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First international tour of Museum treasures announced

The Museum's collections have delighted visitors for hundreds of years, and inspired thousands of scientists. Now some of its extraordinary treasures will tour the world.

Around 180 Museum specimens, hand-picked for their scientific, historic and cultural importance, will set off on a global voyage to reach new audiences.

The tour will start in March 2017, with a three-month run at the National Museum of Nature and Science, Tokyo, in partnership with media group The Yomiuri Shimbun.

For some treasures, the tour will be the first time they've been seen outside their Natural History Museum home.

The selection of items has been carefully curated.

'They are the essence of the scientific exploration that inspired pioneers and continues today at the Natural History Museum,' says Sir Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum.

One of Charles Darwin's pigeon specimens

A number of specimens that once belonged to Charles Darwin and helped him develop his ground-breaking theory of evolution will join the tour


Scientific game changers

Some of the incredible items selected for the tour overturned the accepted understanding of the natural world.

They include a handwritten page from Charles Darwin's manuscript On the Origin of Species. One of the most influential books ever written, it explained how new species evolve and challenged the prevailing beliefs about how life was created.

Accompanying Darwin's notes are some of the animals he studied to test his theory of evolution through natural selection, such as a mockingbird and pigeon skeleton.

Some chosen items chart the centuries-long quest to understand the natural world, which continues today. Historia Naturalis - the oldest book in the Museum collection - was published in Venice in 1469, just after the invention of the printing press. The text reaches even further back, compiled by Roman natural philosopher Pliny the Elder in the first century.

Close-up of part of a page from Historia Naturalis

Close-up of a page from Historia Naturalis, the first publication to cover all areas of natural history

Plant power

For Sir Hans Sloane, whose collections form the basis of the Museum, botany was paramount. It was his first and most-enduring love.

The earliest known sample of tea from China in a European collection is among selected botanical specimens touring from Sloane’s herbarium. Collected for Sloane in 1709 by James Cunningham, a surgeon in the East India Company, the specimen is a reminder of how a single plant can change a whole culture.

Alongside these will be a pressed rice plant, prepared in the 1730s, from the collection of Dutch merchant George Clifford. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus studied these very plants while devising his revolutionary naming system for classifying the natural world. This binomial (two-name) system using genus and species is the one scientists still use today.

Also making an appearance will be butterflies and other insects, precious stones and minerals, and fossils of extinct creatures, including a 15,000-year-old sabre-tooth cat. Animal skeletons and taxidermy specimens will accompany them, including a glass case full of artistically arranged hummingbirds.

Another beautiful item joining the tour is a plate from John James Audubon's nineteenth-century masterpiece, Birds of America. Audubon is one of the world's most celebrated nature artists.

A plate from Birds of America, featuring a scarlet ibis

Hand-coloured aquatint from Audubon's Birds of America, featuring a scarlet ibis


Science for everyone

The Museum's world-leading collections are vitally important for international science. They also encourage audience engagement and enjoyment on a worldwide scale.

'Science is a global endeavour fuelled by wonder and curiosity so it has been an ambition for us to share these extraordinary treasures with a wider audience,' says Sir Michael.

Visitors to London will continue to be able to enjoy extraordinary items from the Museum collection in our Treasures Cadogan Gallery, which will remain open during the tour.