Natural History Museum: Butterflies

2009-09-12

On Friday popped into the Natural History Museum and went to the Butterfly Jungle. I’m a member, and entry to the for-money exhibitions is free (already paid for). It makes me feel terribly middle class.

Before entering into the “jungle” (it’s a temporary hut made of out polytunnel) I thought we could go see the insect gallery so we could learn something about butterflies before seeing them. Well, there is no insect gallery, there is the creepy crawlies room. Where’s the long room full of display cabinets crammed with dead insects pinned to neatly labelled pieces of cardboard? Needless to say the creepy crawly room sucks.

So we sort of wandered about at random. Hey, did you know the toilets have bacteria zapping UV on the hand dryers. Cool. But no interpretation. Not Cool.

Tania Kovat’s TREE is very good. It’s a slice of a 200 year old oak set into plaster panels in the ceiling; the pieces are arranged more or less how they would have been on the tree, in other words: in the shape of a tree. I find the connexion to Darwin a bit lame. The inspiration is Darwin’s now famous “I think” cladogram from his Transmutation Notebook B (ain’t the Darwin online project great?). The cladogram, you know, looks like a tree. And so does Tania’s TREE. Cunning. TREE is displayed in a rather nice gallery at the top of the splendid staircase in the Central Hall. Behind the statue of Darwin, and between the statues of Hooker and Owen. A holy place.

In the same gallery is Ida, apparently the world’s most complete fossil primate specimen. She’s a beautiful little bush-baby-like creature, Darwinius masillae. She lived 47 million years ago. Of course, I know the vast majority of species (well over 99%) become extinct, so it is, statistically speaking, unlikely that Ida is our ancestor. Nonetheless it is difficult to dispel the romantic notion that Ida could be our ancestor. Certainly she will have shared a lot in common, looks, behaviour, social grouping, with our actual ancestors. Ida’s cabinet featured something that I think the NHM should have a lot lot more of. A cladogram.

After wandering past the primate gallery (now quite aging) and the Sequoiadendron giganteum we found the entrance to the Minerals collection. I didn’t actually know the NHM did rocks. And this is awesome. A big gallery full of oak cabinets (original 1881!), stuffed full of… rocks! We didn’t want to spend much time here (we were getting hungry), but I thought it would be interesting to see what the NHM had to say about the alexandrite effect and birefringence. It was a simple pleasure to use the alphabetic mineral index to find the cabinet displaying alexandrite.

Alexandrite appears to be different colours under different lighting conditions. One colour under natural sunlight, and a different colour under incandescent light. I was slightly disappointed to find that cabinet didn’t have a button to press to illuminate the alexandrite with different lights. Oh well. I suppose every mineral is special in its own way, so I can’t expect every one to have a cute interpretation. Of some local interest to me was spotting the enormous Blue John specimen, about as big as my chest. Blue John is a fluorite variety local to Castleton. Of course, I’ve seen far better examples in the shops in Castleton.

I knew quartz was a birefringent material, so I popped over to the quartz cabinet. No birefringence here. As we were ambling out of the room, I luckily found a fine quartz crystal ball on display in the jewellery cabinet next to a rather fine jade box on loan from the Queen. Gazing into the crystal ball gives the birefringent double image effect (this is deliberate, there is an interpretation sign to explain the effect). Nice, but I think Wikipedia’s image is more impressive.

After lunch and a quick trip round the wildlife garden (impressive use of a small urban space, and I expect it to keep improving; didn’t see the foxes though) we did eventually make it to the Butterfly Jungle.

Which I thought was a bit disappointing. However, there’s something intrinsically delightful about having lots of butterflies flapping about, and it hard not to enjoy that rather pleasant experience. And they are pretty to look at. As for science though, there was precious little to be found (not none, but not a great deal). It wasn’t all butterflies, there was an amusing collection of slightly exotic creaturees in glass cages. Giant african millipede, death’s head cockroach, Charlie the Iguana iguana (who I last saw in the Darwin exhibition!); that sort of thing. And a kiddies playground. Which looked quite good, but no use to me.

The Natural History Museum is such a large museum and with so much on display, I find that it’s impossible to do anything but see a small sample of it in any of visit. I’ve been three times recently and I’ve still only seen a small fraction of what it has to offer. There are still things to discover in the Central Hall: I was pleased to see a Glyptodon that I had missed on my previous visits.

I did learn one thing in the Butterfly Jungle. Butterflies taste with their feet.

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2 Responses to “Natural History Museum: Butterflies”


  1. When I last visited I found it lacked seats (well very many) so that you had to stand up and look at everything. Fine for 10 minutes or so but a surprising number of people (I included) find it very painful to stand still for long periods of time. I found it was total agony after about half an hour and couldn’t bear it.

    Some art galleries get this right, with places to sit and really look at paintings for long periods.

    • drj11 Says:

      Yeah. There’s definitely not enough seats. There’s one in the TREE room (of the class art gallery style: an oblong of wood in the middle of the room).


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