Showtime: London

A museum’s treasury of natural selections


Washington Post News Service

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 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 now there is something new to admire. 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 makes for riveting viewing.

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 Tate Greenhalgh, an exhibition developer at the museum. 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.

One of the highlights is a fossil of the ancient animal Archaeopteryx, a flying dinosaur that 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.

And then there’s my own favorite: the skull of a Barbary lion, which 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 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.

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

•  Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London; 011-44-20-7942-5000; Open daily except Dec. 24-26, 10 a.m. to 5:50 p.m. Free.

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