Scientific Discovery Through Images

The Natural History Museum

Capturing imagery is fundamental to scientific enquiry and discovery. Illustrations and photographs provide valuable visual records, complementing the words and numbers of science. But as knowledge evolves, so do imaging techniques. In this exhibit, we take a tour of highlights from the Natural History Museum's collection of half a million works of art, as well as its imaging and analysis work - carried out using cutting-edge equipment enabling complex, non-destructive specimen analysis.

The artworks commissioned by early natural historians were beautiful to look at. But they were also evidence of new species from far-flung lands and sources of valuable scientific information.

In this film, Natural History Museum experts discuss the importance of natural history art as well as imaging techniques that support scientific enquiry and spark exciting new questions.

The Natural History Museum owes its existence to its first director, Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892).

In 1881, Owen masterminded the relocation of the natural history collections of the British Museum in Bloomsbury to the purpose-built Natural History Museum in South Kensington.

Owen was one of the great scientific figures of his time. During his distinguished career as an anatomist and taxonomist, he published scores of influential scientific papers, primarily on the comparative anatomy of vertebrates.

Such was his knowledge, he correctly predicted the existence of the extinct giant moa, Dinoris, from a single bone specimen.

His significant collection of manuscript research notes as well as a large collection of sketches and drawings are held in the Museum Library.

On winning the commission for the Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905) was known to be a talented architect. But few people were aware of his extraordinary talent for illustration.


This Pterosaur and Homotherium are from a collection of 135 drawings by Waterhouse, used by the sculptor, M Dujardin, to create the terracotta mouldings that adorn the Museum building.

They are just one of several decorative elements that identify the Museum as the ‘cathedral to nature’ - the first dedicated home for the nation’s natural history collections.

While distinctive artworks in their own right, the drawings and sculptures also epitomise the world that the Museum both studies and exhibits.

It is by drawing on its unique expertise and collections that the Natural History Museum provides answers to significant scientific and societal questions.

Look up as you enter the Natural History Museum's central space, Hintze Hall, and you will see the spectacularly ornate ceiling.

The painted ceiling panels are another key decorative element of the Museum.

There are 162 painted ceiling panels, each depicting a different plant and bearing the Latin name of the species.

Many of the species depicted held economic significance, such as the cocoa plant, Theobroma cacao, and one tells a story relevant to when the Museum was conceived and built.

The significance of Theobroma cacao was recognised by Sir Hans Sloane, who had a particular passion for plants with medicinal properties.

In 1687, Sloane travelled to Jamaica, where he encountered the cocoa bean, which the locals mixed with water and took as medicine.

But the drink was not to his taste, so Sloane would combine the cocoa beans with milk and sugar.

He then sold the mixture as a medicine before it went into commercial production as hot chocolate as we know it as today.

This engraving showed for the first time how similar the structure of an ape is to that of a human.

Edward Tyson (1650-1708), a distant cousin of Charles Darwin, commissioned the engraving from William Cowper, for his book Orang Outang, sive Homo sylvestris : or The Anatomie of a Pygmie compared with that of a Monkey, an Ape, and a Man.

Tyson had the chance to dissect a chimp that had arrived from Africa in 1698.

The chimp had become injured on board its transport ship, leading to its death. The injury is alluded to in Cowper’s engravings: the bipedal chimp is seen using a walking stick.

Because the chimpanzee was a juvenile, some of Tyson’s inferences about the mature anatomy of chimpanzees were later identified as incorrect.

Tyson is considered the father of comparative morphology because of his extensive studies comparing the anatomy of animals. He is also thought to be the the first person to have come up with the concept of the ‘missing link’ - a term used to describe the the evolutionary bridge between higher primates such as monkeys and apes, and humans.

In 1735, Carl Linnaeus first published his Systema Naturae, revolutionising how the natural world was classified and named.

Two years later his publication Genera Plantarum introduced a system based on the reproductive parts of flowers - the stamens and pistils.

This system, which included the binomial naming convention, greatly influenced how plants were illustrated.

It dictated a new level of scientific precision for botanical illustration, including emphasis on the morphological parts of plants to enable accurate identification.


Linnaeus appointed his friend Georg Dionysius Ehret (1708-1770), one of the greatest botanical artists of all time, to illustrate the publication’s frontispiece shown here.

This original watercolour, completed by Ehret in 1736, shows the 24 plant classes that Linnaeus devised. It also demonstrates Ehret’s unique artistic style and mastery of his tools and subjects.

In June 1739 a juvenile rhino caused a sensation when it arrived in London from Bengal on board Captain Acton’s ship.

Accompanied by the anatomist James Douglas, the talented artist James Parsons visited the young rhino.

He created this oil painting to complement the first accurate scientific account of the rhino, which was published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

The painting came to the Natural History Museum with the collections of Sir Hans Sloane and now hangs in the Museum’s Images of Nature gallery.

On 26 January 1788, the 1,500 passengers on board the 11 ships of the First Fleet arrived at Port Jackson to establish the first penal colony in New South Wales. This new community laid the foundation for European settlement in Australia.

The Museum’s extensive collection of drawings from this historical voyage provide an insight into the plants, animals, indigenous population and events that marked a critical point of change in the Australian continent's history.

Many of the plant and animal species depicted in the collection were new to science and unfamiliar to European eyes.

The drawings relied on the artistic abilities of naval officers and convicts on board, and therefore were not always technically accurate or scientific in style. But they contained enough information for experts in Britain to identify and name a large number of new species.

Some of the drawings are the only known record of a species and have been acknowledged as iconotypes, which are illustrations of type specimens - individual plants or animals that form the basis for the original description of scientific names.

And several species depicted are now extinct or extremely rare - such as the white-footed tree-rat shown here, unseen for more than 100 years.

In 1801, Ferdinand Bauer (1760-1826) set sail on board HMS Investigator, drawing the many plants and animals he and botanist Robert Brown encountered in Australia. They gathered treasures of scientific knowledge, many unknown to Western science.

This watercolour illustration by Bauer detailing the anatomy of a koala was accompanied by scientific descriptions. It forms part of the first attempts to systematically record the unique Australian flora and fauna.

Ferdinand and his brother Franz are considered the masters of scientific illustration, due to their unrivalled artistic precision and expertise in the conventions of illustration for taxonomic identification.

Brian Houghton Hodgson (1801-1894) joined the East India Company as a teenager and travelled to India and Nepal, where he became a scholar of Tibetan Buddhism.

A pioneering naturalist, Hodgson was one of the first Europeans to study the customs and diverse natural history of Nepal.

He wrote more than 100 zoological papers and described many species of birds and mammals for the first time.

He also donated his collection of specimens to the Natural History Museum, along with many illustrations he had commissioned. The illustrations were made by three Nepalese artists, who Hodgson trained to paint, including Rajman Singh, who drew this tawny fish owl.

John James Audubon’s Birds of America is one of the best-known published ornithological works, partly due to the quality and size of its extraordinary plates, and for being the most valuable natural history book in the world.

Less known is the lifelong friendship that Audubon shared with the Scottish artist William MacGillivray (1796-1852) and the remarkable influence they had on the development of ornithology in Britain and the United States.

MacGillivray was also an accomplished artist and considered one of Britain’s greatest ornithologists.

Like Audubon, he shot birds to examine and describe them.

In his later years, he was appointed Regius Professor of Natural History at Aberdeen University, where he established the Zoology Museum.

His prodigious output of scientific papers and books included a collaboration with Audubon on his five-volume Ornithological Biography - it featured the drawings of MacGillivray and became the cornerstone of American ornithology.

Anna Atkins is considered the first person ever to have published a book illustrated with photography.

This algae cyanotype photogram is from her Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions, privately printed in three volumes between 1843-53.

Only 17 copies of the set are known to exist, in various states of completeness.

Photograms, or ‘sun pictures’, are photographic images created without a camera, usually by placing objects on photosensitive paper and exposing them to sunlight.

The technique was developed by William Henry Fox Talbot, the inventor of the photographic image and a close friend of Atkins.

Atkins refined the technique and used the ferns and seaweeds in her collections as subject matter.

The striking cyan blue colour was created using chemicals - ammonium ion citrate and potassium ferricyanide - in a process developed by the astronomer and scientist Sir John Herschel.

Today these types of prints are widely known as blueprints.

The advent of the microscope marked a leap in scientific progress: it allowed scientists to observe and investigate the natural world in previously unimaginable ways as well as drove advances in scientific theory.

This petrographic microscope was designed in 1863 by Nevil Story-Maskelyne, Keeper of Minerals at the British Museum (Natural History) - now the Natural History Museum - for his studies of meteorites.

Believed to be the first of its kind, it uses a rotating stage to display thin slices of rocks and minerals in polarised light.

The discovery that no two snowflakes are alike was made by Wilson Alwyn Bentley (1865-1931), affectionately known as Snowflake Bentley.

Bentley captured the world’s attention with his pioneering photomicrography, notably of his extensive work on snow crystals.

After adapting a compound microscope to work with a bellows camera, he would collect snow crystals before rushing back to his shed to photograph them, taking care not melt them with his breath.

After years of trial and error in countless snowstorms, he became the first person to photograph a single snow crystal in 1885 at the age of just nineteen.

This 1899 image is from a series of 21 sets of 355 snow crystal microphotographs taken during the winters of 1885-1889.

Ernst Haeckel received early scientific acclaim for his groundbreaking research on an obscure group of unicellular organisms called radiolarians.

His publication Kunstformen der Natur (Art Forms in Nature) was a continuation of his research to demonstrate that man-made art cannot compete with the intrinsic beauty and diversity of nature.

Haeckel’s lithographs are so detailed that he saw almost no need for accompanying text.

He chose his subjects according to his view of the order and symmetry of nature, and described and classified many of these organisms for the first time.

Today, scientific enquiry is enhanced by advanced photographic tools and imaging technology.

This X-ray reveals a lead shotgun pellet embedded in the cuticle of a goliath beetle (Goliathus goliatus).

In the early 1900s, capturing airborne insects presented challenges for collectors.

Sometimes, collectors would resort to extreme measures - blasting creatures out of the sky with shotguns.

But as methods of acquiring specimens became more sophisticated and less damaging, these techniques were largely forgotten.

That is until Natural History Museum beetle experts Max Barclay and Conrad Gillett noticed unusual holes in the cuticle of a beetle in the Museum’s collection.

Working with forensic anthropologists at the Museum, they X-rayed the specimen revealing the shotgun pellet that brought the beetle down.

Closer observation revealed that the entry wound in the wing case does not match the hole in the wing, meaning that the insect was in flight when it met its demise.

Also, the beetle was shot in its back, so it must have been upside down at the moment the pellet made contact with its body.

Native to African rainforests, Goliath beetles are among the largest beetles in the world, but they have remarkable aerobatic abilities.

Unfortunately for this creature, its flying skills not enough to help it dodge a bullet.

This micro-CT visualisation enabled the first non-destructive, species-level identification of a hairy anglerfish’s final meal.

With such a swollen stomach, the anglerfish has intrigued researchers since it was caught near the Cape Verde islands in 1999 and brought into the Natural History Museum’s collection.

It is a very rare specimen - one of only 17 discovered - so scientists have been reluctant to cut it open to investigate.

To solve the mystery, Natural History Museum scientists and imaging experts used micro-CT scanning to create a 3D model of the swollen fish.

The clarity of the visualisation allowed curator James Maclaine to confirm that the unlucky victim, doubled over inside the anglerfish’s elastic stomach is a softskin slickhead, Rouleina attrita, almost twice the length of its predator.

Maclaine comments:

‘Deep-sea anglerfish are usually found more than a kilometre down and most species use a bioluminescent lure to attract their prey. They have tiny eyes and must rely on other senses to detect when prey are near.

‘We suspect that projections like its long fin rays and the ‘hairy’ filaments covering the creature’s body act as sensory organs that pick up vibrations in the water.

‘So it may be that when the anglerfish detects movement ahead it strikes out - grabbing whatever is there with its vicious inward-pointing teeth.

‘This can backfire, however, and anglerfish sometimes bite off more than they can chew.

‘On one occasion, one was found floating at the surface after it had tried to eat something so big that it choked to death.’

This visualisation of a bumblebee brain enabled Natural History Museum scientists to reveal in unprecedented detail the regions of the bee’s brain that are linked to learning and memory.

Museum researchers and collaborators used the Museum's micro-CT facility to scan the brains of bees in 3D, allowing them to see minute structures that would be damaged if the brains were removed.

Some of these structures are thought to help bees remember where to forage for pollen.

Given the important role bees play in pollinating crops, understanding how their brains work - and how they may malfunction - is crucial.

The team believes the technique could now be used to investigate the effect of stressors on bee brain development and behaviour.

Stressors such as disease, trauma and agricultural chemicals have been suggested as causes of a worldwide decline in bee populations.

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