Any trip to London, if you have a spare afternoon, should include a visit to a museum. For a different kind of experience (and one that is free of charge), the Natural History Museum is a good candidate for a stroll around. One of a trio of Exhibition Road museums1, it is highly conspicuous due to its architecture, something that may only become obvious when you see it in the flesh (or bricks and mortar, to be more precise).
The museum was designed to house the collections of Sir Hans Sloane, and after Sir Richard Owen campaigned for its construction it was soon built to house a growing amount of natural specimens from all over the world. In 1882 it took 97 days and 394 trips with horse and cart to fill the museum with its original contents, such as items brought back to England from Captain James Cook's voyages and the geological maps of William 'Strata' Smith.
The Natural History Museum is located in the hub of Central London's up-market locations, South Kensington, and its extremely long frontage overlooks Cromwell Road. It is host to many examples of the diversity of life, the dynamic geology of our planet, beautifully preserved fossils and skeletons of prehistoric animals, as well as being the venue for the London Fashion Week exhibition2. For these reasons, and many others that will soon be mentioned, the museum has unsurprisingly developed a reputation for being one of London's top visitor attractions and is open daily (except Christmas) from 10.00am until 5.50pm.
A Cathedral with No Spire?
Designed by Alfred Waterhouse and completed in 1881, the museum is shamelessly neo-gothic, and resembles a large cathedral with blue and honey-coloured terracotta cladding; and you may want to take a look at the gargoyles and reliefs upon the walls - they are not what you might find on any other 'cathedral'. Before you even enter though, there are fine examples of the natural world on the front lawn, such as a petrified tree-trunk which is mind-blowingly old, and casual crumbs from sandwiches which attract birds and other animals from the nearby wildlife garden.
Once you've made your way inside the museum, which houses some 70 million specimens, you will be faced with the skeleton of a dinosaur - a long-necked, long-tailed Diplodocus. Even those who visit the museum often will still be astonished at the size and majesty of this beast, or 'Dippy' as it's affectionately known. The skeleton is also a star in its own right, having 'acted' alongside Peter Ustinov in the 1975 Disney movie One Of Our Dinosaurs Is Missing - much of which was filmed on location at the museum.
The Central Hall
As you enter the Central Hall, take a glance up at the ceiling. It's certainly no Sistine Chapel, but look carefully at the pictures. Again, where you might find pictures of saints and angels emblazoned upon a cathedral ceiling, there is something quite different on the museum ceiling that is in keeping with the theme of natural history. This Entry won't spoil the surprise, suffice to say the neck ache is well worth it. All around the hall are other examples from the Earth's prehistoric past; there is an armadillo-like creature called a Glyptodon, which is about the same size as a Mini Cooper, the fossilized remains of a Mammoth's head complete with gigantic tusks, and even a Moa3.
However, you probably want to see some other things. For wheelchair users, access ramps and lifts are in good locations and well-sized to accommodate more than two users side-by-side, and for the vision impaired or those interested in learning more as they wander around the museum, you can pick up an audio tour set from the information desk to the left of the Cromwell Road entrance. If you've brought the kids too, you can also collect from the information booth a themed 'Explorer Pack'. For a deposit you can get a bright orange backpack, pair of binoculars and a trendy plastic pith helmet for the kids to wear and use as they tramp around the museum. The museum is divided into four main zones:
- Blue - life, the planet and evolution (includes dinosaurs, mammals, fish, reptiles, marine invertebrates, human biology and the Jerwood Gallery)
- Red - the planet Earth (includes gemstones, weather, earthquakes and volcanoes, recycling methods and the history of the Earth)
- Green - ecology (including fossils, insects, birds, plants,primates and the Waterhouse Gallery) and the Investigate Centre (see below for more information)
- Orange - the Wildlife Garden (open between April and October 10.00am - 5.00pm) and Darwin Centre, which contains many of the museums specimens (including a giant squid) and the David Attenborough Studio, an educational media centre
It seems compulsory for any museum of natural history to have a dinosaur exhibition, and the one in the Blue Zone is no different. The main exhibit is the Tyrannosaurus Rex, which apparently has the most natural movement of an animatronic machine in the world, but that is much later on in the exhibition.
On first entering you come face to face with the assembled bones of a triceratops, then make your way to a set of stairs that take you to an overhead walkway, where the nice concise explanations of the dinosaur fossils are on a backlit rail. The fossils are also interestingly and beautifully displayed high up, at walkway level. Interestingly, because there seems to be nowhere else where the skeletons are displayed like this in the museum, and due to the way in which they are lit, casting shadows on the wall, the whole effect strongly gives the impression that these once magnificent creatures are now but ghosts of their former selves.
So, to the end of the walkway, and to the animatronic T-Rex. In fact, it's quite disappointing. The movement is quite good, and it fascinates children for a bit, but you may find that you gaze at the robot, stare at it while it roars a bit and faux chews, then start thinking about what to cook for dinner. Also off-putting is the rather stern and obviously impatient voice-over telling people to continue down the ramp so as not to block the walkway. You can move to one side and take photographs if there's room; the best positions being level with the T-Rex head, or just at the doorway where you exit the walkway.
The rest of the exhibition is pretty standard fare - some interactive things for the kids where they can touch dino-bones, skin and teeth/claws, and also a nice bit of cartoon humour on the 'Why Did the Dinosaurs Die Out?' mural.
The Human Biology section in the Blue Zone, found between the Dinosaurs and the Mammals, is really split into two distinct areas. The development of a human from embryo to adult, and all the workings of cells, DNA and inside bits, and then more on the mind - that is, developmental psychology and memory. There are some fun hands-on bits and pieces to do, for both adults and kids alike, but it can be a bit dull or even a little bit scary for the very young toddler, especially the giant eight-week-old-foetus. The scary parts for parents may be explaining to their children the exhibits that go alongside reproduction, birth and growth...
The best parts of the Human Biology section are those on how we perceive things, with some fun optical illusions; you could even try and catch a duck to test your reactions! The only problem with many of the hands-on exhibits in this section, and much of the museum in fact, is that they are at a level that many younger children that would surely appreciate them cannot reach comfortably, thus an adult has to lift them to allow them to interact.
Here are all the large animals, and this part of the Blue Zone is a fantastic section for the kids. There are display cases with numerous stuffed large cats, bears and Australian marsupials (including a Thylacine) to look at before you enter the main hall, where the looming giraffe and elephants are dwarfed by the massive Blue Whale and its companion skeleton hanging from the ceiling.
A tour around the Mammals section will see you find out how horses evolved, why some animals have splayed hoofs and the difference between cow and camel poo. Up a set of stairs (or a lift) will see you to the mezzanine floor, where you can view the dolphins and dugongs, plus find out about mermaids. Back downstairs again and you can pick up a telephone and talk to some Asiatic or African elephants, compare your weight to that of a whale, or just marvel at the sheer magnitude of some rhino horns!
The Earth Hall certainly begins quite low-key, then you are thrown into what may be the most impressive atrium in all of the Exhibition Road museums. With the constellations of the sky emblazoned all over the walls, a gigantic hollow representation of the Earth and bronze sculptures of several figures representing the past, the present and future at the front, it shows that with an eye for design and a passion for geology, you can pretty much cause the jaws of many visitors to succumb to gravity.
However, you are not even in the galleries yet - they are on the first floor. But whoever designed the atrium obviously had this in mind. To get to them, you take a trip through the hollow Earth - via an escalator, like some intrepid explorer from a Jules Verne novel. The Red Zone is the most recent permanent edition to the museum, much of it being the remnants of the old Geological Museum, and the recommended sections to see are the Power Within, which has hands-on activities relating to the weather and how it shapes the Earth, volcanoes and earthquakes (with reproductions of the Kobe earthquake and the eruption of Mt Vesuvius), and the Earth's Treasury - complete with many minerals and gems including diamonds4.
Creepy Crawlies & Birds
Not for anyone who has a phobia of things that have more than four legs, the arthropod section of the Green Zone has some great bits for the kids including 'Make Your Own Arachnid', and a huge animatronic scorpion that could give even the most hardened explorer the willies.
The bird section within the Green Zone is a small one compared to many of the other exhibits, with stuffed birds lining its walls. There are many to see, including a Dodo, and a neat little bit showing various sized eggs. However, there is a sense of waste (not unlike that encountered when leaving the Mammals section), in that while the specimens are fascinating and wonderful to look at, they're all actually dead animals.
The Investigate Centre
In the basement of the museum and also part of the Green Zone, the Investigate Centre can be found by entering a doorway just near the Museum Shop. Here you can actually get hands-on with some of the specimens found in the museum proper. You can use magnifying glasses, microscopes and all kinds of other investigative tools, and questions will be happily answered by the museum staff dressed in blue or green shirts. Most of the staff here are either scientists or research students, so they know their stuff.
There is a stuffed fox, giant snakeskin, crocodile head, butterflies, fossils, feathers, rocks, bones, and all manner of things to touch and draw and learn about. Computers can be accessed to further your knowledge too, and this area although said to be for the 7-14 year olds, is just as much fun for the younger children and the archaeologist at heart. A favoured section is the pond-life area, where you can see tadpoles and other bugs and plants that live in ponds, but before this section in a smallish corridor is a wonderful human skeleton jigsaw that sticks to the wall like a giant fridge magnet! Much fun can be had rearranging his bones...
Of course, there are other temporary exhibitions which happen at random occasions throughout the year. They aren't usually worth mentioning, due to their temporary nature. However, there is one exhibition which is displayed year after year and is worth mentioning, due to its breathtaking qualities.
Walk from the Central Hall past the dinosaurs, and past the bit on human biology, and you reach the Jerwood Gallery where the exhibition is displayed. A collection of photographs from the top adult and junior (eight-13 years of age) wildlife photographers in the world are on show, displaying a multitude of animals and landscapes in very different and occasionally quirky categories. The photos not only bring out the sighs of admiration, but sometimes a tear too.
The standards of the competition are feverishly high, and the calming atmosphere is well-complemented by the music, or sounds of animals, which wouldn't go amiss on any chill-out album. If you are going to see this, make sure that you don't have any screaming children in your vicinity; avoid going in the half-term holidays (Easter or August), as this really breaks the Zen-like peace and contemplation that you will need when seeing this exhibition.
There are many gift shops dotted throughout the museum, one in each section really. Near the dinosaurs is the Dino-Store; near the Earth Hall is the Earth-Store. However, the Museum Shop, found just a stone's throw from the Central Hall, is perhaps the best of the lot. It offers the widest selection of souvenirs, and is well set out so you can make your way around in relative comfort if it is busy. There is a large range of books, toys and jewellery, and also back-catalogues of the Wildlife Photographer of the Year.
The 'Life Galleries' Restaurant in the museum, just near Mary Anning's Ichthyosaur, is a self-serve affair with hot and cold food that is okay, but served at London prices, and as a result can be a tad expensive. So, unless you have money to burn, or just want a bottle of water, then don't eat here. Saying that, there are good dinosaur lunchpacks for kids that contain a sandwich, drink, snacks and a small plastic dinosaur for a reasonable price - so it's not all bad.
Be warned though, many of the staff serving behind the counters in the museum are often foreign students, so sometimes there can be a language barrier between those whose first language is English and those whose it isn't. There are plenty of other cheaper places to go for a bite or said drink though, both within the museum or in nearby South Kensington, but those are outside the scope of this Entry.
After you've had one of many drinks from all the walking around, through the sometimes ignorant crowds in the invariably tropical humidity of the museum, you'll probably need to visit the little boys'/girls' room. Make sure you've consulted your map properly, and if separating from a larger party, take a mobile phone or arrange a meeting place if you aren't back within a few hours.
Finding a loo can be an adventure in itself from some parts of the museum, and as with much of the signposting, ambiguity reigns triumphant. Asking one of the museum staff dressed in red shirts can prove even more confusing, either because they're a foreign student, or are just as lost themselves! However, once you've reached your goal, they (the loos) are clean, tidy and even on a busy day there aren't large queues5.
How to Get To The Museum
The Underground is still the best way to get around London, and South Kensington Tube Station is the closest to the museum. It is served by the Piccadilly, District and Circle Lines, and past experience of many travellers will show that you are well advised to get onto the Piccadilly Line to get off here, as it is the most reliable out of the not-so-regular and highly confusing District Line and the universally slated and generally abysmal Circle Line. South Kensington Tube Station has plenty of signs to the museum, most pointing down a pedestrian tunnel. It's a perfectly acceptable route to use, although it can smell of stale urine and also become flooded if there has been heavy rain.
If you arrive via the tube, don't turn right out of the station to walk down Exhibition Road - this will get you there, but you don't see much on the way. Instead, turn left, past the cash machines, and then once out of the exit, turn right, past the shop called 'Darwin's Deli - The Natural Selection'6. Walk on a bit, and the Natural History Museum should appear in front of you, framed by the distinctive white Georgian buildings so common throughout South Kensington. Walk towards it and remember to take care crossing the road, as Cromwell Road7 will be the last obstacle before reaching the museum.
Top Tips for a Good Day at the Museum
Pick up a Museum Map from the Information Desk or the many Gift Shops. There's one at the back of the Souvenir Guide (which is a nice book, but a tad pricey at £4.50 at the time of writing), but the small fold up brochure ones are better.
Pack some drinks in a bag. All the walking around will make you thirsty, and again prices can be steep even just for a bottle of water.
Go late in the afternoon. After about 3.00pm the museum quietens down a bit, and then you can see things more comfortably. The dinosaurs are a favourite with the kids, and they'll appreciate not getting as jostled about with the large crowds if you leave that section until last; plus it ends the day on a high.
Plan your visit. If you go with the intention of just wandering around, that's fine, but it makes for a better day if you choose some sections to look at. The ones already mentioned in the Entry come highly recommended, and take about 3 to 4 hours to see comfortably (with a child in tow).
Have some small change with you and drop it into one of the many donation boxes. While admittance is free, the museum relies to a degree on charity (another reason why things can be a bit expensive unfortunately).
Leave if you're not enjoying it. If it's too busy, too hot, and not fun, leave it for another day. It's worth being in a good mood for, so that you can appreciate it fully.