Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Natural History Museum: Unnatural and far from historical

by Paul Letters

Paul Letters gained behind the scenes access to look into the intriguing war history of the museum at the centre of Britain’s secret war.

Only 16% of London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) is open to public view today (the hidden 84% includes one £45m dinosaur). Rather less of the museum was open during World War II. While London Zoo was advertising lessons in ‘How to Rear Chickens at Home’, the Natural History Museum was evacuating many of their (stuffed) animals. The reasons for the evacuation have less to do with German bombs and more to do with exploding camel dung: traditional exhibits had to ship out to make room for a novel exhibition.

Step through the archway under the flying staircase and you emerge into the cathedral-like Central Hall. From the twin banks of skylights lining the gilded ceiling, daylight pours down upon the skeletal diplodocus – one of the Natural History Museum’s exhibits which avoided evacuation during the war. (From toothy grin to the hanging tail, the bones are replicas made before the war, but don’t tell anyone.) Tucked away down labyrinthine corridors, a secret agent’s toyshop once co-existed with an operational museum.

A hive of activity in the war years, the Natural History Museum brought to life the preposterous ideas of one Ian Fleming and his associates, producing a cornucopia of gadgets and weapons. Today, Special Operations Executive’s (SOE) Station XVB is lined with a parade of mammals. Some of these remained on display throughout the war – including when the museum was briefly closed to the public – keeping beady eyes on the antics of the SOE specialists, and visitors including Winston Churchill and King George VI.

Each one of the six Station XVB rooms within the museum had their own particular theme, such as ‘Incendiaries and Demolition Charges’ or ‘Explosives Camouflage Section’. London Zoo supplied sample animal droppings relevant to the various theatres of war. Then, for the European theatre of war, plaster cowpats and horse manure would be made and packed with plastic explosives – whereas camel dung was all the rage for North Africa. Plaster-cast coal was another favourite: leave it in the right place and the enemy would light their own explosive end.

While rats (stuffed with explosives) were imploding in closed-off galleries, many rooms remained open to the public for much of the war. (For example, August 1942 – July 1944 saw 250,000 visitors). Museum staff numbers were greatly reduced and bombs hit the complex on several occasions. To keep spirits up, the Chief Librarian produced an irreverent and humorous serial publication entitled Tin Hat, which at times referred to a “hush hush” organisation operating within the museum.

In closed-off galleries, machine guns were concealed inside fish, wireless sets in books, and country-specific clothes and shoes were produced and then artificially aged. A Jewish refugee from Berlin was employed to tailor authentic German clothes for agents – who were only ever a few missed stitches away from having their cover blown.

Seventy years ago, the father of a modern-day NHM zoologist, Paul Clark, piloted SOE agents abroad in the dead of night. The SOE’s connection to the museum dropped out of history after the war, until recent research by Clark junior. Now, history has been rediscovered.

Many thanks to the NHM, particularly to Mark Heslington for his time and anecdotes.


Paul Letters is a writer and political commentator. He is the author of A Chance Kill (2015), an old-fashioned love story/thriller inspired by the author’s Polish grandmother’s life on the run from the Nazis, the secret agents who risked it all and the heroics of RAF crews ordered to achieve the impossible. A part of the book is set within the Natural History Museum. The story is based upon authentic events and real lives, researched with the aid of expert historians in Warsaw, London and Prague. Please see aChanceKill.com.


  1. How fascinating. Thanks for sharing.

  2. Indeed. Great stuff. I'll think of this next time I visit. Good luck with your book as well. I also sounds fascinating.


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