From great exhibits to exhibit A

5th July 2013 at 01:00
Museums are increasingly offering the services of their forensic scientists to aid police in criminal investigations

A museum night seem an unlikely first port of call for police, customs and other authorities in the fight against murder, invasive parasites or the smuggling of exotic animals.

But Britain's museums, better known for lending exhibits, are increasingly loaning the expertise of their forensic specialists to the wider world - a move that also raises funds for the institutions.

In London, England, the Natural History Museum's 300 or so scientists and researchers made #163;611,000 from consultancy services last year. Other renowned academic institutions are following suit but the Natural History Museum has arguably had the greatest success.

It has contracts with London's Metropolitan Police, and its two forensic science laboratories allow its experts to offer crime-fighting services, including forensic entomology, forensic botany and forensic anthropology.

Your students may be surprised to learn that maggots and other insects found in and around a corpse are useful aids to determining time of death. But as this information is high on the "yuck" factor, they are also likely to find it grimly fascinating, making it a great way to introduce topics such as criminology and the history of forensics.

Amoret Whitaker, an entomologist at the Natural History Museum, has helped police on a number of investigations. She told UK newspaper The Independent about a recent case in which she helped to determine whether a carpet had been discarded because of an insect infestation or for more suspicious reasons.

"Police wanted to know if a carpet which had been thrown out had had a big flea infestation, as was claimed by its owners, who kept dogs. I took a mini- vacuum cleaner to their home," she said. "The indications were that there had not been a large infestation.

"After the police put this to the people concerned, it turned out that their son had killed a person and he was charged with murder."

On another occasion, the museum entomology team was able to establish that the time of death for a man who had been missing for three months was at least two and a half months before his body was discovered - not, as a pathologist had estimated, two to three weeks.

CLASS QUESTIONS

- How can maggots help scientists to accurately calculate time of death?

- How important is forensic science in a police investigation?

- What are the origins of modern forensic science?

- Why would the expertise of scientists employed by museums be useful to police?

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