Since we were London, we got the opportunity to spend some time looking behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum with my cousin’s friend, Simon Maddock, who’s research is based at the museum. After looking around the offices where students are doing active research, we were shown into the huge area devoted to the expansive specimen collection, not normally seen by the public. This was outstanding. Simon told us bout the 8 floors filled with specimens and as I looked around just one room, filled to the brim with cabinets and shelves, I found it hard to estimate the vast number of specimens surrounding me.
As Simon was part of the herpetology department, the majority of what we saw consisted of amphibians, reptiles and fish. Every specimen had been fixed in formalin. Formalin, chemically known as formaldehyde, is used to fix specimens with the intention of inhibiting decay. It does this by covalent bonds between the proteins in the tissues, holding it in place. But because formalin is a known carcinogen, the specimens are generally preserved in ethanol. As Simon opened cabinet upon cabinet, we were able to see hundreds of fixed specimens in various sized jars according to the size of the animal. He told us that the oldest specimens dated from the early 1800s. It almost felt like we stepping into the past as we looked at the carefully hand written labels written on yellowing paper and imagined explorers returning from expeditions, with crates full of specimens with the possibility of uncovering species never seen before, creating the type specimen of that species – the first specimen of to be described. It was unfortunate that we could not spend all day going from cabinet to cabinet, peering in every jar to see an eerily suspended specimen staring back, but the lighting was monitored meaning that we could not stay for too long as the lights would automatically turn off. This ensured that the specimens were never exposed for too long to risk deterioration.
It was especially interesting to see specimens which had been stained, especially the skeletons, because this highlighted many features which don’t normally stand out for me, giving me a new perspective of seeing these specimens. I also began to understand how important these specimens can be in helping us to learn more about the natural world. Simon showed me several tuatara. I had never heard of tuatara before, but immediately, the specimens enabled me to readily learn about them by looking at the real things. This would not be possible if they had not been preserved in this way. The tuatara are reptile endemic to New Zealand, and although they closely resemble lizards, they actually belong to their own distinct order, classified according to their unique skulls which have an extra hole in them.
Some of my favourite specimens included the echidnas and platypuses we saw curled up in large tanks as well as the huge gorilla hands. Every crease, fold and crevasse had been preserved, leading me not only to consider the mind-blowing similarities to human hands of which we are so familiar, but also to see the strength in such limbs which spent their lives pulling an enormous gorilla from through from tree to tree. Another specimen which took my breath away was a chimpanzee foetus. It was almost fully formed, with only the facial features and fingertips awaiting further definition. Again, the similarities it shared with a human baby struck me, and I couldn’t help feeling moved to see a being so close to life, so lifeless.
After looking around these rooms full of cabinets, we moved into a room containing huge metal tanks containing preserved sharks. Although this would have been incredible to see, the tanks were so big that a mechanical hoist was needed simply to lift the lid to see inside. But most impressive was probably the giant squid which spanned the length of the room in an extremely long tank. I have seen dissections of giant squids on TV, but to truly imagine their size is impossible until you come face to face with the real thing. Finally we walked out through a room containing a large examination table where dissections of some of the specimens take place, allowing research to continually be done using this amazing collection.
We walked into the lift and were transported back into the museum, surrounded by tourists bustling around and enjoying themselves, unaware of the thousands, possibly millions, of animals in glass jars beneath them. I left with mixed emotions for it is impossible to ignore the fact that these animals are dead, taken from the wild and killed. But I believe that it is so important for us to learn as much as possible about the rich diversity in the world surrounding us. As human beings we have changed the world, not always for the better, and therefore we need continue changing the world, for the change cannot be halted in the state we have left it. The only way to ensure that this continual development conserves the treasures of Earth, is to understand, as best as possible, the impact that our actions will have. To do this, we need to understand the treasures themselves. Whether they may be living in zoos or dead in a museum they can teach us what we need to know to love and preserve their ancestors for many years to come.