Some are huge, some are tiny; some are Victorian stained glass, some are entirely modern. There are thousands in all, and each plays its part in flooding the august Kensington institution with an almost unreasonable amount of natural light.
The effect differs, depending on where you look. In the Hintze Hall – the gargantuan central space where for decades you’d have shuffled around Dippy the diplodocus, until he was replaced by Hope, the 82ft skeleton of a young blue whale, last year – such illumination means that even on the greyest of days in the capital the room feels like a cross between a basilica and the world’s stateliest conservatory.
Not for nothing was it dubbed a ‘temple of nature’ when it opened in 1881, and it is even clearer in the era of Hope: where Dippy dwelt on the ground, the whale is suspended in excelsis, drawing visitors’ eyes up to the galleries. Elsewhere, the light is just as welcome. The corridors bathe in it, and in the smaller corners it returns even the fustiest, dustiest exhibits to full technicolour glory.
But prepare to leave all that behind this summer. Because for the first time in its 137 years, the Natural History Museum is turning its focus on the dark. The museum’s next major exhibition, Life in the Dark, explores the worlds of nocturnal creatures and discovers just how they survive in the absence of light.
And it’s keen to get us involved. With some mind-boggling special effects and quite unnervingly immersive interactive features, visitors will smell and hear the mayhem of a bat cave, crawl through tunnels, stroke the night’s creatures, and glory in the stars of the deep ocean. ‘Put your senses to the test,’ the posters tease. You’ll need them all.
On a warm Wednesday morning in June, the Life in the Dark exhibition space is a building site. ‘We need to wear these,’ says the museum’s press officer, handing me a high-visibility jacket. Some ceiling lights are on, but the windows have already been blacked out and the walls are painted dark, giving the dozens of workers inside an early chance to sympathise with the animals they’re doing all this for.
Our eyes adjust after a moment, before we’re joined by the exhibition’s project manager, Amy Wedderburn. She has worked on this for the better part of two years.
‘It begins in the familiar,’ she says, walking us through what visitors will experience, ‘so we’ll have specimen moths, foxes, badgers – stuff like that – here at the start. These are the nocturnal animals people know about and associate with the night-time in Britain.’
The lighting, cleverly created throughout by a designer who’ll use shadows as much as possible, will start a little more on the crepuscular side, before luring visitors in. There’ll also be a little stuffed fox to stroke, for the hell of it. I’d recommend doing so, for the night is long, and you might not be so keen to touch what’s to come.
Next up, a few sections introducing the senses. At any one time, more than half the world is in darkness, and all nocturnal creatures make up for the lack of natural light with some kind of special adaptation. If they didn’t, they’d not be able to find a mate or food, or evade predators or navigate their environment – and Darwin taught us what happens to species that fail to adapt.
Here, the interactive elements of the exhibition kick in. Never smelt the pheromones of a sloth? You can do that. Differentiated a gecko and a kakapo by their night-time calls? You will. And then…
‘And then they have the bat cave,’ Wedderburn says. Joining two major sections of the exhibition is a tunnel in which hundreds of fake bats are suspended, soundtracked by a loud recording from a real cave, while lights flit, making the bats look as if they’re moving.
On the day we visit, the hundreds of plywood creatures dangle forlornly like a mobile commissioned from Tim Burton, but a tech whizz in the corner is studiously programming the whole thing from her laptop. It’ll get there.
‘There’ll be subtle little fans in here as well, blowing tiny bits of air past you as if the bats are flying around your head,’ Wedderburn explains. ‘Hopefully it’ll be quite atmospheric.’
Every exhibition at the Natural History Museum requires a careful marriage of science, art and construction logistics, but this is more complicated than most, given the enormous amount of special effects, many of which are provided by external contractors.
The installation comes in phases, beginning with the basic build over about three weeks. Then come the tech and art, before scientists from all over the museum come down and oversee their beloved specimens going in.
One of the scientists involved this time is Professor Geoff Boxshall, a lead researcher in invertebrates and one of the world’s great authorities on copepod crustaceans. He looks a bit like Steve Martin, has served as secretary of the Zoological Society of London since 2011, wears sandals with his suit, and has worked at the museum for 43 years. He’s excellent.
‘The cave zone and the deep sea are the areas of Life in the Dark I’m involved in. I work on aquatic things – and most caves, when you get far enough in, have water in them. So you get lots of nice cave-adapted things,’ he says, when we meet in the conservation centre – a laboratory where specimens are cleaned, prepped, plumped and inspected before being shown to the public.
‘I worked in caves for 15 years [figuratively, I think] and we once found a whole new species of cave fish off India. It was just so cool. They were swimming around, getting on without any eyes. Vision absolutely dominates a human’s sensory input, so it’s fascinating, and that’s the whole narrative of this exhibition.’
One creature that Boxshall has contributed this time is a type of cave shrimp he discovered ‘literally underneath the rock of Gibraltar’. A few years ago he drove a quarter of a mile into the monolith, where there are caverns once used for ammunition storage. Sending cave divers in first – world-class nutters, some military trained, who swim through gaps so small they have to feed their oxygen tank through first, then hope they can follow – the group found pools filled with tiny, highly adapted animals.
‘Stop me if I’m boring you,’ he says, making a caving pun that I’m disappointed to realise is accidental. ‘But it’s fascinating. Now, look at this vampire squid.’
In a small jar before him, preserved in alcohol, a scary little squashed thing stares back at me. The deep-red creature is so-called because its webbed arms make it look like it’s wearing a cloak, rather than because of any predilection for drinking blood.
‘There is no light below the depth of 1,000m [3,281ft] in the sea, so this has a few different ways of creating its own. When it’s threatened, it wraps these arms over its head and emits light, because it’s covered in photophores, organs that can make it flash and disorientate a predator,’ he says. And if that doesn’t work? ‘If that doesn’t work, it can spew out a cloud of glow-in-the-dark mucus as a distraction.’
In the years since he joined the museum, fresh from finishing his PhD at the University of Leeds, Boxshall has seen it evolve gradually. ‘At that point, to be honest, they thought visitors were a nuisance. The people that worked in galleries were ex-military, and they were there for crowd control. That changed. The people working here now help people and offer information. It’s so much better.’
He now works in the Darwin Centre, the museum’s £78 million cocoon-shaped research wing that opened in 2009. In it are 2km of cabinets, 17 million entomology specimens and three million botany specimens. Between there and the old building is most of the collection, but not nearly all of it. A warehouse in south London houses the rest. (Of the Natural History Museum’s grand total of 80 million specimens, 61 million are zoological.)
It’s the best facility in the world, Boxshall insists, so he’s never seen reason to leave. ‘I haven’t ever really been tempted. I had job offers from Tokyo, La Jolla and Amsterdam all in the same year, but this is the pinnacle. You meet everybody in the field here; the museum has convening power in science. So why would I go anywhere else?’
It is a sentiment seemingly shared by all the many thousands of staff in the building: to a biologist, working in the Natural History Museum is like opening at Lord’s every day would be for a cricketer. After this, playing anywhere else would be a disappointment.
We have Sir Hans Sloane to thank for the Natural History Museum’s existence. Sloane – he of the Square, and by extension the Rangers, and curiously also the inventor of hot chocolate – was a society doctor who travelled the world collecting cultural and biological specimens. When he died in 1753, he bequeathed his 124,000-item collection to the government, who built the British Museum in order to show it off.
A century later, the new curator of the natural-history side of things, the naturalist Sir Richard Owen (coiner of the word ‘dinosaur’, among a lot of other things) insisted his department deserved its own museum.
The powers that be agreed, and soon Francis Fowke, the architect behind the Royal Albert Hall and much of the neighbouring V&A, won a competition to design the new five-acre museum on Exhibition Road.
When he died in 1905 from a burst blood vessel at the age of 42, a young Liverpudlian named Alfred Waterhouse – best known at that time for his Manchester buildings, including the town hall and Strangeways prison – took over, bringing his own bold style.
The result was the building we see today, an imposing mix of Gothic Revival and 12th-century Romanesque architecture, covered in thousands of pollution-hardy terracotta tiles. It not only satisfied Owens’ longing for the institution to have an ecclesiastical feel, allowing visitors to see the natural world as just as deserving of worship as a religious deity, but established Waterhouse as one of the most in-demand architects of the Victorian era.
It is said that three of Owens’ great wishes for the Natural History Museum were for it to be free to the public, for it to pay as much attention to its living specimens as the extinct ones, and to be a place not just for beautiful creatures, but for ugly and interesting ones too.
Well, they certainly haven’t let him down on that last one. Not in the ‘tank room’, anyway.
After innumerable corridors and metal stairs, Boxshall takes us to a heavy set of doors with ‘PLEASE KEEP CLOSED’ menacingly written across them. He then leaves, telling us we’re going into his favourite room.
It is instantly easy to see why: on the other side of the doors is a laboratory the size of a tennis court, lined with jars of all sizes, five deep in places, stuffed with creatures great and small, new and old, beautiful and.… well, not.
‘We call this building DC1, or the Spirit Building, and it’s where we keep all the animals preserved in liquid, normally alcohol,’ says Jon Ablett, a senior curator who specialises in molluscs, and therefore spends a lot of time in here. ‘This room in particular is for oversized things that can’t go elsewhere. It is vaguely ordered, in that we know where everything is.’
In one corner of the lab, two visiting scientists from America poke a dead shark meaningfully. Otherwise, it’s just us and a few thousand massive specimens, most of which are in jars, but some are too big so go in sealed tanks that double as tables. They’re sent in from everywhere. Anglers, Ablett says, sometimes like to send their prized catches, thinking the museum will be interested. It almost always isn’t.
Huge blue tubes hang from the ceiling, extracting fumes that would be poisonous if left to lurk. The tank room is available to the public for pre-booked guided tours, but also for individual research visits, if you have a good reason. Damien Hirst came here once, to learn how to preserve his sharks. The Queen has visited too – though not at the same time, and not to learn about preserving sharks.
Next we see Archie, a complete giant squid bathing in diluted formaldehyde, who dominates the middle of the floor. At 28ft, she is the largest wet specimen in the world, sent here around a decade ago by fishermen near the Falkland Islands. She arrived, frozen, by container ship in Hull, then came here to Ablett in a lorry.
He had no idea how best to preserve her, so wrote to all the world’s squid experts, and the result of that brainstorm is before us. They’d love to wheel her out for the public at some point, but she and her tank are so heavy they’d probably break the museum’s floor. Which would be messy.
‘I actually couldn’t find a tank big enough for Archie when we got her, so I rang Damien Hirst’s people and asked who did theirs. It’s the same company,’ Ablett says, with pride.
I go in for an intellectual question. What’s your favourite jar, Jon?
‘Oh, well,’ he says, spinning around and strolling over to an innocuous-looking cabinet full of fish specimens near the door. ‘All this was collected by Charles Darwin on his Beagle voyage [in the 1830s]. It doesn’t have his handwriting on it, but that’s because he was more into his pigeons.’
He sounds dismissive of them, but most of the fish in the cabinet have yellow labels, meaning they are ‘type species’: the first of a new species. The yellow-label system – which is followed by a description and a name – has been used, unchanged, by scientists and museums since Carl Linnaeus created it in the 18th century.
After playing with a beak from a colossal squid (one specimen that eludes the museum, since the most they’ve ever managed to find of the mysterious creature is ‘half a baby one’), Ablett introduces some of the bottled stars of Life in the Dark.
There are more illuminated squids, a deep-sea isopod he’s particularly keen on, and an olm – a blind salamander found in caves north of the Adriatic Sea that has no skin pigmentation, was once believed to be the offspring of cave dragons, and may well live for up to a century.
What’s that? I ask Ablett, pointing at a squashed shark in a jar.
‘I’m not sure, but Oli will know. Oli?’ We all turn to look at the door, where a small man in his 60s is making off with a stuffed salmon the size of a German shepherd. I hadn’t noticed him come in. He is Oliver Crimmen, who arrived at the museum 45 years ago at the age of 19, and now looks after arguably the most important fish collection in the world.
‘Sorry to interrupt you when you’re carrying a fish,’ Ablett adds. Crimmen inspects the jar from all angles, then tells us it’s a cookiecutter shark, which is probably in the exhibition since it’s luminous. ‘Not a lot of people associate luminescence with sharks, but this species can light up their bellies so they lose their silhouette to predators beneath them, who are looking up at the down-welling light from the surface. The sharks completely disappear. It’s very clever.’
As we carry on around the museum, the old and new coalesce. Many of the building’s biggest draws are still its oldest, such as its cases of mounted hummingbirds, some of which appeared in the Great Exhibition of 1851. ‘It is impossible to imagine anything so lovely as these little humming birds,’ wrote Queen Victoria in her diary at the time. The scale model of a blue whale, completed in 1937, is another popular one. Legend has it that staff hid an illicit alcohol still inside its mouth during the Second World War.
While the old part of the museum is just as enchantingly labyrinthine as you’d imagine – many staff never manage to fully map the place – it is still an institution at the cutting edge of science. Nowhere is this more the case than in the Imaging and Analysis Centre, run by Dr Alex Ball. Here, a specialist team analyses natural history samples using some of the world’s most advanced technology.
For instance, the museum owns two five-ton computed tomography (CT) scanners, one of which costed £1m, which enable scientists to look at the interior of specimens in precise detail without destroying them. Taking more than 3,000 X-rays over a 360-degree rotation, that information can then be analysed on a computer, or sent to a 3D printer to build an exact model.
They can do it for those hummingbirds, that luminous shark, or even moon rocks. As with the fish department, amateurs from all over the world frequently send Bell what they believe are bits of meteorite. After 20 years at the museum, Bell can usually spot a real one a mile off. ‘They are generally an odd bit of flint, so we throw them away,’ he says, without feeling.
‘We had people from Nasa come and work with us on samples brought back from the moon, and what we did with the CT convinced them to buy their own.’ He chuckles. ‘Then they didn’t know how to use it, so we had to send a researcher to Houston to teach them…’
Back in the exhibition space, we have reached the pièce de résistance. After groping, sniffing and shuffling their way through Life in the Dark, visitors will be thrown into the deep, dark sea, and experience a beautiful final installation. In a vast circular room, thousands of tiny lights dangle from the ceiling.
Each has been individually coded to perfectly replicate the night-time migration of a swarm of bioluminescent plankton. Imagine the world’s prettiest night sky, but moving with the ocean’s currents. Science, art and technology. It’s a happy marriage.
All of a sudden, we are back into the Hintze Hall, now thronging with locals, tourists and school groups. It is noon, and with the sun at its highest, the temple of nature is bathed in warm summer rays. As they do every day, pilgrims to the Natural History Museum look giddy with wonderment. How will they fare when the lights go out?