The Natural History Museum (NHM) is arguably the best of its kind in Europe. With a collection numbering over 80 million items across fields such as palaeontology (yes, there are dinosaur fossils here) to zoology and botany to mineralogy (including moon rocks!), NHM is an important resource not only to the public, but to members of the academia as well, particularly for taxonomy. In fact, NHM, in partnership with Imperial College London, offers a fully accredited post-graduate MSc in Taxonomy, Biodiversity and Evolution to qualified students.
NHM is widely considered as the third most important museum in the United Kingdom (behind British Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum), and attracts about five million visitors annually.
A panoramic view of Natural History Museum, showcasing its high Victorian architecture and ornate terracotta façade. Photo by David Iliff.
NHM was originally part of British Museum, which first opened its doors to the public in 1759. A massive part of its original inventory of natural history includes the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. However, the collection suffered from neglect and poor management for almost a hundred years, leading to the mislabelling, decay, and sanctioned destruction of thousands of specimens. Some were even sold. Specimens obtained from the three global voyages of the legendary Captain James Cook went largely missing.
It was not until the appointment of celebrated palaeontologist Sir Richard Owen (who famously coined the term Dinosauria in 1842) in 1856 as the Superintendent of the Natural History that the department began to recover.
In 1859, Sir Owen proposed that the department move to a new location to house its ever growing location, and to prepare for future expansion. It was approved by Parliament, and after a long delay, the department finally found its home in 1881 in South Kensington. However, it remained an official part of the British Museum until 1963, and was only officially known as the Natural History Museum in 1992.
Exhibits at the NMH are divided into four broad categories – Green (fossils, minerals and birds), Red (the world and universe), Blue (dinosaurs, reptiles, mammals, and marine invertebrates) and Orange (Wildlife Garden and Darwin Centre) zones.
Some of the most famous exhibits here include:
• Dippy the Diplodocus: The 105-foot long plaster cast replica of a diplodocus carnegii is probably the most popular exhibit at NMH. Between 1979 and 2017, Dippy was displayed at the main entrance hall of NMH.
• The Darwin Collection: The display at NMH features the largest collection of work by and relating to the father of modern evolutionary biology Charles Darwin anywhere in the world.
• The Blue Zone: Arguably the museum’s most popular area. The section features an interesting selection of life on earth, from the smallest invertebrates to massive dinosaurs and whales, that appeals to both adults and children alike.
The NHM is also renowned for its library and work of art. Its library contains over a million books and 25,000 journals, and there are over 600,000 works of art in its collection.
Michael Benson: the art of Otherworlds | Natural History Museum
NMH, located in South Kensington, is easily accessible by Tube (South Kensington station is just a few minutes’ walk away), train (West Brompton station is a ten-minute walk) and bus (multiple routes cover the area).
Admission is free and the museum is open every day from 10.00 a.m. to 5.50 p.m. (except between 24 and 26 December every year).