My School Essay - "My Special Visit to the Natural History Museum"
“Oh the shark has pretty teeth, dear
and he shows them pearly white.
Just a jack-knife has MacHeath, dear,
and he keeps it out of sight.”
Bertolt Brecht “The Threepenny Opera” 1928 ( Tr. Marc Blitzstein)
I go, with Roger and Pat Wright, through security into the Fish Department, for our guided tour from senior curator, Ollie Crimmen, an Icthyologist (an expert on fish), who is a genial, very enthusiastic man with 43 years of service there.
Therein are 5½ kilometres of corridors, stacks of tall metal storage cupboards, containing small sealed glass jars of specimens, preserved in alcohol. I inspect the label of one, a snake, dated 27/11/1891 and the earliest are from Captain Cook’s voyages in 1760’s! In the past, for fish items from the tropics, only skins could be kept, dried out, and stuffed on return.
Glass containers with specimens in alcohol: of deep sea fish, also a giant squid (from the Falklands government), ideal food for a sperm whale! There is a huge female Deep Sea Angler Fish, with lights on sticks above her head, to locate food and a mate; the male of the species is very tiny. A pelican eel: it opens up with a big mouth to swallow as many shrimps as it can digest. There are sharks: with prong-like, serrated edged teeth to slice open fish; a stuffed tiger shark with teeth for all purposes, and a constant supply of replacements!—the most dangerous biters and scavengers; and a goblin shark has a strange face and jaws it can project forward to catch its prey. A dog fish is smaller, I touch its rough skin, made up of tiny reverse teeth, which has been used as a natural sandpaper. Tests have been made to see if it could be used for “drag reduction” in swimsuits (hydrodynamics) or aircraft (aerodynamics)??
The next room has big fish tanks in it and a strong overhead metal joist/beam above the top of the tank, attached to the lid by big heavy chains, so it can be lifted off using a pulley, to reveal in the alcohol (which is on tap in the museum):
half a porbeagle British shark (the other half was used by Damien Hurst, the artist)
a migratory Greenland shark, which went aground off the British coast. This has “electric” sensory ampoules to detect fish to eat. Living in deep sea and with its very slow rate of metabolism, it can live for 500 years!
The Stanley sturgeon, British ones belong to the Queen but this is an American one, shown by its molecular (sturgeon do breed like salmon, and in the river eg. Gironde, France).
a swordfish 3 metres long, found stranded in river Avon in Bristol. When the Queen visited the museum Ollie had this hung upside down from the overhead beam.
The tank room installed in 2000 is great, as it allows the large fish specimens to be stored! I touch a specimen of the great white shark (‘Jaws’), feeling its pearly white serrated teeth, which shred through the blubber of seals, but this does have the effect of blunting them. We see a special padlocked glass cabinet containing jars of specimens brought back from the voyages of Charles Darwin in the Beagle (so collected over a period of 5 years) and the basis for all the standard types. Names are given in Latin as well, and this is still the universal language. Next I see a saw from a saw fish. It is used to go along the ocean bottom slicing up crabs; but sadly it is now going extinct, because of over fishing in earlier decades.
Roger points out two jars of special interest to him, containing specimens of egg-laying mammals, the Echidna (spiny anteater) and the duckbilled platypus! And finally an especially secure glass cabinet containing some wonderful pieces of coral from the Great Barrier Reef, which were presented to the Queen by the Queensland state government.
Ollie recalls a day spent cutting up the Northern Bottle-nosed Whale, which was beached in the River Thames—a dead mammal, so outside his usual remit,-- he was covered in blood and gore by the end of the day! More happily he joins the Research Scientist Dr Ralph Britz, on expeditions to Myanmar, to find new fish, hitherto unknown to Western science. These and other finds, and donations e.g. bequeathed by collectors are received in the museum and volunteers Roger and Pat in the small rather cluttered laboratory, sort out, register and preserve these precious items.
So how did it all begin? Roger taught biology/science at Eaglesfield Comprehensive School (formerly Shooters Hill Grammar). The PE teacher, a qualified diving instructor, taught the children and Roger to dive, at Plymouth. Also a keen specialist photographer, whilst snorkelling off Thailand seven years ago, Roger took pictures of a fish unknown to him, and sent them to the Natural History Museum on his return, to see if it was a new find. He offered his services to help as he was now retired from teaching. Soon he had three separate replies---in fact it was a juvenile butterfly fish—and he was taken on by the museum.
Two years ago, Pat retired from her job in science, and joined him on Wednesdays in the fish department, working for Ollie and she too was immediately hooked! Roger also goes in on a Tuesday, to help Gavin Broad with his work on insects, particularly small bees and wasps, and he points out to me the new museum camera with its stacking programme, to take small slices from top to bottom, to make a composite picture.
I take a break with a reviver of strong coffee and a scone, prior to taking up my extra treat (for writing this essay) a special visit to the “Colour and Vision” exhibition - excellent. On the way there I see lots of school groups, so I question 3 of them: First a class of little ones in day-glo jackets, from a school in Enfield. They are studying dinosaurs. Then a class from an Academy school in Eaton Bray, in bright blazers, who have seen their school subject, volcanoes and earthquakes, - “Fab” is the verdict. Thirdly a group of university students studying biodiversity, so they have certainly come to the right place!
My thanks to Roger and Pat, and especially to Ollie for enabling me to write this essay and I hope I get good marks this time.