Life in all its fantastic diversity. The museum is home to life and earth science specimens comprising some 80 million items within five main collections: botany, entomology, mineralogy, paleontology and zoology. The museum is a world-renowned centre of research specialising in taxonomy, identification and conservation. Given the age of the institution, many of the collections have great historical as well as scientific value, such as specimens collected by Charles Darwin. The foundation of the collection was that of the Ulster doctor Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753), who allowed his significant collections to be purchased by the British Government at a price well below their market value at the time. This purchase was funded by a lottery. Sloane's collection, which included dried plants, and animal and human skeletons, was initially housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury, in 1756, which was the home of the British Museum. Most of the Sloane collection had disappeared by the early decades of the nineteenth century. Dr George Shaw (Keeper of Natural History 1806–13) sold many specimens to the Royal College of Surgeons and had periodic cremations of material in the grounds of the museum. His successors also applied to the trustees for permission to destroy decayed specimens. In 1833 the Annual Report states that, of the 5,500 insects listed in the Sloane catalogue, none remained. The inability of the natural history departments to conserve its specimens became notorious: the Treasury refused to entrust it with specimens collected at the government's expense. Appointments of staff were bedevilled by gentlemanly favoritism; in 1862 a nephew of the mistress of a Trustee was appointed Entomological Assistant despite not knowing the difference between a butterfly and a moth.
J. E. Gray (Keeper of Zoology 1840–74) complained of the incidence of mental illness amongst staff: George Shaw threatened to put his foot on any shell not in the 12th edition of Linnaeus' Systema Naturae; another had removed all the labels and registration numbers from entomological cases arranged by a rival. The huge collection of the conchologist Hugh Cuming was acquired by the museum, and Gray's own wife had carried the open trays across the courtyard in a gale: all the labels blew away. That collection is said never to have recovered. The Principal Librarian at the time was Antonio Panizzi; his contempt for the natural history departments and for science in general was total. The general public was not encouraged to visit the Museum's natural history exhibits. In 1835 to a Select Committee of Parliament, Sir Henry Ellis said this policy was fully approved by the Principal Librarian and his senior colleagues. Many of these faults were corrected by the palaeontologist Richard Owen, appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum in 1856. His changes led Bill Bryson to write that "by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for". Owen saw that the natural history departments needed more space, and that implied a separate building as the British Museum site was limited. Land in South Kensington was purchased, and in 1864 a competition was held to design the new museum. The winning entry was submitted by the civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke, who died shortly afterwards. The scheme was taken over by Alfred Waterhouse who substantially revised the agreed plans, and designed the façades in his own idiosyncratic Romanesque style which was inspired by his frequent visits to the Continent. The original plans included wings on either side of the main building, but these plans were soon abandoned for budgetary reasons. The space these would have occupied are now taken by the Earth Galleries and Darwin Centre.
There are four galleries, depicted as different coloured zones. The Red Zone: Earth Lab; Earth's Treasury; Lasting Impressions; Restless Surface; Earth Today and Tomorrow (closing soon); From the Beginning; Volcanoes and Earthquakes; Visions of Earth; The Waterhouse Gallery (temporary exhibition space). The Earth Lab is a gallery that centres around geology, and contains specimens of fossils, minerals and rocks. The "Lab Area" is only open to reserved groups and allows an interactive approach to the gallery, allowing the use of microscopes. It is currently the only gallery in the red-zone without step free access. Earth's Treasury shows specimens of rocks, minerals and gemstones behind glass in a dimly lit gallery. Lasting Impressions is a small gallery containing specimens of rocks, plants and minerals, of which most can be touched. Green zone: Birds; Creepy Crawlies; Ecology; Fossil Marine Reptiles; Giant Sequoia and Hintze Hall (formerly the Central Hall); Minerals; The Vault; Investigate. Blue zone: Dinosaurs; Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles; Human Biology; Images of Nature; The Jerwood Gallery (temporary exhibition space); Marine Invertebrates; Mammals; Mammals (Blue whale); Treasures in the Cadogan Gallery. Orange zone: Wildlife Garden; Darwin Centre. You can hire wheelchairs for free from the cloakrooms just inside the Exhibition Road entrance (the most accessible entrance), or next to the main toilets behind Hintze Hall. As a result of ongoing work to develop the Museum, there is currently no step-free access to the upper levels of the Mammal Hall or Dinosaurs gallery. Otherwise, all floors in the Blue, Green and Red zones and the Darwin Centre are accessible by lift. Wheelchair-accessible toilets and baby-changing facilities are clearly marked on the Museum map and floor plans. There are audio descriptive guides for the Treasures exhibition in the Cadogan Gallery and the Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery. Free, guided audio description tours of the spirit collection are available on request. Book at least two weeks prior to your visit on +44 (0)20 7942 5000. Braille and large-print gallery guides are also available. If you need any other assistance during your visit to the Museum the staff will be happy to help you. Download the Treasures exhibition audio guide MP3 (33MB) Download the Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery audio guide MP3 (43MB) Download the Images of Nature gallery audio guide MP3 (41MB) They welcome guide dogs at the Museum. There are grass areas for them outside and water is available on request. You can leave your guide dog with the attendants at either of the cloakrooms if you wish. Please note that guide dogs are not allowed on our Spirit Collection Tours. If you need help with access talk to staff at the information desks.
Location : The Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road London SW7 5BD
Opening Times: Monday to Sunday 10:00 to 17:50.
Tickets : Free.
Tel: 020 7942 5000