Archive for the ‘Hugh’s greatest museums!’ Category

Great Museums! Florence! Natural History and the house of wax

December 12, 2012

Hugh Paxton’s blog will spare you the rest of our wax photos. It went from grim to ghastly.

The day in the museum!.pptx

Hugh’s Greatest Museums: Darwin Centre Images

November 9, 2012

Some time ago Hugh Paxton’s Blog posted a story on the Natural History Museum’s fascinating Darwin Centre but neglected to attach any supporting images. If you’d like to read the post check “Hugh’s Greatest Museums” in the “Categories of Posts” list on the home page.

My favourite museums: Part one in an occasional series. London’s Natural History Museum and Darwin Centre

December 17, 2010

Hugh Paxton’s Blog begins a new occasional series – my favourite museums. The series will profile museums, collections, botanical gardens etc and will feature institutions that are favoured for their magnificence and interest. But it will also introduce all the above categories that I came to love because they were (or still are) so badly organised, incomprehensible, numbingly dull (think the Keswick Pencil Museum or the extraordinarily soporific Macau collection of agricultural artefacts). If you have a favourite museum Hugh Paxton’s Blog would love to hear from you. But as a kick-off to the series you’ll have to hear from me!

Hey ho! Let’s go!     


I’m head to head with a mutated octopus stained a ghastly yellow by its embalming alcohol. To its left is a bottled shoal of sea bass.

Above and below (and all around) are 850,000 other jars. They contain a total of 22 million zoological specimens ranging from plankton to giant squid.

No, I’m not in the world’s largest Traditional Chinese Medicine shop. I’m in the London Natural History Museum’s (NHM) Darwin Center (DC) and – phew! – it’s an eye opener.

More of the DC shortly. First the NHM. Simply stated, it is one of the most enthralling places in London. Situated near Harrods and Kensington Palace, the building is an architectural masterpiece of Victorian steel and terracotta decorated with countless carvings of animals and plants. 

Its cathedral-like exhibition halls are home to over 70 million natural history specimens – the widest variety of animal, plant and mineral items ever assembled – and the displays really are a knockout.

Life size animated dinosaurs bellow, simulated earthquakes destroy Tokyo, birds chirrup and hoot from walk-through rainforests… And even if you’re the sort of person who falls asleep two minutes into a Discovery Channel programme, you’ll be, as the British indelicately put it, “gob smacked.” 

Since its opening in 1881, research has been very much the name of the NHM’s game; particularly in the fields of taxonomy, genetic research, and conservation. During World War II Special Operations Executive (SOE) scientists more exotically moved in to develop, among other things, exploding rats (mobile rodent skins stuffed with dynamite destined for unwitting Gestapo HQs in France).

But until the DC opened, very few members of the visiting public had any idea of what was going on in the maze of labs, vaults and storage corridors behind (and under) the scenes.

The DC has changed that. Named after the man who brought us evolution, origin of species and crackpot creationist book burners, it shows us the guts of Natural History and the work going on at the NHM.

Moreover, visitors can see the scientists at work and, best of all, don white coats to tour the eerie world of the “Wet” or “Spirit” collection. 

There are seven storage floors in all. The lowest also functions as a morgue where autopsies are carried out on cetaceans and other marine creatures that wash up on British shores enabling scientists to monitor pollution levels in the marine environment. So if you see a whale being winched off a truck on the Cromwell Road, no, you’re not hallucinating. It’s heading here.

Beside the morgue are specimens collected by Darwin himself on his epic trans-global voyage on HMS Beagle.

The temperature in the Wet Collection (also known, irreverently, as the “WC”) is a constant 13 degrees centigrade. Quite chilly actually, but designed to prevent fires which, in an environment so dense with bottled alcohol, would be catastrophic. 

The jars occasionally explode. Take a careful look at the older ones – and some of these specimens were first bottled over 600 years ago – and you will see that the glass is thicker at the bottom than at the top. Glass is technically liquid. Gravity and time have dragged the glass down leaving the base thick and distorted and higher parts of the ancient jars perilously thin.

Touch the wrong one in the wrong place and crack! You’ll be showered with an intriguing blend of ethanol, oarfish fat (if it is a jar containing an oarfish), baboon brain (if it is a jar containing a baboon brain) and so on. Et voila! Eau de Darwin Centre. Guaranteed to turn heads at a hundred meters and attract absolutely nobody!

There are 350 scientists at work here. Each day one of them delivers a free lecture. We watched expert, Douglas Russel, waxing lyrical on the subject of birds’ eggs. Whether he’ll still be as enthusiastic about his subject matter when you meet him is a matter for conjecture. The NHM’s egg collection numbers between one and two million specimens But no-one’s actually ever got around to counting them. Russel had just been assigned the job. Lucky fellow.

Lectures range from fleas in literature and popular culture, dolphin by-catches in the trawling industry to” the warped world of deep sea fish.” And trust me their world is seriously warped!

If you are visiting London (or live there) this lot is not to be missed!

NOTE: To watch Darwin Center online, see the full calendar of events, read lectures or sign up for regular updates, visit:

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