The Natural History Museum Guide: What to see at the Natural History Museum
Have you thought about what you’d like to see at the Natural History Museum in London? In this Natural History Museum guide, it will include all the departments I’ve visited and insider’s information that you won’t find on the website. These include:
- Dinosaur fossils and bones
- Land and Marine Mammals
- Wildlife Garden
- Creepy crawlies
- Birds of prey
- The Evolution of the Human Body
- Volcanoes and Earthquakes
- Darwin Centre
How to make the most of the Natural History Museum
When making the most of the Natural History Museum in London, take your time here. On average, people take no more than 2 hours since it does get tiring. If you want to cover the entire museum, it will take approximately 4 hours to complete. This can be said about the Science Museum and the V&As Museum next door. I had to come back another day to visit the areas I didn’t cover. Organise and plan what it is you want to see and do.
The History of the Natural History Museum
As most people know, the Natural History Museum offers more than 75 million items ranging from plants, insects, crystals, dinosaur fossils and bones, mammals in the animal kingdom, ones collected by Charles Darwin in the Darwin Centre and many more. Most importantly, you’ll learn about the evolution of humans, dinosaurs, and earth.
Early collections started in the mid-17th Century by the Ulster doctor starting with plants, human skeletons, and animals. Originally, the Natural History Museum was housed in the present-day British Museum during the 17th Century, but during the 19th Century, because space was limited, the Natural History Museum moved to Cromwell Road in South Kensington.
When you visit the Natural History Museum, don’t just admire the collections, admire the architecture built by architect Captain Francis Fowke. You can also read descriptions of the designs and where his inspiration came from. However, when Captain Francis Fowke died, another architect Alfred Waterhouse overtook the design.
How to navigate the Natural History Museum
There are 4 zones in the Natural History Museum, the Green Zone, the Red Zone, the Blue Zone, and the Orange Zone. Each zone represents the history, the evolution, the diversity of life, and science in our planet. Each room in each zone is not as big as people make it out to be, and there aren’t many people that browse the collection in each room as I came at 4 pm, 2 hours before the museum closed. If you go earlier, it will get busier with pre-schoolers, especially during school holidays.
Each room has descriptions of the items, interactive videos, as well as colourful pictures, photos, taxidermies, and some interactive life-sized dinosaurs, which children love. Children love it here because the interactive dinosaurs look real and roared loudly. We’ll talk about the dinosaurs below.
Unlike the British Museum, you can’t get lost. Although it’s a large museum, you’ll somehow know your way around. I didn’t get lost because there were signs in every corner, and like the British Museum, there are many assistants there that are happy to answer any of your questions. If you have 4 days in London to spare, you can dedicate visiting the museums for a day or two. You can cover the whole of the Natural History Museum for 4 hours, unlike the British Museum, since the British Museum has more collections, it will be impossible to cover everything in a day.
You can pay £1 for a map, but it’s not worth buying a map for a pound since you can print one from the website. There are maps on the walls anyway, but if you do want a map, it will be a great way to donate money to the museum to keep it open for free. There are also areas where you can donate with cash, card, or mobile phone with any currency.
Since COVID, you’d have to book your timeslot and make a reservation at the Natural History Museum on the website, and it’s free to get in. Currently, exhibitions at the Natural History Museum is the Fantastic Beasts and the Wildlife Photography of the Year Exhibition. Find out how much it is for the exhibitions at the Natural History Museum.
The first thing you’ll see at the museum
As you enter the museum, you’ll be taken to the large Hintze Hall and the first thing you’ll see is the gigantic skeleton of a diplodocus mammoth in the middle, and a large whale fossil hanging from the ceiling. Surrounding diplodocus, you’ll see a giraffe, marine mammals found in the dinosaur years, and many more.
Hintze Hall feels grand, and you can hear the echo as you talk to your friends and family, but it’s quiet as you walk around the hall. Hintze Hall is the only area of the museum that is architecturally beautiful because Alfred Waterhouse really thought about the intricate detail of the Romanesque design going back to the medieval European era. You can read about the architecture upstairs in the right hand-corner of the museum. You’ll hear footsteps and whispers from across the room, and if you walk straight up, you’ll see a large statue of Charles Darwin. Walk left, you’ll be in the Blue Zone, and you’ll cover the Dinosaurs Gallery, and Mammals & Blue Whale Gallery.
The Central Café and the toilet is further on, and it does get busy there. If you want a quiet space, go to the Coffee House near the Earth Hall. The price of the coffee shops aren’t that big a difference compared to other coffee shops around London, so I’d recommend having coffee near South Kensington Station. There are also several mid-range European cafes and restaurants around South Kensington Station.
The Blue Zone
The Dinosaurs Gallery
Most people that come to the Natural History Museum come for the dinosaurs, and dinosaur fossils and bones are found everywhere in the museum. The Dinosaurs Gallery is exceedingly small, the room was dark and noisy from the sounds of the roar coming from the dinosaurs, and a gigantic interactive t-rex stood in front of adults and children, moving his neck, and staring at everyone. Children up to the ages of 5 loved him, some cried, but overall, they enjoyed him.
In this room, you can read descriptions of how the lived, and how they walked in herds. You’ll discover the breeding colony and their nests, their bones, the type of blood they have, their muscles, skin, and their senses. You’ll also learn more about the death of the dinosaurs, who survived and who the victims were. Apparently, they died a painful slow death. In addition, there are colourful photos of dinosaurs as you enter the room, and a replica of dinosaur eggs. 10 fossils and bones can be found in this room, you can see the other 35 fossils in another area of the museum. I’d have expected this room to have more fossils than anticipated, but the best thing about this room were the interactive sounds and movements from T-rex roaring. Great for children.
If you go straight on, you’ll be in the Orange Zone and you’ll discover the Darwin Centre, but before we go there, let’s explore the Mammals & Blue Whale Gallery.
The Mammals & The Blue Whale Gallery
The Mammals & Blue Whale Gallery is a long hallway comprising of different mammal species excluding humans. You’ll see various taxidermies and its descriptions, from foxes, lions, orangutans, monkeys, and many more. I was surprised to see how big the blue whale was compared to man. It’s not big, it humongous. There were around more than 50 collections here.
This ocean themed room looked brighter than the Dinosaurs Room, and you’ll see a model of a large blue whale, elephants, rams, and many more. You’ll also discover their ancient relatives and how they’ve developed into the present-day mammals. Like other areas of the museum, this area is also quite small. There are many descriptions of marine and land mammals you can read and discover. It gets busy around 2 pm – 3 pm but dies down at around 4 pm onwards.
Next to the Mammals & Blue Whale Gallery, you can see and watch colourful videos and images of nature. The room here is not that big, but if you love nature photography, feel free to give this room a visit, there’s nothing more to it than a few collections of photographs. Here, you’ll see photos of extinct birds such as the dodos, exotic birds and many more, and if you want to learn more about the dodos, read the interactive description of when and how they became extinct.
You’ll also see various reptiles, amphibians, and fishes here as well as marine invertebrates.
The Orange Zone
The Darwin Centre
The Darwin Centre is partly closed due to COVID, and the Attenborough studio and Cocoon are a part of the Darwin Centre. The Cocoon can be easily missed since people will think it’s a gigantic wall structure. Inside the Cocoon, you’ll see several beetles, butterflies, and plants, but unfortunately both the Cocoon and the Attenborough studio are closed until further notice. I’ll review it once it’s safe to do so. Although it may be interesting to see what you’ll discover at the Attenborough studio and the Cocoon, you won’t be missing much.
If you go up the stairs from the seating area, you’ll see several windows where researchers work on fossils. The small windows consist of hundreds of jars lined up on shelves consisting of different types of crustaceans from squid, octopus, and snails going back to the dinosaur years. As the website says, you can see researchers working, but when I was there, I couldn’t see anyone. It was peaceful and quiet at around 4 pm, and only saw one family exploring with me.
The Wildlife Garden
The Darwin Centre will lead you out into the courtyard, a large circular garden, a resemblance to the Colosseum where you can relax and have lunch. There are many people sitting by the Courtyard at around 2 pm but got quieter at around 4:30 pm. The courtyard is a wide-open space, great for spending time outdoors, and will also lead to the Wildlife Garden. The Wildlife Garden has many types of wild shrubs and bushes, green grass, trees and plants, and a couple of lakes. From hedgerows to a meadow, you’ll go through winding pavements, discovering wild greenery. It’s not as colourful as I thought it was, and I expected it to have beautiful colourful flowers, but it’s a great small patch of green outdoor space for children and couples.
Here, you’ll find out the names of the wildflowers, and children can go tree hunting, and learn all about different types of trees. You’ll see footprints from the Iguanadon, it’s hard to make out since it’s been covered with leaves, but you can just about see it.
On the website, it says you can see several fox cubs, insects, and frogs in the pond. Although I didn’t see any, I knew this is the place where they live.
The Green Zone
Head back out towards Hintze Hall and head upstairs where you’ll see many displays of mammals, from chickens, birds, and other wildlife preserved in a glass case. As you go round upstairs, you’ll see many different angles of the museum, as well as the tiles you see designed in the ceiling. Head towards the Vault where you’ll learn more about minerals, stones, and crystals. You’ll see around 40 – 50 tables consisting of 100s of crystals and minerals from oxides, carbonates, granite, and many more in a glass case. Further up from this room, you’ll discover a rock from Mars, the Devonshire Emerald, and Rainbow calcite. If you want to learn more about them, there’s a description next to the stones.
Spend no more than 20 minutes discovering minerals and crystals and head your way upstairs to see a slice of 1300 year gigantic old sequoia/redwood tree trunk. It’s 101 metres tall and has been polished to make it look brand new. Feel free to read more about it on their website. Go back downstairs to the Fossil Marine Reptiles section.
Fossil Marine Reptiles
There are around 35 dinosaur and natural fossils stuck on the wall found around the world, especially in the UK, some small, and some large. You start to realise the size of these dinosaurs in real life only in the museum when you compare it to man. I have seen photos and videos of what dinosaurs look like, but when I visited the Natural History Museum, I didn’t realise the sheer size of how big they were. The Pteranodon were smaller than I thought, and the stegosaurus was wider and larger than I envisioned.
Walk up to the end of the hall, you’ll be in the Birds section, and you’ll see many different types of birds here.
You’ll see various eagles from hawks, falcons, vultures, penguins, an ostrich, a dodo, a flamingo and many more. When I was in this area, I felt amazed by the stature of the birds of prey. They seem to be standing tall, proud to be on top of the food chain. I realised there were so many more birds of prey I didn’t know existed, and the ostrich was bigger than I imagined. Some birds looked friendly, some looked fierce. The fiercest are the strongest and the top of the food chain, you can tell by their eyes. At the end of the hall, you’ll see colourful photos of different types of birds and their habitats. You’ll also learn about Creepy Crawlies such as spiders, ants, and many more. You can hear a narrator in the background talking about insects, but it’s hard to hear.
The Red Zone
In another room next to the birds of prey, you’ll be in Lasting Impressions, a small room comprising of shells and fossils such as the one from an elephant relative, and the Gogotte sandstone found from France. Spend no more than 10 minutes here and head your way towards The Coffee House. Walk through The Coffee House, you’ll hear background music, and sounds like you’re in a sci-fi movie, and you’ll be in Earth Hall.
You’ll see a large dinosaur fossil standing in front of an elevator going up to the volcanoes and earthquakes section. The Human Evolution is also here, but you’ll be tempted to go up the escalator to the volcanoes and earthquakes sections first. Before you go up the escalator, you’ll see around 40 small circular glass windows containing natural crystals and stones dating back from millions of years ago.
Go up the escalator through a dark giant silver fireball, at the top of the escalators, you’ll start going back to the beginning of time and read and watch videos of how the earth transformed. You’ll discover the materials the earth is made of, items found from the earth’s surface, and discover more about different types of volcanoes, how they erupt, molten rocks and many more. You can hear the thunderous sound of volcanoes erupting, and the room will look dark.
The Evolution of Humans
The last section of the tour is the Evolution of Humans. Here, you’ll see different types of human species going back to 7 million years up to today. The first things you’ll see are the several different skulls from Denisovans, Homo Erectus, Homo Sapiens and many more. The skulls have different colours and shapes, some wide, long, large, flat, and pointed. You’ll see a skeleton of a short boy with a wider rib cage dating back to 7 million years ago. Why not discover different coloured tools to hunt, cook, and use for general purposes in different eras? Once you’re done here, head back out, and this is where your tour will end. The V&As and the Science Museum are next to each other, so if you have time, book 2 hours in the Natural History Museum, and an extra 2 hours each in both the Science Museum and the V&As Museum. You can check out things to do in Chelsea, and 2 of the 8 royal parks of London, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens nearby. There are 9 free museums and galleries that are worth checking out around London.
All in all, I spent around 5 to 10 minutes in each room, but it does take time covering more than 20 departments in each zone. The Natural History Museum is still busy with families under 5s even during school hours, and I can’t imagine how busy it will get during the summer holidays during late July to the end of August, and children will be going back to school in September.
It’s possible to cover all the departments in the Natural History Museum, but since it takes 4 hours to cover, you won’t have time to visit the Science Museum, and the Victoria and Albert Museum altogether, you’d have to dedicate 2 or 3 days to cover everything. Feel free to contact me on Facebook if you’d like to know more about how to cover the three museums.
If you’re short of time, I recommend visiting the Dinosaurs Gallery, the Fossils Marine Reptiles, Volcanoes and Earthquakes. You’ll cover 2 hours’ worth of items in the museum, and you can visit the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum next. I’ll answer your questions to the best of my ability. In the meantime, stay safe and take care.