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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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Rosie Waldron, one of our Nature Live team who will be working at Science Uncovered - our fantastic night of events to celebrate science at the Museum - tells us about one of the things you shouldn't miss when you attend:

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'If you've ever dreamed of spending a night at the Museum and are coming to Scibutterfly-stamp-22.jpgence Uncovered this Friday 28 September, one of the things you must do is the Stamped on Science trail. The prize for 5 lucky people is a pair of tickets to an exclusive sleepover here.

 

'To enter all you need to do is pick up a Science Uncovered map at the Central Hall Welcome Desk when you arrive at the event, and look for the Stamped on Science trail printed on it. There are six stamps you need to collect (you can crab-200.jpgalso download a PDF of the map at the bottom of this blog post.)

 

'As you enjoy the Science Uncovered activities around the Museum, look out for Stamped on Science staff who will be handing out the stamps at six different locations acorss the Museum building as indicated on the map.

 

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'Once you have collected all six stamps you should take your completed map to

the Stamped on Science desk in the Central Hall and you will be entered into the prize draw.

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'The draw takes place at 22.00 on the evening. But in case you've left by then, once you've provided your name and phone number on the completed trail, we'll be in touch (if you win!).skull-200.jpg

 

'The five lucky people who are randomly drawn win an exclusive sleepover at the Museum for themselves and a friend which will be on 26 October 2012.

 

'The stree-200.jpgleepover event is called Science Under the Covers and includes behind-the-scenes tours with Museum scientists, a field camp experience overlooking the Central Hall and breakfast in the morning under our Diplodocus skeleton's tail...'

 

 

Science Uncovered starts at 16.00 and goes on until 23.00 - find all the details on the website

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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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We recently staged the first of our new art-and-play events in the Museum's Darwin Centre. This series of free public events is being held over peak holiday periods and invites visitors to explore nature and Museum science in unusual, playful ways. The events are designed especially for these times when the Museum's central areas can get crowded, and they offer families something fun and active to get involved in.

 

For those of you who missed out on the first event, or who wondered what it was all about, here's a round-up from Sarah Punshon, the curator of the Darwin Centre Arts programme.

 

'Over the August Bank holiday weekend, the Darwin Centre was taken over by children in colourful head-dresses; puppet birds, moths and caterpillars; competitive nut-hunting, nest-building and jigsaw-racing; crafting and art for our topically-themed Nature Games Weekend.

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A family joins in the nest-building activity. Artists and scientists all helped to create about 16 different activities for our Nature Games Weekend.

'Each day more than 6,000 visitors found their way into the Darwin Centre, led through other parts of the Museum, and 100s of them joined in the games and actvities. It was a wonderful event to be involved in, free to all, and we're already planning our next extravaganza for the October half-term holidays.

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Out-flapping a beetle was one of the many challenges in the weekend's Insect Sports Day.

'The nature games were specially created for us by artists and scientists. There were games which involved making things, drawing things, identifying things, or pretending to be things – plus a challenge trail linking various natural history tasks from pond-dipping to beetle-classifying.

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Joining the giant caterpillars as they travel through galleries towards the Darwin Centre.

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The massive moth flies around the Darwin Centre after hatching at the end of the Pests game.

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A crafty young man creates his own unique beetle as part of The Ersatz Entomologist activity.

'The Orange Zone's Darwin Centre showcases the Museum’s cutting-edge science, and gives families a chance to see behind the scenes. The centre's airy atrium space, its lofty Cocoon building and outdoor Courtyard make it a perfect space to host such events. We wanted to get families interacting together and it really succeeded in doing this.

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Trying your hand at identifying species: A family takes part in the Quest challenge. 112 teams completed this task over the weekend.

'It wasn't just the children who took part either, there was lots of fantastic interaction between parents and their kids. Seeing mums and dads dressed up as termites, identifying bugs and making nests, really encouraged the youngsters to get involved. It created a friendly and supportive learning atmosphere, which is what we were hoping for.

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Outside in the Darwin Centre Courtyard competitors hunt down different 'samples', using their giant magnifying glasses.

'The Nature Games Weekend was the result of a creative collaboration with award-winning games design studio, Hide&Seek. Games designers were matched with scientists to help them develop their work. For example, lichenologist Holger Thues kindly spent time explaining the ways scientists use UV light to distinguish between different species of lichen – leading to an exciting game outside in the Courtyard called UV Detectives.

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Energetic young players go for it in the Ants vs Termites game.

'I'd like to thank all the Museum staff and volunteers who worked so hard at making the event brilliant fun for visitors, and also our artists and games designers, Andy Field, Josh Hadley, Kai-Oi Jay Yung, Simon Watt, Caroline Gardiner, Matthew Robins, and all at Hide&Seek.

 

'We all learned masses from this first event, hopefully our second one will be even better!  So look out for The Campsite, which will be happening over October half-term. Watch this space for more details...'

Enjoy a few more Nature Games Weekend pictures. Select images to enlarge them

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A young player racing to piece together The Puzzle of the Mysterious Creature

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Mum and son take part in the blindfold In Spirit challenge.

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Hunting for nuts in the Squirrels game

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Actor John Hinton calls on visitors to join the Quest for the Curious

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This family 'donated' themselves to our collection... and learned about the importance of labelling specimens correctly!


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It's a week since we revealed most of the commended and specially commended photographs that will be among the 100 winning images in the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition opening here at the Museum on 19 October.

 

I thought I'd share with you my pick of some of the amazing media coverage we've been getting for these incredible images, including the ones that show off the photographs - and the stories behind them - the most beautifully online:

 

BBC News online 5-minute interview with 2012 competition judge Roz Kidman-Cox with accompanying slideshow

 

Mail Online gallery of selected images

 

Guardian online preview in pictures

 

Stylist magazine online gallery

 

BBC World Service Mundo gallery

(If you speak Spanish, you'll enjoy this review even more.)

 

Two more of the 52 commended and specially commended images were released yesterday for exclusive features in the Times newspaper's Eureka magazine, one of which is this photograph of an awesome-looking green volcano.

volcano-1000-2.jpgThe great Maelifell by Hans Strand (Sweden), commended in the 2012 competition's Wildscapes category, captures the extinct Maelifell volcano that towers over Iceland's massive Myrdalsjökull Glacier. To get this aerial shot, the pilot flew much lower and closer than usual. The plane went so fast, says Hans, 'I managed only one single frame. It was like trying to shoot clay pigeons.' Select the images to enlarge them.

All the 52 commended and specially commended photographs can be viewed in our Commended slideshow preview on the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year website.

 

One of my favourites already is Evening rays by Swiss photographer Claudio Gazzaroli. It makes me feel happy and I want to be wading in that glorious shallow sea under the dramatic evening sky alongside the charismatic friendly-looking stingrays.

ray-1500.jpgEvening rays by Swiss photographer Claudio Gazzaroli is one of the commended images in the competition's Underwater Worlds category. 'There were about 75 of them [southern stingrays] undulating through the shallows,' says Claudio when he got this shot. 'Balancing the light was a problem... but keeping people out of the picture proved to be more of a challenge' he recalls. Snorkellers gather regularly in the waist-deep water of North Sound off the Grand Cayman island to meet these welcoming creatures.

Visit the website to find out more about the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and the judges who selected the 100 winners from the 48,000 entries submitted this year.

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It was auspicious to read in the recent news, during the last weeks of our Scott exhibition here at the Museum, that the wreck of the SS Terra Nova ship, which transported Captain Robert Falcon Scott and his team on his last Antarctic expedition, has been found off Greenland. Terra Nova was the ship that lent its name to one of the most famous of all polar expeditions and it had been lost since 1943.

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Stills of the Terra Nova on its voyage to Antarctica, taken from Herbert Ponting's astonishing film of the journey, The Great White Silence.

Captain Scott and his polar party set off from Cardiff aboard the Terra Nova in 1910 on one of the most important Antarctic science missions in history. The legendary ship brought the survivors of the expedition back in 1913 and went on to be used by Antarctic coastal traders until it sank in 1943. It was found this month off the coast of Greenland, buried under 1,000 feet of icy water on the seabed.

 

One of our exhibition videos describes the background to the Terra Nova expedition:

 

 

Making my own personal last journey into Scott’s Last Expedition in the gallery today, it was especially poignant to watch the iconic footage of the ship’s outward journey taken by the expedition’s photographer, Herbert Ponting, in the Great White Silence film clip we show at the start of the exhibition.

 

It’s quite sad to think that the 100s of exhibits, unforgettable images and films that tell the unique stories of Scott and his team in the re-created Cape Evans base camp will be sailing off finally to New Zealand after the exhibition closes this Sunday, 2 September. They have really brought this incredible exhibition to life.

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This photo by Ponting captured a rare warm moment as Captain Scott (right) and other members of the Northern party, Evans, Bowers, and Wilson supped food from mugs in a tent around a stove, before their final journey to the South Pole. (c) Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge

Our exhibition here and the international 100th anniversary commemorations of Scott's Last Expedition over the last year have really made their emotive mark on many of us. I genuinely feel like Scott, Wilson, Oates, Bowers, Evans and the rest of the expedition team, including Ponting, have been man-hauling bravely among us over the past months.

 

I have often imagined them out in the treacherous blizzards, their meals together of seal soup and tinned asparagus, starting the day with enamel bowlfuls of hot Hunter's oatmeal (shown below), poring over penguin eggs, writing diaries and scientific notes… until the bitter end.

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If you haven’t experienced Scott’s Last Expedition, I urge you to visit before 17.00 this Sunday, 2 September. If you can't make it during the day, there may still be tickets available for tomorrow when it's open for our Friday Lates night.

 

After closing here, the exhibition goes on to open at the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand on 23 November 2012, and you can keep in touch with the work being performed by conservators on the real Cape Evans hut, which still stands today.

 

Book tickets online for Scott's Last Expedition

 

Browse the Scott's Last Expedition exhibition website

 

See the exhbibition gift range

 

Follow the work of the Antarctic Conservators in their blog

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The ruffled raven in John Mariott's Fluff-up and Steven Kovacs' freaky-faced jawfish, aptly entitled Father’s little mouthful, are two of the photographic stars that will appear in the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition which opens to the public here at the Museum on 19 October.

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Today we announced tickets going on sale and now wait eagerly for September when all the commended images will be unveiled on our website. As the weeks go by, you'll see more of Mariott's portrait (left) which has been selected to be the publicity image for the exhibition.

 

Since the 2012 competition closed in February this year, the judges have spent many days and nights whittling over 48,000 international entries down to 100 winning pictures. There were photographs from 98 countries and new entries this year from Mozambique, Kazakstan, Svalbad and French Guayana.

 

As usual, the winners and runners-up from the competition are strictly embargoed until the award-winning ceremony in October, but I'm told that - unlike some previous years - all 18 categories have winners this year.

 

Father's little mouthful (below) is the only official preview image revealed now in all its gorgeous glory.

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Steven Kovacs' Father's little mouthful, one of 100 images entered into the 2012 Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition which will light up the new exhbition. It shows the strange phenomenon of the male jawfish protecting its offspring in its mouth until they are ready to hatch. Select the image to enlarge it.

To get his technically challenging shot of the diligent dad jawfish, which was taken off the coast of Florida, Canadian photographer Steven Kovacs used three strobes and home-made snoots - tubes that control the direction and radius of light. He recalls:

 

'What struck me about this particular jawfish when I first encountered it was how docile and unafraid it was of my presence. Most jawfish will retreat into their burrows when approached closely, but this particular fish did not seem concerned and did not move at all even when I came very close.

 

'I had been recently experimenting with snoots placed over my strobes to create different lighting effects on my subjects so when I realized how cooperative this subject was I immediately knew it had potential...This jawfish allowed for ample time to work with different strobe positions at very close quarters.

 

'It always provides a great sense of satisfaction when all the elements come together in a technically difficult photograph. To create something different and beautiful is why I photograph. It has been a dream of mine for years to win a place in this competition.'


As judge Soichi Hayashi says of Kovacs' portrait: 'This image has a strong sense of mystery. Epecially impressive is the delicate and elaborate lighting, which gives it a ghastly power.'

 

We look forward to many more weird and wonderful wildlife apparitions when the exhibition opens on 19 October.

 

Visit the Veolia Environnement Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition website

 

Book tickets for the 2012 exhibition

 

Join the wildlife photography community online

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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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Our Wildlife Garden is the beesness

Posted by Rose Jul 26, 2012

'What bees hate is the three Ws,' says Luke Dixon, our garden's beehive manager. 'That's the Wet, Wind and Wintry weather!' ... 'Oh dear', I think to myself as I catch up with him on a recent visit to the Museum's Wildlife Garden.

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There are about 40,000 bees living in each of the Museum's Wildlife Garden hives. Select photos to enlarge.

'It's been a poor year across Britain for the bee populations because of the summer rains,' Luke continues, 'but, our bees in the Wildlife Garden have been doing fantastically so far.'

 

I discover that each of our two bee hives near the garden shed (n.b. in the private bit of the garden) is currently home to about 30,000 to 40,000 bees. I'm not sure how they manage to count them, mind! And the Bee Tree by the meadow is bursting with about 50,000 to 60,000 this summer.

 

You can watch what our most industrious garden inhabitants are up to right now on our live beecam.

 

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Inspecting the Museum's hives

 

'Here in the Wildlife Garden, it's sheltered and because of our different habitats, there is a lot for the bees to forage on,' explains Luke. I can see exactly what he means. As Caroline, the garden's manager, leads me up the path to investigate the Bee Tree we pass a mass of pretty wild flowers in the meadow and later I notice the flourishing heather on the heathland.

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Irresistable wild flowers in the Wildlife Garden's meadows, one of the thriving habitats we cultivate.

The Bee Tree is certainly buzzing and full to almost bursting point with honey combs. It also appears that something has been trying to get into the honey treasure trove - sawdust on the bark's back door is a bit of a give-away. Caroline suspects a woodpecker.

 

For those who remember the 2010 Wildlife Garden honey, the news is they may collect honey from the bees in October, but it depends. 'We want to leave the bees some to eat in the winter months' says Luke, so we'll have to see.

 

Bee-Swarm-kevin-s-garden-1000.jpgThis amazing photo (left), taken by our Museum photograher, shows bees swarming in his garden. They sometimes do this in late Spring and, for the first time in the eight years that we've kept them, the bees of the Museum's hives did so in the Wildlife Garden last week! I asked Qais Zacharia, who also looks after the Museum's hives, why this occurs:

 

'This is slightly unusual for this late in the year, but could be due to the poor start to the summer. Swarms form when the colony becomes overcrowded; the queen leaves and approximately one third of the bees from the colony follow her in search of a new home. The remaining bees stay behind to rear a new, replacement queen.

 

'During the swarm tens of thousands of honeybees can take to the air and, despite appearances and terrible B-movies, they are not agressive (their principal focus is finding a new home). After leaving the old colony, the swarm will typically congregate on a nearby branch while scouts search for a suitable place to form their new colony, a process that can take as long as a few days.

 

'Experienced beekeepers are able to capture the swarm at this point - assuming it is within reach - by shaking the bees into a "nucleus box" before moving them into a new hive. However, we didn't manage to do this last week as the swarms were too high up in the trees and they must have made a new home elsewhere, which could be anywhere from somewhere close by to several miles away.

 

 

'At the old colony, the new queen will hatch after about a week and will venture out to mate with drones from colonies nearby before returning to lay eggs. A good sign that a queen has successfully mated is pollen being taken into the hive but, if mating wasn't successful, the colony will dwindle and eventually die off. This can be prevented in kept hives by swapping in a specially bred and mated queen for the unsuccessful original.'

 

If you're visiting the Museum in summer, drop into the Wildlife Garden. And look out for a 'living' bee sculpture by artist Tomàš Libertíny outside the Museum between 28 July and 5 August as part of the Exhibition Road Show.

 

Watch now on our live beecam

 

Enjoy our Wildlife in summer website

 

Find out about visiting the Wildlife Garden

 

Browse the Wildlife Garden highlights slideshow

 

Discover the habitats in the garden

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On Saturday 23 June it's Exhibition Road Music Day. This popular and free cultural music festival returns to our local South Kensington museums and institutes with a big open stage in Kensington Gardens.

 

Here at the Natural History Museum most of our daytime events focus in or around the Central Hall and Restaurant with original English folk and jazz music from the likes of Martin Ledner and accordionist Stephen Best (below right). The voices of the English National Opera community choir (below) will resound around the Central Hall from about 15.00. Check our Music Day event schedule.

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There are two other special events worth a mention: An early afternoon Sound & Space performance over at the V&A and later on in the evening in our Darwin Centre atrium, we  host the UK premiere of prize-winning author DBC Pierre’s Live and Roar: Axolotl Odyssey. Live and Roar is a free event but requires advance booking. It has already attracted media attention, so check our website to see if tickets are still avaiilable.

 

DBC Pierre’s reading, set to music, is inspired by the curious axolotl and its significance for our times. The musicians accompanying Pierre's reading include Andy Mellon (trumpet player with Bellowhead) and Ben Nicholls (double-bass player with Seth Lakeman). They were inspired in their composition by a visit to the axolotls at London Zoo.

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Author of Vernon God Little, DBC Pierre, reads 'in the voice of a parent axolotl' at our Music Day evening event on Saturday. The Mexican axolotl is sometimes kept as an exotic pet and is now on the endangered list.

In today's Guardian Pierre writes: 'The axolotl is a symbol of so much we're about to hit upon – certainly worth setting music to... they have something we badly, badly want. They can regrow themselves. Science wants to know how....The axolotl (Ambystoma mexicanum) is a type of salamander that never metamorphoses. It might seem strange... but to spend this Saturday at London's Natural History Museum, setting their strangeness and our strangeness and their hope and our hope to music, with marimbas and trumpets and lights … just seems like a signature we should do.'

 

The other special highlight is a talk and performance at the Sound & Space event featuring the art and science behind a new musical sculpture that has just gone on show. This event is in the early afternoon (14.00) over in the V&A Museum on Music Day. It's part of the three-day Supersonix Conference coinciding with Music Day. However, conference events are not free to attend, you'll need to visit their website to book tickets.

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Mira Calix at the launch of her musical sculpture Nothing is Set in Stone. The sound artist talks and performs on Saturday at the V&A, with a panel featuring our scientist Chris Jones. The stone sculpture is now open to the public at Fairlop Waters, Redbridge. All sculpture photos © Sebastian Kite

The Sound & Space presentation includes talks and performance by experimental composer Mira Calix who is joined by our Museum scientist Chris Jones. Chris and fellow Museum mineralogist Anton Kearsley both collaborated with the artist on her recent Nothing is Set in Stone musical sculpture to find a way of pushing sound through rock  – something usually difficult to achieve.

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Nothing is Set in Stone on show in Redbridge's nature reserve. As you get close to the gneiss stones you'll hear fragments of Mira Calix's ephemeral composition.

The experimental composer used striped rock known as angel stone (or gneiss) to create her sculptural installation. Nothing is Set in Stone was unveiled today, 21 June, at Fairlop Waters in Redbridge on the outskirts of London. As the listener approaches the sculpture, he or she hears fragments of the musical score in waves, passing through the solid rock. Researchers from the Museum's imaging and analysis laboratory helped the artist investigate the sound system needed for the installation..

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Left: Testing the sound system inside Mira's sculpture. Right: Museum mineralogists Chris Jones (right) and Anton Kearsley helped advise on how to 'push the sound through the stones'.

Sonic crystals, inhuman sound, the science of speaking, labyrinthitis, nano scales, and demonic sonic fictions are just some of the intriguing subjects to be featured at the Supersonix Conference celebration of the art and science of sound. Also look out for the Talk like the Animals? presentation with animal sound expert Karen McComb and ornithologist/bird call expert Geoff Sample on Friday 22 June at 10.00 to 11.30 in the Goethe Institute.

 

All the events at Exhibition Road Music Day are freeTickets are required for the Supersonix Conference events.

 

Find out what's on at Exhibition Road Music Day here and visit the official Music Day website for all the day's events on Exhibition Road

 

Read DBC Pierre's Mexican marvels article in the Guardian

 

Browse the Supersonix Conference programme of events

 

Discover Mira Calix and her music on her website and her Nothing is Set in Stone project

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The sun shone, the worms were charmed, bugs counted, trees trailed, and ponds dipped while visitors were led a merry dance through the Museum and outdoor gardens by the Insect Parade for Big Nature Day last Sunday. Over 5,000 people came. It was a resounding success.

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Hundreds of excited children made bug hats and got their faces painted at the workshops in the Darwin Centre atrium to join the Insect Parade (above and below). The parade was led by the insect band on stilts who were dressed as a giant ladybird, earwig, leaf insect and beetle. They took the procession twice around the Museum, through the Central Hall under Dippy's tail, back into the Darwin Centre and out into the Courtyard for a final song.

 

The event was also abuzz with about 50 nature groups who had amazing displays in the indoor and outdoor marquees. Friends of the Earth had people dressing up as bees to raise awareness of the decline of bumblebees. The National Trust brought their shepherd’s caravan and did bark rubbing and a poplular log run challenge. The British Trust for Conservation Volunteers showed visitors how to make bird boxes and bug hotels to encourage wildlife into their gardens.

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Among the crowd you could often spot members of several Cub Scout packs who joined in the pond dipping and bug counting activities to earn their Cub Naturalist Activity badges.

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Read the news story about Big Nature Day and the Cub Scout resources

 

Enjoy some more highlights in pictures. Select images to enlarge them

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Insect carnival revelry

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The Friends of the Earth stand where you could dress up as a bee

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Getting a painted face

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Admiring bugs

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Leaf shaking for insects in the Wildlife Garden

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Worm charming in the Wildlife Garden

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Pond dipping

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Strumming ladybird

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Insect Carnival on the move

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Darwin Centre atrium workshops

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The peaceful shepherd's hut

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Our Big Nature Day on 27 May is a special kind of celebration and a brilliant day out for anyone who's interested in the natural world, whatever their age. It is the largest free event of its kind in the UK, and this year we've invited more than 50 nature groups from across the country to join us.

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Get bug-faced and hatted for the Insect Parades led by the insect band performing on stilts at our nature festival. Select images to enlarge them

One of the big excitements on Sunday is sure to be the Insect Parade led by the colourful insect band from the Museum's Darwin Centre atrium. In the morning and at lunchtime, children can drop into workshops with the street theatre company Emergeny Exit Arts to make bug-themed hats and then follow the parades - scheduled for 13.00 and 15.30 - through the Museum wearing their creations. Face painters are at hand to help kids look their buggy best.

 

Like last year, there will be marquees on the Courtyard and this is where you'll find most of the visiting nature group displays. 'It's really exciting to welcome so many voluntary nature groups across the country to the Museum - what a fantastic chance for our visitors to meet so many wildlife experts in one place,' says Lucy Carter from the OPAL citizen science project. Popular stands are bound to be The London Wildlife Trust's stag beetles and the Bat Conservation Trust's where they will be investigating bat poo!

 

Worm charming sessions take place under the Courtyard trees and several nature talks will be held in the Museum's Attenborough Studio. A Busy Bee Puppet Show workshop will entertain the little ones in the morning.

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Out in the Wildlife Garden you can get into pond-dipping, bug hunting, ladybird counting, leaf and nettle trailing, and more. We're interested in recording the species found in our garden, so scientists and volunteers will be around to help with finds and identification advice. We'll also be welcoming a group of cub scouts to the garden who are trying out their brand new Cub Scout Naturalist Activity Badge resource (the badge is pictured below).

 

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Over on the West Lawn, look out for the Bee aware display in the marquee and the National Trust's 'shepherd's hut'.

 

And remember, this is the national Be Nice to Nettles Week, so mind where you tread.

 

Big Nature Day celebrates the UN International Day of Biological Diversity and OPAL's nature activities and citizen science projects.

 

More details about Big Nature Day.

 

Find out which nature groups will be at Big Nature Day

 

 

 

Enjoy the video clip below of last year's Big Nature Day

 

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This week we heard the exciting news that last year's summer exhibition, Sexual Nature, has won the Museum + Heritage 2012 Award for best Temporary or Touring Exhibition. The team who conceived, produced and curated the exhibition were at the Awards Ceremony to celebrate. Among them was Mike Sarna, the Museum's Head of Exhibition Interpretation:

 

'Like everything the Natural History Museum does, the Sexual Nature exhibition helped to enthuse more people about the natural world. We are thrilled that the exhibition has been recognised for its excellence and we hope to build on that in the future with more eye-opening, thought-provoking exhibitions.

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Museum staff celebrate Sexual Nature's award for best Temporary Exhibition at the prestigious Museums + Heritage 2012 Awards ceremony at Earls Court on Wednesday 16 May.

'Over 100 specimens from the Museum’s scientific research collections provided the main basis for the displays. Cases were filled with colourful birds for attracting, antlers for battling and my favourite "love darts” that certain snails shoot at each other as a sort of foreplay. Film was also key to bringing these specimens to life and demonstrating their sexual behaviours. Watching the many birds of paradise dance and manipulate their feathers for females was so fascinating to watch.

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'We also included Isabella Rossellini’s humorous short Green Porno films. Of course museums are known for interactivity and I was delighted to see how many visitors smelt Jaguar spray, though those visitors might not be delighted with me.

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'But the exhibition was also about us - very special sexual animals. The exhibition concluded with a reflective interactive section about human sexual diversity. These displays were in effect curated by you through our Facebook page where we asked people provocative questions about what true love and sex meant to them.

 

'Sexual Nature’s prime objective was to attract new audiences to the Museum. With the exhibition we asked visitors to leave their pre-conceptions at the door and aimed to shift perceptions by delivering engaging science on a core Natural History Museum subject, evolution. We tackled evolution through one of its most important drivers, sexual selection, in a way that was fun, humorous and informative. The Museum is all about transformation and the exhibition was a wonderful catalyst for wider discussion, including our public programmes. The topic was one of our most retweeted topics, so we know you loved talking about it too.

 

'The Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence celebrate best practice within museums, galleries and heritage visitor attractions and attract hundreds of entries from across the sector. Categories range from best permanent exhibition to innovation. The judges cited our amazing interpretation, our reaching out to new audiences and the bravery of the Museum to tackle a challenging topic. We are thrilled at its success and look forward to it's tour around the globe. If you missed the exhibition you might want to go to Paris in October for the opening of its international tour.'

 

The Temporary or Touring Exhibition Award category was hotly contended and we were up against strong competition including Derby Museums & Art Gallery's Down the Back of the Sofa, the Museum of London's Dickens and London and the National Army Museum's War Horse.

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Read the news story about Sexual Nature opening in February 2011

 

Museums + Heritage Awards for Excellence 2012

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What intriguing finds will the team of Natural History Museum scientists be asked to identify at this year's Lyme Regis Fossil Festival over May bank holiday weekend, 4 - 6 May? I asked the team of palaeontologists who are today getting ready to go (we have a regular presence at this popular annual event).

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Lyme Regis Fossil Festival 2012 highlights: the parade and lots of Natural History Museum displays and activities.

'It's mainly the Dorset ammonites that I am expecting to see,' our vertebrates curator Lorna Steel told me. 'But people do bring in all sorts of things from all sorts of places. The last time I went, someone handed me a badger skull... and someone else had a load of ichthyosaur bones that their granddad had found in a pile of rubble while working as a builder - they'd kept them in their loft for decades!'

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Over the next few days our scientists will be setting up their stalls in the festival's Grand Marquee fossil fair (below left) ready to meet the public and talk to them about fossil collecting.

 

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As well as hoping to discover Lower Jurassic ammonites or ichthyosaur fossil specimens, the Museum palaeontologists will be inviting festival-goers to assemble and take apart a Baryonyx skull replica and sift sand from Kent for shark teeth. There are other Museum offerings too, including gold panning, a dino dig activity led by some of our Learning Department, and talks about meteorites, whale carcass communities and corals.

 

A presentation of The What on Earth? Wallbook of Natural History timeline will be a fun attraction this year, with specimen highlights from our scientists. This Museum book is a unique guide to the history of life on Earth.

 

The Fossil Festival is just as much about music and arts as it is about fossil collecting and rockpool rambling on the beaches, where Mary Anning once walked. Have a look at the official fossil festival website programme to choose from activities as diverse as the Travelling Pliosaur Cinema, stonebalancing and carving, and a fossil time machine.

 

The theme for the 2012 Lyme Regis Fossil Festival is Discovering Earth. The event organisers are emphasising  how vital fossil collecting is today, particularly for climate change research:

 

'Paleoclimatologists studying both fossil finds and the coast itself learn new things about not only the ancient seas and the creatures that swam there, but also the way our oceans and marine life might respond in future as our climate changes. This evidence of how past life forms reacted to changing temperatures and conditions in the past helps to tell us what we might need to be prepared for.'

 

There are still important fossils and rocks being discovered on this historic Jurassic coastline - most recently a large pliosaur skull and a new species of crocodile.

 

If you can't make it to Dorset over the bank holiday weekend and are visiting the Museum, drop in to our talks with live-video-links to the Museum team at the festival. Fossil hunters: Live from Lyme Regis is on Saturday (12.30 and 14.30) and Seashore Search: live from Lyme Regis beach is on Sunday (12.30 and 14.30). Some of our scientists at the festival will also be posting live in our new Palaeontology news blog.

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The Museum has several huge ichthyosaurs on show in its Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery. One is the largest and most complete of its kind and was discovered by the 19th-century fossil-hunter Mary Anning in Lyme Regis.

Undoubtedly, we have amazing fossils in our galleries from the tiniest to the gigantic. I'd recommend Fossil Marine Reptiles, Fossils from Britain and the Red Zone's Earth Lab where you can use resources to help identify your own British rocks and fossils.

 

Lyme Regis Fossil Festival website

 

Paleontology department news

 

More fossil information

 

Find out more about fantastic fossils and ammonites on our Kids only website

Get some tips on fossil hunting

Discover all about fossils online

Watch the Baryonyx video and follow the story of this unusual British dinosaur

Explore dinosaurs and other extinct aquatic animals like ichtyhosaurs

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