Weirdly wonderful: redisplaying cabinets of curiosities

16 March 2017

Resin deer lungs, a warthog and shells from HMS Endeavour are just a few of the curious specimens to be explored in the new Hintze Hall.

Efstratia Verveniotou, Senior Conservator at the Museum, offers a sneak peek inside the displays. 

The first-floor balcony of Hintze Hall hosts five carefully refurbished historic cases that date to the earliest days of the Museum.

Before the prevalence of national museums as we know them today, which cover a broad range of topics, cabinets of curiosities were collections displayed at home. They told stories about the wonders and oddities of the natural world.

'The nineteenth century was a time of great invention and development across scientific learning, collecting and techniques for conservation and display,' says Efstratia.

'A new display will pay homage to those early innovators and an age of exploration that has left us with both a wonderful and challenging legacy.'

In this spirit, specimens chosen for display in Hintze Hall will weave a range of important stories from an era of discovery and exploration.

A peek inside

The newly refurbished displays will spotlight specimens and objects that tell the stories of the people whose work and ideas have shaped the Museum, its collections and the foundations of its scientific research.

Efstratia says, 'There will be a mix of items related to famous scientists, explorers and perhaps lesser-known figures like Mary Anning, and Museum staff and scientists who have really made some momentous contributions behind the scenes.'

Shells from HMS Endeavour

A collection of delicate shells collected by Sir Joseph Banks on the HMS Endeavour expedition (1769-1771) will be highlighted in the first case, dedicated to explorers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Senior Conservator Efstratia Verveniotou safeguards the original Prussian-blue paper from the shell collection of Sir Joseph Banks

Senior Conservator Efstratia Verveniotou safeguards the original Prussian-blue paper from the shell collection of Sir Joseph Banks

 

Conservators made an exact copy of the original hand-painted, Prussian-blue paper lining and gently placed it over the original to protect both the shells and fragile paper.

Invented in the early eighteenth century, Prussian blue was the first purely synthetic pigment. Chosen by Banks to line the shell drawer, the vivid colour provides a striking background for the delicate natural tones of shells - but was at risk of fading with prolonged exposure to light. 

A pterosaur fossil discovered by Mary Anning

Another case will focus on collectors who have made important contributions to the Museum's collections. Among the chosen specimens is a fossilised pterosaur Dimorphodon macronyx, discovered by Mary Anning in 1828.  

Mary Anning (1799-1847) was a Victorian collector who became known around the world for the important finds she made in Jurassic marine fossil beds at Lyme Regis in Dorset. This is a holotype specimen, meaning it was the first of its species to be described by science.

Resin lungs from a fallow deer

One case will be dedicated to the historic thinkers who had a hand in developing the Museum's core scientific principles and practices. A pair of resin fallow deer lungs provides an early example of pioneering preservation work.

Senior Conservator Efstratia Verveniotou carefully cleans the fallow deer lungs

Senior Conservator Efstratia Verveniotou carefully cleans the fallow deer lungs using an angled brush and micro-swabs

 

'This amazing specimen allowed scientists to study the structure of the animal's lungs,' Efstratia explains.

'The lungs themselves were filled with a resin, which was allowed to harden before the lung tissue was dissolved to reveal the internal lung structure.'

The lungs posed a significant challenge for conservation. In what seemed like completing a complex 3D puzzle, Efstratia painstakingly reattached broken pieces before carefully cleaning the intricate specimen with an angled brush and tiny swabs.

How to visit

See the five historic cases on the south balcony of Hintze Hall. Plan your visit.

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