Digitising the hidden treasures of the Natural History Museum, London (pictures)

We're privileged to see behind the scenes of London's Natural History Museum to find out why it's creating digital copies of dinosaur skeletons -- and 80 million other precious items.

Andrew Lanxon
Andrew is CNET's go-to guy for product coverage and lead photographer for Europe. When not testing the latest phones, he can normally be found with his camera in hand, behind his drums or eating his stash of home-cooked food. Sometimes all at once.
Andrew Lanxon
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The Natural History Museum in London is an incredible building. It contains a vast number of brilliantly preserved dinosaur skeletons, plant and animal specimens and a huge array of creepy shark heads in jars.

The NHM functions not only as a window into the history -- and future -- of our planet for tourists and other curious members of the public, but its wealth of knowledge, gathered over hundreds of years, helps inform today's scientists from many backgrounds.

I visited the museum to see just what goes on behind the scenes. Click through to see how a Stegosaurus can be 3D printed, how scanning reveals the last meal of a deep-sea fish and find out why the museum wants to digitise all of its 80 million specimens.

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One of the museum's major tasks being undertaken away from the public eye is its digitisation project. The goal is to create a digital record, including a photograph and description, of most of the museum's 80 million items.

The main reason for doing this, according to Darrell Siebert, the Natural History Museum's collections database manager, is to release the information that the museum holds. "The information is largely tied up in ink on paper, and only specialists know of its existence."

By creating a digital record of all its specimens, future researchers will have quick and easy access to information, allowing them to study trends in evolution, see how climate change is affecting species and use existing specimens as a reference point to help identify new species entirely.

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The butterfly and moth collection was selected as a pilot project to help refine the digitisation process. Each specimen is carefully mounted in these boxes, along with a ruler to indicate the specimen size, and they're all individually photographed.

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It's a tricky process, but they'll no doubt get the hang of it after the first few million goes.

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Each individual item takes around 3 minutes to be re-mounted, photographed and entered into the digital database.

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The information will not only be for internal use, but will be available on a public portal to allow researchers, schools and curious individuals to access this wealth of information anywhere in the world.

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"Optimistically, I would hope we have the job done in a decade," Siebert said. "We need a huge team and we'll explore partnering with commercial organisations."

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Meet Sophie the Stegosaurus. A recent addition to the museum's collection, Sophie is the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found. She's 5.6 metres (18.4 feet) long, 2.9 metres (9.5 feet) tall and is comprised of over 300 bones.

Although she's a venerable 155 million years old, Sophie was believed to be a young adult when she died. The team knows this as she had yet to develop a thick plating on her bones, which would have developed in adulthood. She's called a she, but it's not possible to determine the actual sex.

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The small part of the tail, highlighted in this 3D model, shows the only part of the skeleton that has had to be artificially created.

The entirety of Sophie's skeleton was scanned using LIDAR scanning. Individual bones, however, were scanned using lasers to achieve an extremely high resolution 3D model. The scanning was done by Prop Shop, a company that normally creates detailed props for blockbuster films like "Guardians of the Galaxy" and "Star Wars".

Using this model, explained palaeontologist Dr. Charlotte Brassey, the team was able to determine details such as the dinosaur's weight, its jaw strength, the strength of the plates running down the back and how fast it would have walked.

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As well as allowing the teams to create digital models for use on displays within the museum, the high resolution 3D scans can be used to create extremely accurate 3D printed models of the whole skeleton.

This is just one of the plates from the back of the Stegosaurus. It's printed in fine detail and is a great way of letting members of the public close to the dinosaur, without the original bones being damaged by being constantly touched.

The 3D files are also sent to researchers and educational institutions around the world, letting them print off their own versions of Sophie for study.

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The skull in the public display of Sophie's skeleton isn't real -- the genuine 155-million-year-old skull is actually locked away beneath the museum and can be seen here sat in my hand (career highlight, right there).

The skull pieces are apparently far too fragile -- not to mention valuable -- to mount on the frame with the rest of the skeleton.

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Sophie's jaw is kept behind the scenes too. It's been a major focus of study as nobody is exactly sure how the Stegosaurus ate. Although it's known to be a herbivore, the teeth are extremely small, so wouldn't have been able to grind plant matter in the mouth as would typically be expected, Brassey explained to me.

Instead, it's possible that Stegosauruses like Sophie swallowed leaves whole and used their stomachs as fermentation tanks in order to process their food. It's thought that the tiny teeth may not have even been used, which is why they became so small over time.

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A different kind of scanner is housed in the bowels of the museum. This CT scanner uses X-rays to penetrate flesh, bone and even rock to help scientists see inside specimens without having to damage them.

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When the red light is on, don't open the door. Unless you're hoping to gain superpowers.

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This "hairy angler fish" was a mystery for James Maclaine, curator of fish at the museum. The body of this particular fish is only small, but its stomach has been grossly enlarged by something it's apparently swallowed.

Very few examples of this fish have been caught and preserved, so the specimen is too valuable to simply cut open and see what's inside.

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By using CT scanning, Maclaine was able to see exactly what's going on under the surface, without causing any damage to the fish itself.

If you look closely at the image, you can see the angler fish's skeleton is only the small part going along the top. Inside its stomach is the folded skeleton of another fish, almost twice as big as the angler fish.

Using the high resolution scans, James and his team were able to not only see the size of the fish inside the stomach, but work out its species, by counting the number of bones and looking at its overall structure, without ever needing to cut the angler fish open.

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It's likely that the angler fish didn't know how big its prey was. It lives in the deep ocean, where no natural light can penetrate. It hunts using a bioluminescent lure that hangs over its face.

The lure lights up in the darkness and it's this light that attracts fish. When they get close enough, the angler fish simply swallows them down, regardless of their size.

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Notice how the teeth point inward -- this means it's easy to get fish inside its throat, but extremely difficult to get them back out.

While that means it's handy to stop small fish escaping, some angler fish corpses have been found with extremely large fish trapped in their throat -- they have literally choked to death by trying to swallow something too large.

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While the female angler fish is around the size of a watermelon, this, unbelievably, is the size of the male.

Maclaine explained that the male of the species is needed for reproduction only and that food at such depths is in extremely short supply. As the male is so small, he doesn't compete with the female for food. Instead he simply attaches himself to the underside of the female to live off her as a parasite.

Who says nature isn't romantic?

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Inside the CT scanning chamber. It's being used here to study the internal construction of a meteorite.

Each scan generates around 20-40GB of data; in a week, around 1-2TB of data is produced. The scanner is producing more data every week than the museum previously created in its history, the team explained to me.

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Various fossils can be found littering some of the corridors behind the scenes at the museum as they're simply too big to fit inside storage containers.

This is the tail section of an Edmontosaurus -- look closely and you can see the perfectly preserved tendons, running alongside the bone.

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This is the lower jawbone of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

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I was able to run my fingers between the teeth -- it's slightly serrated, which would have helped the T. rex easily tear through flesh. Luckily for me, this one has been dead for a while.

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You don't need to barge your way behind the scenes to see incredible ancient artefacts -- the museum has an amazing display of items around every corner.

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Here's Dippy, the iconic Diplodocus who greets visitors at the museum's main entrance. The Natural History Museum created something of a stir on Twitter recently when it announced that Dippy would be retired from his prominent spot.

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Dippy will be replaced by this blue whale skeleton. It may seem to some like a less exciting option than a full dinosaur skeleton, but Dippy is actually only a plaster cast -- the blue whale skeleton is completely genuine.

"As the largest known animal to have ever lived on Earth, the story of the blue whale reminds us of the scale of our responsibility to the planet," said NHM director Sir Michael Dixon. "This makes it the perfect choice of specimen to welcome and capture the imagination of our visitors, as well as marking a major transformation of the Museum."

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The Natural History Museum itself is a stunning place to visit. The main part of the building was completed in 1880, although various additional wings have been added since.

In the far distance, you can just about see a group crowding around the marble statue of Charles Darwin, one of the fathers of the theory of evolution by natural selection.

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Below the grand halls of the main museum, row upon row of steel storage cabinets are housed, each containing numerous trays of butterfly specimens.

In total, there are 40,000 trays, containing an estimated 4.5 million specimens.

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"The collection has been expanding for over 200 years," explained Dr. Blanca Huertas, senior curator of Lepidoptera (that's butterflies, to you and me). Some of the samples were collected as far back as the 1600s.

"We can look back at what happened [in the world's climate] in the 1800s. Through digitisation, we can see British butterflies are shifting north due to climate change," Dr. Huertas said.

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All the butterflies will eventually be scanned into the digital collection, although only a small portion have so far undergone the process.

For now, most are still in the original display cases, with the old labels attached. The original labels will of course be kept as they're every bit as important to the history of the collection as the specimens themselves.

"The label is sacred. We never touch the labels," said Dr. Huertas.

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It may seem odd to keep so many of the same species, but Dr. Huertas explained that it's incredibly important.

By having numerous examples, it's possible to see variations -- due to climate, for example -- in each species. They also act as a reference point to help determine if a new example found is simply an expected variation of an existing species, or a new species entirely. This wouldn't be possible if you were referencing against a single butterfly.

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This little chap may seem fairly plain, but it has an exciting history -- it was caught by Darwin himself.

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These butterflies, Dr. Huertas explained to me, are extremely difficult to see in the wild as they typically fly far above the rainforest canopy.

They are attracted to the smell of rotting meat, however, so can be tempted down to the ground.

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Dead leaves? Not quite -- they're butterflies that are perfectly disguised against the fallen leaves on the rainforest floor.

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This case contains the Queen Alexandra's Birdwing butterfly -- the largest species of butterfly in the world and named after the wife of King Edward VII. It is, as you can see, enormous.

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The pupa and the caterpillar of the Birdwing.

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Look closely at the tears on the wing here -- that's caused by a gunshot. The butterfly is so big that the original collectors thought it was a bird and shot it.

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Some of the original labels came with black and white, hand-drawn sketches of the butterflies. Not ideal for communicating the brilliant range of colours.

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The museum's butterfly collection is visited not just by researchers and scientists, but by artists and fashion designers too, who come to find inspiration for clothing designs from the beautiful wings.

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This would maybe translate to a nice brooch. Or an awesome pair of sunglasses.

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Car paint manufacturers have also apparently visited the butterflies -- the highly iridescent colouring on these wings was studied to help create better metallic paint.

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As the tag says, the butterflies in this case were all collected by Alfred Russell Wallace, a naturalist, explorer and biologist who independently developed his theory of evolution through natural selection at the same time as Darwin.

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It's a magnificent collection. If you're keen on seeing a whole host of living butterflies, check out the NHM's Sensational Butterflies exhibition, which will allows you to get close to a variety of species this summer in a tropical greenhouse.

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Not the result of an illicit tryst between a butterfly and a frog, this weird hybrid was in fact created as a joke, some time in the late 1800s.

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Welcome to the museum's tank room -- where the spirit collection is housed. The walls are lined with glass tanks filled with a bizarre range of sea creatures, lizards, snakes and mammals, housed in various highly flammable alcohols.

"Everything is about 100 years old, from that Victorian age where you could pretty much go anywhere and take whatever you wanted. There's a lot more regulation now," explained James Maclaine, the curator of fish.

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The metal units in the middle look like operating tables, but they're huge tanks, filled with various dead sea beasts.

Maclaine uses this crane pulley system to remove the lids.

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Worst casserole ever.

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The alcohol preserves the specimens extremely well. This Mola mola, or Ocean Sunfish, was captured in the 60s, and will remain in this condition for many decades to come.

This is a rather small Mola mola -- one of the largest caught to date measured over 3 metres (10 feet) long and weighed over 2,300kg (5,000 pounds).

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Not the head of a dragon -- the head of a sturgeon.

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When it was first caught and preserved, this shark was kept in a suitcase, hence why it's folded round.

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The elephant in the room is Archie the giant squid. His name is derived from his scientific name, Architeuthis, and was caught off the Falkland Islands.

"I remember when it arrived," Maclaine told me, "it was in a crate, all frozen, so we defrosted it. The stink that came off it -- they have a lot of ammonia in their tissue, so there was this nasty public toilet smell. Then we had to inject it, which was a horrible job.

"You can't just get a specimen and put it in a tank -- that will only preserve the outside of it. You have to inject it so the preservative gets into all the tissues. We had to inject it all over and all along its tentacles. Then it leaked," Maclaine said.

"It took months. We didn't have the tank for it until quite late on, so we had to make a tank from wood and pond liner. This tank came from America and cost about £20,000."

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Sharing the tank with the giant squid is a colossal squid. Although this example is smaller than the giant squid, colossal squids are thought to be the larger variety -- although none have ever been seen alive in their natural habitat, the deep ocean.

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The colossal squid has claws on its tentacles, designed to help it latch on to prey, it's believed, rather than the suckers seen on the giant squid.

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"It was originally going to be on display upstairs, but the case weighs over 6 tonnes, and there's nowhere that could safely hold it."

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These jars of specimens were collected by Charles Darwin. As with the butterflies, the tank room contains numerous examples of single species, inside "hundreds of thousands of jars", according to Maclaine.

If you're in London and you're not squeamish, you can book yourself onto a tour of the Spirit Collection.

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"I love the sense of history," said Maclaine. "I may open a jar that's not been touched for 100 years and probably won't be opened again in my lifetime.

"There's a responsibility as a curator to make sure everything's in really good condition and that the records all make sense. I spend a lot of my time correcting Victorian clerical errors."

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"When you think you have a new species, you go to museums and you check other examples to make sure yours is a new species," explains Maclaine. "There's nothing more embarrassing than describing a new species that turns out to be an old one. This comparison is one of the uses of our collection.

"The strongest reaction I ever got from anybody in this room was to the snakes. When the Queen visited the building, one of her assistants came in, saw the snakes, and just wouldn't come back in!"

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"You can never tell what's going to be of interest or when. Some of these have been bottled up since the 1800s, then you'll have someone wanting to study that group of fish, find out what they're related to and you have to open them all," Maclaine said.

"It's like a library -- there might be a book that sits there for years and years but then somebody wants to read it. It's a reference collection -- you cannot tell what uses things are going to have."

This shark head has been in the collection for decades, but was recently re-examined to study the nostrils, in order to help develop a new theory about how sharks breathe.

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