Skip navigation

The NaturePlus Forums will be offline from mid August 2018. The content has been saved and it will always be possible to see and refer to archived posts, but not to post new items. This decision has been made in light of technical problems with the forum, which cannot be fixed or upgraded.

We'd like to take this opportunity to thank everyone who has contributed to the very great success of the forums and to the community spirit there. We plan to create new community features and services in the future so please watch this space for developments in this area. In the meantime if you have any questions then please email:

Fossil enquiries:
Life Sciences & Mineralogy enquiries:
Commercial enquiries:

1 2 3 Previous Next

Behind the scenes

42 Posts

Some time ago I got a tip-off from my regular library source about the existence of a mineralised human skull in our collection. All she could tell me was that a scientist had been down to consult a book that contained some information about it; but she wasn't sure what book it was.


Armed with the scientist's name, and with visions of the crystal clear skulls of ancient Mesoamerican - and more recently, Indiana Jones - legend circling my mind, I set off to find out more.


But like the coded letter from Indy's old friend Oxley, which lead him to a Peruvian psychiatric hospital, and the interpretation of symbols scrawled therein which lead to the subsequent discovery of the grave of a sixteenth-century Conquistador which contained a crystal skull, my library tip off set in motion an epic series of twists and turns I had to navigate in order to track down our specimen and record its story in this here blog.


After months of emails and answer phone messages, conflicting schedules and workloads that didn't permit a spare moment to meet, I received an unexpected call from a scientist on the coast of Cornwall.

Hi, it's (Minerals Collection Manager) Mike Rumsey here. I'm on holiday right now, but I've got a 15 minute walk by myself back to my car so I thought I'd call you to talk about the skull. What would you like to know?


Hooray, I cheered internally, and replied: 'Everything!' And so he began:

It's a Hans Sloane specimen which dates to the foundation of the Museum, and we can trace it back quite a long way. We know that Sloane got it from the collection of a guy called Cardinal Filippo Gualtieri after Gualtieri died in 1728.


There's not many things we can trace back that far in the Mineral Collection.


It's a bit of a curiosity, really. It's supposedly the skull of someone who had fallen into the Tiber river in Rome. It's covered in a deposit called travertine.


Sadly for my crystal skull fantasy, Rumsey revealed that the skull is in fact a creamy limestone colour (not clear), and contains no crystal points (and probably never did). But, he continued:

It's got what looks like a handle attached to it. That sounds a bit morbid, but there's no evidence it was ever used as a drinking vessel. We think it's a rib bone of the same skeleton the skull came from.


Scientifically, we've not really done a great deal of work on it, although quite recently it was CT-scanned. I think they did find out that the skull is still in there, not completely replaced, which is quite interesting.



An image of the skull from the late eighteenth-century book Museum Britannicum, being an exhibition of a great variety of antiquities and natural curiosities belonging to the British Museum, by Jan van Rymsdyk. This was the tome that sparked the original tip-off.



A surface scan of the mineralised skull, which once belonged to Sir Hans Sloane.


Indeed, Farah Ahmed, manager of the Museum's X-Ray CT Scan Facility, confirmed Rumsey's belief.

Of all the skulls I've had come my way, this is probably one of the most well preserved. And considering the fact that you couldn't see it, and we had no idea what level it might have been preserved at underneath  - it's pretty special. The whole skull is intact, with only a small bit of damage above the nasal cavity, which is surprising, considering it must have had a bit of a bashing.


That's a rib going through its mouth. We think the whole body went in, and then the commotion and the motion of the river over time broke it up and just that rib got lodged there.



An internal image showing the preserved and intact skull, and rib bone, under the travertine deposit.


The mineralised skull is currently on long-term loan to the British Museum, and can be seen on display in the King's Library, home to their permanent Enlightenment exhibition.


It is perhaps fitting that this specimen is no longer (at least for the next 25 years or so) at the Museum, as I am about to leave the Museum, too. The completion of my quest to track down, and uncover the history of, our mineralised skull marks my final Behind the Scenes blog before I move on to career pastures new.


Thanks for reading.


It is exactly four months today since I stood on the first floor balcony overlooking Earth Hall and watched our scientists build a dinosaur. And not just any dinosaur - the world's most complete Stegosaurus skeleton.


I helped to capture the four-hour process with a time-lapse video and a follow-up blog post, including comments from the scientists about the joys and 'butt-clenching' nervousness of assembling such an internationally significant and scientifically invaluable specimen.


Not content with being one of the handful of members of staff to witness a dinosaur build, I wanted to have a go myself. Of course, there was no way anyone was going to let me loose in the fossil collection (although I did once get to hold a piece of Dippy's original tail - but that's a cast), so I had to think of an alternative.


I found that alternative in the Museum shop and our range of assembly model dinosaur skeletons.


And so, here is my toy-sized tribute to the building of our Stegosaurus:



You can recreate your own historic dinosaur build with the Museum's assembly model Stegosaurus skeleton, or one of five other dino species, available online and pick one up in the shops on your next visit.


You could say that this month's post is written in the spirit of January detoxes and body cleanses and all that healthy, New Year resolution-y stuff. It is also, I should mention in advance, not a post for the faint-hearted, so if you are of a nervous or squeamish disposition, you should probably look away now.


You could say that this month's specimen is the most intimate and personal one I've ever written about. It is, I believe, unique in our collection as being the only specimen donated by a member of staff having been sourced from his own body.


I'll let the protagonist - former Museum Science Educator and current Discovery and Learning Officer at ZSL London Zoo, Theo Blossom, take up the tale:

It was May 2012, 7.30 in the morning. My alarm had gone off in my university campus dorm room, where I was studying for my Masters in Conservation Science. I got up out of bed, and I started to walk across my room. Two steps across the floor, I felt something… something between my legs, something dangling... So I put my hand down my underwear, and I felt something coming out of my… well, my bum! At this point I began to feel a little alarmed.


I started to pull at it tentatively. Whatever it was kept coming and coming and coming. It was a bit traumatic, but  finally, "it" came out. All nine inches of it! I held it up in front of my face, in disbelief - and then - it gave its last wiggle of life! That was when I began to freak out.


What Theo had just bravely removed from his own behind was (it would later be confirmed) a roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides. He named it Judas and put it in a flatmate's (n.b. 'special thanks to Izzy') Tupperware container.



An example of the human roundworm, Ascaris lumbricoides, (however, not 'Judas'). This species can grow up to ~40 cm (16 inches).


A visit to the campus doctor confirmed the aforementioned species type and also allayed some of Theo's fears about this strange creature that had been living in his body.

(The campus doctor) was a very well-spoken old boy who was probably, quite frankly, bored of handing out condoms. So when I slapped down Izzy's Tupperware box in front of him he became quite animated. Thumbing through a rather tatty book of potions he said: "Mebendazole, that will kill them. That is, if you want to kill them? It seems a shame. This little fella has probably been providing you a service - I presume you're fit and healthy with no allergies?"


It's all about the idea of "ecosystem services", Theo in turn explained to me. That is, the benefit that human species gain from resources and processes supplied by ecosystems. In this case, exposure to parasites (roundworm) keeps our immune system active and therefore better able to cope with other foreign bodies, from everyday pollen to more harmful bacteria.

I've since worked out that this little dude was inside me for two years. I didn't know. He caused me no problems. Coincidently or not, I have no allergies. The reality is our bodies are riddled with living organisms which are there all the time but do us no harm whatsoever. In fact, they benefit us in many ways.


After learning all this, I began to feel a bit bad. This little guy has been part of a marvellous little ecosystem that was boosting my immune system, and I'd just ended the party.


But Judas - who is actually female, not male - lives on, in body, and, technically, in spirit, in the Museum's specimen collection. After speaking to a Museum expert in parasitic worms to find out more about Ascaris lumbricoides, Theo was encouraged to donate his find (or should that be harvest?) to live on in perpetuity behind the scenes of the Darwin Centre, among our more than half a million other parasitic worm specimens.




Theo revisiting his roundworm, affectionately known as Judas, in the Museum's Darwin Centre this week.

It's a dream come true for anyone into natural history to have their name recorded in the scientific scriptures of the Natural History Museum, alongside the likes of Charles Darwin. I just didn't think it would be quite like this!


My great, great grandchildren, can, if they wish, in years from now, walk into the Museum and request to see Judas in all her glory. My great grandchild will ask my granddaughter: "Mummy, can we go and see great Granddad's worm?" And from beyond the grave, that will be a proud moment for me.




'To see "Ex Homo sapiens (Theo Blossom)" written on a specimen jar at the Natural History Museum is pretty awesome!' Theo said, adding: 'She looked a bit smaller than I remember, though.'


Maybe it was too much cheese and wine... over the festive break I had dream about a potential blog topic: detailing the different designs used by the Museum on wax seal stamps over the years.


Of course, when I woke up and my dreamy head cleared, I realised that in all likelihood the Museum never used wax seals.


The invention of the automatic envelope folding machine in the 1840s, followed by self-gumming machines in the 1860s, meant that by the time the Museum opened in its current location in 1881 wax seal use was well on the wane.


But just to be sure, when I returned to the office this week, I got in touch with our trusty archivist and asked if she could double-check for me. The reply was an 'I don't think so', but with a consolatory 'we do have various ink stamps that were used at different times'.


That's better than nothing, I thought, so off I went to have a look. Inside a box marked "Historical Objects & Memorabilia" was a manilla envelope containing 17 ink stamps from different eras and different departments.



The 17 stamps (above) ranged from the complimentary ('From the Directors Room', etc) to the functional ('Rothschild bequest 1938' and various departmental libraries) to the celebratory ('Centenary 1881-1981').



The designs above included initials, crowns and crests, as well as more contemporary logos.


In a second, smaller, envelope marked "Hand stamp for Museum documents c1880" was another example. But when I tried this one out, something struck me immediately - the intricate coat of arms I could see in reverse, was showing no detail in its positive impression. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the design was recessed, rather than raised. That could only mean one thing: this old stamp was not for ink, but for wax!



The wax seal stamp features a lion and unicorn holding a crowned crest. In the top two corners it says "British Museum" and along the bottom "(Natural History)". Suspected Latin on the ribbon under the coat of arms is illegible.


And so it seems, sometimes dreams really do come true (well, sort of). Here's to a happy 2015!



First things first - I know our new Stegosaurus is no longer behind the scenes, and now grandly stands at the Museum's Exhibition Road entrance. I know that a lot has already been written and reported about it, so there can't be much more left for me to reveal. But the opportunity to write about the acquisition of an internationally significant and scientifically invaluable new specimen doesn't come along every day. In fact, it rarely comes along for the Museum, with this being the first near complete dinosaur fossil to be acquired by us in the past 100 years. So for that reason, I had to pick our new fossil skeleton as December's Specimen of the Month.


However, there is a 'behind the scenes' aspect to this piece. I was one of the few members of staff lucky enough to actually get behind the hoarding which protected the view of the construction process from the public while the Stegosaurus was being assembled. On that Monday, 1 December, looking down from the first-floor balcony of the Earth galleries (where an interactive digital display, 3D printed touch objects and specimen interpretation now stand), it was impossible not to get excited by the magnitude of the occasion. It was momentous not just for the Museum, but for any human being with even a passing interest in nature and history.


Much to the varied amusement/excitement/jealousy of my friends and followers, I tweeted:

Today at work I'm watching the (re)construction of a dinosaur skeleton #standard #museumlife @NHM_London

— Amy Freeborn (@amyfreeborn) December 1, 2014


My view from the balcony before the (re)assembly commenced. Of course, I couldn't tweet this, or any subsequent pictures, until the 22.00 embargo on Wednesday 3 December had passed.


Things kicked off around 10.45, as senior conservator Lu Allington-Jones attached the dinosaur's feet. Then she was joined by our dinosaur expert Prof Paul Barrett and they both slipped the left tibia into place.


Lu and Paul install the first major Stegosaurus bone of the build - the tibia, or shin bone.


The bones are supported by a specially-designed steel armature. Surfaces of the armature in contact with the skeleton are cushioned to prevent vibration damage. The supporting plinth, which handsomely rises up under the dinosaur's tail, is also designed to dampen vibration from visitor footfall, as well as external traffic and building works.


Once the legs and pelvis were in place, it really was quite amazing to see how fast the neck, spine, ribs and tail then came together. The whole thing was complete - topped out with the final of the four tail spikes - in under four hours. But, Paul said, it wasn't their quickest time:

We did mount the skeleton on three earlier occasions behind the scenes, partly to test that the armature was strong enough in the right places. We can assemble the skeleton in about two hours, but the mounting in the Earth Hall took twice that time as the plinth made it a little more awkward to work around the frame and we needed the Genius lift to get to some parts that we could previously reach from the floor or a regular ladder.


Watch this time-lapse video created on 1 December to see just how impressive the build process was, as four hours becomes about 24 seconds:



Senior curator Tim Ewin, who was mostly responsible for mounting the large back plates and tail spikes, explained of his contribution:

The plates are both heavy and large but very thin and fragile. It was like trying to stack bone china on its thinnest point!


Owing to the way the armature was constructed, it was not as simple as just plonking the bones in place either. Each plate almost invariably had its own unique technique to getting into the right position so it was properly supported and could not jump out and smash itself, other remains, or onto the viewing public. This involved trying a variety of approach directions, rotations and physically moving some of the supports out of the way for each element.


This was not so bad for the more robust, smaller and lighter elements, such as the vertebrae, but was really butt-clenching when it came to trying to install the largest plates at full stretch whilst 12 feet off the ground. Fortunately, there were no breakages, although several took a few goes and a little rest! I was, however, very relieved when we had finished.


Indeed, the whole team in the Earth Hall was relieved when that final fossil bone was put into place, and a spontaneous round of applause broke out. For me, and everyone else, it really was a proud moment to be part of the Museum.



Tim affixing the final Stegosaurus bone, seconds before applause broke out at the completion of the assembly.


Lu told me that the tail spikes are known collectively as the 'thagomizer' that, Tim revealed, is actually a term that originated from a Far Side cartoon. He directed me to Wikipedia, where it says:

The term "thagomizer" was coined by Gary Larson  in a 1982 Far Side comic strip, in which a group of cavemen in a faux-modern lecture hall are taught by their caveman professor that the spikes on a Stegosaur's tail are so named 'after the late Thag Simmons'.


The term was picked up initially by Ken Carpenter, a paleontologist at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, who used the term when describing a fossil at the Society of Vertebrate Paleontology Annual Meeting in 1993. Thagomizer has since been adopted as an informal anatomical term.


Vital Stegosaurus statistics:
  • Our specimen is a Stegosaurus stenops.
  • It is the first complete dinosaur specimen to go on display at the Museum in about 100 years.
  • It is 560cm long, 290cm tall, and composed of around 300 bones.
  • Its 19 back plates and four tail spikes form the most complete set ever discovered.
  • It is nearly complete, missing only the left arm and base of the tail, as well as a few smaller bones from the hands, toes and tail.
  • It is the best preserved and most complete of only about six Stegosaurus skeletons in the world.
  • It's the only Stegosaurus in a public collection outside the USA.



Following the assembly, I was finally able to tweet at 22.01 on Wednesday 3 December:

We got a new dinosaur at work! @NHM_London #Stegosaurus

— Amy Freeborn (@amyfreeborn) December 3, 2014



The topic of my blog today came about via two quite random and seemingly un-related incidents. The first was a lunchtime walk to Hyde Park and a sneak through an open gate to catch a view of the Victorian-era pet cemetery near Bayswater Road. Among the small headstones for the likes of 'Rover' and 'Tiny' was one inscribed with 'Wasp'.



A tombstone for 'Wasp' (centre) in Hyde Park's Victorian pet cemetery. Most likely not the burial place of an actual wasp, although the Museum's wasp expert joked: 'A wasp makes an ideal pet in a cramped London apartment'.


The second incident took place at an after-work networking event when one of my colleagues relayed that she'd just been talking to someone about a particular wasp held in the Museum's entomology collection. And hence the logical conclusion of these two experiences was a post about John Lubbock's pet wasp.



'A little gentle[wo]man in a brown overcoat, with black and yellow nether garments.' Lubbock's pet wasp.


Sir John Lubbock (1834-1913), the first Lord Avebury, was a banker, politician, naturalist and Museum Trustee. In his political life, he was responsible for introducing bills giving us more bank holidays and preventing the destruction of ancient monuments, including the stone circle in Avebury (which inspired his title when awarded a peerage in 1900). In his guise as a naturalist, he was responsible for the identification of several new crustacean species, and years of study of the habits of ants, bees and wasps.


It was in May 1872 that he acquired his pet wasp. On a visit to the Spanish Pyrenees he found the female insect in a tiny nest with around 20 un-hatched larvae. Lamenting its state of being 'alone in the world', Lubbock brought the wasp back to England with him on the train, housed in a small bottle. In his 1884 book Ants, Bees and Wasps, Lubbock wrote:

I had no difficulty in inducing her to feed on my hand; but at first she was shy and nervous. She kept her sting in constant readiness; and once or twice in the train, when the railway officials came for tickets, and I was compelled to hurry her back into her bottle, she stung me slightly - I think, however, entirely from fright.


Gradually she became quite used to me, and when I took her on my hand, apparently expected to be fed. She even allowed me to stroke her without any appearance of fear, and for some months I never saw her sting.


So fond of the wasp was Lubbock that in the August of 1872 he took it with him to a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, on which The Telegraph reported, describing the pet insect (partially incorrectly) as:

A little gentleman in a brown overcoat, with black and yellow nether garments.


Come the new year, Lubbock's little lady, originally described as Polistes bimaculata but later revised to Polistes biglumis, took a turn for the worse. He wrote:

When the cold weather came on she fell into a drowsy state, and I began to hope she would hibernate and survive the winter. I kept her in a dark place, but watched her carefully, and fed her if ever she seemed at all restless.


She came out occasionally, and seemed as well as usual till near the end of February, when one day I observed she had nearly lost the use of her antennae, though the rest of the body was as usual. She would take no food. (Two days later) she could but move her tail, a last token, as I could almost fancy, of gratitude and affection.


She died in February, 1873. Lubbock noted:

As far as I could judge, her death was quite painless.


It's rumoured that her passing was commemorated with an obituary in The Times. This has not been substantiated, but her demise was recorded with a paragraph in the journal Nature.


The expiration of Lubbock's wasp noted in the journal Nature, Volume 7, Number 177, on 20 March, 1873.


Promptly following her death, Lubbock donated his pet wasp to the Museum (at that time, a part of the British Museum). Her registration number shows that she was the Museum's eighth acquisition of 1873. Her final resting place today is on a pin in a Polistes collection tray, now under the care of Gavin Broad, the Museum's Senior Curator of Hymenoptera.



Gavin says:

It's a very common species for the parts of Europe where it's from, but this particular one has gained quite a bit of notoriety.


So much so, he says, that it is part of an informal pilgrimage made by Lubbock fans, which also includes sites such as Stonehenge and Avebury.

There's a band of Lubbock enthusiasts out there and about every two years I have a pilgrim to visit the wasp.


This includes the gentleman my colleague (and, later, I) met at that networking event. When I mentioned to Gavin the prospect of Lubbock's pet wasp featuring in this blog, he said:

I look forward to her having her day online.


Today, Gavin (and Sir John, and all you Lubbock fans out there), is that day.


Following my blog the other week about the various Diplodocus casts around the world, and the various positions of their tails, I began to wonder about what happened to the original tail of our own Diplodocus after it was replaced and repositioned in 1993.


Are the 70+ original vertebrae casts of Dippy's tail still around? And what about the temporary cardboard tail?


So I got in touch with Sandra Chapman, fossil curator and Dippy aficionado (she is a co-author of the Museum's book, Dippy: the tale of a Museum icon) to find out. Sandra told me that while the temporary cardboard tail has not survived, some of the original cast bones from Dippy's tail-down position are still stored in our dinosaur collections. And not only that, she let me have a look at - and a hold of - one of the iconic chevron pieces.






This chevron cast is from around the middle of the tail, where it hung from the underside, alongside another chevron in a pair. At the top of the tail the chevrons are arranged singularly, but become double around half-way down and to the tip.


The name Diplodocus actually means 'double-beamed', and is derived from the pairs the chevrons.


This nomenclature fact, and every other nugget of information you could probably ever want to know, can be found in the Dippy book written by Sandra, Paul Barrett and Polly Parry.




Today marks the 1-year anniversary of my first Behind the scenes blog for the Museum. Hooray!


Over the past 12 months I have rooted around in the collections, archives and minds of the Museum and its staff, and pulled out and highlighted the items and the stories I have found most interesting. Throughout, I have endeavoured to bring to light the most curious, unusual and unexpected aspects of the work that goes on inside these walls.


To that end, my blog topics have covered everything from cursed crystals and magic minerals, to mermaids, fairies and the Loch Ness monster, plus analogies, anomalies, beer, and buff men. Quite an eclectic lot, I'm sure you'll agree.


Who would have thought that our great institution of science and history could yield such topics?!


That is, of course, the premise which has driven my blogging this past year, and will continue to inspire my posts in the future.


365 days of Museum blogging, in numbers:



Here's to many more posts, specimens and stories. Cheers.


It's almost a year since I started blogging for the Museum, and as I considered what I should profile for my 12th Specimen of the Month, I inevitably began to reflect on all the amazing specimens I've already written about, those on my list to write about in the future (which, for various reasons, can't be featured today), as well as all the specimens I've yet to even discover exist here.


One of the most incredible things about the Museum is just how many specimens we care for. To describe it by coining a phrase from Charles Darwin (although he was talking about the evolutionary Cambrian explosion, but anyway...), the Museum's collection is full of 'endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful'.


So today I thought I would celebrate all the specimens in our collection. All 80 million of them!


As you can obviously gather, not all 80 million are on public display. In fact, only about 0.04% of our total collection is on show in the public galleries. The rest is housed behind the scenes, in specially-built, and often specially-temperature-controlled, storage facilities.


Our 80 million-strong specimen collection is composed of:


More than 34 million insects in 140,000 drawers, of which 8.7 million are butterflies and moths.


Some of the modern and historic storage cupboards containing the drawers that house our insect collections.



The collection was boosted in 2010 with the donation of 45,000 weevils of 4,500 different species from Oldrich Vorisek, a private collector in the Czech Republic. Half were new to the Museum, and it included almost 750 type specimens. Pictures © Libby Livermore.


More than 27 million animals, ranging from the smallest fishes and frogs to enormous elephants and blue whale skeletons.


Before Dippy took pride of place, elephants were a dominant feature of Hintze Hall (or Central Hall as it was back then). In this picture from 1924, three elephants can be seen on the main floor, while a further two elephant heads are mounted above the Darwin statue on the stairs.



Mounted heads used to be much more prominent around the Museum in years gone by, as illustrated by this photograph of the balcony of Hintze Hall from 1932 (left). [Note, also, the terrifying location of the glass display cases at the top of the stairs!]

Today, most of our mounted animal heads are kept in storage (right).


More than 7 million fossils, with the oldest dating back more than 3.5 billion years.


One of my favourite fossils is this petrified tree trunk: the wood of a conifer from the Triassic era (250-200 million years ago) has been replaced with the mineral agate.



Another fossil I'm quite fond of, which also has a mineralogical connection, is this ammonite (Parkinsonia dorsetensis), from the mid-Jurassic era (174-166 million years ago): its chambers have been filled by calcite crystals.


More than 6 million plants, algae, ferns, mosses and lichens, 10% of which come from the British Isles.


Our oldest plant specimen is a mounted American hop hornbeam (Carpinus virginiana), which dates to 1740 and was collected just about a mile from here at the Chelsea Physic Garden.



Watch herbarium technician Felipe Dominguez-Santana demonstrate how plant specimens are mounted in this video from 2009. It was filmed around the time that all our herbarium specimens were moved into the then-newly-built Darwin Centre.


More than 500,000 rocks, gems and minerals, of which 5,000 are meteorites.


Here I am reflected in some pyrite in the Minerals gallery.



For some reason this malachite specimen causes innumerable giggles. We don't know why.


And, more than 1.5 million books and artworks in the Museums Library and Archives.


As a book junkie, the Museum's Library collection (of which there are six sub-collections: zoology, Earth sciences, botany, entomology, general, and ornithology at Tring) is a thing of beauty in itself, to me. This is a view from the balcony over the Earth sciences collection, which is in the old Geological Museum building (now the Red Zone), built between 1929 and 1933.



Just a small selection of some of the 540+ copies of Origin of Species held by the Museum's library. We have the largest collection of Charles Darwin's works in the world.


Finally, not officially counted in the 80+ million, but...


The web team's collection of dinosaur toys, totalling 15.


The Museum knows better than many that there's more to the relationship between science and art than simple documentation. At a recent workshop held in the Museum's Angela Marmont Centre for UK Biodiversity (AMC) we were able to share with like-minded participants just how many similarities there are between the practices and techniques of scientists and artists.


Earlier this month Gemma Anderson and William Latham - who both studied at the nearby Royal College of Art and took frequent inspiration from the Museum while there - teamed up with entomologist Gavin Broad to host the Big Draw workshop: Experimenting with observational drawing and algorithm in response to natural form.


Specimens from our collection including puffer fish, shells, corals, minerals and plants, specially chosen for their interesting form and structure (or morphology), were provided for inspiration.


Participants were then invited to participate in artistic techniques including Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s 'Delicate Empiricism’ (the effort to understand something's meaning through prolonged empathetic looking and seeing grounded in direct experience), as well as Latham's 'FormSynth' and Anderson's 'Isomorphogenesis' (generative methods inspired by the natural world that evolve using an algorithm), and asked to apply those techniques to the specimens before them.


Anderson explained:

The workshop group -  an interesting mix of mathematicians, psychiatrists, RCA students, Museum scientists and the editor of New Scientist - observed, wrote, drew from observation and drew from memory. They were then asked to imagine expanding the specimen into component parts.


I asked them to randomly select a drawing 'rule' from a hat and then use that rule to draw form change. The 'rule' was intended to act like a genetic mutation would in nature. It was therefore important that the form change was approached in a connected series, like the incremental process of evolution. Throughout, they continually referred back to the specimen and included observational details intermittently.


After the group had evolved a number of primitives, they were asked to think about marrying the forms, to maintain the general characteristics of each adult and to make one or more progeny.


Working generatively like this is something that humans, especially through the act of drawing, can still do better than computers.


The workshop, and the techniques taught, sparked some interesting discussion amongst participants, Anderson said:

It was suggested that different types of drawing systems, like different species, vary in form and elements, and if artistic elements were seen as being like the building blocks of life, then the artistic processes of the workshop were actually quite similar to the nature of the processes that the scientists at the Museum investigate.



Some of the specimens: shells (left) and corals (right).



Some of the drawings.



And some of the Big Draw participants at work.


Seeing double Dippy

Posted by Amy Freeborn Oct 15, 2014

On a little trip to Paris recently I met Dippy's identical twin.


Our iconic Diplodocus in Hintze Hall, affectionately known as Dippy, is actually a cast taken from the type specimen of Diplodocus carnegii, which was unearthed in Wyoming, USA in 1898.


The original fossil stands in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh. But there are said to be at least 10 replicas dotted around the world. One lives here with us. And another resides in Paris at the National Museum of Natural History in its Gallery of Palaeontology.



Our Diplodocus, left; and the Paris Diplodocus, right. The resemblance is uncanny.


However, on closer inspection at the Muséum National d'Histoire Naturelle de Paris, I realised that Dippy's French sibling wasn't so identical after all.


You may recall from my previous blog that when the original and casts were (re)constructed, their tails rested on the ground. However, advances in scientific understanding led to a determination that Diplodocus did not drag their tails, but held them aloft and used them as whip-like weapons. So in 1993 we repositioned our Dippy's tail to curve over visitors' heads, as you know it today.



A 1905 illustration of the original Diplodocus carnegii, which was described by John Bell Hatcher in 1901, and reconstructed by Hatcher and William Holland.


The Paris Diplodocus in original tail-dragging pose.



Our Dippy's graceful tail, which extends nine feet above the ground.


Of course it's not surprising that the Paris Diplodocus retains its historic pose. Repositioning a dinosaur's tail is no simple task. Our repositioning operation took several months to complete and involved the old tail being dismantled and the plaster of Paris vertebrae moulded and re-cast in hollow fibreglass. This ensured the tail was light enough to be mounted in an elevated position, and could accommodate a supporting strut inside it.



While the re-casting was being performed, Dippy was given a temporary cardboard tail.


But what about the other Diplodocus casts around the world? And the original fossil in Pittsburgh, for that matter? Well, I checked in with proto-Dippy and can confirm that its tail is elevated. Plus, I know that the cast at the National Museum of Natural Science in Madrid has been repositioned, as it was two of our conservators who assisted in that operation. And our palaeontologists Angela Milner and Paul Barrett, who visited the cast on display at The La Plata Museum in La Plata, Argentina, report that its tail remains on the ground.


As for the rest, I would love to hear your accounts of Diplodocus cast spotting around the world. Please post your comments and pictures below.


Earlier this year I was able to cross one of those important 'must do' items off my list when I attended my first Summer Solstice celebration at Stonehenge. It was my fourth visit to the prehistoric monument, but the first time I was able to go past the protective crowd barrier and actually touch the great stones (a privilege afforded to visitors only twice a year on the two solstices, as well as to the odd American president on request).



Yours truly touching Stonehenge.


Little did I know that a handful of weeks later I would get another chance to come into contact with Stonehenge, this time, within the Museum's walls.


Because, as I recently learned, up above my office in a mineralogy storage room, there sits a miniature model of Stonehenge made from the same stones as the original. Not from the actual Stonehenge stones, I should clarify (although before it became a protected site, tourists were able to, and did, chip off bits of the stone to take home as souvenirs), but stones taken from the sites the Stonehenge stones originate from, at least according to the thinking at the time it was made.


Our miniature Stonehenge was commissioned by Herbert Thomas, from the Geological Survey, in the 1920s or 30s. The lapidary (the stone cutting and polishing) was carried out by a D W Hepple.



Our model, showing the complete double concentric arrangement of sarsen stones (outer circle and inner horseshoe), and matching formation of bluestones inside.


Our mini Stonehenge (its scale is 1:60) was once display on one of the mezzanine levels of the current Earth Galleries building (aka the Red Zone), but was removed sometime in the mid-to-late-1990s and put into storage. It only came to light again very recently when is was discovered in a Museum outstation, from where Earth Sciences curator David Smith urged its return.


Of the model, and Stonehenge, David explains:

In 1923 Herbert Thomas published a paper which went some way to identifying the source, the provenance, of Stonehenge. He was the first person that proposed that the bluestones came from the Preseli Mountains in Pembrokeshire. The model was made sometime after this, and before his death in 1935.


Stonehenge is constructed from three broad rock types. The huge lintelled megaliths from a strongly-cemented sandstone, the smaller stones from a variety of volcanic rocks, nicknamed ‘bluestones’, and a micaceous sandstone forming the altar stone. Thomas's theory was that the bluestones – which form the inner circles – were excavated, and somehow transported over land to Amesbury. 


Whilst it has been determined that the much larger sarsen stones were transported separately from 20 miles away, north on the Marlborough plain, the mode of transportation of the bluestones remains a mystery. Recent theories have proposed transportation by glaciers of the last ice age, or humans taking the stones to Milford Haven and shipping them through the Bristol channel. The altar stone would have been picked up on route in Milford Haven.


Mini Stonehenge, including the heel stone, which in real life stands 90 yards from the altar stone.



Our Stonehenge sarsens with lintels measure 3.5 inches high. The real Stonehenge is up to 24 feet, or 288 inches.


Almost a century later, part of Thomas' theory does stand up. He predicted that one variety of the bluestones, a type of spotted dolerite, was from a tor on Preseli hill called Carn Meini. Late last year the exact quarry from which they were taken was discovered to be just one mile away from where Thomas predicted, on a hill called Carn Goedog.


Work is ongoing between the University of Oxford, the Open University and University College, London to determine the exact source of the other volcanic rock types that make up the bluestones. Scientists have gone right back to the original rock chips and thin sections described by Thomas, some of which have been preserved here at the Museum, and compared them with modern samples. David says:

In 1991 English Heritage extracted sub-samples from some of the key monoliths of Stonehenge for research. These rare samples and analytical products are now archived at the Museum. The research group have analysed them using modern techniques, that Thomas wouldn’t have even imagined possible, to compare and hopefully match the geochemistry with samples collected from various outcrops in the eastern Presili mountains.


Once published, David hopes to spread the word of the latest findings, and the role played by the Museum’s collection in the puzzle, along with the mini Stonehenge model.

The model needs some conservation work, but I'd like to get it out on display in the Earth Sciences lobby, or in a public space if possible, and use it to help tell the story of where our current Stonehenge knowledge is.


In the mean time, visitors can see a sample of Stonehenge sandstone in the Earth's Treasury gallery.


Today is the 100th anniversary of the death of the last living passenger pigeon. After the dodo, it is one of the most famous examples of human-caused extinction in the world.


To commemorate, I (with some invaluable help and contributions from my Museum colleagues, the Smithsonian Institution, @GrrlScientist and Joel Greenberg's book A Feathered River Across the Sky: The Passenger Pigeon's Flight to Extinction) have compiled a list of 100 passenger pigeon-related facts.


  1. The scientific name for the passenger pigeon is Ectopistes migratorius.
  2. It was officially described by Carl Linnaeus in 1766 as Columba migratoria.
  3. It was later re-classified as Ectopistes migratorius because of its longer wings and tail, and larger overall size, than the dove family Columbidae.
  4. Ectopistes means 'moving about or wandering' and migratorius means 'migrating'.
  5. The first recorded mention of the passenger pigeon was by ship captain Jacques Cartier in July 1534.
  6. Journeying along the shore of Prince Edward Island, Cartier noted in his journal: 'an infinite number of wood pigeons'. He mistook the birds he saw for the wild pigeons he was familiar with in Europe but it was later agreed that what he had seen were passenger pigeons.
  7. The first published depiction of the species is believed to be by Mark Catesby, in The Natural History of Carolina, Florida, and the Bahama Islands volume 1, in 1754, although he called the bird Palumbus migratorius, the pigeon of passage.


Mark Catesby's 1754 illustration of a passenger pigeon.

Picture courtesy of the Biodiversity Heritage Library.


  1. The passenger pigeon is sometimes called a 'wild pigeon' or 'blue pigeon'.
  2. Its colour is actually a blue-grey, with shades of red-orange and brown also prominent, as well as iridescent markings at the neck. Colours in the male are brighter and more bold than in the female.
  3. The average length of a male passenger pigeon was about 16.5 inches. The female around an inch shorter.
  4. Our Museum holds nearly 80 passenger pigeon specimens in its collection, comprised:
    1. 35 skins,
    2. 3 mounted specimens (two in London, one in Tring),
    3. 2 skeletons (one partial, one complete),
    4. And nearly 40 eggs.
  1. You can see the mounted specimens on display in the Birds gallery in London and Gallery 1 at Tring.


Two passenger pigeons on display in the Birds gallery in London: a male (left), and female (right).


  1. While not strictly a specimen, we do have another passenger pigeon - this one is a terracotta sculpture designed by Alfred Waterhouse. You can see it on the Museum side of the pillars in our fence along Cromwell Road.
  2. The terracotta depictions of creatures where placed according to status: extant (i.e. living forms) on the west side; extinct on the east side.
  3. Today there are two notable exceptions to this rule: the passenger pigeon which was alive when the building was erected in the late 1800s, but is now extinct; and the coelacanth, which was thought to have gone extinct 85 million years ago, but was rediscovered in 1938.


Waterhouse's terracotta passenger pigeon on one of the Cromwell Road pillars. Now on the wrong - extant - west side of the Museum.


  1. The passenger pigeon was native to North America.
  2. It was a wild bird, not to be confused with the carrier pigeon, a domesticated bird trained to carry messages.
  3. Passenger pigeons were migratory birds.
  4. In winter they would roost in the southern states, from the Gulf Coast to Arkansas and North Carolina.
  5. In spring, they would fly north to nest in the region of the Great Lakes and east to New York.
  6. The passenger pigeon population is estimated to have been somewhere between 3 and 5 billion in the early and mid-1800s.
  7. However, Mark Avery, former conservation director of the RSPB, puts the figure between 5 and 10 billion.
  8. It is thought that the species once constituted 25-40% of the total bird population of the United States.
  9. Alexander Wilson, a great bird observer of the time, estimated a flock he saw contained 2,230,272,000 individuals.
  10. To put that in perspective, the RSPB estimates the UK population of pigeons (wild rock doves [550K] and wood pigeons [5.4m] combined) is about 6 million breeding pairs.
  11. Imagine more than 400 times the entire UK population of pigeons flying together in one group - that's what passenger pigeon flocks were like!
  12. Passenger pigeon flocks were so large they would block out the sun and they would take several days to pass over towns.
  13. Flocks were regularly described in apocalyptical language.
  14. One witness described a flight over Columbus, Ohio, in 1855:

As the watchers stared, the hum increased to a mighty throbbing. Now everyone was out of the houses and stores, looking apprehensively at the growing cloud, which was blotting out the rays of the sun. Children screamed and ran for home. Women gathered their long skirts and hurried for the shelter of stores. Horses bolted. A few people mumbled frightened words about the approach of the millennium, and several dropped on their knees and prayed.


  1. Acclaimed bird painter John James Audubon said that passenger pigeons produced, 'by the flappings of their wings a noise like the roar of distant thunder'.
  2. It is claimed that the beating of billions of pairs of wings could create its own cold front below.
  3. The passenger pigeon is estimated to have flown at 60 miles per hour.
  4. Audubon witnessed a passenger pigeon flock on a trip to Louisville in 1813, which he said, 'continued to (pass) for three days in succession.'
  5. He further noted that their, 'velocity would enable one of these birds, were it so inclined, to visit the European continent in less than three days.'
  6. In an 1831 essay Audubon enthused:

I cannot described to you the beauty of their aerial evolutions… the dense mass which they form exhibits a beautiful appearance, as it changes its direction, now displaying a glistening sheet of azure, when the backs of the birds come simultaneously into view, and anon, suddenly presenting a mass of rich deep purple. They then pass lower, over the woods, and for a moment are lost among the foliage, but again emerge, and are seen gliding aloft.


  1. The passenger pigeon was immortalised in Audubon's famous Birds of America book, on plate 62.
  2. The Museum holds two complete sets of the 1-metre-tall natural history art book (fewer than 200 copies were ever produced).


Audubon's passenger pigeons: female (top), and male (bottom).


  1. Another depiction of the passenger pigeon comes courtesy of Ralph Steadman (perhaps most famous for illustrating Hunter S Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas) in his book Extinct Boids.
  2. Passenger pigeons fed largely on 'mast' - the collective term for beechnuts, acorns, and other hard forest fruits.
  3. They were said to eat the equivalent of half a pint of food a day each.
  4. Not surprisingly, their group size and appetite made them highly destructive to their surroundings.
  5. In 1871 naturalist and writer Arlie William Schorger calculated there was 136,000,000 birds in a Wisconsin nesting area that covered 850 square miles.
  6. Hundreds of nests could be seen in a single tree.
  7. Such was the combined weight of the nesting birds that the limbs of trees would break under their load.
  8. There are reports of entire trees collapsing and crushing to death hundreds of birds in the process.
  9. By the time the birds moved on from a nesting area, the ground would be covered in a blanket of their droppings, inches-thick.
  10. It is said that when flocks flew down to drink, the birds that landed first would drown under the weight of those that came after them.
  11. Most information we have about passenger pigeons from when they were still alive, is about how to catch and cook them.
  12. Experts don't even know for sure how many times a year they bred, although the general opinion is twice per season.


Some of the passenger pigeon eggs in the Museum's collection at Tring.


  1. Passenger pigeons made such a tempting target that cities had to ban hunting in town centres.
  2. One ordinance from 1727 claimed, 'everyone takes the liberty of shooting thoughtlessly from his windows, the threshold of his door, the middle of the streets.'
  3. However, hunters didn't even need a gun: passenger pigeons could simply be knocked out of a tree, or even the air, with a pole or club.
  4. Another method of capturing passenger pigeons was to use the cries of another pigeon, fastened to a pole, chair, stool or something similar, to entice them into nets.
  5. This is said to be the origin of the term 'stool pigeon'.
  6. Advances in communication technologies in the 1860s and 1870s meant news of where passenger pigeons were nesting travelled fast.
  7. People would flock from miles around for some easy killing.
  8. The invention of the refrigerated train car in 1878 enabled hunters to operate on an industrial scale.
  9. Tens of thousands of birds could be killed, packed into a boxcar, and sold on at various towns and markets along the railroad.
  10. There is evidence that passenger pigeons were sold at market for as little as 50 cents a dozen.
  11. It should be noted that while the hunting was excessive:
    1. It was in the days before factory farming and supermarkets, when hunting for food was common in rural areas, and
    2. It came on the back of the 1873 financial crisis and the depression that followed, so passenger pigeons represented free food for people with little money.
  12. Also, consider this: today in the UK we eat 2.2 million chickens per day!
  13. 14-year-old Press Clay Southworth from Ohio is credited with shooting the last wild passenger pigeon out of a tree on 24 March 1900.
  14. However, recently Joel Greenberg has discovered evidence of a specimen taken in 1902.
  15. The wild population of the passenger pigeon went from billions to zero in less than 50 years.
  16. But hunting was not the only cause.
  17. The clearing of forests for farmland by early settlers was also a contributing factor in the demise of the passenger pigeon.
  18. The birds' large and highly social flocks likely sped up transmission of infectious diseases too.
  19. And it is also surmised that the passenger pigeon relied on its large flock numbers to find food and for breeding success.
  20. That meant that, as populations diminished, so did the birds' ability to sustain itself and procreate.
  21. Once the population reached a critical low point the species was doomed, even though thousands of individuals may still have remained.
  22. After the great passenger pigeon flocks vanished, theories about where they had gone proliferated.
  23. The journal Science speculated that they were in the desert of Arizona.
  24. Another journal, Auk, suggested they were east of Puget Sound.
  25. Henry Ford was convinced they'd all drowned in the Pacific en route to Asia.
  26. At the beginning of the 20th Century, the only passenger pigeons alive were captive ones held in zoos.
  27. By 1909 only Cincinnati Zoological Gardens still had living passenger pigeons.
  28. This included a pair named George and Martha, after Washington and his wife.
  29. By 1914 Martha was the sole survivor.
  30. Despite authorities offering a reward of US$1,000 for the capture of a mate, none was found.
  31. Martha, the last passenger pigeon in the world, died around 13.00 on 1 September 1914.
  32. She was 29 years old.
  33. Martha's death is one of the very rare occasions when the extinction of a species is recorded down to a specific date and time.
  34. The specific dates (but not times) of a few other animal extinctions are known, such as the Tasmanian tiger (Thylacinus cynocephalus) where the last known animal died in Hobart Zoo on 7 September 1936.
  35. After her death, Martha was frozen in a block of ice and sent to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
  36. Her skin was mounted by Smithsonian taxidermist Nelson Wood.
  37. Her internal parts were preserved in alcohol, and are today part of the National Museum of Natural History's wet collection.
  38. Martha, who was on public display in the NMNH's Hall and Birds of the World displays until 1999, is now kept behind the scenes as part of the Museum's research collection.


Martha, the famous, last-of-its-kind passenger pigeon.

Photo by Elizabeth O'Brien, Smithsonian Institution.


  1. However, to commemorate the anniversary of her death, Martha has been brought back out to star in NMNH's Once There Were Billions: Vanished Birds of North America exhibition, which runs until October 2015.
  2. Martha has only twice left the Smithsonian (to San Diego in 1966 and Cincinnati in 1874), and on both occasions she was flown first class with an airline attendant escorting her for the entire trip.
  3. There are currently plans afoot to try and resurrect the passenger pigeon.
  4. This is a process referred to as 'de-extinction'.
  5. Various parties are involved in an organisation called Revive and Restore, which has plans to take passenger pigeon genes recovered from museum specimens, combine them with genes from a genetic next of kin, the band-tailed pigeon, and use those genes to modify a chicken to lay a passenger pigeon egg.
  6. A similar genetic engineering project took place in Dubai in 2011 when chicken cells were put into ducks, so that the ducks would produce chicken sperm. When the duck was mated with a chicken it produced normal chicken chicks.
  7. Revive and Restore says of their project, dubbed The Great Passenger Pigeon Comeback:

The passenger pigeon is a compelling choice for de-extinction. Humans hunted them to extinction from a population of billions until 1914 when none remained. The return of this iconic species by human hands would be a suitable and extraordinary twist in the story of the passenger pigeon.


Want to do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the extinction of the passenger pigeon? Arts-based environmental non-profit group The Lost Bird Project has devised an initiative called Fold the Flock, with the aim of making one million origami passenger pigeons this year. You can download an origami pattern on their website and add your own bird to the virtual flock.



My origami passenger pigeon for The Lost Bird Project.


When the naked models for our Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story exhibition were unveiled at the Museum earlier this year, there were a few sniggers - from staff and visitors alike - at their state of undress. But Ned the Neanderthal and Quentin the Homo sapiens are not the first men to get their bits out in the Museum's galleries.


Ned (left) and Quentin (right) let it all hang out for science.


Back in 1900, Edwin Ray Lankester, Curator of Molluscs and Director of the Natural History Department of what was then the British Museum, requested the funds to commission a plaster cast of Prussian-born strongman and bodybuilder Eugen Sandow, who would pose fully-flexed and in all his glory.


Although perhaps a strange idea at first thought, Lankester argued that the statue would provide a perfect example of European man (he intended to get a series of statues made to illustrate different nationalities). He said it would be:

A striking demonstration of what can be done in the way of perfecting muscles by simple means (and) hand down to future generations the most perfect specimen of physical culture of our day, perhaps of any age.


Eugen Sandow (1867-1925) had been inspired as a teen by classical Roman statues of athletes and deities, and dedicated himself to obtaining the 'perfect physique'. He is credited as the 'father of modern body building' for successfully making the move from Victorian strongman to bona fide muscle-bound businessman and celebrity.


Sandow patented his own dumbbells, set up personal fitness schools and a monthly fitness magazine, designed exercise regimes and published books. He counted kings Edward VII and George V, as well as the likes of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, James Joyce, William Butler Yeats and Thomas Edison, among his adherents.


Edison invited Sandow to strut and flex - or, as it was described at the time, 'perform a series of tableaux vivants' - for use in his pioneering kinetoscope motion picture viewing device.



Lankester's request for the Sandow statue was approved by the Museum's Board of Trustees and a company in Covent Garden was instructed to make it, at a cost of £55. Sandow's body was cast in small sections, and it was required that he hold his muscles at 'full strain' for around 15 minutes at a time while the plaster set. In a 1939 edition of Iron Man magazine, Sandow said of the process:

I should like to say that I regard it as the greatest feat of endurance I have ever performed. The strain was awful. One feels as if he is being suffocated, especially when the mould of the face is being taken. I am told that only about one man in two hundred can stand having their face done and I am not a bit surprised.


But if that is the case I don't believe that one in a million could stand to have his chest done, in the trained position. I had to keep the muscles of the chest and abdomen still while tensed and take very small quick breaths, never entirely filling or emptying the lungs, but just taking in enough fresh air to take the place of what I used up, and at the same time keeping the muscles set so as not to disturb the contour or the plaster.


Of course I was only too glad and proud to do it. I grudge no trouble and time in the cause of physical culture. However, I don't think I'd go through with it again for any amount of money.


The finished Eugen Sandow statue was delivered to the Museum on 18 July 1901 and went on public show shortly after.



Our Sandow statue on display in 1901, in what is now known as Dinosaur Way.


But Sandow's reign as the personification of physical magnificence in the Museum was to be very short-lived. Less than three months after the statue made its debut, one of the Museum's Trustees, Lord Walsingham, complained that it was too offensive, even after a fig leaf had been placed over the private parts. Alas, the Board agreed, and on 26 October 1901 the statue of Sandow was forever relegated to deepest, darkest storage.


However, the story doesn't end there. In the early 1990s the Museum received a request to make a copy of our statue, from none other than Arnold Schwarzenegger. The former Mr Universe wanted a Sandow of his own for his private bodybuilding memorabilia collection.


Then-Museum conservator Nigel Larkin was assigned to the task. He said:

I had to put the statue back together, fake up the joins and then I made a 2-part mould around it from silicon rubber and fibreglass. (The copy) was relatively light, compared to the original plaster version, which was very heavy. It was all in one piece and stood over 6 feet tall, with the base.


It was quite unusual to do a model of something so large. It was much bigger than even most dinosaur limb bones. And it wasn't cylindrical, he's got his arm sticking out... It was quite sophisticated and something I'm quite proud of.


Schwarzenegger's Sandow replica in the conservation lab around 1994. Nigel said: "We kept him decent with a lab coat or shorts at all times.'


Author David Waller, who in 2011 wrote the book 'The Perfect Man: The Muscular Life and Times of Eugen Sandow, Victorian Strongman', said of his visit to see our statue in storage:

It is the closest one will ever come today to Sandow's body as seen by his contemporaries and, despite the chipped plaster and other imperfections, one cannot but be impressed by the ochre-coloured form. He is neither tall, nor over-developed in the freakish manner of the modern body-builder.


The waist is trim and the muscles of the legs and chest are exceptionally well-defined and one gets a decided impression of the power if not the beauty that made such an impact on his contemporaries. The head turns insouciantly to one side and one is struck by the immaculately preserved moustache and by his shocking nakedness.


The Eugen Sandow model, briefly reassembled and photographed in 1981.


Lolita, Lepidoptera and us

Posted by Amy Freeborn Aug 21, 2014

It's 56 years ago this week that Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita was published in America (55 years in the UK).


What does that have to do with the Museum, you might ask?


Well, the Russian-born writer was also a keen lepidopterist. He published nine scientific papers on butterflies, developed a pioneering theory of butterfly evolution, and even worked for eight years at the Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology arranging their collection of Lepidoptera.


Such was his love of the winged creatures that he is quoted in a 1967 edition of the Paris Review as saying:

The pleasures and rewards of literary inspiration are nothing beside the rapture of discovering a new (butterfly) organ under the microscope or an undescribed species on a mountainside in Iran or Peru. It is not improbable that had there been no revolution in Russia, I would have devoted myself entirely to lepidopterology and never written any novels at all.

Vladimir Nabokov


His specific connection to the Museum came in the 1960s, when he approached our Entomology Department (now the Insects Division) about a book he was working on called The Butterflies of Europe. It was to include over 700 butterflies and he wanted to illustrate it with photographs of specimens from our collection.


Nabokov wanted the book to be the most comprehensive work on European butterflies ever completed. But alas, it was never completed. The publishers said Nabokov was discouraged by the daunting nature of the task; Nabokov said the publishers wouldn't provide enough money to fund it.


But the legacy of Nabokov's butterfly book publishing dream lives on in the Museum's collection to this day, where a handful of drawers still contain specimens the author requested to photograph, labelled with his name (albeit incorrectly spelt).


The drawers contain butterflies from the Nymphalidae and Hesperiidae families, including half a dozen British species.







Butterflies personally collected by Vladimir Nabokov are housed at the American Museum of Natural History, Harvard and Cornell university museums, the Swiss Zoological Museum in Lausanne, and the Nabokov Museum established in the St. Petersburg house where he was born.

1 2 3 Previous Next