When the curators of the Natural History Museum’s engrossing journey into some of the most extreme ecosystems on Earth planned this exhibit – which includes a mannequin cave diver – they can’t have guessed how its meaning would change by the time the show opened. Seeing it in the week 12 boys and their football coach were rescued by divers from the flooded Tham Luang cave, the mannequin looks like a statue of a modern hero.
This exhibition shows how the techniques that enabled the Wild Boar football team to be located and saved come from the cutting edge of exploration. Caves are one of Earth’s undiscovered countries. Only about 10% of the spaces carved under the planet’s surface by rainwater reacting with limestone are known to humans. Cave diving is almost as difficult and adventurous as space travel. It is also, we see in this show, making startling scientific discoveries. The creepy crawlies on view are a glimpse of some of nature’s most spine-tingling marvels. There’s a cave boa that hunts bats in the dark, a giant centipede that also feasts on the same poor bats and cockroaches that eat their guano. And ugh, you can smell that guano.
The blind colourless creatures that inhabit caves are the stuff of legend as well as science. The Olm is a white aquatic salamander that lives in flooded caves in the Balkans. Its monstrous appearance inspired a folk belief that it is a baby dragon. Caves are after all the homes of dragons – according to the Vikings and JRR Tolkien. The name seems related to the Norse world Orm, meaning a snake or dragon.
Life in the Dark is an absorbing mix of modern immersive installations with specimens from the Natural History Museum’s vast collections of preserved animals. Once, these stuffed or pickled creatures were displayed throughout this wondrous Victorian building. Today many are hidden away or viewable only on behind-the-scenes tours, but for this show they have been released into the artificial wild.
It all starts quite Beatrix Potter, with stuffed badgers, foxes and owls in a re-creation of nocturnal nature. But then you travel deeper into the dark, past screeching bats, through a stony cave with a tank full of eyeless (living) Mexican tetra fish, until you dive beneath the sea, deeper than a whale, right down to the bottom.
If caves are mysterious and challenging to explore, the deep sea remains the least earthly of Earth’s environments. This exhibition re-creates the abyss with an arsenal of multimedia effects that make you feel as if you are walking through an immersive version of the BBC’s Blue Planet. A dazzling array of lights flicker in a darkened space that seems to go on for ever, evoking what it would be like to float in the deep and look up at myriad bioluminescent creatures.
Yet while it matches the gasp-inducing spectacle of a nature documentary, this is science. The seductive photography and smooth editing of TV fishfests can raise questions about authenticity, not to mention what it all means beyond being beautiful. Here the images are all real and the things in jars even more so. Footage from a submersible is so raw that not only is the sea full of dust and plankton, but the voices of the robot’s controllers can be heard saying inane things (“OMG it’s a shark!”). Nearby are some of the actual creatures they observed: a Dumbo octopus, a sea cucumber, huge-toothed angler fish – some of the most alien-seeming beasties on the planet.
If aliens exist, they may resemble the life forms that congregate around volcanic hydrothermal vents in ocean floors. The Pompeii worm, looking like a stalk of rotten rhubarb in its jar, is one of these impossible creatures. It anchors itself to the rock in temperatures of 80 degrees centigrade. Scientists have yet to discover how it can thrive in near-boiling water.
The Natural History Museum is not just a family-friendly visitor attraction but a cutting-edge research centre. Its researchers, the exhibition reveals, have recently made a startling breakthrough. The weird world of hydrothermal vents with their colonies of white blind crustaceans seem absolutely primordial. It seems reasonable to assume life here has gone on in the same way since early in the history of animals. Yet by comparing fossils of ancient hydrothermal fauna with the inhabitants of these remote places today, the NHM has discovered this isn’t the case. The life we see here has evolved much more recently – and is still evolving.
Art and science come together in this gallery of wonders to make you gawp like a deep sea fish, mouth wide open, eyes bulging, hypnotised by the bioluminescence.