6 Stories of Scientific Subterfuge at the Natural History Museum

Interior of the Natural History Museum, London

The Natural History Museum seems beautiful and perfect from the outside. The museum is inarguably a force for good in the world, increasing our understanding of nature and how we can protect and preserve the living world.

But this “Cathedral to Nature” has a shady history. Professional rivalries, public humiliation, and even outright sabotage used to abound among the museum’s most important figures. And there’s a lot of money to be made from stolen scientific specimens, fakes and forgeries.

Read on to discover six tales of the secret, sordid history of the Natural History Museum… 

1. Richard Owen: Founding Faker

Portrait of Sir Richard Owen, Founder of the Natural History Museum
Sir Richard Owen, the Natural History Museum’s Founder. Be honest, doesn’t he look like a shifty character?

Let’s begin with the Founder of the Museum himself, Sir Richard Owen. Clearly a very talented naturalist and scientist, Owen made many great discoveries and put plans in place to build this fantastic institution. But he was by all accounts a cruel and jealous man. He was eventually expelled from the Royal Society’s Zoological Council for plagiarism. His main target was Gideon Mantell, who did immeasurable work in describing the first dinosaur species. Owen both suppressed Mantell’s work from being published by the Royal Society, and took credit for his discoveries of these first dinosaurs.

2. The Bone Wars

Owen wasn’t the only fossil hunter unafraid to get his hands dirty, if you’ll excuse the pun. In the USA, the rivalry between two leading paleontologists became so violent it is now known as the Bone Wars. James Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were excellent scientists, responsible for the discovery of many famous dinosaur species, such as Diplodocus, Triceratops and Stegosaurus. 

However, they became so obsessed with beating each other and being seen as the better man that they resorted to bribery, theft and even dynamiting the others digs in their battle for supremacy. It’s impossible to know how much valuable scientific info was lost thanks to their egos. But by the end of their careers, both men were bankrupt and their reputations were in shreds, despite all the discoveries they had made.  

3. A Secret Spy Lab

Plaque outside the Natural History Museum's Mammals gallery, once a secret gadget lab
A plaque outside the Mammals gallery in the Natural History Museum, which was once a Bond-style gadget lab

Outside the Mammals gallery in the Natural History Museum, you will find this plaque dedicated to a team of spies and saboteurs.  It used to be a gadget lab, and was the inspiration behind Q Branch, the fictional research and development lab in the James Bond series. The ‘toy shop’ of the Special Operations Executive used to sit in the space that now houses lions and polar bears. In WWII, they called themselves the ‘Department of Ungentlemanly Warfare’. They designed secret radios, one-man submarines, and even explosives disguised as horse manure!

4. Mary Anning: Finding Something Fishy

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog, Tray
Mary Anning and her dog, Tray

Mary Anning is a figure who should be one of the best-known names in paleontology. She discovered her first Ichthyosaur fossil in the cliffs of Lyme Regis on the English coast when she was just twelve years old. She later discovered full plesiosaurs and pterosaurs, and changed the world’s understanding of prehistoric times.

However, she was not allowed to join the Geological Society of London for one simple reason: she was a woman. She never saw any of her own papers published in her lifetime. A few letters did make it to publication though: letters correcting men who ignored her earlier discoveries, or worse took her work and wrote it up as their own. 

Happily, people are now trying to right this wrong. The new members’ area at the Natural History Museum is called the Anning Rooms, and Kate Winslet is set to play Anning in an upcoming biopic!

5. The Flautist’s Feather Heist

Entrance to the Birds gallery at the Natural History Museum
Entrance to the Birds gallery at the Natural History Museum

In 2009 there was a daring heist at the satellite Natural History Museum branch in Tring, in Hertfordshire. An American music student named Edwin Rist broke in one night and stole 299 rare birds. He stripped the feathers from rare and extinct specimens, and sold them through online black markets, making hundreds of thousands of pounds. He mostly sold to fishing fly-tiers, who use the feathers to make colourful lures. Making this story even stranger, Rist used the profits of his heist to buy himself a golden flute! He was eventually caught by police and found guilty, though he was only made to pay back some of his profits and avoided prison entirely. Rist now plays for orchestras in Germany under a new name.

6. Mastodon: A Mangled Monster

A drawing of Koch's creation
Koch’s Missouri Leviathan

One of the first amazing fossils you will see by the front door of the museum is this mastodon specimen. It was discovered, along with many other bones, in Missouri in the USA by Albert Koch. 

Koch was more interested in money than science. He took all the bones in the burial and turned them into a giant, not-scientifically-accurate ‘Missouri Leviathan’. He claimed this was a biblical sea monster, transforming it into a travelling sideshow. His new skeletal monster made so much money it eventually toured to London.

There it was seen by Richard Owen and other Museum scientists. They tried to buy it for 2 thousand pounds (a lot of money in 1844!), but Koch demanded an extra £1000 every year for the rest of his life. He lived another 22 years, to the age of 84, making this the most expensive acquisition in the museum’s history! 

So there you have it: the hallowed halls of the Natural History Museum hide some dark and shady secrets! If you’ve enjoyed learning these secrets of the Natural History Museum, consider pre-booking one of our Dinosaurs and Extinct Beasts treasure hunts for when the museums re-open.

And if you’d like to learn more about the fascinating history of this great museum, check out out other blog posts in the Natural History Museum Category.

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