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A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

By Jack Ashby, on 24 January 2013

Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around:

  • London Archaeopteryx
  • The Emperor penguin egg from “The Worst Journey in the World”
  • The giant squid (but that’s too big to include)
  • Alfred Wallace’s butterflies
  • Some Joseph Banks specimens from Cook’s voyage
  • Blaschka glass models
  • Darwin’s finches
  • Yangtze river dolphin
  • Three month old thylacine pup taxidermy
  • Audobon’s Birds of America
  • A dodo? But everyone has one

I did quite well – everything was there except the dolphin and the thylacine, but I understand they’ll be rotating the objects so I live in hope.

In total there were 20 objects in the gallery, and another two outside the doors. You could read about each one on the touch screens or on your smart phone, and that was all very nice. How often museums have built some technology that relies on people’s smart phones then failed to provide wifi, or even a decent 3G signal. The NHM got a big tick on that front, with a dedicated wifi network with no log-on.

For sure, it’s a great development at the Museum, and altogether positive. Here’s the slightly critical bit… Treasures definitely includes some incredible objects, but the location and size of the little gallery didn’t give me the impression the Museum treasured the objects that much. I’m sure there was a lot of haggling between different NHM staff about what they each wanted to include, but I do think there was something missing – What I really wanted to see included among the historically important objects was some kind of reference to the very best thing in the NHM – the scientists and their work.

Natural history museums have to walk a fine line. Stay honest, but stay relevant. We are much, much, much more than just a load of old stuff. It’s tricky, as a lot of people want to see a load of old stuff, but we have to make sure that we remain useful to society and use our collections in interesting ways. The Natural History Museum certainly is useful to society – it’s a leading research institute doing real science that has real impact, but that doesn’t come across in the gallery.

Earlier this month the NHM released this list of top research stories from their scientists in 2012. These are really cool things. More cool is the possibility of long-beaked echidnas surviving in Australia – a story they released the following day. I missed seeing this particular specimen by three minutes at 2012’s Science Uncovered event, something I haven’t quite gotten over. While obviously this isn’t quite as ground-breaking as the discovery of the world’s first flying bird, inclusion of something like this would be intriguing to many, and give the message that science is happening there in that very building. Maybe as they rotate the exhibits they could include something along these lines.

For sure, the NHM has some truly world-changing historic objects (bits from Darwin, Wallace, Banks, Sloane), and they deserve their inclusion, but I would have liked to see something a bit more modern as well. I’d actually seen all 22 objects before (21 of them in public contexts as well as in professional circumstances behind the scenes). I’d have liked to have been surprised by something. However, as I said, they can’t include everything.

As a deserved counter-point, I suppose I’m not your average NHM visitor, (but I do know what people are missing), and it doesn’t surprise me that their visitors have selected Guy the gorilla as their favourite object in Treasures.
But if it were my exhibition I would be rather disappointed by that fact. As nice as Guy is to look at (who doesn’t love a huge stuffed ape?), he isn’t very interesting historically or scientifically. As a taxidermy celebrity zoo animal, he is an interesting example of what the NHM no longer collects. By selecting him, perhaps the visitors didn’t get the point that was being made – that Museums do hold genuinely special things. Guy, in my mind, is no treasure.

Perhaps this reads as overly harsh, as there are some amazing treasures in there, and Guy aside, I can see that they must have really struggled to get down to just 22 objects. Seeing a real Archaeopteryx specimen is a fantastic experience, and to think that Darwin/Wallace/Owen/Banks/Sloane themselves handled the thing you are looking at is a tangible and memorable way to interact with history. I loved all of that. All I’m saying is there could have been more about current research, which is what people should treasure in today’s Museum too.

One Response to “A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum”

  • 1
    Daniel wrote on 24 January 2013:

    These “treasures” are usually only considered as such many years later, once their significance has been realised, studied, documented, placed within history and shown to the public. In the context of this exhibition, current research is the potential “treasure” of tomorrow.

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