Night at the museum: Priceless treasures at the Natural History Museum after hours


In the 2004 film Night at the Museum, Ben Stiller’s security guard was in for quite a shock when the exhibited T-Rex skeleton sprang to life and began to chase him around the building.

If visitors were expecting such life-risking excitement this week when the Natural History Museum in London opened its doors to some special guests after hours, they may have been slightly disappointed, though hopefully not for long as experts strove to bring the museum’s collections to life in their own way.

Monday evening saw around 150 Mastercard cardholders visit the museum’s Darwin Centre as part of the credit card company’s Priceless London series of events, when they were given special access to some of its most treasured specimens.

Click here to view a gallery of pictures from the event

The museum’s assistant librarian Lisa Di Tommaso showcased original botanical sketches by Sydney Parkinson from Lieutenant James Cook’s HMS Endeavour voyage between 1769 and 1771, while Alan Hart, collections leader in mineralogy, passed around a weighty chunk of gold nugget and displayed a 4.56-billion-year-old meteorite, among other precious rocks.

The journey of chocolate, from the 1680s discovery of cocoa beans by Sir Hans Sloane (whose name now adorns the tube station just down the road from the museum) through its medicinal use for venereal diseases and finally to a recipe involving milk being bought by the Cadbury family, was told by Dr Sandra Knapp, principal investigator of the department of botany, alongside volumes of Sir Sloane’s original samples.

In the museum famous for its animatronic dinosaur displays, the real prehistoric treasure hidden away is not only the lone tyrannosaurus rex skeleton kept outside of America, but the first ever of its kind discovered, and paleontologist Dr Paul Barrett gave visitors the chance to run their fingers down the serrated teeth contained in one half of its jaw.

The evening’s pièce de résistance, however, lay deep within the museum’s Spirit Building (named so because of the high amount of alcohol preserving its 22 million specimens) in the tanking room. After an impressive display of great white shark jaws and an explanation of the intricate sex lives of deep sea angler fish by fish curator James McLaine, invertebrates curator Jon Ablett introduced guests to a very special resident. So special, in fact, that a call to Damien Hirst’s oversized tank designers had to be made before she moved in. The Architeuthis dux – or Archie as she’s known to her friends – is a 8.62m long giant squid. She arrived at the museum after being caught by some fishermen in the Falkland Islands in 2004, living in her 9m tank in the tanking room since.

So, despite a lack of marauding dinosaurs and reanimated ice age cavemen, the night at this museum did at times take its visitors’ breath away – even if it was just to avoid the smell of a room full of pickled giant fish.

For more information about Priceless London visit Mastercard's website

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