The Natural History Museum in Kensington has always been a must-visit museum for us, so when we finally got to spend a few days in London, it was at the top of the list of things to see. And, it did not disappoint. Entering the central hall and walking around the diplodocus is worth the price of admission alone (oh wait, it’s free to enter). Be sure to climb the stairs and get as high as you can to get great views of the hall. From on high, you can really appreciate the details of the construction and design including some 78 monkeys climbing three of the arches, some looking down into the hall and at the statue of Darwin. And, look up because there are plants on the ceiling! The ceiling panels “show plant species of economic importance in Britain, such as tea, coffee and cotton.”
The museum opened to the public in 1881, but the museum collection goes back to 1753, when Sir Hans Sloane (1660 – 1753) left his collection to the nation. It was Richard Owen (1804 – 1892) who took charge of the collection and persuaded the Government to fund the current building. It was designed by Alfred Waterhouse (1830 – 1905) in the German Romanesque style, with substantial input from Owen. On its opening, the museum was hailed as ‘a true temple of nature’ and ‘the animal’s Westminster Abbey’.
The statue of Charles Darwin (1809 – 1882) – for now – sits serenely watching over the central hall, glowing in white marble. Richard Owen, who opposed the theory of evolution by natural selection, stands in dark bronze in an out-of-the-way location under a stairwell. I believe the statue of Owen was facing that of Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley (1825 – 1985). No rest for poor Owen. Richard Fortey, in Dry Storeroom No. 1: The Secret Life of the Natural History Museum, says: “Oddly, the dark bronze of Owen seems more out of place, as if its metallic heaviness were symbolic of the arguments lost to the presiding genius of Darwin, beatified in marble.” The statue of Owen looks like a statue of Darth Vader on first glance.
Right: A Group Poses Next to Darwin, Girl Sneaks a Peak at Darwin; Right: Statue of Richard Owen Looking Like Darth Vader
But one can’t stay in the central hall forever as there are many things to see. In our 6 hours of meandering around, including a break for lunch, we hardly scratched the surface of the museum. To help you organize your visit, the museum has a color coding scheme of blue, green, red, and orange zones, each representing a theme. It’s worth consulting the floor plans before visiting so you can make the most of your time there. Some things we saw and recommend:
- Central Hall - discussed above.
- Minerals - Wow. The room is overwhelming, but is a good look at how the museum appeared to the first visitors in 1881. From the information board in the room: “This gallery houses the Museum’s scientific collection of minerals, which is one of the finest and most comprehensive in the world. Some 12,600 specimens are on display here, representing over 2,000 of the 3,700 known mineral species.” Be sure to go all the way through to the end of the room to reach The Vault, which contains rare and beautiful specimens.
- Mammals (blue whale) - The centerpiece of the room is the blue whale model. I think I read somewhere in the gallery that the model is considered to be a bit wider than a normal blue whale. Still, very impressive.
- Dinosaurs - I found this room a bit confusing, hot, and claustrophobic. The museum has constructed a one-way path that culminates with an animated T. rex. It felt a little contrived, like being in a big dinosaur-mambo line, a big tease to the beast. I suppose it’s the only practical way to control the flow of people. And, you just have to go to this room if you visit the museum.
- Speaking of dinosaur, Sir Richard Owen coined the term meaning “terrible lizard”.
- Darwin Center – An eight-story, cocoon-shaped structure that houses working spaces for staff conducting research and museum space. Go up to the top to enter the cocoon. It doesn’t have the immediate impact as the blue whale or the T. rex, but does have beautiful exhibits and intriguing spaces when you take the time to explore it.
- We whizzed through this part because we were running out of time. We would not recommend starting with these galleries if you are on tight schedule.
Left: Ceiling Panels Depicting Plants; Right: Central Hall with Diplodocus
Left: Red Zone; Right: Blue Zone - Dinosaur Gallery
The Mineral Gallery and Information About the Layout
More Photographs of the Central Hall of the British Natural History Museum: Monkeys, Beams, and Arches