The Mighty NHM
By Francesca Fenn, Jun 17 2015 10:59AM
I wonder whether any of you who are reading this went to the South Ken museums when you were children (apart from my sister – hello Cathy!) If you did, we’d love to hear any of your special memories. The Natural History Museum was definitely one of the top two days out for us. I’ll tell you about the other one next week, but today, it’s all about the NHM. It is strange how much and so little has changed there, so my tenses may flow between past and present – please excuse!
We visited the museum regularly, (see last week's blog for more about that) and although we’d often explore new galleries, there was a nucleus of rooms we always wanted to drop in on. There was, and is, the vast and beautiful Central Hall, with the huge diplodocus skeleton at its centre. I remember following the tail with my eyes, wondering if it ever really quite ended.
My favourite place of all was the hall with the full sized model of a blue whale. I thought it was real,
(though stuffed, of course…) and never tired of seeing it. It was mind-bogglingly immense, and dwarfed the elephants and giraffes around it. Being told this creature lived on tiny animals that it filtered out of the water seemed unbelievable - how could there be anything left after a creature this size had eaten all she needed?.
Another special object was a large glass case containing a tree branch inhabited with hundreds of tiny stuffed birds. I thought it was so beautiful, and loved looking at the hundreds of jewel-coloured birds. On a recent visit I was delighted to see that it’s still on display, in the same traditional case.
The next obligatory stop-off was the immense cross-section of a sequoia tree trunk, with historical events marked on its rings. The tree was 1,300 years old when it was felled, so there were many world events signed, stretching back way past 1066! That trunk is still there too.
Apart from the dramatic main staircase at one end, there seemed to be an infinite number of corridors and rooms leading off the Central Hall, taking us to more dinosaurs, insects, stuffed animals and birds of every kind, including a dodo. I sensed the tragedy of this endearing bird’s extinction from my first encounter with him (or her) and harboured a deep hope that more would be found somewhere. There were plant and mineral galleries too, though they never had quite the same allure for us as the animals.
Today many of the rooms and halls have been revamped and there are newer extensions too, including the spectacular Darwin Centre. The outside of the museum was cleaned and repaired some time ago, and all the years of soot and grime were removed, revealing the lovely stonework and ornamentation. It is a beautiful building. But as I said earlier, much is still the same. Most importantly, the museum is still absolutely bursting at the seams with exhibits and specimens. The Diplodocus is still in the Central Hall, the blue whale still dominates his great room, and the museum is a fascinating mixture of cutting-edge science, historical perspective and old-fashioned museum cases. It is still a world centre of research and authority for natural history, and it is still a fantastic place to spend a day.
The only note of caution I can give about a visit here is that today the museum is almost a victim of its own success. Queueing to get in is almost inevitable, particularly in the school holidays, and if you want to see the dinosaurs (and most people do) be prepared to get there early, or to queue for a long time. However, there are far more facilities for eating and shopping, and more loos and cloakrooms than in my youth. And, wonderfully, it is still free to visit. So this summer, why don’t you go and meet the dinosaurs, and see some of the museum’s 20 million other specimens?