Thu. Mar 23rd, 2023

Crime Scene Live is an ongoing series of events, usually once a month, at London’s Natural History Museum. It is a very popular event and tickets sell out months in advance.

I’ve always known there had to be a dark side to the seemingly placid Natural History Museum, and lo and behold, I recently received an ominous email. There’s been a murder in a shed behind the museum, I’m told. My first thought is that it might be one of the screaming kids you often see outside the Dinostore, whining pitifully about the size of their stuffed animal. But upon reflection, this murder was committed last year and the case is now being reopened due to gruesome new evidence.

I feel well prepared for my job as a trainee crime scene detective (CSI) by binge watching Make a killer recently. I put on my full SOCO suit and with cider in one hand, notebook in the other, I pay close attention to the first briefing. Event organizer Lucy Minshall tells me (along with 100 other newbies) about some mysterious disappearances that have occurred among museum staff. Chillingly, we wonder if the skeleton in the barn could be one of them.

It seems the body could be one of three museum employees: Sally Hughes (glamorous younger woman), Susan Snow (obsessive older woman), or Daniel Davis (regular dude). Phil Turner stands out as the prime suspect as he is the boyfriend of Sally Hughes, and bloody clothes were found in his flat. But things are more complicated than they first appear. Coinciding with the murder was the disappearance of the infamous Cursed Amethyst. Could these events be related?

During the briefing, we are told that we will participate in three activities that would help us identify the victim, determine when they were murdered, and track down the killer. We work in three teams (Alpha, Bravo and Charlie) of about 30 people and are given about 45 minutes for each activity. In retrospect, this didn’t seem long enough, and I ended up having to be dragged away from my newly found maggot buddies.

Team Bravo’s first stop is a lecture hall where Ally Fray, an archaeologically trained anthropologist, promises to help us develop our forensic anthropology skills to identify the age, sex, and height of the body from the skeleton. Fortunately, they manage to cover every bone – and hopefully help us identify our victim.

By inspecting and measuring the teeth, pelvis and skull of our skeleton, we come to a unanimous decision on who should be the victim *no spoilers*. While the session seems to confirm my initial fears that this evening might involve too much thinking and too little drinking, it moves quickly and is accompanied by regular good-natured banter.

Fingerprint analysis for dummies.
Enlarge / Fingerprint analysis for dummies.

Lucy Orr

As we are confident that we are well on our way to solving this crime and building a new career in forensic science, it is time to get to grips with a mass of physical evidence collected by the police over the past few months . Right-style eyeballing of blood spatter and looking through social media and travel logs all lead me to what I suspect must be some red herrings, so it’s time for some fingerprint analysis to narrow down the suspects.

Using magnetic powder to find fingerprints seems easy Columbo, but it’s surprisingly hard to tell one sweaty blob from another. One of the Natural History Museum’s CSI assistants told me that using a microscope would help me more easily identify unique patterns, but I feel sorry for anyone who might be judged based on my rather shoddy dermatoglyphic assumptions. I suspect that my creeping uncertainty and clear scientific thinking has to do with the temperature in the museum’s basement (which varies between sweltering and boiling) forcing many participants to partially remove their SOCO suits: these temperatures are all the better for growing maggots indoors, I assume.

In our third and final activity, the museum’s forensic entomologist, Martin Hall, explains how we can accurately determine a time of death by using the pupation cycle of flies. I manage – after much deliberation of puppet maps and study of flybeard hairs – to discover that my maggot of the Calliphora vomitoria variety, which seems odd, as Hall tells me these flies are usually found in a rural setting. There must be something fishy about breeding maggots for other purposes, we agree.

To recover from sulking over my defeat in the maggot race, I head to the bar for another cider and discuss my findings and suspicions with other members of team Bravo. Then I return to the auditorium for the closing of the event. Unsurprisingly, the killer is given away by his Oyster card history, rather than any forensic details, and – as usual – greed and professional grudge prove to be deadly motives. While some may complain that the murder plot is too obvious, I feel it gives those involved a sense of accomplishment: they learned enough forensic skills during the evening to properly deduce who committed the crime.

We also had to look for clues outside.
Enlarge / We also had to look for clues outside.

The whole evening is over in a flash. The pace is good enough to make me feel like I’m making progress in a real criminal case, but after paying £60 for a ticket, £5 for a slice of pizza certainly deserves its own criminal investigation.

The bowels of the Natural History Museum give the proceedings an air of gravity and genuine scientific rigor. Informative and entertaining for science nerds and Philistines alike, this ongoing event is a suitably refreshing way to experience such an iconic and endearing building.

I had so much fun I’m almost tempted to book myself into a Dino nore night at the museum, even though it costs £180.

Crime Scene Live is regularly hosted at London’s Natural History Museum, but tickets are selling fast. Wannabe private cocks are advised to use their best detection skills to track availability for the next event. Full details are here.


Lucy Orr grew up near CERN and Fermilab, while her father was busy searching for the Higgs boson (which he eventually found). While waiting for her mutant powers to manifest, Lucy dabbled in BASIC programming, reading comics, and playing MUDs. With an extensive career in digital art and animation, she still finds time to pet ferrets, listen to pop punk and drink cider.

Frame image by The Natural History Museum

By akfire1

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