Whales: Beneath the Surface – Natural History Museum

Whales exhibition

I’d been meaning to visit the Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition for a while, and finally made it on its last weekend. As befits an exhibition at the Natural History Museum, it was superb: informative, fascinating and fun.

The exhibition began by looking at where whales began. Now, I’m sure I learned this at school, but I’ve certainly forgotten it in the intervening years, so I was surprised to find that the earliest cetaceans, 50 million years ago, were actually land mammals with legs and hooves. Pakicetus hunted small land animals, as well as fish. Ten million years later, these cetaceans had adapted to life in the water: the Dorudon had flippers instead of front legs, its back legs had all but disappeared, and it gave birth and fed its calves in the sea.


Around 34 million years ago some cetaceans evolved new way of eating – baleen plates. These baleen whales became known as mysticetes, while those that continued to use teeth – toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises – became known as odontocetes. Scientists worked out that mysticetes and odontocetes shared a common ancestor from watching growth in the womb – baby mysticetes were growing teeth which disappeared before birth.

Baleen plates
Baleen plates

Today, there are around 90 species of cetacean – 23 of which are found in British waters. 12 million years ago there were many more. Their ancestry is evident in the modern whale skeletons on display: tiny back leg bones, remnants of their land mammal past, and flippers that resemble hands. On display also is the skeleton of the ‘Thames whale’ – a northern bottlenose whale that ended up in the Thames in 2006 and died despite a rescue operation. Modern-day cetaceans have powerful tail muscles to help propel themselves forward. They move their tails up and down, whereas fish move their tails from side to side.

The 'Thames whale'
The ‘Thames whale’

The exhibition explored the differences between species of whale. Blue whales, for instance, have smaller flippers to help them travel long distances, whereas humpback flippers are bigger with grooves and bumps to help them twist and turn in the ocean. Baleen whales live alone, but toothed whales are sociable and live in groups. Toothed cetaceans use echolocation to find their food, whereas baleen whales gulp seawater and filter it out, keeping in the prey. A fantastic game, loved by the children in the exhibition, involved jumping on electronic pads to ‘track’ prey using echolocation.

Later on, the exhibition explored how whales hear and create sound, as well as how these incredibly intelligent creatures interact with one another, caring for each other, playing, and even singing ‘songs’. It also explored a possible future for whales: different killer whale skulls showed how groups of these whales ended up with different kinds of tooth marks from hunting very different prey, and may one day diverge into different species.

Killer Whale skulls
Killer Whale skulls

I loved this exhibition, not least because I was able to match my Erstwilder Wesley Whale brooch to the theme.

Exhibition selfie

Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is one of London’s famous museums, located, like so many of the others, in South Kensington. I rarely go, simply because it’s so popular: the queue to get in is always massive and full of kids. I had a day off work at a time when I knew the schools would be back, and decided to use it to enjoy the museum, but it was still pretty crowded. Oh well.

Trying to get a picture with Dippy and Albert (my Tatty Devine dino)

Undaunted, I headed in anyway. I was greeted by Dippy the Dino: due to be removed at the end of 2016, I was glad to see him for the last time. The hall is possibly the most beautiful part of the museum, decorated with carvings of many different animals, flanked with arches, and ending in an imposing staircase.


The origins of the collection lie in the specimens of the Ulster doctor Sir Hans Sloane, who allowed the British Government to purchase the collection in the mid-eighteenth century. The collection was initially housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury, in 1756, the home of the British Museum. Over the years, much of the Sloane collection disappeared, many specimens having been sold to the Royal College of Surgeons.

The palaeontologist Richard Owen was appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum in 1856. Seeing that these departments needed more space, he arranged for land in South Kensington to be purchased. The civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke won a 1864 competition to design the new museum, but he died shortly afterwards and the job was taken on by Alfred Waterhouse, who revised the plans considerably. Work began in 1873, the building was completed in 1880, and the museum opened the following year.

The museum still remained, legally, part of the British Museum, using the name British Museum (Natural History). A petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was made in 1866 requesting independence, but it wasn’t until 1963 and the passing of the British Museum Act that this was granted, and the museum retained the original name until 1992 (though it was informally rebranded as the Natural History Museum four years earlier).


Today, the museum is free to enter (except for special events and exhibitions) and is a thriving destination for Londoners and tourists alike. It has a special appeal for children, but there is plenty of interest for adults too.

The museum is divided into zones, which helps with navigation. There are plenty of maps around the place to help you find your way.

Blue Zone
The highlight of the Blue Zone is the Dinosaurs Gallery – the most popular gallery in the museum – which has plenty of interest including the first fossil ever found from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Iguanodon, the skull of a plant-eating Triceratops, and more. This zone also contains skeletons, models and stuffed animals, encompassing the natural world including fish, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Many of the stuffed animals look rather old and tired now, but this is understandable considering the museum no longer wants to kill and stuff animals for display. I thought the section on human biology also looked a bit dated, but it was certainly very informative.


Green Zone
This zone rather randomly brings together fossils, minerals, birds and “creepy crawlies”. My favourites were the dodo (now sadly extinct) and the giant plesiosaur skeleton on the wall. I’m not a huge fan of insects and other crawling things, but I have a particular love for leaf-cutter ants and can happily spend ages watching them march along bearing their huge leaf fragments triumphantly. This zone also includes the Treasures Gallery, containing an exciting assortment of special and unique items including an emperor penguin egg collected during Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition, and Guy the gorilla.

Red Zone
This zone encompasses the former Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey, which became part of the museum in 1986. The impressive Earth Hall features an exciting entrance that takes visitors up an escalator and through a giant model of the earth. This zone looks at the history of human evolution, rocks and gems, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanoes. I particularly liked the earthquake simulator.


Orange Zone
This zone contains the peaceful Wildlife Garden and the Darwin Centre, in which you can attend live shows and talks with scientists, although I didn’t attend any during my visit.


The museum has frequent special exhibitions, including the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and the summer staple Sensational Butterflies. There is also a branch of the museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. Other special events include monthly lates and popular sleepovers (“Dino Snores”), with separate events for both children and adults. This is on my bucket list!


The Natural History Museum is a hugely impressive and educational free museum. Some of it is looking a bit dated and tired now, but that’s understandable given its sheer size and the number of visitors it sees through its doors. In 2017 a project will revitalise the Hintze Hall, former home of Dippy the Dino, and the Treasures Gallery; maybe after that’s done they’ll get on to the rest of it. It’s still a valuable resource, and superb special exhibitions keep me going back.


Address: Cromwell Road, Kensington, London, SW7 5BD

Website: nhm.ac.uk

Opening Hours: Daily 10.00-17.50

Prices: Free

Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea – Natural History Museum

Overview of the exhibition space

Recently I visited the exhibition Coral Reefs: Secret Cities of the Sea at the Natural History Museum. The exhibition aims to explore the world of coral reefs, the variety of life that exists within them, their history and the threats they are under today.

Coral specimen

The exhibition was interesting and informative, particularly when examining Charles Darwin’s theories of how coral reefs form, something I hadn’t previously been aware of.

Terrifyingly large fish

Unfortunately, the exhibition wasn’t as rich and colourful as I had hoped. Obviously the NHM can’t very well transplant the entire Great Barrier Reef to London, but most of the specimens on display are dead and subsequently rather grey and dull to look at.

Living coral

It’s only at the end of the exhibition that we get to see a tank of living coral – a mesmerising spectacle. This exhibition was always going to be a difficult one to pull off, and while it was worthwhile, it wasn’t as fascinating as I’d hoped.

Mammoths: Ice Age Giants – Natural History Museum

Columbian Mammoth

The second exhibition I saw at the Natural History Museum was Mammoths: Ice Age Giants. I thought it complimented the “Britain” exhibition really well, being about some of the creatures who were around when early humans were.

In the exhibition I learned where mammoths stand on the evolutionary tree: they aren’t ancestors of elephants, as I used to think, but an entirely different branch, like mastodons. Woolly mammoths are the most famous kind, but this is because woolly mammoths lived in cold areas and were therefore more likely to be preserved after death.

Some of the mammoths were absolutely huge – the Columbian mammoth in particular! In contrast, the pygmy mammoth, though still pretty large compared to other animals, was much smaller than other mammoths. This is because pygmy mammoths lived on islands, and a smaller size was advantageous in clambering about the island and coping with smaller amounts of food.

The highlight of the exhibition was “Lyuba”, a baby mammoth discovered in Russia in 2007. This is the first time she has been seen outside Russia. Lyuba died when she was only one month old, probably from asphyxiation after falling into mud. Her body has remained wonderfully preserved for 42,000 years: she has lost most of her fur, her tail is missing and her trunk has shrunk but otherwise she looks fantastic for her age!

This exhibition closes on 7 September, and I definitely recommend trying to catch it before it goes.

Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story – Natural History Museum

At the weekend I went to see a couple of exhibitions at the Natural History Museum. The first was Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story, inspired by the Ancient Human Occupation of Britain (AHOB) project, a three-phase study investigating humans from Palaeolithic and Mesolithic northern Europe.

The exhibition told a chronological story from the earliest evidence of human presence in the British Isles, through to the first appearance of Homo sapiens in Britain. I found it fascinating to learn about the presence of early humans. Among the items on display were a skull from the earliest known Neanderthal in Britain, bones from the animals that lived during that time, and tools and other evidence of human habitation. Over the last million years, humans have been present in Britain on and off, depending on weather and other conditions. Other amazing creatures have been here too, including mammoths, rhinos and lions.

Evidence of human presence has been found mainly in the south: the north and Scotland experienced longer and more severe freezes, meaning that evidence could have been destroyed. Finds have been discovered at places such as Kent’s Cavern in Devon and Happisburgh in Norfolk.

I was interested to learn that when Homo sapiens superseded Neanderthals, the latter’s genes were not wiped out entirely. Apparently most humans (except for those most closely descended to the original Homo sapiens who came out of Africa) have some Neanderthal genes. Two purpose-built models show how the species differed.

Neanderthal man
Homo sapiens

At the end of the exhibition, there was a video with six celebrities talking about the results of their own DNA analysis. It was interesting to see the huge range and scope of their DNA origins, from Scandinavian and Asian to Native American. I wonder what mine would say?

Extinction: Not the End of the World? – Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

On my trip to the Natural History Museum last week, I also managed to fit in a visit to the summer exhibition, Extinction: Not the End of the World? I really enjoyed the exhibition, which was fascinating and thought-provoking.

Extinction is always thought of as a Bad Thing. However, this exhibition explores the idea that it is not always negative. Species have to die out to make way for others. We humans wouldn’t be here at all if it wasn’t for extinction.

This isn’t to say that we should become complacent about rare and endangered species, or simply shrug our shoulders and allow it to happen. If a species dies out this could disrupt the ecosystem, with lasting consequences. Human action is accelerating decline in many species and this could cause considerable problems.

This isn’t to say that humans are the only factor. Animals may die out for a variety of reasons: increased competition, changes in the environment, or slow breeding processes. The most famous of these is probably the asteroid that (likely) killed off the dinosaurs.

The exhibition offered lots of scope for interaction, and gave viewers the chance to vote on certain issues, such as whether we should make the effort to conserve all animals, or only those that benefit humans. I was pleased to see that most people took the unselfish route and believed that all animals are worth preserving, not just those that are of use to us.

This was a really interesting exhibition and well worth seeing. It’s on until the 8th of September so there’s still time to catch it.

Sebastião Salgado: Genesis – Natural History Museum

After I’d been to the Sensational Butterflies exhibition at the Natural History Museum, I went inside the museum proper to visit a photography exhibition I’d liked the sound of. Sebastião Salgado: Genesis includes black and white images of landscapes, people and wildlife. By focusing on the natural world, Salgado invites us to reflect on our own lifestyles and our impact on the Earth’s resources.

The exhibition was divided into several sections, relating to continents, themes or peoples. My favourite photographs, unsurprisingly, were the stunning Antarctic scenes, but I also liked the images of various communities and their homes. The photographs were beautiful and impressive, and left me in awe.

Sensational Butterflies – Natural History Museum

I visited the Natural History Museum‘s Sensational Butterflies exhibition on Sunday. I’d been meaning to go for a while, and was glad to finally get there. I chose to go in the morning, before the place overheated – though as it turned out, it was rather warm anyway.

The climate inside the white tent has to be kept hot and humid, otherwise the tropical butterflies inside would die. Walking into the tent was like entering another world. Exotic green plants and coloured flowers abounded, and butterflies of all colours, shapes and sizes fluttered about. I took several photos, but they don’t do justice to these amazing creatures. Sadly, even though I wore red (as advised by a friend, who visited wearing her red coat and had butterflies landing all over her), I didn’t manage to attract any of them.

This one was absolutely enormous.
If you squint a little, these actually look like fish…







As well as the butterflies themselves, there was a glass-fronted cabinet containing chrysalises. Some of them were empty but others still contained their butterfly: I was able to watch one emerging from its cocoon.

Emerging into the light

The exhibition is compact but well worth a visit. It closes on the 15th of September, so you still have a month to catch it.