Behind-the-Scenes Tour: Spirit Collection, Natural History Museum, London

‘Is it more stuff in jars’, was the question from my boyfriend, who I was very definitely dragging along on this birthday treat to myself. And yes, yes the Spirit Specimen Tour at the Natural History Museum in London is a behind the scenes peek of their ‘stuff in jars’ store which holds around 22 million animal specimens.

Spirit specimens, or wet specimens, are often stored in a 70% ethanol solution, after the specimen was fixed with formalin. However this does vary, with some modern specimens being preserved in glycerol as a replacement for formalin. They are mainly stored in glass jars, although there are also examples of acrylic containers.

The tour was brilliant. Led by a lady called Jenny, she gave us a brief history of the museums and led us from the Hintz Hall to the spirit store. We entered the first cool store room, with metal racking. A number of shelving units have Perspex fronts so you could see a number of the specimens shelved on them, from a jar of mice to a pangolin. She then led us into the second, larger room and study space.

Spirit Specimen Tour Archie

The elephant in the room is in fact a giant squid. She’s called Archie, after her Latin name Architeuthis dux. At 8.62 meters long she has a specially made case. The facts that we were informed alongside her are incredible. Did you know giant squids have a donut shaped brain? And their blood is blue because it’s based around copper.

The room also contains a case of type specimens, which are marked out by yellow painted tops. Type specimens are the specific specimens that the description and name of a new species is based. There is a case full of these incredibly special specimens, made even more important by the notoriety of the individuals that discovered many of them, notably Charles Darwin, the author of the Origin of Species and Richard Owen, the founder of the Natural History Museum and the man who coined the name dinosaur.

It’s one of the best tours that I have been on, informative, interesting and inspiring. I’d highly recommend it.


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