It’s funny how it is the little things you remember most. When I was six my mum took me to the Natural History Museum. There are three things I remember vividly. The first was going down the long tiled subway between the tube station and the museum. The second was the sight of the dinosaur in the main hall (although I could have sworn blind it was a T-Rex rather than the long Brontosaurus thing that’s in there now). The third was being bored stiff by everything save a set of Young Ornithologist Club stickers from the ship, and a box which you sat in which reproduced the sound of your mother’s heart when you were in the womb. Apart from that, all was beetles in boxes and it was very dull indeed. Suffice to say, things have moved on quite a bit. The post Jurassic Park generations don’t have to endure that kind of display, and the Natural History Museum really seem to have embraced the fact that everyone wants to look at the T-Rex and then go home.
I started my trip with the Darwin statue: a mistake. As I had a fairly business like camera with me, I found myself taking four different people’s photos with Charles Darwin, and two of them insisted on having their photo taken with me and Charles Darwin. In surprise I asked one of them to return the favour, thus:
I then scuttled down to bond with the dinosaurs. The absolutely necessary skeletons were there of course, shrouded in darkness and signs telling you not to climb on them. They’d designed the exhibit very cleverly, having assembled a little walkway where you could enjoy the dinosaurs at their real height. Having paraded past a variety of dinosaurs of various shapes, sizes and violence levels, we settled down to the business of looking at the T-Rex. First you checked out his skull…
Then you checked out a selection of fascinating, age appropriate facts…
And then you went down a ramp to see an exceedingly well animated and bawling T-Rex, thus:
Somebody told their child that it was a real one – the collective intake of breath from the various little ones could have shattered the sound barrier. We all stood there to have a good old gawp. Every once in a while a disembodied female voice, a bit like the voice of the Mysterons, told us to move the ramp. This was only moderately successful: we all knew this was the star attraction, so we took our time.
Eventually we all gazed our fill and moved on to the interpretation section. It may not have been quite exciting as a harnessed T-Rex, but yes, it was genuinely interesting. Tricky subjects were tackled: whether dinosaurs were hot or cold-blooded, how they had lived, the parallels between them and our own society, how they had died, even how they had been depicted in popular culture. It even gave some insights into how they had been excavated and some of the leading lights in paleontology. I thought this was rather good – in lots of museums they tell you so little about what you are seeing, but here I felt I had really learned something.
The other thing that did strike me is that the building itself is the other real star of the show. It had been built in the same Victorian gothic style as St. Pancras, but in many ways much more cleverly. They had taken the time and trouble to carve birds, plants and creatures throughout the building, and it was really beautiful. For some years I had an Ikea print of the doorway of the Natural History Museum in my kitchen, and apart from the tourists littering it, it is a beautiful piece of architecture.
Tired, I did not feel up to exploring the rest of the place. I looked at the cafe briefly, but it was a bit dear, so I decided not to bother. I checked out the dinosaur shop and hesitated long and hard over a Pteranodon kite. When at convent school, I had been very interested in dinosaurs, and when asked to name one, I tried to show off and said Pterodactyl. The nun asked me what that was, and I said it was the dinosaur that flew. The nun had age and authority on her side, and I couldn’t persuade her that any dinosaurs had flown. I sat down, mildly broken and listened to the other children reeling off the really obvious ones, your Triceratops and whatnot, to great praise. The fact the Natural History Museum was selling flying dinosaurs in kite form was evidence. I tried to persuade myself that if I took my Pteranodon kite to Kenwood House to fly it that would work out at £6 a trip, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do it. I went on to the full shop, whose contents showed clearly that there is a great deal more going on in the Natural History Museum than just the dinosaurs. I felt a vague tinge of guilt that I hadn’t done justice by the place. And then I thought, “Sod it.” I made for the door.
A young man leapt out at me and asked me to fill out his questionnaire which he had to fill out on a tablet. He’d asked the questions too often, poor soul. He cared naught that I had enjoyed my visit, he didn’t seem to mind I’d found the cafe too dear, he looked vaguely disbelieving that I had been educated to Masters level, or that I managed staff. He had no box to explain that I had made this trip because it was in the 1000 things to do in London book, or that I was going to blog about my visit. His final question was, “Would you recommend the Natural History Museum to a friend?” Fair reader, yes I do, I recommend it to you without reservation. Especially mid-week when there aren’t any children in it 😉 .