U.K. collection unravels Earth’s history

©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

“Cursed” amethyst

By Keiichi Shimizu and Masayuki Takata / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WritersAn exhibition featuring items from the collection of London’s Natural History Museum, “Treasures of the Natural World,” is currently under way at the National Museum of Nature and Science in Tokyo’s Ueno district. The exhibition, which is jointly organized by The Yomiuri Shimbun, features about 370 specimens, including precious jewels, an archaeopteryx fossil demonstrating the evolutionary process from dinosaur to bird, and a collection of birds and insects that show the diversity found in the natural world.

Divided into six sections — referred to as “chapters” in the exhibition — the museum attempts to give visitors the impression they are walking through a book about natural history.

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  • ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

    A skeleton of a moa: It is believed that this flightless New Zealand bird became extinct due to deforestation and overhunting. The indigenous Maori population traditionally represented it as a devil in the form of a bird.

  • ©The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London

    Piltdown Man skull fragments that were falsely presented as a previously unknown human ancestor over 100 years ago

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    Director of Science at the Natural History Museum, London

In the Introduction area, a specimen of “Queen Alexandra’s birdwing butterfly,” which is only found in Papua New Guinea, is conspicuous with its vividly colored wings. Another item exhibited is the “‘cursed’ amethyst,” which is said to return to its owner even after being thrown away.

Chapter 1 presents the history of the Natural History Museum. The museum began as part of the British Museum, which was established in 1753, and has continuously collected specimens from across the world. “Ancient Egyptian mummified cat” was donated by Egypt in 1907 when it was a de facto protectorate of Britain.

Studies of biological evolution made great leaps in the 19th century. One of the exhibits in Chapter 2 is the skeleton of a moa — an extinct bird species from New Zealand — whose existence was discovered by comparative anatomist Richard Owen after his analysis of a single bone fragment. Also not to be missed are such items as a manuscript of “On the Origin of Species” handwritten by Charles Darwin on the theory of evolution, and the archaeopteryx fossil, which was discovered in Germany.

The theme of Chapter 3 is explorers’ activities. Objects on display include items collected by an exploration team led by British military officer Robert Scott, who, having failed in his attempt to be the first to reach the South Pole, perished under severe conditions during his return journey. A specimen of the mineral stibnite, from Ehime Prefecture, is one of the specimens from Japan that appear in the exhibition.

Chapter 4 illustrates the diversity of species with beautiful specimens of birds, insects and mammals.

In the last section, Chapter 5, the Natural History Museum’s future visions are presented. It showcases the paleoanthropological hoax “Piltdown Man,” bone fragments that were falsely presented as a previously unknown human ancestor over 100 years ago. DNA analyses in recent years have been attempting to get to the bottom of the forgery, highlighting the importance of keeping specimens until new analytical methods are established.

■ Information

The exhibition runs until June 11. It is closed on Mondays except for May 1 and June 5. It is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but opening hours are extended on Fridays and Saturdays until 8 p.m.; until 9 p.m. from April 28 to 30 and from May 3 to 7; and until 6 p.m. on May 1 and 2. Last admission is 30 minutes before closing. For more info, visit


Treasures illuminate our future

A pair of technical innovations — digitization and genome analysis — enabled the Natural History Museum in London to expand its research role, Ian Owens, the museum’s director of science, said in a lecture at the British Embassy in Tokyo on March 17. The museum is now expanding its ambitions to solve challenges facing humanity, he said.

Owens visited Japan for the beginning of the exhibition “Treasures of the Natural World.”

Having introduced artificial intelligence to the museum, staff there have been digitizing data that was originally handwritten. About 3.5 million specimens have already been digitized. The data has been accessed online over 1.5 billion times since 2015.

Owens said it was revolutionary that people can access the museum’s collection without physically having to visit.

Progress in genome analysis technology, meanwhile, has allowed researchers to confirm how closely related several species are to one another, deepening understanding of the museum’s collection.

The museum houses about 80 million objects including fossils, plants, taxidermy specimens and minerals. The collection also includes many items acquired from colonies during the age of the British Empire.

Due to a quantum leap in data processing efficiency, scientists are now able to speculate where rare metals can be found based on the data collected from items across the globe and can forecast how biodiversity will change in the future, according to Owens.

The director added that mineral resources may be found in places other than traditional extraction sites.

Citing examples of progress in research on projects such as medicine for parasitic diseases, which are rampant in Africa, and creating new species of crops to address food crises, Owen stressed that the museum is not just collecting and exhibiting items, but also contributing to creating a sustainable future.Speech

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