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Side Order: The hidden treasures of a London museum finally see the light

By Paige McClanahan,

It’s easy to get lost inside London’s sprawling 130-year-old Natural History Museum. In fact, it’s hard not to get lost, unless you really know where you’re going.

I stopped by the museum on a cloudy afternoon in January, my fourth visit in as many years. I’ve slowly gotten to know the imposing Romanesque building in Knightsbridge, with its dozens of rooms and 250,000 square feet of exhibit space. But I never get tired of inspecting the towering dinosaur skeletons, the long display cases full of glittering gemstones and the rows upon rows of taxidermied animals — even if I do get a little turned around among them.

But on this visit, there was something new to admire. Twenty-two somethings, in fact. In an epic feat of whittling down, the museum’s curators have put together a sort of greatest hits of the museum’s 70 million specimens. Selecting just 22 extraordinary objects, many of which have never before been shown to the public, the curators have created the Treasures Gallery, a permanent exhibit that opened in November. It makes for riveting viewing.

“We have these amazing things that were in storage behind the scenes,” Tate Greenhalgh, an exhibition developer at the museum, told me over the phone after my visit. With the Treasures Gallery, she said, “we really wanted to just showcase the museum — who we are, what we do and what’s really, really special in our collections.”

Special indeed. Among the items on display are one of the few remaining first editions of Charles Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”; a rare skeleton of a dodo, the large flightless bird that has been extinct since the 17th century; and a piece of a meteorite that plummeted from space into an English farmer’s back yard in 1795.

The process of choosing those 22 objects took more than two years of full-time work and involved consultations with experts from every corner of the museum.

“It was a treasure hunt — going through all those secret little doors and hidden rooms all over the museum where the collections are stored,” said Greenhalgh. In choosing which objects made the final cut, she was looking primarily for specimens that had made a meaningful contribution to science. But she was also looking for pieces that held social, cultural or historical significance; she wanted each of the objects to tell a story.

And those stories are precisely what make the Treasures Gallery, which is inside a single modestly sized room just off the museum’s central hall, such an engrossing exhibit to visit. As I wandered through the gallery, I explored the treasures in detail, using the touch-screen displays that accompany each object. And I was able to get right up close to the items, which are protected by just a thin layer of glass.

One of the highlights is a fossil of the ancient animal Archaeopteryx, a flying dinosaur that, fortunately for science, happened to land (and die) on the sandy floor of a shallow lagoon about 147 million years ago. The animal’s fossil caused some confusion when it was discovered in Germany in 1861: It clearly had feathers like a bird, but it also had teeth and a bony tail, like a lizard. Years later, scientists used this fossil to establish a definitive link between birds and dinosaurs.

“It’s an iconic specimen,” said Greenhalgh, adding that Archaeopteryx is her favorite of all the treasures in the gallery. “To be able to put that on display to the public for the first time permanently — so you can see every detail — it’s just so exciting.”

And then there’s my own favorite: the skull of a Barbary lion, a long-maned species that used to roam the deserts of North Africa but has been extinct in the wild for nearly 100 years. This particular skull has a royal pedigree: In 1937, it was unearthed by construction workers who were digging up the old moat of the Tower of London. Seventy years later, carbon dating pinned down the lion’s lifetime to sometime between 1280 and 1385. Back then, the lion — an essential symbol of English royalty — would have been the highlight of the king’s personal zoo, which was housed inside the Tower for more than 600 years.

Bird lovers will enjoy John James Audubon’s prized “Birds of America,” a 435-plate tome published between 1827 and 1838 that is widely considered one of the world’s finest books on the avian species. Audubon’s brilliantly colored illustrations, which fill pages more than three feet high, depict birds at their true size and in natural poses. The Treasures Gallery features just one illustration at a time, rotating the plates each month to protect the paper from the damaging effects of light.

Taken together, the 22 treasures add up to a fascinating — if somewhat scattershot — education in science, human history and the scope of human endeavor.

And there’s an added bonus, which the brochure doesn’t mention: The single-room Treasures Gallery is one part of the Natural History Museum where you definitely won’t get lost.

details

Natural History Museum

Cromwell Road

London

011-44-20-7942-5000

www.nhm.ac.uk

Open daily except Dec. 24-26,

10 a.m. to 5:50 p.m., with final admission at 5:30 p.m. Free.

McClanahan is a writer based in Oxford, England.

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