The Natural History Museum in lockdown: flesh-eating beetles and exploding fossils
The doors of the Museum at South Kensington first opened on the 18 April 1881, and over 139 years had only closed during the Second World War.
That was until Tuesday 17 March 2020 when, as the COVID-19 virus continued to spread, the decision was made to close the Museum and enter lockdown.
The Museum houses an astonishing collection of over 80 million specimens spanning everything from meteorites to mice. But what does it take to look after one of the world's most important natural history collection during lockdown? And who is going to look after the flesh-eating beetles?
This is a situation like none other the Museum has faced in recent times.
While on an average day there would be 15,000 visitors and 1,000 staff and volunteers making their way through the Museum, now only around 20 people can be found across the entire building.
These days there is a silence that hangs over the Museum in South Kensington - no footsteps echoing across the tiles or chattering of schoolkids. Behind the scenes, there is no hum of air conditioning or clattering from the kitchens.
But there is still work to be done. The collection of 80 million specimens, from dried plants in the herbarium to fossils lining kilometres of shelves, need to be looked after to make sure that they will still be here in another 150 years' time.
James Maclaine, Senior Curator of Fish at the Museum, must look after large parts of the vertebrate collection while the lockdown continues.
'The last week before lockdown was so bizarre,' says James. 'It was like there was an army approaching. Everyone was getting out while they could, grabbing stuff and filling up rucksacks. I even saw one of the curators in the carpark filling their car with boxes of what they might need to work from home.'
In a matter of days all work ground to a halt and on 17 March, the Museum entered a form of stasis. Specimens that were being worked on were put back in their drawers, those deemed of high value taken off display, and everything packed up.
Dr Alex Bond is the Senior Curator in Charge of Birds at Tring, the Museum's site in Hertfordshire that contains the bird specimens.
'I was the last one in the collections before we closed,' says Alex. 'Essentially I spent the day making sure everything was good to go. It was like putting the collections to bed.
'Before COVID, only a handful of curators would had to have done that.'
The specimens' conditions are largely looked after in two ways.
The first involves a system of remote sensors that are placed at strategic positions around the collections and the Museum. By and large, these sensors are measuring the temperature and the humidity of these spaces.
'We are mostly concerned about temperature and humidity, because fluctuations in those can lead to pest outbreaks,' explains Alex. 'This can compromise the specimens.
'We've got certain environmental standards that we want our collections to stay at, and so we want to minimise the fluctuations, which enables us to keep these specimens safe for hundreds and hundreds of years.'
The second way of checking on the collections is far more low-tech: people walking through every single collections space looking for any obvious signs that there may be any issues.
James Downs is the Head of Security at the Museum. He has been managing the security team to make sure that there is always someone on site, as well creating a rota for regular checks throughout much of the collections spaces, all while making sure everyone maintains social distancing.
'Our team is doing more patrols than we would normally do through the collections spaces,' says James. 'Usually, the priority is to keep these spaces closed and to keep the air quality the same, but we've now put on extra patrols of areas that have higher value specimens in them.
'When I say higher value, I'm not just talking monetary. We're also talking about value to the country and to science.'
A surprising amount of time is also dedicated to checking the Museum's toilets. This is because one of the biggest threats to the collections is simply that of leaks.
Dr Anne Jungblut is a researcher in the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division, who focuses on cyanobacteria and microfungi. She needs to go into the Museum to make sure that the freezers are still functioning so that she doesn't lose any of her valuable samples.
'We have a lot of precious frozen samples from our expeditions to the Arctic and the Antarctic,' explains Anne. 'So I am checking on the freezers to see that they are not broken and that we are not losing any of them.
'These might look like just a box of dirt and frozen water, but actually the samples took a really long time to get and they were really expensive. They are really precious because they are from places that we might never go back to.'
When it comes to the collections, different parts have different issues. So while the dry collections - such as the skins in the mammals department, the insects in the entomology department and the plants in the herbarium - are at a particular risk of pest outbreaks, the wet specimens preserved in jars carry alternative risks.
While it takes a long time for alcohol levels in the jars to evaporate to dangerous levels, very occasionally they can crack spontaneously. The telltale sign that this has happened is a puddle forming at the base of cupboards.
Fossils exploding in slow motion
The collections in the Earth sciences department, which covers everything from fossil dinosaurs and fish to minerals and meteorites, face their own set of challenges. While some of these threats might be minimised during lockdown, there are more specific issues that need to be looked out for.
Dr Paul Barrett, a dinosaur researcher at the Museum, volunteered to be added to the rota of people conducting regular sweeps of the Earth Sciences collections.
'One of the main threats to the fossils is actually people working on the material,' explains Paul, 'because people do accidently drop things and break them. It's not frequent, but it is a threat.
'The other issue is that by handling them, the sweat and acids from your skin also lead to deterioration.'
With fewer people in the collections, there are fewer chances of these occasional accidents occurring. It also means that there is less detritus being left behind by these people.
'People generate mess, no matter how careful they are,' says Paul. 'Not just when people eat, but they also shed hair, skin and dust as they move around, which is food for some pests.'
It might not be obvious, but there is the risk of pest infestations even in the Earth sciences collections, particularly when organic material is involved - the Museum has samples of giant ground sloth skin and dung which need to be monitored.
Every specimen also has a paper label, and pests, such as insects known as silverfish, need to be monitored to make sure that they are not causing any issues by damaging the labels. If they were to get out of control, in a worst-case scenario it could lead to the loss of data as labels are literally eaten away
But there is one issue that is of concern particularly to the palaeontology collections.
'There are some fossils that do need to be monitored,' says Paul. 'One of our biggest problems is the pyrite effect. This is caused when the mineral iron sulphide, which also forms fool's gold, grows in some of the fossils. As the little crystals of iron pyrite grow, they literally make the bones or shells explode in slow motion.'
This problem is limited to fossils formed from certain minerals but is particularly common with those found along the Jurassic Coast in the southern UK. The only way to prevent this is to make sure that there is not too much moisture in the air by sealing the fossils in conservation-grade plastic bags.
Each time these fossils are worked on they need to be cut open from the bags. Then when the work is done, they are once again bagged up and resealed.
The living collection
Not everything at the Museum is dead or inert. The building is actually home to a range of things that are very much alive, some which need to be grown in conditions that mimic those of Antarctica.
'One of the main things I have to check is our living collection,' explains Anne. 'My team grows cyanobacteria and microfungi in culture, and my other colleagues work on mosses and liverworts.
'The cyanobacteria have to be grown in incubators at specific temperatures and under special lights in conditions that are similar to Antarctica, which is where they are from. If the incubator were to break and nobody checked it, then they would all die.'
Anne and her team need to grow live specimens because they are far easier to study when they are alive. In some cases, aspects of their appearance are only discernible in living individuals, as things such as colour and shape are lost when the specimens are dried out.
The sites at both South Kensington and Tring are also home to multiple colonies of flesh-eating beetles, employed to strip meat from new specimens and clean the skeletons.
'During these strange times I'm also having to look after a colony of flesh-eating beetles,' says James. 'They need to be kept damp and they need to have a constant supply of food.
'When I first started looking after them, they were trying to chew their way through some bits of thresher shark.'
To help them along James has fed the beetles a fresh conger eel head, but in times of strife they can also be quite happy with dog biscuits or even gravy granules. Some of the colonies have an impressive pedigree, having been kept going continuously for over 50 years.
Even the security team are having to take care of some of the Museum's residents.
'We're also looking after the Development fish on the second floor,' says James Downs. 'Brian even cleaned the tank out the other day once we'd got the delivery of food. The guys are really enjoying feeding the fish, just to have something different to do.'
Alcohol on tap
Some of the more dangerous aspects of looking after a Museum in lockdown involves the chemicals that are needed for day-to-day activities.
'I also monitor our alcohol supply system,' explains James Maclaine. 'Each lab in the collections spaces has a tap which has ethanol coming out of it. It's a lovely idea in theory, but it is prone to the occasional malfunction.'
This ethanol comes from two 1,000 litre-tanks of the stuff, and is pumped all around the Museum using a system that involves compressed air. Obviously, if this system were to break down or leak then it would cause something of a problem.
'So I make sure that is all working properly, and if there is something wrong with it I can shut it down completely,' says James.
There are labs of the Earth sciences collections that also require constant monitoring because they contain highly hazardous chemicals.
'One of them is our hydrofluoric acid prep lab,' says Paul. 'Because hydrofluoric acid is unbelievably nasty, there is strictly limited access to that room. I wasn't very keen on going in there.
'It is really unpleasant to get hydrofluoric acid on you because it likes eating bone. So if you dripped a bit on your finger, it immediately gets through your skin and then it starts eating away internally. It is genuinely horrible stuff.'
The acid is so strong it's normally used to dissolve solid rock to reveal the tiny microfossils that they may contain. It is also what the characters in the TV series Breaking Bad use to dispose of a body in a bath.
There are a multitude of labs containing other potentially dangerous substances, such as liquid nitrogen, which need to be regularly checked to make sure that there are no unexpected leaks or problems.
Science from home
With the majority of people now working from home or furloughed, there have been some hard adjustments to make when it comes to working life.
'You'd think that curators have to work in their collections, but we do have lots we can do remotely,' explains Alex. 'We've got databases of specimens that need to be organised, we've got images that we can use to digitise parts of the collection, and enquiries will still come in.
'There is a lot we can still do from home. But I think it is nothing quite as effective as what we can do on site and it is not as fulfilling.'
Another aspect of lockdown is that while some staff can get on with parts of their work from home, this leaves out some potential to collaborate.
'There is a lack of exchange,' says Anne. 'You don't get to see certain people who are not in your immediate network and so I don't know how their science is going on, or if there is any news I don't hear it.'
Add on top of that the child caring and educational responsibilities that many of the staff are also having to shoulder, and it all starts to take a toll on what can and cannot be achieved during the lockdown. Invariably, the workflow has to slow and expectations have to shift.
'I've talked with some of my polar buddies, and we felt that in the first week it was a bit like going into field work mode,' says Anne. 'This feeling that we were trapped inside during a storm and that we can't get out.
'Now we just have to go from day-to-day to live with this situation, but with the advantage that we're not actually stuck in a camp in Antarctica.'
Most researchers are itching to get back to the Museum and see how the collections are doing and to pick up where they left off. But for those who are still in direct contact with the specimens, there is a certain level of angst.
'A lot of people including myself think of this job as a societal responsibility,' says Alex. 'This is the Natural History Museum, and these are the national collections.
'That can weigh quite heavily on one's shoulders at times.'