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Moon Rock Joins Guy the Gorilla, Darwin Pigeon in London

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Sloane Nautilus Shell
A shell carved in the 17th century and cherished by the collector and benefactor Hans Sloane, whose gift to the nation formed the core of the British Museum's collections. It is on display in the new Treasures gallery at the Natural History Museum. Source: Natural History Museum via Bloomberg

Nov. 28 (Bloomberg) -- A page of the world’s most expensive printed book, a lump of moon rock and a 147-million-year-old bird are starring in a new gallery at London’s Natural History Museum.

The chapel-like “Treasures” room opens on Nov. 30. It features 22 highlights from the collections of the museum, which houses more than 70 million specimens in total.

The book sheet comes from a first edition of John James Audubon’s “The Birds of America,” a copy of which sold for $11.5 million in 2010 at Sotheby’s in London. This was the highest price paid at auction for a printed book.

The moon rock, said by scientists to be about 3.7 billion years old, was given by U.S. President Richard Nixon to Britain in 1973 after the last manned moon mission.

“These are the things people ask to see regularly,” said curator Tate Greenhalgh in an interview at the gallery. “They’re the things we’re most proud of, that really represent the museum.”

By far the oldest fossil in the museum is a 147-million-year-old rock slab bearing the carcass of the earliest known bird. It’s one of 1,900 fossils that were bought in 1862 for 700 pounds ($867 today), and a rare illustration of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. The specimen has the bony tail, claws and teeth of a dinosaur, yet the feathers of a bird, clearly visible on the rock.

Darwin stars in other displays. The scientist bred pigeons in his garden and used them to prove natural selection. Two of the birds he gave the museum in 1867 are on display.

Neanderthal Skull

The delicate 50,000-year-old skull of a Neanderthal woman gives a pretty good idea of what our closest known relatives looked like. The first Neanderthal skull ever found, it was discovered in a quarry in Gibraltar in 1848.

The gallery also documents the damage that mankind has done to nature. Standing in a corner window is a stuffed specimen of the great auk, a penguin-like bird became extinct in the 1850s.

One creature may actually be remembered by some museum visitors: He’s Guy the Gorilla, who lived in the London Zoo between 1946 and 1978, and charmed the throngs over the years. His dark, hairy frame now ranks among the museum’s treasures.

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London, SW7 5BD. Information: +44-20-7942-5000, http://www.nhm.ac.uk or http://bit.ly/10vRdpQ.

Muse highlights include Mark Beech on music, Warwick Thompson on London theater, Ryan Sutton on New York food and Amanda Gordon’s Scene Last Night.

To contact the reporter on this story: Farah Nayeri in London farahn@bloomberg.net.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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