The Natural History Museum in London is the custodian of one of the most scientifically-significant natural history collections in the world. Within its treasured building, the Museum looks after 80 million specimens among a wealth of objects that help scientists understand our planet.
In this unique exhibition, Singapore’s own ArtScience Museum and the Natural History Museum carefully handpicked over 200 star items for their historical and scientific importance. Each original object fired the imaginations of remarkable people and helped shape scientific theory, telling a story of curiosity and discovery. Here’s a small selection of the many amazing specimens on display in Southeast Asia for the first time!
1. Barbary lion skull from the Tower of London. Over 600 years ago, this majestic lion – formerly found in northern Africa and now extinct in the wild – lived at the Tower of London, the royal palace by the River Thames. It must have made an awe-inspiring spectacle as part of a group of exotic animals kept there. Workers dug up the skull in the Tower moat in 1937, and DNA analysis identified its species. It’s quite interesting to think that its keepers simply threw him into the castle moat (presumably) after he died!
2. Mortality plate of giant trilobites. Trilobites thrived in the shallow oceans in the Cambrian period, around 487 million years ago. Scientists believe that this group of giants suffocated during a mass mating event, which offers a fascinating insight into how they behaved. It may sound unusual to pile up together to spawn, but this is exactly the same behavior exhibited today by their living relative, the horseshoe crab, found locally at places like Changi Beach, Chek Jawa, Kranji, Mandai, and Sentosa.
3. Glass octopus. Exceptionally intricate, this detailed glass model is part of a set made for the NHM in the second half of the 19th century by father and son model makers Leopold and Rudolf Blaschka. Though beautiful these models were also of enormous scientific value. Real specimens lose their colour when preserved in alcohol, but by accurately documenting the appearance of a live octopus in their model, the Blaschkas enabled scientists to study the species’ colouration.
4. Baroyonyx claw. Amateur fossil hunter William Walker found this enormous dinosaur claw in a quarry in southern England in 1983. Further excavation by NHM experts unearthed more bones, and eventually a new species. This dinosaur used its claws to spear fish and rip open carcasses. Scientists named it Baryonyx walkeri in honour of Walker and it remains one of Britain’s most complete examples of a carnivorous dinosaur that walked on two legs.
5. Portrait of Gustavus Brander (1720-1787) by artists Nathaniel Dance (1735-1811) and actual Eocene fossil shell seen in painting. Gustavus Brander was a curator at the British Museum who was passionate about natural history, and collected fossils in the cliffs near his country house in Christchurch along England’s south coast. He is seen in this 1770 portrait holding a large fossil shell, which he realised was not a native European species, but might have come from southern latitudes or the deep sea. He had presented this shell from his personal collection to the British Museum in 1765, whose holdings were later transferred to the NHM. Next to the painting is the very same Hippochrenes amplus shell.
6. Hand axe. In 1859, archaeologist John Evans and geologist Joseph Prestwich found this hand axe deep in a gravel pit alongside bones of a mammoth and a rhinoceros species known to have become extinct thousands of years earlier. This axe dating to 400,000 years ago was evidence that humans have been around for much longer than previously believed.
7. Ichthyosaur collected by Mary Anning. This fossil of a young ichthyosaurus communis from 200 million years ago was collected by the famous Mary Anning herself, some years after she discovered this species. The ichthyosaur was a marine reptile that had a streamlined body like that of a modern dolphin.
8. Letter from Alfred Russel Wallace. This letter that Wallace wrote to naturalist Henry Walter Bates, dated 28 December 1845, stated, “Many eminent writers give great support to the theory of the progressive development of species in animals and plants.” It reveals that Wallace was exploring evolutionary theory some 14 years before Darwin published On the Origin of Species. In 1854, Wallace first arrived in Singapore and spent a total of 228 days over several visits, collecting specimens, listening to wild tigers at Bukit Timah, making detailed observations that may today still be found at the Lee Kong Chian Natural History Museum, and even trying durian like any self-respecting ethnographer should!
9. James and the Giant Theory. Charles Darwin found this young giant tortoise walking around his cabin and kept it as a pet, naming it James. Darwin’s voyage on the HMS Beagle had reached the Galápagos Islands, and he noted that these Chelonoidis nigra tortoises were related to those on the Ecuador mainland despite being 1,000 kilometers away. He also noticed that different islands on the archipelago had tortoises with differently-shaped shells. Pictured next to it from around 1858 – 1859 is a handwritten draft manuscript of Darwin’s book On the Origin of the Species, one of the most influential books ever written describing his Theory of Evolution which he refined for 20 years.
10. Shark teeth collected by Sir Richard Owen. By comparing fossils to living creatures with clear similarities in their anatomy, Owen realized that fossils and living animals were related. Unfortunately our curators made a little boo boo: In this exhibit, the Otodus tooth from Arabia is in fact on the right, and the megalodon tooth from the USA is on the left!
Hope you enjoyed this list of our favorite items. Do visit this amazing exhibition!