Behind the scenes London: The Natural History Museum's Spirit Collection tour

Costel Sandu, Kate Moore, Luke Abrahams

As Londoners, we naturally sometimes think twice before visiting our wondrous museums. Why? Well, because they are always incredibly busy, and worse, full of children - germ alert.

We want to change this ill thought perception, especially with regards to one of our national treasures, the Natural History Museum.

Since 1881, the glorious architectural gem has inspired thousands of budding entomologists, palaeontologists, mineralogists, botanists, taxidermists and zoologists with its world renowned collection of dinosaur skeletons, ancient artefacts, and mind boggling exhibitions.

Unbeknown to many, they actually keep the coolest stuff out the back where you can't see it. They assure us it's nothing against you. On the contrary, it's because real-life scientists spend thousands of hours studying the museum's mammoth collection of specimens.

In total, the collection tallies 80 million creatures, plants, and bones, 20 million of which are held in special tanks, vases and all sorts of other weird and wonderful containers, many of which you can go and see for yourself in The Spirit Room.

The Spirit Room

It's quite impressive, isn't it?

Well, Ollie definitely thinks so. He's been at the museum for 45 years and is the Natural History Museum's senior fish curator.

Here he is getting cosy with the jaws of a giant great white shark.

Like us, he's obsessed with animals, especially fish. He's worked with the likes of Damien Hirst (remember his formaldehyde sharks - Ollie helped him do it), films crews, journalists and the odd documentary celeb, or two.

For an hour he showed us all sorts on what the museum dubs the Spirit Collection tour. Think huge tuna, deep sea angler fish and loads of other fascinating dead things in jars - some hundreds of years old, and others caught just the other day.

One of the most impressive things Ollie showed us was Archie - the 8.62 metre giant squid.

Back in 2004, his colleague and curator of molluscs John Ablett got a random call asking him if he wanted a giant squid which was caught off the coast of the Falkland Islands. The person on the other end of the phone wanted to know if the museum wanted it, and to cut a long but interesting story short, John said yes.

A few thousand nautical miles later, Archie now lies lengthways in the middle of the Spirit Room, her impressively large body and legs preserved in a giant tank for us all to gawp at.

Amazingly, she's not alone in the tank. As you'll see in our little video, at the other end of the tank Ollie pointed out the remains of half of a baby colossal squid - a sea creature even rarer than Archie.

Since the beginning of time, an adult 'Colossal has never been caught whole' Ollie told us. Science folk say they can probably grow up to 20 metres in length. All we know, is that the baby housed inside the Natural History Museum was big. Too big for our liking.

As for Archie, her stats are just impressive. The pink sea dwellers massive eyes are 23cm in diameter and her tentacles stretch the length of a small bus.

Here's a full length picture just in case you don't believe us:

Aside from Archie, Ollie showed us lots of other really cool things, too.

There's this scary looking shark...

This huge sunfish...

And a rather terrifying Anglerfish that gave us and all the other Nemos in the house nightmares...

Dotted about the place you'll notice all sorts of weird looking jars, too.

There are bizarre shark heads, komodo dragons, lizards, octopuses, manta rays, and even one that contains a load of monkeys.

Oh and snakes. Lots and lots of snakes...

Not all of them can be stuffed into the glasses, though.

If a creature is too big, Ollie tells us they have to put it in one of the giant metal tanks in the centre of the room.

To keep everything looking ship shape, the lidded baths are filled with methylated spirits.

Some, house several species.

For instance, The one Ollie showed us contained a massive bluefin tuna, shark, sting ray, sun fish and a very scary looking monkfish.

One of them even contains a mountain gorilla, but Ollie tells us he is very, very heavy - sadly, he couldn't take him out for us.

So, here's the big question: why is it all kept behind the scenes? Simple - these precious specimens need to kept inside a room that is specially designed to filter out all its flammable vapours - something Hintze hall (the main cavernous section of the building), sadly cannot do.

Another obvious reason is that some of the things are just way too big to be put on show, but also because the collection is mainly designed for research purposes. Simply put, the Spirit Collection is basically a really awesome library of dead things scientists use to find out more about the world and the creatures that inhabit it.

Since its inception hundreds of years ago, white coats far and wide have visited to study, observe and conduct research on the millions of specimens found throughout the collection.

Some of the most prized are those collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of the Beagle back in the 1830s. If you're in the know, this is a pretty big deal as it is was one of the most important scientific expeditions in the history of all things.

One of the best parts of the whole tour is that you can actually see these special little critters for yourself.

'He [Darwin] collected them in the Cape Verde islands', Ollie told us. 'Some of them probably used to conjure up his theory of evolution.'

When you visit, you'll notice that all of the Darwin jars have yellow lids. This is because they're known as 'type specimens' - the original that's used to describe an entire species!

At the time, Darwin was clueless about half of the things he was collecting, so he just bottled them up and brought them back home. Thankfully, a bloke called Leonard Jenyns identified them years later and named them all in a book.

Everything the celebrated naturalist collected is mostly furry (monkeys for example), but there's also a cute little octopus, too. Ask, and a curator will happily point the little fella out.

To sum the place up in a nutshell, it's cool. Very, very cool. And for 10 quid, it's probably one of the best semi-secret things you can do in the capital.

If you decide to visit, you'll be following in the footsteps of Tom Cruise, Isabella Rosselini and Her Majesty, The Queen.

Tweet us @esgolondon and tell us what you thought.

The Spirit Collection Tour is at Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, Kensington, SW7 5BD. Tickets cost £10 and can be booked here.