Revisiting the Natural History Museum

I remain in awe of the museums in London. I specifically chose Edinburgh to study Science Communication because of the great culture of SciComm in this city, and I am delighted overall to be living here. But I can’t help but visit London every now and again because there is something special there in terms of the museum culture. There’s a legacy of collection and curation in those halls that isn’t quite matched by the museums in Edinburgh (as much as I ADORE National Museum of Scotland). And it certainly helps that museums are free in the United Kingdom as a whole.

On this trip to London, which I took to go see a musical, I popped into the Natural History Museum for a second visit after going for the first time in January. I almost didn’t make the trip, because I thought I had seen just about everything in the museum before. I was wrong. Not only had I missed an entire wing of the museum devoted to collection, curation, and classification of insect specimens (which I believe will be getting its own post in a few weeks), I had also missed a smaller gallery called Images of Nature. For a science-art enthusiast like me, I was flabbergasted I hadn’t seen it the first time.

It’s a small wing, but an important one. Scientists have been using imagery to study the natural world for hundreds of years, and for the same amount of time (possibly even longer) artists have taken inspiration from the natural world. No museum of natural history would be complete without a collection of natural science illustrations. The Natural History Museum itself has about 500,000 illustrations in their collection, and just a few hundred of these are on display in the gallery.

I was astounded by the breadth of even this small selection. Classic examples of traditional-method illustrations are on display alongside modern works, and even electron microscope scans.

Drawing of a brown rhinocerous
Black rhinoceros, Diceros bicornis illustration. William Cornwallis Harris (1807-1848).

By far the most stunning work in the collection for me is an incredibly detailed scan of a fly by Giles Revel. In fact, the image is composed of hundreds of scans that are carefully merged and enhanced. I have dabbled myself in focus-stacking photography, which is a process by which multiple images with focus on different sections are stacked together and masked to maximise areas shown in focus. This takes it to a whole new level. The final image is displayed at a large scale, around four or five feet tall by my estimation.

White image of a fly in high level of detail on a black background
Fly, Calliphora vomitoria. Giles Revell (1965 – ). 2002. Copyright Giles Revell.

In addition to showcasing these illustrations and photographs, the museum even has its own imaging lab, the Sackler Biodiversity Imaging Lab. The facility houses sophisticated microscopy technology so more images can be captured to aid the museum’s research.

The first time I visited London, I left there thinking the Victoria and Albert was my favorite museum. And it certainly is incredible (it’s another place that may need its own post here), but I think this trip to Natural History has changed my mind. I am overjoyed and inspired by the commitment to science and art that this institution demonstrates, not just in its housing of scientific images and imaging equipment, but also in its careful curation of visual exhibitions for its patrons. I had been feeling a bit uninspired in the few weeks before my trip, but now my energy has been renewed! I will certainly have to visit the Natural History Museum again before I leave the UK. Of course… this may also be because I still have money left on my Oyster travel card… At any rate, I’ll be back.

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