7 Things to See and Do at London's Natural History Museum
The original nucleus of the Natural History Museum, which was founded in 1754 and moved to its present building in 1881, was formed by the scientific collections of Sir Hans Sloane. The Museum - a palatial building in Romanesque style - was designed by Alfred Waterhouse and is 675 ft long with two 190 ft high towers, its exterior faced with terra cotta slabs bearing relief figures of animals. Chief amongst its many artifacts is its original collection of 50,000 books, 10,000 preserved animals and 334 volumes of pressed plant species. The collection has since grown to include more than 70 million items covering zoology, paleontology, mineralogy, entomology and botany, with a further 500,000 added each year.
The museum is also a center for scientific research specializing in conservation and has many collections of historical value, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin. Other famous collections include those of Joseph Banks, who accompanied James Cook around the world, and three volumes of zoological drawings and 18 volumes of botanical watercolor studies donated by artist Sydney Parkinson.
The northwest corner of the ground floor is devoted to mammals and includes a 91 ft long life-sized cast of a blue whale as well as examples of extinct mammals. The lower floor is devoted to land mammals, including giraffes, elephants, hippos and their early relatives, while the upper gallery focuses on mammals living in water.
2 The Earth Galleries
The Earth Galleries have a very extensive and interesting collection of material on the geology and minerals of the world. There are regular lectures and film shows on particular subjects, and in the Main Hall a rotating globe 6 ft in diameter serves as a reminder of the museum's purpose - to tell the "Story of the Earth".
Visitor experiences include a simulation of an earthquake, and a collection of gems showing the stones in their natural state and after being cut and polished. A special display illustrates the story of "Britain before Man", and other sections are concerned with the regional geology of Britain and the economic mineralogy of the world. Specimens of rocks brought back from the moon by the spacecraft Apollo are also on display.
The first floor accommodates exhibits focusing on the origin of species and explores natural selection and Darwin's theories, while the Mineral Gallery contains some 130,000 specimens, representing some 75 per cent of the world's known minerals. Also in this gallery is a collection of meteorites, including the huge 3.5 ton Cranbourne meteorite from Australia. The gallery adjacent shows "Our Place in Evolution" and exhibits the remains of Australopithecus, between 1.5 and 5 million years old, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974 and nicknamed "Lucy".
The long corridor through the department of fossilized mammals leads to a room devoted to the balance of nature and the environment. Interesting facts may be discovered about acid rain and the interaction of forest and coastal ecosystems.
The Iguanodon and Hypsilophodon are just two of the excellent dinosaurs on display at the Natural History Museum. Several other skeletons from all corners of the world are to be found here as well.
6 The Darwin Centre Cocoon
The museum's newest addition is the Darwin Centre, home for the museum's millions of preserved specimens and educational opportunities. Part of the building is shaped like a giant eight-story cocoon housing the museum's entomology and botanical collections, as well as Archie, the museum's famous giant squid. Another highlight of the building is the new multimedia Attenborough Studio featuring regular showings of historic films and documentaries from the museum's film archives.
7 After Hours and Late Nights
One of the most interesting times to visit the Natural History Museum is after the crowds have dispersed at the end of the day. These unique nighttime visits to the Central Hall and other galleries take place on the last Friday of the month. During these fun After Hour sessions (usually running from 6-10pm) food and beverages are available. And, on occasion, special sleepovers are available that include a sumptuous three course meal, live music, and movies.
Touring the Natural History Museum
One of the best tour options available at the Natural History Museum focuses on the spectacular Darwin Centre's Zoology building. The Spirit Collection Tour takes you on a 30-minute exploration of the building's nearly 17 mi of specimen- and book-stacked shelves, including specimens collected by Charles Darwin. The tours run regularly every day of the week, and a longer 50-minute version of the tour is available Mon-Fri at 1:30pm (suitable for adults and kids over 8). Be sure to specify which tour you require when booking upon arrival at the museum. For those wanting to go it alone, handheld guides are available with content suitable for both adults and families (£4.95).
Tips and Tactics: How to Make the Most of Your Visit to the Natural History Museum
The following Tips and Tactics will help ensure you get the most out of your visit to the Natural History Museum:
- Events: The Natural History Museum hosts many excellent events and exhibits throughout the year. Be sure to check their online Events Calendar prior to your visit (many of the most popular events sell out well in advance, so be sure to plan as far ahead as possible).
- Timing: Try to avoid busy periods such as weekends and school holidays. An early start can also pay off as the museum is often less busy immediately after opening. Also, the Exhibition Road entrance is the quieter.
- Kids: A handy Parents' Survival Guide is available on the museum's website with plenty of practical info regarding visiting with kids. Upon arrival, be sure to ask for an "Explorer Backpack" to keep the wee ones busy.
- Shopping: The Natural History Museum is located close to many unique shopping opportunities, including posh Knightsbridge where you'll find famous Harrods department store.
- Walking: You'll be in the heart of London's museum district when visiting the Natural History Museum, so if tackling more than one attraction, be sure to wear appropriate walking shoes.
- Food and Drink: The Museum boasts four separate dining options offering everything from snacks to superb restaurant-style meals. There's also a picnic area, as well as no shortage of great places to eat and drink in the area surrounding the museum. Keep in mind that it's a popular dining destination amongst tourists and business types alike, so try to time your meals outside peak lunch and dinner hours (12-2pm, 5-7pm) - this will also enable you to take advantage of special deals and dining offers.
Getting to the Natural History Museum
- By Underground (Tube): South Kensington is the nearest station (District, Circle and Piccadilly lines).
- By Train: Victoria is the nearest train station. For details of links to London from across the country, visit www.nationalrail.co.uk.
- By Bus: Bus routes 14, 49, 70, 74, 345, 360, 414, 430 and C1 stop nearby.
- By Bike: Cycle racks are located near the Cromwell Road and Exhibition Road entrances.
- By Road: The Natural History Museum's location in the heart of busy London makes driving here difficult (it's also within the Congestion Charge zone, meaning charges apply). If you must drive, park at an outlying train station and take the train or underground.
- Parking: There is no on street parking.
- Daily, 10am-5:50pm (Last admission 5:30pm)
- There may be a charge for certain exhibitions.
- Cromwell Rd, South Kensington, London SW7 5BD
There's no shortage of excellent visitor attractions within walking distance of the always-popular Natural History Museum. One of the nearest is the superb Victoria and Albert Museum (aka the V&A). Covering nearly 13 acres and containing 145 galleries spanning some 5,000 years of art, the V&A's permanent collections include ceramics and glass, textiles and costumes, silver and jewelry, ironwork, sculpture, prints and photos. The Science Museum is also close by, as is England's most famous concert hall, the Royal Albert Hall, built in 1871 as a memorial to Queen Victoria's husband.
A little further afield (but no more than 25 minutes walk) is Buckingham Palace, the London residence of the Royal Family, the Houses of Parliament and Hyde Park, covering some 350 acres - London's largest open space.