter season.

 

We will be opening the Dinosaurs gallery late this Friday, so don’t miss the opportunity of taking a trip around our world famous gallery, which will be particularly atmospheric after dark. You'll see our spectacular Baryonyx fossil, the first spinosaur discovered in the world and relative to the fearsome Spinosaurus, star of the BBC's Planet Dinosaur series.

 

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We also have a brand new dining experience! Those of you who are After Hours winter regulars will know that we always have a ‘pop up’ style restaurant in our Central Hall.

 

This time around, we will be having a  ‘horse-shoe’ bar in the Central Hall for those of you who would like just to have a drink and if you want to have a meal, then we have a great bowl platter menu in a new venue for After Hours with Mastercard – the Gold café bar, which is just to the north of the Central Hall. You can find our menus here (PDF).

 

The bowl platter offer certainly has some tasty items on it - I know just how tasty they are, having had an extensive tasting a few weeks ago and I am very much looking forward to getting reacquainted with the sausages and champ and the mussels and chorizo paella in particular come Friday night. We’ll have jazz in the Central Hall and in the Gold Café Bar, and we will also be running the Red Bar as usual in Fossil Way.

 

We’ll stay open until 22.30 tonight so please do come along and experience the Museum after hours. And keep an eye out for the small animatronic dinosaurs in the gallery - they will certainly be keeping an eye out for you!

 

Visit our After Hours with MasterCard web page for more details of what's on tonight and keep an eye on it for updates on next month's late night highlights.

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‘Hot time, summer in the city…’ It certainly is getting hotter than a match-head, which is fantastic news for our last summer late opening this season.

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Cool and hot stuff at After Hours tonight, 30 September. Pimms and Sexual Nature exhibition's Isabella Rossellin'e Green Porno films - it's the last chance to enjoy Sexual Nature before it closes this weekend.

Our Sexual Nature exhibition closes on 2 October, so try and catch it at September's After Hours.

 

I thought I’d pay the exhibition a farewell visit myself today. On the way I bumped into Dave Nevin, our Visitor Experience Manager, and two of our Visit Planners.

 

The Visit Planners, resplendent in black and red Sexual Nature t-shirts, told me that some of our overseas visitors. unfamiliar with the euphemism ‘Ask me about the birds and the bees’ emblazoned on the back of the t-shirts, ask them to tell them about birds and bees in the zoological rather than metaphorical sense. They also said that visitors often ask them exactly what it is the female orang-utan does with the piece of bark. Despite my best efforts, I was unable to get the Visit Planners to tell me what their response was. They did tell me that visitors really enjoy the exhibition and will come out wowed at the new things they’ve just seen. Isabella Rossellini’s Green Porno videos (above) are particularly popular.

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Dave told me that some of our visitors have been picking up some useful chat-up lines from the interactive writing wall at the end of the exhibition, and he took me down to have a look at it.  The wall has a fascinating array of visitor messages: touching, humorous and graphic, and ranging from the American mother who wrote how happy she was she’d given birth, to the prosaic but very funny ‘Your ass is like a basketball ...’ comment.  I probably won’t be using that line myself.

 

Perhaps that came from someone who should aim to sign off summer in style with our Ultimate Attraction Masterclass, where you can learn to recognise signals and scents in the romancing game. We have a social anthropologist/flirting expert and a perfume expert on hand to guide you through flirting signals and how to use perfume to lure in a mate.

 

I also popped over to the Darwin Centre Atrium and Courtyard Terrace (right), which will of course be open for Friday’s After Hours. The Courtyard was bathed in brilliant sunshine, birds were singing in the trees, the sky was azure, and the Wildlife Garden formed a pretty glade behind.  It has a very relaxed vibe to it and if I didn’t have to do some work I’d be out there still, building up my tan. Come tonight though, it will be a great place to enjoy some late summer food, a Pimms or a cold beer from our Darwin Centre bar.

 

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Right beside the Darwin Centre bar you will find a beautiful installation that came here as part of the London Design Festival – the Unnatural Selection by Raw Edges and Oscar Narud (left, image by Susan Smart) .This intriguing and engaging animation on used computer monitors mixes up species and specimens in an 'unnatural' way. It is inspired by the Natural History Museum's collections and is presented in Museum-style cabinets (sponsored by Bloomberg). When it gets dark, the illumination becomes especially vivid.

 

Tonight is also the start of something very special for After Hours, for we are very pleased to announce the beginning of a three year partnership with MasterCard who will be sponsoring the Museum’s evening events: After Hours with MasterCard and MasterCard Night Safari.

 

MasterCard will be working with the museum to create a range of exciting offers and events for all MasterCard cardholders as part of their Priceless London programme - check the website for more information.

 

Also look out for the @NHM_London Twitter feed and the Museum’s Facebook page and keep an eye out for our After Hours with MasterCard web page for updates on October's late night highlights.

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Its seems only yesterday that I was thinking ‘summer is icumen in, loud sing cuccu’. That was back in April and I’m not sure that summer ever did turn up. Anyway, we still have our two hot summer exhibitions on at this Friday’s After Hours, so why not join us for some pre-bank-holiday-weekend downtime?
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Sex, shopping and dinosaurs at After Hours on Friday 26 August. Select images to enlarge them.

One of those exhibitions, Sexual Nature is with us until 2 October, but Age of the Dinosaur bows out on 4 September, so this is your last chance to catch it on Friday evening.

I recently read an article that said women think about shopping as much as men think about sex. Men allegedly think about sex every 52 seconds, whilst 74% of the women in the survey thought about shopping once a minute. Well, our enticing Sexual Nature exhibition offers an excellent opportunity for you to do both things at the same time.

clap.jpgThe Sexual Nature shop is at the exit of the exhibition and stocks an interesting array of items, including some very unusual soft  tocuddly-chlamydia.jpgys. When I was there recently, one young couple were ferreting amongst the cuddly sex diseases, as I had been.

‘It’s the clap, ha ha,' said the male half of the couple, holding up a soft blue toy. ‘I like that one, I think I might get it,’ said his girlfriend innocently. Cue immoderate laughter all round. (Cuddly clap and chlamydia toys shown left and right for clarification.)  I suspect the retail assistants have heard plenty like that during their stint in the shop.

You can also buy a Kama Sutra getaway travel kit or pop up book, a mini Kama Sutra weekender kit, Belgian chocolates, books on the erotic art of Japan and body language, lots of feathers and copies of famous sexually based literature.

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Talking of chocolates, if you fancy something a little more exotic than a Belgian truffle, come and see if a chocolate-dipped ant wafer takes your fancy at Edible Insects: Food for the Future, our special event on Friday.

 

There is certainly much innocent and enjoyable fun to be had at our Sexual Nature exhibition and some terrific animatronic dinosaurs in Age of the Dinosaur, so we hope you will come by this bank holiday Friday. Kick off your shoes on the grass on the Darwin Centre Courtyard Terrace and unwind with us over a late summer glass of Pimms and one of our tasty pre-orderable picnics or even a tasty edible insect!

Our romantic roving troubadour, Sebastian D’arcy Heathcliff is back once more, serenading you with his renditions of classic love songs to spice up your evening. 

And although our summer exhibitions will soon be leaving us, it is only so that we can bring in some really fabulous new exhibitions. Watch this space for more information of the late night openings of the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition opening in October.

Browse the Sexual Nature exhibition gift range online

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‘It’ll probably be summer at Christmas,’ the cashier in my bank told me earlier this week as we bonded over the unseasonable weather beleaguering us and the rainstorm breaking over South Kensington. Let's hope it changes for our next After Hours evening on Friday 29 July.

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It was pretty unseasonable at June’s After Hours, although it must be said that suited me pretty well as it avoided After Hours visitors dining out on the Darwin Centre Courtyard terrace amongst swathes of  Heras fencing. The fencing was there to protect the building site where  the new Tsunami Memorial was due to be erected that weekend.

 

If it is fine, do take a look at the Memorial, which opened to the public on 6 July following a special commemorative service. It has a powerful presence on the far side of the Courtyard Terrace, and if you go near, you will be able to read the names of those it commemorates.

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The Memorial (left) offers a stark reminder of the powerful forces of nature by which all our lives are governed, even if we normally live in an urban environment such as London, generally protected from the elements. The Museum itself lost some local staff in Thailand, who were working at a scientific research station when the tsunami hit.

 

On to happier subjects. Like the lady who rode a white horse to Banbury Cross, After Hours visitors will have music wherever they go on Friday, for we have jazz in the Darwin Centre atrium (pictured right), Latin-American music courtesy of Columbian master Ricardo Curbelo (pictured below left) in the Central Hall and classic love songs care of our roving rock troubadour, Sebastian Darcy-Heathcliff, who will be loitering with intent outside the Sexual Nature exhibition again, ready to serenade our visitors.

 

ricardo_image-590.jpgI am humming to very little musical effect Bryan Adam’s (Everything I Do) I Do It for You as I type this, which I realise might be a hangover from June After Hours, where I caught Mr Darcy-Heathcliff giving a very impressive rendition of this to a group of young Japanese ladies, who ran away giggling down Dinosaur Way when Mr Darcy-H came close, smouldering like Lord Byron on Bonfire Night. Why not treat yourself to a personal serenade before you visit the Sexual Nature exhibition?

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Incidentally, actress and film director Isabella Rossellini (right) was in the Sexual Nature exhibition last week. But dressed as herself not as an animal making love as she appears in her Green Porno films, which are one of the highlights in the exhibition.

 

If dinosaurs are more your thing, then our Age of the Dinosaur exhibition is open late once more. You are also free to wander up to our fascinating Minerals gallery and view the dazzling Vault where some of the world’s most iconic gems are on display; stroll around the Cocoon prior to relaxing over a glass of wine or champagne, a beer or a Pimms at the bar down in the Darwin Centre atrium (or outside on the Courtyard Terrace, if fingers crossed, it is sunny).

 

Don’t forget to pre-order your Mini picnic if you’d like to eat as well. We also have the Big Nature Quiz in the Restaurant where there are some great prizes on offer for the winning team.

 

‘Late night is the great night’ as one of our After Hours visitors so kindly and poetically put it recently, and we would be very happy if you could join us!