While its doors have been closed to the public, scientists have been busy digitising its vast archive – from 100-year-old insects to rare minerals
The main exhibition room at the Natural History Museum in London is cathedral-like, with Hope the blue whale suspended mid-air like a demigod. Filled with specimens collected by explorers, this remarkable place teaches us about the evolution of life on our planet.
There is a “great unlocking” happening in this building, home to one of the world’s largest natural history collections. Insects on pins and old minerals that have been sitting in mahogany display cases for hundreds of years are being re-examined, digitised and brought into the 21st century.
‘Darwin’ catches up on some reading in the offices of the Natural History Museum
Samples, including some Tanzanian snails, have their DNA extracted and sequenced, as part of the museum’s Darwin Tree of Life project. They are stored at -196C inside liquid nitrogen tanks, where the DNA should be protected for ever
Researcher Maria Belen Arias studies mollusc samples from Chile as part of the digitisation process
Tiny samples ready to be digitised
The Victorians had really nice handwriting – people either side not so much
A box of pins still has its place alongside the hi-tech equipment, including powerful cameras
Researchers have discovered new minerals in Victorian displays
I really love to look at the old materials and see what people have missed in the past
Specimens of a mineral called spodumene, which comes in various shades of pink, green and grey; an X-ray goniometer (bottom-right) is used to examine them
Covid-19 has highlighted the importance of researchers all over the world having online access to collections