The Natural History Museum is a fine Gothic revival building that features a rich collection of exhibits from the animal and plant kingdoms, which include the huge dinosaurs that dominate the main exhibition halls, the impressive mammal balcony and the ecology gallery with its moonlit, replica rainforest.
What to see at the Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is divided into the Blue, Green, Red and Orange Zones. The Blue Zone has displays relating to the diversity of life on Earth; the Green Zone has exhibits relating to the evolution of the planet; the Red Zone focuses on geology, volcanoes and earthquakes and the Orange Zone is centred on the Darwin Centre and the museum’s Wildlife Garden.
Although the zone system makes sense in theory, it isn’t really that easy to follow as the individual exhibits can be classified to fit within multiple zones and some exhibits are displayed in inappropriate galleries, for instance, a skeleton of a sloth in the Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery and a stegosaurus skeleton in the Earth Hall.
Entering via the Cromwell Road entrance takes you into Hintze Hall with the Blue Zone to your left and the Green Zone to your right. The Red Zone takes up the eastern end of the museum and is accessible either by walking through the Green Zone or via the Exhibition Road entrance and the Orange Zone is in the western end of the museum, accessible either via the Blue Zone or through the Queen’s Gate entrance.
If you’re really pressed for time, head straight for the Treasures of the Cadogan gallery in the Green Zone, which has a curated selection of the museum’s highlights.
The Green Zone illustrates our planet’s evolution and includes:
- Hintze Hall with a 25.2m (82½ ft) long blue whale skeleton; the mantellisaurus, which is one of the most complete dinosaur fossils ever discovered in the United Kingdom, and is more than 122-million-years-old; the skeleton of an American mastodon and a 2.5 tonne banded iron formation that records the birth of life on earth.
- The Creepy Crawlies gallery, which features a live leafcutter ant colony, a model of a termite mound and exhibits about insects, spiders and crustaceans.
- The Fossil Marine Reptiles gallery with fossils that include Jurassic-era crocodiles and an ichthyosaur. This gallery also has the skeleton cast of the giant ground sloth.
- The Fossils from Britain gallery has records of the earliest life in Britain including fossils from the early Paleozoic era and mammals that roamed throughout Britain 65 million years ago.
- The Investigate gallery, which is aimed at children aged 5–14 with interactive displays and specimens that children are able to touch.
- The Birds gallery, which features two extinct passenger pigeons.
- The Treasures in the Cadogan gallery with some of the museum’s most valued exhibits including Guy the gorilla, who lived at London Zoo until 1978; a skeleton of the extinct dodo; a Neanderthal skull; a rare first edition of On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin and Sir Hans Sloane’s carved Nautilus shell.
- The Vault featuring valuable and unique minerals including a meteorite from Mars, a crystalised gold nugget, amethyst and emeralds.
Most people spend 1–2 hours exploring the Green Zone.
Exhibits in the Blue Zone show the diversity of life on Earth and this section includes displays on everything from dinosaurs, marine invertebrates, fishes, amphibians, reptiles and mammals to human biology.
Highlights of the Blue Zone include:
- The dinosaur gallery, which is the museum’s most popular gallery with triceratops, iguanodon and maiasaura nests.
- The mammals gallery with everything from the unique pangolin to the sabre-toothed cat and African hunting dogs.
- The Whale Hall, which features a model of a blue whale (the largest animal on Earth) as well as sea cows and hyracotherium.
- The aquatic gallery with displays on snakes and sharks.
Most people spend around an hour in the Blue Zone.
The Orange Zone consists of the Darwin Centre and the museum’s Wildlife Garden.
The Darwin Centre is the museum’s home to preserved specimens and it is where many of the museum’s scientific staff work. The Darwin Centre is divided into two sections: the spirit collection with 22 million specimens preserved in alcohol including an octopus, a vampire bat and a giant toad; and the cocoon section with ‘dry’ specimens including butterflies, spiders and beetles.
The Orange Zone also features the museum’s Wildlife Garden, which includes living specimens such as birds, bees, insects and sheep. The Wildlife Garden is only open April–early November.
Depending on whether the Wildlife Garden is open when you visit, you can expect to spend between one and two hours visiting the Orange Zone.
The Red Zone focuses on geology, volcanoes and earthquakes but still manages to have some exhibits that would be best suited to the other zones, such as a stegosaurus skeleton that you would expect to find in the dinosaur gallery.
Highlights of the Red Zone include:
- The Earth Hall with minerals, and interestingly, a stegosaurus skeleton.
- The Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery with an earthquake simulator, a heat-resistant suit and a volcano and earthquake locator.
- The Restless Surface gallery where you can learn how rivers are formed and also see a giant stalagmite and frozen lightning.
- The From the Beginning gallery, which depicts the origins of the universe and the earliest life on Earth.
- The Lasting Impressions gallery features a 3.5-tonne fragment of the Cranbourne meteorite (smaller fragments of the same meteorite are on display in the Melbourne Museum in Australia) as well as samples of bamboo that can grow 1m (3⅓ ft) per day and lichen that can live for up to 10,000 years.
Most people spend 1–2 hours exploring the Red Zone.
Natural History Museum ice rink
An ice rink operates outside the Natural History Museum every winter and is well worth a visit if you’re visiting London during the winter season. Even if you don’t skate, the beautiful setting with a backdrop of the museum’s Waterhouse building makes it a delightful place to visit.
This winter season runs from mid-October to mid-January with the ice rink open 10am–10pm most days. The ticket price includes skate hire and each skating session lasts 50 minutes.
The ice rink features a cafe bar that serves hot drinks including mulled wine. The bar offers a great view of the rink, however, it sometimes closes for private parties.
Visiting the Natural History Museum
The Natural History Museum is located in the Albertopolis museum complex in South Kensington. It is across the road from the Victoria and Albert Museum and right next door to the Science Museum. The museum is only a five-minute walk from South Kensington tube station.
The Natural History Museum app includes audio guides plus floor plans to find your way around the museum. You can download it from the App Store for Apple iPhones and the Google Play store for Android phones.
The museum has three cafes, two restaurants and two gift shops. This includes the T. rex Grill in the Green Zone, which serves burgers, steaks and pizza; The Kitchen in the Red Zone, which focuses mostly on sandwiches, wraps and salads and cafes in the Blue, Orange and Red zones, all of which serve cakes and pastries.
All areas in the Blue, Green and Red Zones are wheelchair accessible, but only the Darwin Centre in the Orange Zone (but not the Wildlife Garden) is wheelchair accessible.
Visually impaired visitors can download audio descriptions from the museum’s website and Braille guides are available to many of the museum’s galleries.
Its location in the Albertopolis area of South Kensington means that many visitors combine a day out at the Natural History Museum with either the neighbouring Science Museum or Victoria and Albert Museum and afterwards catch a show at the Royal Albert Hall or do a spot of shopping (window shopping if you’re on a budget) at Harrods, which is a 15-minute walk up Brompton Road.
This is an enormous museum and most visitors spend longer than three hours here.