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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.


Guest post by Karolyn Shindler


On the eve of the declaration of war on 3 August 1914, The Times wrote: 'The great catastrophe has come upon Europe.' Over the course of the next few months my posts to the Behind the scenes blog will include excerpts from the upcoming October and January issues of evolve magazine. These will show how, 100 years ago to the day, the Museum contributed to the war effort in those first uncertain months:

Thursday 20 August 1914: The Museum's Trustees hold a meeting, 'to consider circumstances arising out of the war'. They are told that six assistants, seven attendants, one boy attendant, a taxidermist and a labourer have enlisted in the military. Two government departments, the War Office and the Admiralty, have requested clerical help.


The Museum agrees to loan the government between six and 10 attendants, and also certain assistants with 'special qualifications', who may be required. Some of the Museum's galleries may be needed to accommodate extra clerks, although not immediately. The Trustees are informed that the previous day, 19 August, army officers inspected the Museum with a view to its possible use as military barracks.

September–October 1914: Dr Francis Bather of the Geology Department reflects the anxieties of many when he writes in the Museum's journal: 'War is a great adjuster of values. Already its distant blaze throws into relief the vanities of life.' The flames, he wrote, shrivel up 'mere fripperies, till only that which is truly necessary has the strength to stand firm. And now even we museum curators may experience searchings of heart as we continue to enter our quiet halls to settle down to our accustomed routine'.


Bather's 'searchings' of his heart result in immediate action: he organises first aid training under the auspices of the Red Cross. Seventeen Museum officials attend and pass the training. There are two women among them, the palaeontologist Dorothea Bate, and Marjorie Bostock of the administrative staff.

12 October 1914: A lieutenant colonel of the Territorial Force applies for some of his men to visit the Natural History Museum for instruction, by their own Officers, on ‘the points of the horse’ and the ‘anatomy of the horse’, from specimens in the North Hall. Permission is granted and the North Hall is temporarily closed to the public.

17 October 1914: The Office of Works writes to the Museum suggesting that in view of the possibility of an attack on London by hostile aircraft, the Trustees might consider taking precautions to protect the most precious specimens, if they have not already done so.

22 October 1914: The Office of Works writes again, suggesting that the Spirit Building should be protected by a nine-inch (22.5cm) layer of sand spread over its roof.

29 October 1914: The Office of Works writes again, having worked out that the amount of sand they had suggested was more likely to lead to the collapse of the roof than protect it. ‘The only thing to be done, therefore, is to let the building take its chance’.

19 November 1914: Dr Francis Bather reports to the Trustees that the 17 members of staff who qualified as first aiders ‘are anxious to turn the knowledge acquired to some account’. He proposes they form a unit of the Voluntary Aid Detachment under the British Red Cross Society. To make sure work in the Museum is disrupted as little as possible, he suggests that no more than six personnel on any one day are on standby for emergency duty between 10.00 and 17.00.


Bather also suggests that perhaps two members of staff should give ‘not less than two hours' continuous service at a hospital daily… each taking duty once a week’. This means no one will be away from the Museum for more than two hours every 10 days. His proposals are accepted and the volunteers become the Natural History Museum Division of the 31st London Voluntary Aid Detachment.

28 November 1914: The Royal Naval Airship Station, Farnborough, sends the Museum (an air) balloon that has been damaged by some form of growth, asking what the cause is likely to be. The growth is examined by Charles Joseph Gahan, Keeper of Entomology. He reports: ‘Moths in rubbish left inside folds of the balloon when stored away appear to have caused the damage’.

December 1914–January 1915: At the request of the Admiralty, London University forms a Volunteer Anti-Aircraft Observation Corps, stationed at the top of the Imperial Institute Tower (now the Queen’s Tower at Imperial College) a few hundred yards behind the Museum.


The Museum is asked for volunteers from the ‘higher staff’. Sir Henry Miers, Principal of London University, requests that this is not included in the Museum’s minutes, as it is ‘inadvisable that any publicity should be given to the matter’. Five members of staff volunteer, including the Keeper of Zoology and future Museum Director, Dr Sidney Frederic Harmer.


A further seven members of staff enlist, bringing the total so far to 23.

23 January 1915: The Trustees instruct the Director, Dr Lazarus Fletcher, to prepare lists of members of the Museum staff absent on naval or military service, for exhibition in the entrance hall (now known as Hintze Hall) of the Museum. The Director informs the Trustees that the Volunteer Corps for Home Defence, Museum Section, has been formed – between 70 and 80 members of staff have indicated their wish to join. Recruits from neighbouring scientific institutions are also expected, to bring the corps to its full complement of 120 men. The troops are to drill in the Museum grounds during the remainder of the winter months, three evenings a week, from 4.45pm to 5.45pm. A pencilled amendment to this adds, ‘Provided that the grass on the Cromwell Road front be not used for drilling’.

25 February 1915: A letter is sent to the Museum from the Office of Works, marked Confidential. It states that attention has been directed to the danger, during the present crisis, ‘of bombs being conveyed into Public Offices, Museums etc, for the purpose of destroying property of national value or interest’. It suggests that all visitors who seek admission to the Museum and who carry bags or parcels should leave them with the doorkeepers or reveal the contents if they have to be taken into the building for business purposes.

27 February 1915: The Director reports to the Trustees that instructions have been given to the police ‘accordingly’. The Keepers report that objects of value have been removed from exhibition galleries ‘to places of greater safety, in view of the possible risk from bombs of hostile aircraft’. Zoological specimens of special rarity, including the great auk, the extinct starling of Mauritius and the dodo, have been placed in a steel case in the basement. The two most important geological department fossils, are, the Keeper Dr Arthur Smith Woodard reports, Archaeopteryx and the Piltdown skull.


The first is ‘already beneath four floors in the South East Pavilion’, and the second is ‘in a fire-proof safe in the Keeper’s room’. The Keeper of Mineralogy, George Thurland Prior, so far refuses to move anything, as he ‘has not considered the danger as sufficiently imminent to justify him in running the risk of damage to delicate specimens by removing them to other parts of the building not under his control’. However, ‘if considered desirable’, he would place a selection of the rarest and most valuable specimens in a safe in a suitable part of the basement. The vast insect collection is already in the basement, while the Keeper of Botany considers that his most valuable collection, the Sloane Herbarium, is ‘protected above by two floors’.


Happily for these irreplaceable specimens, the Keepers’ faith in the strength of the building is never put to the test.

11 March 1915: 2nd Lieutenant Duncan Hepburn Gotch of the 1st Battalion the Worcestershire Regiment, who was an assistant in the Imperial Bureau of Entomology based at the Museum, is killed at Neuve Chapelle. Twelve thousand allied troops are killed in this three-day battle, won by the British. German losses are 10,000 dead and nearly 2,000 taken prisoner. Gotch, who was 23 years old and had been at the front for just two months, is killed by machine-gun fire while leading the last remnants of his company. He was, says a fellow officer, ‘a brave, cheery, kindly, popular officer and we can ill afford his loss’. For the Principal of the Imperial Bureau, he was ‘one of the keenest and most willing assistants I have ever had, and showed every promise of making a name for himself as a scientific worker… his place will be hard indeed to fill’.

27 March 1915: The Director informs the Trustees at their monthly meeting of Lt Gotch’s death.

30 March 1915: A letter is sent by the Permanent Secretary of the Admiralty stating that the anti-aircraft defence of London has now reached the stage where it is no longer considered necessary for the volunteer look-out station on the top of the Imperial Institute Tower – now the Queen’s Tower at Imperial College – to be continued. The volunteers include five members of the Museum’s senior staff, whom the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty thank ‘for their arduous services during the winter months’.

23 April 1915: The War Office sends a circular letter suggesting that an appeal should be made by heads of departments to civil servants of recruitable age ‘to join the colours’, and suggests that their places could be taken by ‘suitable substitutes’. The letter draws attention to a statement from the Secretary of State for War, Lord Kitchener, ‘for the necessary permission to be given freely to their subordinates who are prepared to enlist. This is the form of military service of which the nation has the most pressing need’.


Until this point, just one further member of staff has enlisted in the military in 1915, bringing the total so far to 24.


Issue 22 of evolve is on sale now and the quarterly magazine is free to Members. Non-Members can copies in the Museum's shops.


Further WWI posts:



Guest post by Daisy Cunynghame


Much is known about the Museum's work and contribution to the efforts of the Second World War. One of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) workshops was even housed in the Museum, where new weapons, explosives and sabotage techniques were invented and developed by the British war organisation. But less is known about the contributions made in the First World War - both by individuals and as a Museum collective.


The Museum made important contributions to the war effort in a wide range of areas - supplying departmental expertise, furthering public education, providing public services and, of course, undertaking military service. The work helped solve many practical day-to-day problems, as well as developing innovations that aided in military strategy. Often the solutions found or attempted were ingenious and imaginative.


A number of Museum workers volunteered for military service, although casualties were inevitable and 13 were killed. Supplying men for the British Expeditionary Force was obviously one important facet of the Museum's role in the war, but there were many others. Some people translated German reports and correspondence. A number of scientists used their contacts on the continent to distribute propaganda, including The Manifesto of the Intellectuals and Gee! I Wish I Were a Man. The Museum also provided British prisoners of war with scientific publications for a little light reading.


There were several war-related projects and exhibitions at the Museum for the soldiers and the general public. A war farm was built at the eastern end of the grounds, which was tended by wounded soldiers as well as staff. The Museum was kept open to the public throughout the war, to provide an escape for convalescing solders and to educate the public on important matters related to the war effort.



Staff and convalescent soldiers, pictured in 1917, tend the 'war farm' at the eastern end of the Museum's grounds.


Special exhibitions included managing wartime allotments, dealing with infestations of various bugs, and how to prevent the killing of carrier pigeons by differentiation from the feral type.



A Museum display, ca. 1918, of carrier pigeons like those that saved lives by relaying messages from downed pilots or disabled ships during WWI.


The Entomology Department's part in the war effort was very important, having direct effects on the health of soldiers, food supplies and military operations. Work was done to find solutions to tick- and mite-related damage - on humans, army horses and food supplies. Additionally, important research was undertaken on how to protect the envelopes of air ships from attacks by insects, how to minimise the impact of mosquitoes and scabies on soldiers in the trenches and mites attacking food stores, and how to protect telephone and telegraph cables in the tropics.


Our armies in Egypt sent many enquiries to the Zoology Department, most of them relating to flat-worms, snails and the like, from a perspective of disease, food supply, water supply and commerce. Zoology contributed important work in other areas as well, including the use of crustaceans to determine the age of wrecks when examining sunken submarines, and an ambitious study on the use of gulls to locate enemy submarines. Gulls were successfully trained to identify submerged submarines by circling above them - although teaching them to distinguish between a 'Fritz' and a 'Tommy' sub proved less successful. While this particular study did not produce the desired result, it is a great example of just how creative Museum scientists were during the war.


The Botany Department gave advice to the military on topics such as the use of moss for surgical dressings, suitable food for humans and horses in foreign climes, and seaweeds and fungi safe for human consumption. Other areas of guidance included camouflaging weapons, the right timber to use for airplanes and air ships to avoid issues with insects and fungi, and how to prevent tents from being destroyed by fungi.


The Geology Department provided advice on where to drill for water and mine, based on fossil specimens. But perhaps their most important work was in relation to the battlegrounds themselves, where they gave information and guidance on the geology of the Italian and Belgian fronts. In addition, the department played a key role in finding a way to build and maintain cement platforms in salt water for the docking of naval vessels.


The staff in the Museum played an important role in the war effort, but the specimens themselves also proved invaluable. External visitors used the collections for a variety of ends. Mineralogy specimens were used to study the make-up of German trench cement and Austrian steel components, while overseas governments examined entomological collections to identify pests and insects of potential economic significance.


This, of course, is just a small sample of the extensive impact of the Museum's staff and collections on the war effort. Owing to the ingenuity and dedication of individuals, as well as the value of the collections for a myriad of purposes, the Natural History Museum can rightly claim to have played an integral part during WWI.


Further WWI posts:


The Army Biscuit Enquiry

Posted by Amy Freeborn Aug 8, 2014

If an army marches on its stomach (as Napoleon famously proclaimed), then ensuring soldiers' food is of good quality is essential. So when British troops stationed abroad found themselves receiving tins of biscuits in their ration packs that were infested with moths and beetles, the Museum was called in to investigate the source of these 'injurious insects'.


In 1910, at the request of Brigadier-General S S Long, Director of Supplies for the British Army, sample tins of biscuits were withdrawn from stocks at various stations abroad and sent back to Britain for inspection at Woolwich Barracks by Museum entomologist Dr John Hartley Durrant.


Three possible points of infestation were considered: 1) at home before packing, 2) during transit, or 3) in the country where stored. However, as the biscuits were packed in hermetically sealed tins, it was presumed that - providing the tins weren't compromised - infestation must have taken place in the biscuit factories.


After careful examination of the tins at Woolwich, they were pronounced to be intact, but nevertheless, when opened, contained a foreign flour moth, Ephesita kuehniella, in various stages of development.


In his paper published in the June 1913 edition of the Journal of the Royal Army Medical Corps, Dr Durrant said:

This proved conclusively that infestation had taken place in the factories before the tins were soldered, and indicated that preventative or remedial measures must be undertaken in the factories themselves.


Images from Durrant's paper showing moth-infested biscuits found in tins sent to troops stationed in South Africa and Mauritius.


So down to a biscuit factory in Bermondsey went Durrant to carry out some tests. From these tests he concluded:


  • Although it was a given that flour was 'often infested by insects in various stages of development' (perhaps modern-day health and safety excesses aren't so bad after all), if the flour was sifted through a mesh of 320 strands to the inch, that should be sufficient to eliminate ova.
  • Temperatures within the biscuits during baking quickly reached 95degC in the first few minutes, and continued to rise to around 100degC in the centre of the biscuit before the end of the baking period. Meanwhile, laboratory experiments showed that 60degC 'may probably be accepted as a maximum temperature above which it is unnecessary to go for the destruction of ova'.


Therefore, Durrant said:

We are of opinion that infestation of the biscuits must take place after baking, during cooling, and prior to the tins being soldered.


Durrant offered a series of suggestions, including:


  • Introducing 'screened cooled air during biscuit cooling to render it practically impossible for the moth to oviposit on the biscuits', and
  • 'Puncturing the biscuit tins before leaving the factory, raising the temperature to a lethal point, then re-soldering'.
  • He also alerted the Board of Agriculture that foreign moth species were present in the UK.


In 1915, to showcase Durrant's work, as well, perhaps, to show support for British efforts in the then-recently commenced World War I, the Museum made a public display of what it dubbed the Army Biscuit Enquiry.



The Army Biscuit Enquiry display: 'The research which has been carried out jointly by the War Office and the Museum has ensured the protection of Army Biscuits from the possibility of such attacks by insects in the future.'


The Museum made many important contributions to the military efforts during the war, in a wide range of areas, including supplying departmental expertise, furthering public education, providing public services and, of course, undertaking military service.


Further WWI posts: