Titans of Biology: Archie the Giant Squid and Darwin’s Specimens, Part 1

You can also hear about this visit on Odd Things I've Seen: The Podcast.

July 8, 2019 — The Natural History Museum in London is a soaring, sprawling cathedral dedicated to the worship of nature. Its elaborate exterior is gargoyled and chimera’d with stone pterodactyls and stone wolves, stone saber-toothed tigers and stone fish and all manners of species living, extinct, and never-existing. Inside, its crucifixes are whale bones and dinosaur skeletons. The disciples and apostles bas-relief’d on its walls are monkeys and birds. Its altars are glass-topped exhibit cases and fossilized tree stumps. Its saints are scientists and explorers. Awe-inspiring holy relics fill its halls and wings.

This church metaphor is not mine, not mine at all. The idea of a consecrated space for the study and exhibit of the natural world is exactly what Sir Richard Owen, the visionary natural scientist behind the museum—and the man who named dinosaurs—wanted it to be.

And I was a mere supplicant in its halls.

I was standing in front of the skeleton of a giant Turbinaria coral, which looked like a fossilized piece of Food-of-the-Gods-sized cauliflower. It was as big as an easy chair and fascinating for half a dozen reasons, but my back was to it. I was facing the main hall, Hintze Hall, where thousands of people streamed by under the skeleton of a blue whale that hung over them with its bony fins outstretched like the ascending form of Jesus.

With me were three friends, a mother with a ten-year-old child, and two young women. “Is this all there is?” I wondered to myself. Out of the thousands of people I see flooding past, only eight of us wanted to enter the inner sanctum of this nature-church, to go behind the scenes into its Holy of Holies?

We were getting special access to some of the most fascinating pieces in the entire museum, pieces that weren’t on display in the museum proper. But we weren’t special. Or proper. We’d just booked one of the hourly time slots for the behind-the-scenes Spirit Collection tour like anybody could have done, but which most apparently didn’t.

We arrived ten minutes before the tour started, so I immediately squeaked off by myself. I happened to be under contract to write a book about cursed objects, and the museum has a doozy. I hoofed it past the white marble statue of Saint Charles Darwin, who was seated on his throne overlooking the chaos, bemused and satisfied. I winged it to the second floor to the mineralogy gallery, ignoring all the tantalizing taxidermy on the way and checking my phone every thirty seconds to make sure I wasn’t missing the start of the tour. Even an infamous cursed jewel wasn’t worth missing that tour for.

Inside the mineralogy gallery, which hasn’t changed much since the 19th century, the room glittered with rocks of all shapes, sizes, and hues pulled from deep inside the earth. But I kept my head down and headed to a small room in the back called the Vault, where the extremely rare stones are displayed. Like the cursed Delhi Purple Sapphire.

Despite its name, the Delhi Purple Sapphire is an amethyst. The oval stone is over an inch long and under an inch wide and is set in a plain silver setting. According to the lore, it was stolen from a temple in India in 1857—from the eye socket of an idol, no doubt—and brought to England, where it caused owner after owner ill health and financial ruin and death until ending up at the Natural History Museum.

I circuited the small Vault three times before I realized why I couldn’t find the gem. There, between the yellow Hope Chrysoberyl (named for a previous owner who also owned the most infamous cursed gem in the world, the Hope Diamond) and the orange Imperial Topaz of Brazil, was a small white card that read, “This specimen has been removed for photography and will be returned shortly.”

Seventy-five years in the collection of the Natural History Museum, and I’d chosen the exact wrong second to see this cursed gem.

I would’ve been bummed, but it really only meant that I’d killed the appropriate amount of time before the tour of the real treasures I was at the museum to see. I made it back to the Turbinaria with two minutes to spare.

I don’t remember the tour guide’s name, just his accent, so for the purposes of this article I’m going to give him the very British name of Clive. Clive led us Moses-through-the-Red-Sea into the crowd until we ended up at the doors of the Darwin Centre.

The Darwin Centre is an eight-story Mothra cocoon. Again, the metaphor is not mine. The Cocoon is a tall, white, ovoid building-within-a-building that holds millions of specimens on public display, as well as various laboratories where scientists themselves become exhibits as they do their microscope thing in full view of visitors.

But we weren’t going into the Cocoon, we were going around it. Behind it. Behind that scene. Clive led us down a hallway lined with offices that were small and messy and empty of people. He explained their purposes as we walked past. One was used for sample testing. Another to deflesh skeletons. He pointed to a live feed on a monitor that showed the inside of what looked like a chest freezer, except instead of chilling Eggo waffles, it held a dead baby crocodile half-buried in black Dermestid beetles that were consuming it down to gleaming clean bone. Any other time, this would have been a highlight for me, but I barely gave the screen a glance. In fact, I would have started to get impatient at this point had not all my emotional receptors been completely distracted with burgeoning anticipation.

From there, Clive took us through an airlock of sorts to rows and rows of boring gray lockers. They were large and set extremely close together. He showed us down one row where some of the lockers were open, their contents protected behind glass panels. On the shelves were specimens in glass tubes full of brown water—bats, whale fetuses, less identifiable things. Clive pointed at a hairy rodent-like creature smashed in a glass tube of amber liquid and mentioned that it was the oldest example of preservation in the whole museum.

I started taking pictures of the smooshed thing, trying to find a way to lessen the glare on the curved glass tube while simultaneously blocking the reflection on the flat pane of glass in front of it. I got so involved that I didn’t realize that the group had moved on to the next room.

“Hey, man,” one of my friends whisper-shouted to me, pulling me away from the dead mammal. “He’s in here.”