The Natural History Museum in South Kensington is a beauty. Home to millions of exhibits and specimens that tell the story of life on earth over billions of years, this museum is really something special. Best visited with a bit of a plan.
Without further ado, my tips for making one.
Admire the Exterior
What is held within the museum is amazing and it’s what you’re there for. But take some time to wander and admire the exterior, too. It’s pretty amazing. Purpose built by architect Alfred Waterhouse, the grand old Victorian building is cathedral-like, beautiful and home to an impressive collection of gargoyles.
Also a moment of appreciation for the railings and gates around the building. With the gold and red, they are a bit extra. I loved them. Well, plain old black wouldn’t really do for a place like this, would it?
Pre Book Your Entry Ticket
One of the loveliest things about the London Natural History Museum is that it is free to visit. But it does get very, very busy so pre booking your entry online is a good shout. Especially if visiting at peak times. There were no walk ins available when we visited between Christmas and New Year.
Allow Plenty of Time
You could spend a whole day wandering, but I’d say two hours minimum. We were in there a bit over four hours and still have plenty left to discover on future visits. If you want to break up your time there are several cafes withing the museum itself, or fuel up pre/post visit at one of the options in the surrounding streets.
Have A Plan
If you just wandered into the museum and then roamed where ever the crowd took you, you’d still see some amazing things. But better to do some research and pick out what you really want to see. Oh and grab a map, available for a £1 donation at the entrance.
We created our own tour by having a look online pre-visit then having everyone in the family pick out their must-see. For me, it was the Hintze Hall with those beautiful imposing stairways and Hope the blue whale overhead. Other picks included the earthquake simulator and riding the escalator up into the Earth Gallery.
There are some self guided trails available on the NHM website, and an audio-guided tour of the Hintze Hall. Narrated by none other than David Attenborough- the perfect guide for this place!
Admire the Details Inside
When Alfred Waterhouse designed the building, he didn’t just create a beautiful shell to hold exhibits. The Victorians were a curious bunch, fascinated by the world around them. The museum is full of details and embellishments inspired by the natural history collections of the time.
There are carved animals, birds and plants. Ceiling galleries of botanicals including important crops of the time; coffee, tobacco and cotton. And presiding over it all, a statue of Charles Darwin. I think if that statue came to life and fancied a chat, he’d sound just like Attenborough. What do you reckon?
Find a Bit of Quirky Museum History
The museum has stood through two wars and it played its part in both. A particularly quirky chapter in the museums history was played out in WW2, when a number of the museums galleries were commandeered for use by Special Ops. They created gadgets and training for British spies.
Special Operations Executive (SOE) was formed in 1940 and from a secret workshop in the museum developed a range of devices and knowledge to assist agents in the field, including an exploding rat and games sets that could hide hand grenades and detonators.
A plaque by the Mammals Gallery remembers the men and women who worked at SOE. I bet some of them revisited the museum post war and never said a word about their work there.
Know That Your First Visit Won’t Be Your Last
Because there’ll always be something else to see, a new exhibition. I could go back just to enjoy the design of the place and make the contents a bonus. I’d love to go back in the Spring/ Summer and explore the outside areas and the surrounding streets of South Kensington.
The Natural History Museum is a London landmark and it’s created an experience which means you won’t have the same visit twice. It’s a fantastic blend of old school museum and modern visitor attraction. Put it on your London list-at least twice!
The Practical Stuff
Find the London Natural History Museum at Cromwell Rd, South Kensington, SW7 5BD.
There are two entrances- the main entrance on Cromwell Rd and the side entrance on Exhibition Rd. The latter a short walk from the main gates, but was much less busy.
Nearest tube stations are South Kensington and Gloucester Rd.
Museum entry is free, donations welcome. Opening hours are Mon-Sun, 10.00-17.50. Last entry at 17.30.