The Museum at wartime
In times of war, the Museum defiantly stayed open for as long as it could, its grounds were converted to community allotments and resident scientists put their minds to keeping troops and allies alive on foreign soil.
During the Second World War a number of the Museum's galleries were commandeered to provide tools and training for British secret spy networks.
Photos from the archives reveal the Museum's little-known contribution to the war effort and offer a glimpse of life on the home front in one of London's most iconic buildings.
The Museum remained open to the public throughout the First World War, sharing knowledge to help the home front. Displays were created covering gardening, pest control and foraging.
As food shortages took their toll, carrier pigeons relaying military communications and life-saving messages from downed pilots sometimes ended up shot for pigeon pie.
This display of types of pigeons was created to help those at home tell the difference between ordinary wood pigeons, rock doves, stock doves and their carrier pigeon cousins
In 1910 the Museum received a request from the War Office. A batch of army biscuits - a staple of the military diet - which had been sent to troops in South Africa and Mauritius had been infested with moths and become inedible despite being transported in hermetically sealed jars.
John Hartley Durrant of the Zoology department was asked to investigate. He concluded that eggs must have been laid at some point between baking and packing the biscuits, with larvae developing later inside the sealed tins
During the First World War, British forces used over one million horses and mules to pull heavy machinery, carry supplies and provide transport.
This proved essential for the war effort. In 1914, Lieutenant Colonel E Lloyd Williams of the 2nd London Division applied for permission for his men to visit the Museum and study the anatomy of horse specimens on display. Today, visitors can still see one of these specimens in the Mammals gallery.
This rare swallowtail butterfly, Iphiclides podalirius, was captured in 1916 in a front line trench at Maricourt in the Somme valley, by a soldier named A A Tullett. It was acquired by the Museum in 1934.
Over one million Indian troops served for the British during the First World War being deployed from the Western Front to German East Africa.
Following the London Victory Parade on 19 July 1919, the Indian soldiers who were treated in Brighton during the war were given tours of the Museum.
Spies in the Museum
A British spy network called the Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in 1940 as a secret service under the aegis of the Minister of Economic Warfare.
Under the cover name Inter-Services Research Bureau, its mission was 'to aid and encourage all resistance to the enemy in occupied territories'.
Unbeknown to the public, the SOE sealed off several galleries to create a workshop and top secret demonstration room. Plasterers and carpenters prepared materials for agents in the field in a workshop at the north end of what is now the Jerwood Gallery.
James Bond-style hardware created in the SEO workshop included innocuous-looking carvings cast in high explosive, coloured to look like wood, sandstone and porcelain and designed to be detonated by time delay. The War Office created catalogues of such devices explaining that local agents on the Eastern Front would pose as quayside hawkers and sell carvings to embarking Japanese troops.
One of the most curious weapons offered to agents in the catalogue of special devices and supplies was an exploding rat - literally, a rat skin filled with explosives.
Between September 1940 and April 1941 the Museum was hit by a number of bad air raids as the Luftwaffe targeted London, which then resumed in 1944 with the deployment of 'Doodlebugs' (V-1 flying bombs). These raids resulted in major damage to many parts of the Museum.
Flora from bombed sites
Chamaenerion angustifolium (fireweed) is a highly toxic plant that grows quickly after fire. It was a common sight amongst rubble and derelict buildings in London after the war.
This example was collected in Holborn, as part of a survey of the flora of London bombed sites conducted in 1950.
Visit the Museum
Visitors can still see two plaques memorialising the efforts that Museum staff played in both world wars. The first (located in Hintze Hall) honours the 68 men from the Museum who served in the First World War, 13 of whom did not return.
The second (found outside the Mammals Gallery) remembers the men and women who worked for the SOE.
More about the Museum at War
Drawing on records and letters from the Museum archives, Karolyn Shindler chronicles Museum life during the First World War in her book A Museum at War.