National treasures

On November 5 1947, a traumatised young gorilla reached London Zoo via Paris from French Cameroon where he had been captured as a baby. Clutching a hot-water bottle and terrified by the Guy Fawkes Night fireworks, the infant – immediately named Guy – would not settle until a keeper slept alongside him. Over the following 30 years, Guy became one of the zoo’s best loved animals, rivalled only by Chi Chi the panda in the public’s affection, and many mourned his death from a heart attack during a dental operation in 1978.

From next week, Guy the Gorilla will be back on show, his stuffed body greeting visitors to the Natural History Museum’s new Treasures gallery. Guy’s starring role in an exhibition of 22 highlights of the world’s finest natural history collection shows how broadly a museum today defines a “treasure”. The objects, revealed for the first time to FT Weekend Magazine readers, were chosen through a collaborative process involving about 50 staff, says Tate Greenhalgh, the museum’s exhibition developer.

“The criteria we used to define ‘treasures’ were cultural, social, scientific and historical significance,” she says. “It was a real treasure hunt going round the museum looking for specimens – and finding secret doors leading to secret places. Some of the objects are still being researched intensively today. Others are here for their historical legacy.”

The treasures are displayed in a beautiful space at the heart of Alfred Waterhouse’s great neo-Romanesque building in South Kensington. Visitors will walk past the diplodocus dinosaur skeleton in the central hall and up the grand staircase to a long first-floor gallery – the first significant new installation since the Darwin Centre opened in 2009. Its Victorian glass windows have colourful floral and geometric patterns, while the inlaid ceiling is a masterpiece of contemporary art, created three years ago by Tania Kovats to celebrate the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth. A thin section of a 200-year-old oak felled in Wiltshire, including roots, trunk and branches, represents a Darwinian tree of life 17m long.

But when it comes to selecting the objects themselves, the museum has not allowed aesthetics to trump historical interest or scientific significance. Shades of brown and grey dominate the treasures. Nor was financial value a consideration – though some of the exhibits would cost many millions to buy on the open market. So none of the priceless gems and colourful crystals held in the museum’s mineralogy collection gains a place in the gallery, because none was deemed to have sufficient significance beyond value and beauty. Instead, minerals are represented by two extraterrestrial specimens: the earliest meteorite seen to land in Britain, which hit a field near Wold Cottage, East Yorkshire, in 1795; and a small piece of moon rock from the last Apollo mission, which President Nixon presented in 1973. But there is no mistaking the excitement of the museum scientists as they enthuse about their chosen specimens.

“Wold Cottage was hugely important in convincing scientists that rocks could really come from space,” says meteorite curator Caroline Smith. “Until the end of the 18th century, people thought they were blasted into the air from volcanoes and fell back to Earth. It was so exciting to help choose such treasures to represent the museum.”

Skull of a Barbary lion that lived in the Tower of London’s royal menagerie in the 14th century. This subspecies, from North Africa’s mountains, is now extinct

Birds feature prominently among the exhibits although, as with the minerals, the museum has avoided showy specimens, such as birds of paradise, in favour of avian history. No fewer than three exhibits are icons of extinction through human over-exploitation. The great auk, a seabird that once thrived in vast colonies across the North Atlantic, was exterminated in the 19th century. Similar fates had befallen the dodo 200 years earlier on Mauritius and the giant moa 500 years before in New Zealand.

Another avian exhibit, an emperor penguin’s egg, tells a tale that ended in human tragedy. It was one of three eggs collected in the middle of the Antarctic winter, the birds’ laying season, during Captain Robert Scott’s ill-fated last expedition to the South Pole. Three explorers braved several weeks of the most severe cold known to man, walking 100km in darkness to the penguin’s only known breeding colony and then back to base. Only one of them, Apsley Cherry-Garrard, made it home to Britain: the others died with Scott on his fatal final race to the pole.

The story of Darwin’s pigeons is happier. Charles Darwin bred pigeons for many years at his home, Down House in Kent, as an experiment in artificial selection, to provide evidence for his theory of evolution through natural selection. When the project was over, he donated 120 pigeon specimens to the Natural History Museum.

The most beautiful avian object is a bound first edition of John James Audubon’s hand-coloured prints The Birds of America, published between 1827 and 1838. The book’s 435 large-scale depictions of birds in their natural habitats were a lively contrast to the more static tradition of ornithological illustration that had prevailed previously.

The other book chosen as a treasure is, not surprisingly, a first edition of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species – without doubt the most important volume in the history of biology. It sold out on the day of publication, November 24 1859, and Darwin brought out five more updated editions and authorised 11 translations before his death in 1882. Today the museum’s library holds 478 editions of On the Origin of Species in 38 languages.

The exhibition also recognises Alfred Russel Wallace, who came up with a theory of evolution through natural selection at the same time as Darwin but was somewhat eclipsed by the latter’s fame (and superior writing skills). Wallace is represented by some of the insects he collected in southeast Asia during the 1850s, still pinned out as he arranged them in a series of drawers. Such collections enabled Wallace to understand how evolution determined the geographical distribution of species.

Fossils feature prominently among the treasures. The most valuable is archaeopteryx, discovered in Germany in 1861 at the height of the debate about evolution. Its features – including birdlike feathers and dinosaur-like teeth, claws and bony tail – soon led to suggestions that it was an evolutionary link between dinosaurs and birds. Subsequent studies confirmed that archaeopteryx was a proto-bird, living 147 million years ago. The skull is preserved well enough in the fossil for museum scientists to have made a 3D model of its brain and show that it had the sight, balance and co-ordination required for flight.

Dodo skeleton, a composite put together after the bird became extinct in the 17th century

“For famous fossils like archaeopteryx we have normally put replicas on display in the past, because the originals are used so heavily for research,” says Mike Dixon, director of the Natural History Museum. “This time we will show the originals as far as possible. The cabinets have been designed so that specimens can easily be removed for research purposes.

“We are a serious scientific research organisation and everything we do is underpinned by good science,” he adds. “Too often the museum is perceived only as a place of education and information.”

The demands of research mean that hominid fossils are represented by a pair of skulls, which will be exhibited alternately in the gallery. “They are two of the first human fossils to enter the museum’s collection but are still actively studied,” says Chris Stringer, head of human origins research. “By rotating their display we can tell scientists when each one will be available.”

First on show is a Neanderthal skull found in a Gibraltar quarry in 1848. Its significance was only recognised after the discovery of a similar skull eight years later in Germany’s Neander Valley. “Our specimen missed the boat in terms of recognition as a new human species but it is an excellent example of an adult Neanderthal skull with heavy brow ridge and a very big nose dominating the centre of the face,” Stringer says.

“This is an important specimen for me personally because it was the beginning of my study of human fossils,” adds Stringer, who has worked at the museum since 1973 and is Britain’s best known palaeoanthropologist. He was a leading author of the “out of Africa” model of human development, which holds that modern humans descended from ancestors who left Africa 70,000 to 100,000 years ago; Neanderthals and other extinct species evolved from earlier waves of hominid movement out of Africa.

Gibraltar was one of the last refuges for Neanderthals before their extinction 30,000 to 35,000 years ago, wiped out by modern humans, climate change or both. Stringer does not know how old the museum’s skull is but he hopes that new dating technology will soon provide an accurate age.

When the Neanderthal skull is removed for more research, it will be replaced by an older skull – the first significant human fossil found in Africa. It was discovered in a Zambian mine in 1921 and belongs to Homo heidelbergensis, a species that lived between 500,000 and 200,000 years ago and is believed to be a direct ancestor of modern humans.

Several museum staff have a strong personal affinity for the objects they proposed as treasures. For instance, mammal curator Richard Sabin remembers vividly his encounter with Guy on a school trip to London Zoo from Birmingham in 1976. Although Guy was known as a generally gentle giant, his temper could flare – as Richard and his schoolmates discovered when they banged on the window of his enclosure and 240kg of western lowland gorilla launched towards them.

“The next time I saw Guy was in 1992 when I started working for the museum,” Sabin says. “He was then a preserved taxidermy specimen but had already contributed a great deal to science through an extensive autopsy after his death. Zoologists learnt as much what not to do to an animal in captivity as what to do.”

The autopsy showed that Guy was seriously obese, a result of overeating the wrong foods. His heart disease might also have been related to the stress, loneliness and boredom he suffered from being for many years the only member of his species in the zoo. Today, zoos make far more effort not only to feed their animals correctly – and prevent feeding by well-meaning visitors – but also to give them enriched environments and social interactions closer to life in the wild.

While Guy is one of the museum’s most recent acquisitions, an engraved nautilus shell by the 17th-century Dutch artist Johannes Belkien is one of the oldest. It was in the great collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753) whose 40,000 objects formed the original core of the British Museum, from which the Natural History Museum split in the 19th century.

Summing up the philosophy behind the show, Greenhalgh says: “The objects selected for display have each stimulated people’s imaginations in a major way. Some, such as On the Origin of Species, changed how we understand the world; others, such as Guy the gorilla, captured people’s hearts or, like Sloane’s nautilus shell, had pivotal roles in the history of the museum.”

Guy the gorilla, London Zoo’s beloved but unhappy ape, is back before the public

Treasures is the first stage in what Dixon says will be “a substantial refurbishment of the galleries in the Waterhouse building over the next decade”. The next step will be to renovate the whole Central Hall – both upper balconies and downstairs bays – with entirely new displays, better lighting and more sympathetic use of the building’s original terracotta mouldings and other Victorian features.

An important motivation for the work is the apparently inexorable rise in visitor numbers, from 3 million in 2004 to 4.6 million in 2011. Attendance is expected to reach another record this year. As a result, queues and crowding are occurring more frequently. “Our biggest challenge is that the museum sometimes struggles to keep up with the 25,000 people we get on our busiest days, when there are queue lengths that no one would find acceptable,” Dixon concedes.

“Currently just 40 per cent of the museum’s footprint is open to the public, so over the next decade we want to open more floor space and improve circulation. We want people to circulate more vertically around the museum and not just stay on the ground floor.”

The new gallery will give people a powerful incentive to move upstairs. Treasures is a remarkable testimony to changing human attitudes to the natural world, from cruelty and slaughter to splendid scholarship. Today, for instance, no reputable zoo would dream of commissioning the capture of a baby gorilla in the wild for its collection – but 65 years after Guy reached London, he remains a treasure of natural history.

Clive Cookson is the FT’s Science Editor. The Treasures Cadogan gallery opens on November 30. Admission is free

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.