If you know about Darwin’s theory of evolution, the word “dinosaur,” or even just the poem, “She sells seashells by the seashore,” then the collection at the Natural History Museum of London (NHM) has impacted you. One of the world’s great museums, the NHM was until 1963 part of the world-renowned British Museum.
The gorgeous Romanesque building that houses the NHM was built in 1881, fulfilling naturalist Richard Owen’s 1859 plan to one day build a museum to house the natural history specimens that were then overcrowding the British Museum. You may know of Owen himself: he is best remembered today as the man who coined the term “dinosauria” in 1842 to describe the Mesozoic creatures whose fossil remains were starting to turn up during his lifetime. From the Greek deinos, meaning “terrible, wondrous, powerful” and sauros meaning “lizard,” Owen looked at early discoveries such as Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus when he came up with the term. At NHM, you can see the first Iguanodon fossils discovered by early fossil-hunter Gideon Mantell (now a separate genus Mantellisaurus), the first ancient sea reptiles discovered by Mary Anning, and much, much more. Like the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the NHM is an enormous institution with so much to see and do that it would probably take several days to feel as if you’ve seen even half. Fortunately, our focus is just on prehistoric fossils, and the NHM has some great ones.
The easiest way to get to NHM is via the Tube, and the closest station is South Kensington. For over a hundred years it was hard to miss the first real highlight: a giant display of a cast of Andrew Carnegie’s Diplodocus. “Dippy” stood in the reptile hall and then the central hall of the NHM from 1905 to 2017. In 2017, a giant blue whale that washed up on the shores of Ireland in 1891 has replaced “Dippy,” who spent most of the next couple years touring various museums in Great Britain. I’m not sure what the plans are for this most famous dinosaur in the future. When I was there last a docent told me there were plans to move “Dippy” outside and placed in a garden setting. I have not seen that confirmed anywhere yet, though. While this Diplodocus is a cast of the original at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, this particular cast was first displayed in 1904 and was one of the first complete dinosaur fossil displays in the world.
There is still occasional disagreement over how to pronounce particular dinosaur names, and hanging around the Diplodocus fossil doesn’t help: we heard numerous people, children and adults, pronouncing the name “Dip-lo-DOCK-us,” rather than how you hear it in America, “Di-PLOD-ah-kus.” Don’t worry that you may have been pronouncing it wrong your entire life: I heard a British professor talk about this once, and he wistfully declared that since Diplodocus had been discovered in America, by an American, the American pronunciation is indeed the accepted one, “no matter how badly it mangles the queen’s English!”
At the end of the central hall at NHM are stairs to a mezzanine. Sitting at the top of those stairs is a beautiful marble statue of one of the world’s greatest scientists, Charles Darwin. While Darwin did not have a formal relationship with the NHM, he developed many of his ideas during conversations with Richard Owen and other scientists at the (then) British Museum of Natural History. Darwin did donate some of his famous bird collections to the museum, and in 2006, the museum acquired the world’s most extensive collection of works written by and about him. His statue was placed at the top of the stairs in 2009, replacing a statue of Richard Owen which had stood for many years in that spot.
There are plenty of other highlights in the central hall; my favorite was the preserved body of the coelocanth, a lobe-finned fish that is more closely related to lungfish, reptiles and even mammals than it is to most current fish. Fish very similar to the modern coelocanth (Latimeria) are thought to be present in the fossil record as far back as 400 million years ago, and they were very closely related to the creatures that made the transition from marine animals to land tetrapods. They were long thought to have been extinct since the Cretaceous period, but a fisherman caught one in the Indian Ocean in 1938, and that specimen now sits in London. Since then, others have been caught, and scientists have learned quite a bit more about this modern relative of a truly ancient creature.
The Natural History Museum is divided into zones by color, and the dinosaurs occupy a large part of the “Blue Zone.” Once inside, there are a lot of impressive fossils to see. A large Camarasaurus sits inside the hallway, and an elevated path allows visitors to see a number of fossil displays that are on platforms suspended from the ceiling–it’s a very creative way to use the space to fit in more dinosaurs. Along the path visitors can view full skeletal mounts of Dromaeosaurus, Albertosaurus, the Mongolian stegosaur Tuojiangosaurus, Massospondylus, and Mantellisaurus, formerly a species of Iguanodon but now a separate genus named after early paleontologist Gideon Mantell.
The most interesting mount in the dinosaur hall is probably that of the Baryonyx, a spinosaur that was discovered in southern England in 1983. Although it may have been not yet fully grown, the holotype specimen is quite large, at around 25 feet long. Other spinosaurs have been found to live semi-aquatic lives, and Baryonyx most likely ate a diet based primarily on fish. The contents of the stomach in the holotype fossil at NHM revealed fish remains and also those of a juvenile Iguanodon-type dinosaur.
There are plenty of other dinosaurs to see at NHM, including Gallimimus, Hypsilophodon, and quite a few parts of dinosaurs that are interesting, such as a beautiful club tail from the ankylosaur Euoplocephalus and the thumb spike from Iguanodon, the first herbivorous dinosaur known to science, first discovered in England in 1822. Also on display are teeth from another dinosaur found in England, in this case the very first dinosaur ever described scientifically, the theropod Megalosaurus.
One of the most interesting dinosaurs at NHM, and a relatively new addition, can be found across the museum at the entrance to the Red Zone, which has a steep escalator that ascends through an impressive model of the earth. In December of 2014, NHM acquired and put on display the most complete Stegosaurus skeleton ever found, estimated to be a remarkable 85% real bone. This fantastic dinosaur is called “Sophie” and is mounted in a great, realistic pose according to the most recent science.
There are so many awe inspiring things to see at this museum, it is hard to pick a favorite, but I think mine was the hallway of fossil sea reptiles. Anyone familiar with paleontology history knows the name Mary Anning, one of the first professional fossil hunters who discovered the first ichthyosaur, the first plesiosaur, and the pterosaur Dimorphodon, among many other finds.
Mary fought strong societal norms against women in the sciences, let alone a poor, formally uneducated woman from a small town far from London. Early in her career, she experienced tremendous prejudice from male scientists who first dismissed her work entirely, then later, after seeing its obvious value, decided to instead take credit for it themselves. Despite this, her natural intelligence, scientific talent, and numerous important discoveries could not be denied for long, and she even became quite famous during her relatively short life, eventually winning many admirers in the highbrow scientific community of the time. She spent her life in Lyme Regis on the southern “Jurassic Coast” of England, where she and her fossil shop were the inspiration for the well-known tongue-twisting 1908 poem by Terry Sullivan:
She sells seashells by the seashore.
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure.
So if she sells seashells on the seashore,
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.
At the Natural History Museum, the fossil sea reptile hallway is filled with many great fossils, several of which were found by Mary and her brother Joseph, including the first ichthyosaur, later named Temnodontosaurus.
Gideon Mantell was the early English fossil hunter who introduced the world to Iguanodon, and he also was involved in research on the great fossil of 18th century Europe which he would later name Mosasaurus. The first specimens of this creature, including the holotype, were found near the Dutch city of Maastricht as early as 1764. Nearly thirty years later, the holotype fossils were transported to Paris after the French revolutionary army captured Maastricht and collected as many of the most valuable art and science specimens they could find. That fossil still resides in the Muséum national d’Histoire naturelle in Paris, but a cast of the holotype skull can be found in the NHM. Mantell described Mosasaurus scientifically and gave it the name it still bears today.
The sea reptile collection at NHM is without doubt among the very best in the world, and the dinosaur collection is excellent as well. While it definitely has much in common with similar museums in New York and Washington, NHM also has some distinctly European flavor. For example, displays are presented in interesting ways…European museums tend to use all of the available wall space to hang paintings or display fossils, etc. In America, we are more accustomed to seeing displays at ground level, and the higher space on the walls left empty.
IF I DON’T LIKE DINOSAURS, WILL I ENJOY MY VISIT?
Like the American Museum of Natural History or the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, the museum in London is very large and full of things to see and do. The various color zones feature different animals and sciences, and if you have any interest in science, you will surely find some wonderful exhibits to enjoy. If not, the famous music venue Royal Albert Hall is just a block or so north of the museum, and a hundred yards beyond that is the very large Hyde Park, featuring Kensington Gardens, the Prince Albert Memorial, and a very popular Princess Diana memorial, among many other features. The Victoria and Albert Museum specializing in decorative arts is right across the street from NHM. If you like to shop (and you have a lot of room on your credit card), the famous Harrod’s department store is just a short walk to the east.
WHAT COULD BE BETTER?
Well, the lighting in the dinosaur halls is not particularly good; in fact, I would say that it is among the worst I have seen in a major museum. Getting decent photographs was a real struggle. The suspended platforms and the raised walkway are a great way to use the space in the dinosaur hall more efficiently, but it also leads to a rushed feeling for those of us who spend a lot of time looking at the displays and reading the signs…the walkway is relatively narrow, and the school groups that come through with great regularity are relatively large.
DID MY CHILDREN ENJOY THEIR VISIT?
The first time I visited I was not able to bring my children, but the second time they were able to come. Both of them enjoyed the museum very much. One of our favorite activities was a Behind-the-Scenes tour we took of the “Spirit Collection”, which is another way of saying “the dead animals that we keep in jars filled with alcohol.” It was terribly interesting. My boys both loved the giant squid in the long, narrow, rectangular glass case. I thought it was interesting to see many of Charles Darwin’s original specimens from his time on the HMS Beagle as a young naturalist. Other highlights for them were “Sophie” the Stegosaurus, the Baryonyx, and one of the most famous fossils of all–the first (and holotype) of Archaeopteryx.
HOW MUCH TIME SHOULD I PLAN TO SPEND THERE?
I would plan to spend at least two hours if you just want to see fossils and dinosaurs. But there is so much to see and do at NHM that I would strongly recommend a visit of three or four hours. We have been there twice now, for several hours each time, and I still don’t feel like I’ve seen half the museum.
The NHM is one of the most important and well-known natural history museums in the world, and the many priceless objects are inspiring to see up close. My favorite fossil room anywhere just might be the hallway of sea reptiles…there are so many, and of such high quality…it was awe inspiring. I am fully aware of all the many things that visitors to London can do with their time, it is truly one of the world’s great cities. Next time you visit, I strongly recommend a trip to the Natural History Museum; it will be memorable and well worth your time.
Rating Aspects of the Museum’s Fossil Displays:
Number of Fossils/Dinosaurs on Display: (9.5 out of 10)
Fossil Displays/Creativity/Visual Layout/Overall Scene: (8 out of 10)
Unique/New/Famous/Important Fossils on Display: (9 out of 10)
Educational Materials/Display Information/Signage: (8 out of 10)
Activities/Play Areas for Children: (8 out of 10)