A secret past revealed at the Natural History Museum in London

Posted by on Feb 2, 2011 | No Comments

Prior to the broadcast of Museum Secrets: Inside the Natural History Museum tomorrow night at 10 PM ET/PT on History Television (Canada), find out what our research revealed about the museum’s curious past. To find out more about some of the objects in this episode, visit the NHM episode page.

It turns out that the museum was not always reserved for earth and science specimens.

Today, the Natural History Museum is one of the largest museums in London, and sits on Exhibition Road in the South Kensington area, on the same street as the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. The museum is home to 70 million specimens and five main collections: Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology, and Zoology. As a publicly funded charitable entity, the museum is a long-standing institution in London.

I sat down with the director of this Museum Secrets episode, Paul Kilback, to ask him more.

Amanda: What did you discover about the Natural History Museum’s past?

Paul: The museum itself played a very significant role in history, and this discovery got me excited about the museum. We discovered that during World War II the NHM was extensively bombed during the blitz by the Germans. Because the British knew the Germans would be doing this, they took many of the artifacts out of the museum and spirited them away to different parts of England. It was just like what they did with the children at the time, to protect them. They shipped the artifacts away and they buried them in caves and hid them in churches. They hid all of the treasures throughout the UK. But that said, the museum was extensively damaged by bombing.

Because the objects that were kept in formaldehyde at the museum were highly flammable, they especially had to ship these collections away.

Present day specimens in bottles of formaldehyde at the Natural History Museum.

Amanda: What was put into the museum during the war, when many of the artifacts were taken out?

Paul: We found that during World War II some of the galleries were used for the Special Operations Executive (SOE), which was one of the British secret spy networks. They used the NHM rooms as their demonstration galleries and filled them with all the gadgetry of war [bombs, explosives, and sabotage devices.]

The Special Operations Executive workshop at the NHM (Archival Photo)

Through matching the architecture that is seen in old photographs of these rooms, one of the curators mapped out the entire area that the SOE used during the war. You can take the old photographs and match all of the locations in the museum today. So when you walk through certain parts of the museum you can think about this place as it once was, coming to life.

Archival photo of the Natural History Museum

Display cases at the Natural History Museum (Archival photo.)

Display cases at the Natural History Museum today.