A Trip to London's Natural History Museum

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The Natural History Museum is on many a person's bucket-list to visit.

Now THIS is what I call a museum entrance!
After all, it's arguably the best place in England to view dinosaurs and few people have managed to avoid adopting a childhood fascination with the massive reptiles that carried on into adulthood. So, being a fellow dinosaur-enthusiast, I could hardly walk past it when I spent a few days in London.

I'm happy to report that the museum was well worth the visit. As we went mid week in the morning, the crowds were very manageable: when they did turn up it was mostly school groups of primary school children, so we could easily peek over their heads - win! As with all the London museums that we visited, we expected to be in and out in a couple of hours, but it sucked out the best part of the day. While our feet were complaining our brains were humming, and there's a surprising amount on display for any curious traveller to explore...

Pachycephalosaurus gives new meaning to the phrase  'thick-headed'
'THE' Dinosaur and the Amazing Building

When you step into the Natural History museum the first thing you notice isn't Dippy the Diplodocus in the centre, but the building itself. With it's striped stone, intricate nature-themed carvings and the cathedral-like height and use of light, I found myself gawping up at it all, completely stunned. It is - in a word - beautiful and is a perfect setting for the more traditional collections that you find inside. It feels eminently victorian, which sits well with the marble statue of Darwin who (currently) sits front and centre, welcoming you into the place. But, of course, the real celebrity is Dippy and it doesn't disappoint. Smaller than the Brontosaurus images you often have in mind, it is nevertheless both imposing and graceful, stretching out its head above the crowds almost close enough to touch. You start to get a real sense of the scale of dinosaurs, though if you wander to the sides and peek at the other isolated displays - such as a vast mammoth skull - Dippy seems quite modest in comparison.

"We're just a pair of charming fluffy cuties. Pay no attention to the teeth."
Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs, Dinosaurs!

Naturally, with Dippy at the helm, the most popular exhibit was going to be the dinosaurs. It's arranged in a long snaking moody corridor (a little like a queue at Alton Towers) and holds an impressive number of life-sized casts of famous dinosaur fossils as well as a couple of originals. It's well supported by displays that talk about dinosaur evolution, breeding practices, combat, behaviour and more. Being the most popular exhibit, you have to be prepared to be patient and walk at a shuffling pace, but there is plenty to look at and plenty of places to step away from the flow and take a bit of time. The iguanodon is especially impressive in its sheer size, as well as the hefty triceratops, T-Rex and the Ankylosaurus partially encased in rock. There were also fun animatronics on display, such as a T-rex and a pair of feathered raptors. If anything, it's as if they are swimming in the things, with some dinosaur skeletons even hanging from the ceiling. It certainly gives you plenty to look at.

Further proof that babies are eldritch horrors.
The Terror-Fetus Teaches Us About Human Development

With the dinosaurs under your belt you might be forgiven for thinking that most of the museum is over, but it's only the beginning! Drift around and soon you will come to the exhibition on human development. Here the museum very much shows it's age: while it's a great interactive experience especially for children, the exhibits themselves are very long in the tooth. The displays often feature videos with narration and an abundance of dubious fashion and haircuts that marks them as being filmed somewhere around the 80s at best. Even the accents seem dated. It's a little disappointing for such a prestigious museum, but there's still plenty to be learned and the section about the brain development of babies and small children is especially intriguing. Also, being the liberal that I am, I really appreciated the frankness and openness of the sex education on offer, including anatomically correct nude sculptures and illustrations. With this exhibit (and the museum in general) being so focused on children, it was heartening to see that science trumped prudishness in this case.
On a less serious note, this exhibition features a massive horrifying model of a fetus that is nestled in a cave-like section, so if you're a fan of the bizarre you should give it a peek.

You need to get yourself to the whale room. It's immense.

So. Much. Taxidermy.

Any museum about natural history worth its salt has a well stocked taxidermy section. As a kid it was what I loved most about our local museum, because it allowed me to see so many beautiful animals up close. So it's no surprise that The Natural History Museum has these long-dead creatures in spades all throughout the museum. One long corridor is dedicated to  walls of floor-to-ceiling fossils of ancient sea creatures. Another corridor holds cabinets of eggs, displays of various wings and feet, and even a case full of hundreds of species of beautiful humming birds. Mammals, reptiles, insects - you name it and you can see them here in the museum and they will suck hours of your time into studying them all. Perhaps the most impressive room is the 'whale room' which displays the evolution of horses, deer, elephants and more, all with examples of modern and ancient animals in full scale. Hanging above you and in the centre of the room is the marine life, showing the sheer vastness of whales and their marvellous anatomy. Climb up onto a balcony and you can learn about them as well as dolphins, manatees and narwhals. It's enough to take your breath away.

A timeline of our ancestors

A Hidden Gem of Human Evolution

Carry on through the museum and you may start to flag. You may wonder whether you're anywhere near the end. Fool! There is still plenty to see!
Towards the 'back' of the museum you come to the section on human evolution. For me it was a complete surprise, so to stumble across a wall of human skulls really caught me offgaurd and packed an emotional punch. They were beautiful to see, with our oldest ancestors at the bottom and homo sapiens  at the top. Follow the entrance through and it took you to a relatively modest exhibit in size that was packed with quality content for anyone who is fascinated by 'cavemen'. There were even more skulls, and plaster casts and two stunning models of a Neanderthal and modern human. Again there was no shyness in nudity for these models, which made them all the more striking, and the ability to stare each one in the face was quite magical. They were intelligent, perhaps a little standoffish, perhaps a little dangerous. Serious kudos to the sculptors for these.
A surprise find inside was also 'the hobbit' skeleton - a tiny and fascinating human species found in a cave some years ago - in complete form, stood up to their full (diminutive) height. For me, this exhibition was a gem.


Take the Escalator to the Terror-Dome and See How Our Planet Tries to Kill Us

Apparently glowing, womb-like caverns of terror are a theme around here.
Next to the human evolution section was the surprise of a stunning glowing orb with an escalator attached going, apparently, nowhere. Take the escalator up and you move through a gorgeous sculpture of magma and tectonic plates to emerge a floor higher to a massive exhibit all about our planet's geology. Personally, we were flagging at this point and geology isn't a personal interest of mine, so we moved through it quite quickly, but it was a quality exhibition with plenty of interactive displays about various rocks, minerals and sediments. There were plenty of examples that you were allowed to touch, including a pillar from the giant's causeway. The most interesting section for me was the one on earthquakes and how shifting tectonic plates cause them. They even had a display set up as a life-sized japanese grocery shop. Step onto it and it showed a video of a strong earthquake in action in the real-life version of the store, while the floor beneath you shifted and jerked around to simulate a real earthquake, clattering and shaking all the items around you. While I've no doubt that it was toned down a little so that it didn't actually injure anyone, it was still a striking simulation that helped you get in the mindset of the people affected by the catastrophe and to appreciate the raw power of the earth beneath our feet.

But Wait, There More...

 By the time we left the earth section we were well and truly knackered and perilously close to being late for our train home if we didn't get our timings for the return journey right. But if we had stayed on and been prepared to spend more money there were even more exhibitions that we could have explored. When we visited there were a couple of exhibits closed for renovation, but the paid exhibit on colours in nature looked impressive for anyone interested. Also we left the Darwin Centre largely untouched, where real science is being conducted every day. To get a sense of what's on if you want to make a trip to the museum, make sure to check their website.


So What's the Final Verdict?

In conclusion, the Natural History Museum is a brilliant collection of Mother Nature's best work, curated throughout the years by keen scientists who are in awe of her. It's far more than just a dinosaur museum and, should you visit, you need to make sure you give yourself all day to get around the place. If you do, you won't regret it.

Dont' worry. There's a cafe ;)

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  1. If you get the chance, you should check out the Dino Snores events the NHM put on. I got to go to the October one and it was so surreal and amazing to wander the museum's halls and exhibitions after hours.


    1. Hi Jimmy,

      Thanks for dropping by :) The idea of camping over in the museum's certainly a creative one, I bet it'd be really fun.