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Behind the scenes at the Museum

04 July 2007

Ever wondered what it is like to spend a day working behind the scenes at the Natural History Museum? Two lucky students found out.

Scientist Ollie Crimmen with a jar of preserved fish.

Scientist Ollie Crimmen with a jar of preserved fish.

Students Cete and Charis were chosen from the audience of one of the Museum's Nature Live events. They spent the day with Clare Valentine, Head of Zoology collections, and got to see some of the work a scientist might carry out.

Looking after 28 million specimens

Out of the 70 million specimens looked after by the Museum, the zoology collections include about 28 million specimens. This doesn't include the insects and arachnids!

Clare is head of a team of curators who take care of all of these specimens. They make sure they are looked after properly and that they are free from pests and fungus, which may destroy them.

They also make sure that people from around the world are able to use the specimens for research, either by helping those who can come into the Museum to work on the collections, or by sending material out on loan - rather like borrowing books from a library.

Flesh-eating beetles
Flesh-eating beetle

Flesh-eating beetle

Cete and Charis saw how animal bones are cleaned, labelled and added to the collections, a process that takes several weeks from start to finish.

The best way to remove flesh from small bones is to use the Museum's flesh-eating beetles. These beetles delicately remove all the traces of flesh without damaging any of the bone material, and they make a better job of it than people could do. You can see the beetles at work in the beetlecam link below.

Tank Room
Suckers on the tentacles of the giant squid Architeuthis dux

Suckers on the tentacles of the giant squid Architeuthis dux

Cete and Charis visited the Tank Room where lots of the Museum's large specimens are kept, such as the Museum's 8.62-metre-long giant squid.

X-ray room

In the X-ray room, curator Patrick Campbell showed the students how fish specimens are X-rayed. This helps researchers see the shape of the bones in the skeleton without having to cut the fish up.

Two-bottomed piglet

The mammal collection includes skins, skeletons and mounted (or stuffed) specimens. As you may expect in such a large collection there are some unusual specimens, such as a Victorian piglet with two bottoms - you can see a glimpse in the short video linked below!

Cete and Charis certainly got a varied taste of a day-in-the-life of a Museum scientist and you can get a snapshot of their day by watching the short video linked below.

Further Information