The Spirit Collection at the Natural History Museum does not contain a curated selection of souls, or at least not exactly. Don’t go looking to understand the anatomy of a phantom or the evolution of your average poltergeist, but if you want to see embalmed miniature dolphins, rat spines in jam jars, perfectly preserved shark heads or a giant squid named Alfred, then a back-stage tour of the museum’s Spirit Collection will get you in the mood for Halloween.
The Natural History Museum is one of my favorite museums in the world. I’ve spent days studying the stuffed hummingbirds and the (justified) worry on the face of dodos; the whale-spines, snake heads, dinosaur skeletons and cabinets of beetles. This time I went to specifically to visit the birds, in preparation for a taxidermy course I have booked for the beginning of November, but I discovered that in all my years of coming here I’d never followed signs to the collection of “spirits”.
The small top floor gallery is spectacular – full of mice and bats and forlorn-eyed seahorses incased in jars of luminous methylated spirit – but taking a tour into the bowels of the museum, past laboratories and through grey filing cabinets full of curiosities, the air chill with a chemical edge, you’re in real Halloween territory.
There’s a squid as long as a double-decker bus with ragged pink flesh and huge talons to capture whales, but only tiny beak-like mouths to to eat them with. “Being eaten by a giant squid would be like being licked to death by a kitten,” the tour guide explained chirpily. There are fish with limb bones in their fins, bats that look like dragons, specimens from HMS Beagle, snakes with their tongues still hissing out.
If Pullman’s His Dark Materials was re-written as a horror movie, this is where the last chapter would end: all the daemons of the world torn from their humans and floating eternally in cold chambers of glass jars underneath London. The coiled snake grimacing out from a tube of luminous formaldehyde is your ex-boyfriend’s daemon, perhaps. That furless baby kangaroo? Belonged to the girl he left you for. That black crow, with her wings stretched up and her neck broken against the bottom of her jar, that’s your imagination before she was snipped away from you at the climax of act three and embalmed to leave space for a sequel.
Maybe, on Halloween, the souls will break out of their glass jars and scamper, shaking alcohol off their fur, across the great tiled floors, impatiently flapping wet bony wings, hopping into the air until they fly, sniffing for their humans. I hope so. I’ve booked a nighttime “behind the scenes” tour on the 31st, just in case.