The Natural History Museum is one of London’s famous museums, located, like so many of the others, in South Kensington. I rarely go, simply because it’s so popular: the queue to get in is always massive and full of kids. I had a day off work at a time when I knew the schools would be back, and decided to use it to enjoy the museum, but it was still pretty crowded. Oh well.
Undaunted, I headed in anyway. I was greeted by Dippy the Dino: due to be removed at the end of 2016, I was glad to see him for the last time. The hall is possibly the most beautiful part of the museum, decorated with carvings of many different animals, flanked with arches, and ending in an imposing staircase.
The origins of the collection lie in the specimens of the Ulster doctor Sir Hans Sloane, who allowed the British Government to purchase the collection in the mid-eighteenth century. The collection was initially housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury, in 1756, the home of the British Museum. Over the years, much of the Sloane collection disappeared, many specimens having been sold to the Royal College of Surgeons.
The palaeontologist Richard Owen was appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum in 1856. Seeing that these departments needed more space, he arranged for land in South Kensington to be purchased. The civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke won a 1864 competition to design the new museum, but he died shortly afterwards and the job was taken on by Alfred Waterhouse, who revised the plans considerably. Work began in 1873, the building was completed in 1880, and the museum opened the following year.
The museum still remained, legally, part of the British Museum, using the name British Museum (Natural History). A petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was made in 1866 requesting independence, but it wasn’t until 1963 and the passing of the British Museum Act that this was granted, and the museum retained the original name until 1992 (though it was informally rebranded as the Natural History Museum four years earlier).
Today, the museum is free to enter (except for special events and exhibitions) and is a thriving destination for Londoners and tourists alike. It has a special appeal for children, but there is plenty of interest for adults too.
The museum is divided into zones, which helps with navigation. There are plenty of maps around the place to help you find your way.
The highlight of the Blue Zone is the Dinosaurs Gallery – the most popular gallery in the museum – which has plenty of interest including the first fossil ever found from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Iguanodon, the skull of a plant-eating Triceratops, and more. This zone also contains skeletons, models and stuffed animals, encompassing the natural world including fish, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Many of the stuffed animals look rather old and tired now, but this is understandable considering the museum no longer wants to kill and stuff animals for display. I thought the section on human biology also looked a bit dated, but it was certainly very informative.
This zone rather randomly brings together fossils, minerals, birds and “creepy crawlies”. My favourites were the dodo (now sadly extinct) and the giant plesiosaur skeleton on the wall. I’m not a huge fan of insects and other crawling things, but I have a particular love for leaf-cutter ants and can happily spend ages watching them march along bearing their huge leaf fragments triumphantly. This zone also includes the Treasures Gallery, containing an exciting assortment of special and unique items including an emperor penguin egg collected during Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition, and Guy the gorilla.
This zone encompasses the former Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey, which became part of the museum in 1986. The impressive Earth Hall features an exciting entrance that takes visitors up an escalator and through a giant model of the earth. This zone looks at the history of human evolution, rocks and gems, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanoes. I particularly liked the earthquake simulator.
The museum has frequent special exhibitions, including the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and the summer staple Sensational Butterflies. There is also a branch of the museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. Other special events include monthly lates and popular sleepovers (“Dino Snores”), with separate events for both children and adults. This is on my bucket list!
The Natural History Museum is a hugely impressive and educational free museum. Some of it is looking a bit dated and tired now, but that’s understandable given its sheer size and the number of visitors it sees through its doors. In 2017 a project will revitalise the Hintze Hall, former home of Dippy the Dino, and the Treasures Gallery; maybe after that’s done they’ll get on to the rest of it. It’s still a valuable resource, and superb special exhibitions keep me going back.
Address: Cromwell Road, Kensington, London, SW7 5BD
Opening Hours: Daily 10.00-17.50