Saturday, 30 August 2014

Natural History Museum, London

There's nothing wrong with the exhibits in the Natural History Museum, but the show stealer is the building itself. Designed by a young architect, Alfred Waterhouse, in 1865 and opened in 1881, a visit here can be all about looking at the decorations rather than what's being displayed. All the amazing attention to detail – those individually painted ceiling tiles depicting plants, the terracotta columns and animals running up them, was overseen by Richard Owen, the museum's first superintendent and also the person who pushed to give natural history its own museum (it had previously been given cramp quarters in the British Museum up near Russell Square).

Tip: if you visit on a summer Saturday it will be crowded and there will be a long line to get in. However, if you pre-book timed tickets to whatever temporary special exhibition is being staged, you can simply walk up, show your tickets and be allowed straight in – even if the time of your visit to the ticketed exhibition isn't for hours. We unknowingly did this – that is, bought tickets to see the Ice Age exhibit for 3pm – rocked up hours earlier and were instructed to walk past the long snaking line of folks patiently waiting over 45 minutes to get in. Definitely worth the tenner (that is £10) each to save all that time, plus we got to see that Mammoths: Ice Age Giants exhibit, which was interesting if not fascinating. Yes, it's aimed at kids, but don't let that stop you: there's some cool time-lapse-style film that takes you back about 20,000 years, which is fun; plus a couple of benches which we found thankfully empty so we could sit and chat awhile. If you've been squeezing your way through the hordes in the main museum since you entered, this is almost worth £10 on its own. And, presumably because it wasn't free, this exhibit was blessedly unrammed. If this one interests you, hurry: it ends on the 7th of September 2014. (ice age giants exhibit)

As well as those woolly mammoths, we stopped in on our old favourites, including the blue whale, who is astonishingly crammed in with not just every other kind of sea creature you can think of, hanging from the ceiling, but counts elephants and hippos as his bedfellows. This hall is wonderfully anarchic and reminiscent of the sort of stuffed-owl museums you sometimes come across in small-town America. I expect it won't be long before they separate all these species, but for now, it's charming.

We gave the dinosaurs a miss – as they're the star attraction for most folks, there was an additional long, snaking line to shuffle past them. Instead, we went up as high as you can go in the great hall to take a look at the redwood tree trunk slice. These are di rigour for capital city natural history museums, but worth the space they take up for the way they chronical human history with the little stickers, pointing out the ring when, for instance, Sir Walter Raleigh brought the potato from South America and showed it to the first Queen Elizabeth.

It was about now that we started to suffer museum fatigue, so took just a cursory swing through the minerals hall, where once again it wasn't the diamonds or 4,000 ton meteorite that demanded attention, but the beautiful wood filing drawers. With all our wonderful technology, there is still nothing like useful, skilled craftsmanship for human-made beauty.

Entry: free. Open: 10am to 5.50pm, 7 days a week.  Natural History Museum, London

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