The great auk is the northern hemisphere’s dodo: a large, flightless bird, hunted to extinction by humans. It was also, as its scientific name, Pinguinus impennis, implies, the original pengiun. Not that it was what we would refer to as a penguin these days; it was called a penguin before travellers from the northern hemisphere travelled south and encountered other large, flightless, aquatic birds, which they also decided to call penguins. Confusing, isn’t it?
This particular great auk’s egg was bequeathed to the museum in 1852 by the 13th Earl of Derby (who was, equally confusingly, based at Knowsley near Liverpool, which is nowhere near Derby). The earl knew Charles Darwin, and there are a number of references to his wonderful menagerie in Darwin’s papers. That menagerie survives today as Knowsley Safari Park.
I work in Liverpool, so, this lunchtime, I paid a quick visit to the museum to have a look at the Earl of Derby’s egg. It was wonderful, and rather moving: slightly bigger than an avocado, with a remarkable, delicate, Jackson Pollockesque, black and white pattern on its shell. Too fragile to move, it is housed in its original Victorian wooden box, nestling in cotton wool.
The trend today is towards child-friendly, interactive museum exhibits—a triumph of style over content. Give me eggs in wooden boxes any day of the week.
See also: The Dead Zoo