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The seven wonders of the Natural History Museum

The dinosaurs are a given, but what other historical beauties are waiting to meet you at the NHM?

Written by
Things To Do Editors

Described as a ‘cathedral to nature’, the Natural History Museum started life as little more than a glorified exhibit at the British Museum. However, owing to the creative vision of Sir Richard – a former curator at the Hunterian Museum – and architect Alfred Waterhouse, this institution has become an icon in its own right. Now home to over 80 million items, it's a shining example of its kind, continually evolving to reflect advances in natural science and drawing over five million visitors a year. 

RECOMMENDED: The seven wonders of more London museums

1. A cup made from a human skull

Our prehistoric ancestors weren’t cannibals on purpose. Scientists believe that it was more a case of ‘eating the evidence’; what more effective way of clearing away human remains than having them for tea? It cut down on the time and energy it took to hunt other protein sources and kept dangerous scavengers away from the camp, too. The specimen here, found in Gough’s cave, Somerset, is roughly 14,700 years old and likely to be from an immigrant from south-west Europe. The skull’s soft tissue was removed shortly after death and the bone shows signs of a thorough cleaning. Its condition means that it can now be used as a cup – handy for your most bloodthirsty moments.

2. ‘Dippy’ the Diplodocus

This dinosaur skeleton cast, affectionately known as Dippy, has been a draw for visitors ever since it was unveiled in 1905. Discovered in 1878, the Diplodocus was originally billed as ‘the most colossal animal ever on earth’. Dippy is 26 metres long and has been assembled in several different postures during its ‘lifetime’ as scientists have broadened their understanding of how the terrible lizards actually looked. Originally, Dippy’s head and neck pointed downwards and his tail dragged along the ground; now he’s raised at both ends in what is believed to be the correct stance (though they’ve been wrong before...). In 2017, despite much protest from fond Londoners, Dippy will be embarking on a nationwide tour and is to be replaced by the life-size blue whale model that currently hangs from the ceiling in the Mammals Gallery.

3. The Dodo c.1626

Until the invention of photography, illustrations were considered the best way to show exotic animals and objects to the masses. But how do you imagine an animal that hasn’t been seen by any living person? This painting was the only reference point for curator Richard Owen when attempting to piece together dodo fossils. By laying out the bones on top of the portrait in 1866, his interpretation became the recognised scientific description of the extinct bird. Owen’s interpretation is no longer believed to be correct, and Julian Pender Hume’s 2010 painting (which hangs next to the seventeenth-century version in the museum) pictures a ‘more upright, athletic-looking bird’.

4. A ‘Lucky Find’ chunk of gold

Gold still accounts for a huge amount of Australia’s exports, earning close to an estimated £7 billion last year. This little beauty is a cast of the largest single nugget ever to have been found. Discovered in 1869, it was widely named the ‘Welcome Stranger’ and weighed approximately 71.4 kg, of which 64.8 kg could be harvested for gold. The largest actual nugget surviving today is displayed on a rotating platform in the Golden Nugget Casino, Las Vegas. It weighs 27.4 kg and is worth about $1.5 million.


5. A stuffed polar bear

Now that those pesky dinosaurs are out of the way, the polar bear is the largest carnivore walking the earth, and hunts everything from seals to beluga whales. A polar bear this size stands about 1.5 metres at the shoulder and can weigh up to 720kg. A lot of this weight can be attributed to its dense, water-repellent fur and thick layer of fat, both of which offer protection from the harsh conditions and icy waters of the Arctic. A polar bear’s skin is actually black but the pigment-free, hollow hairs that make up its fur reflect light, making the animal appear to have a white coat. They’re considered to be as clever as some apes: polar bears in captivity have been observed creating games out of plastic piping.

6. On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin

This first edition of Darwin’s monumental ‘On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection’ is incredibly rare. Published on November 24, 1859, it is the most influential book on biological theory ever written. While the theory of evolution was generally accepted, many challenged the idea of natural selection being a significant part of the process. It also created huge debate within theological groups who believed that humans could not be descended from animals as they did not share the same spiritual qualities.


7. Pompeii casts

In 79AD Vesuvius erupted so violently that it covered the Bay of Naples in layers of lava and ash, completely wiping out towns including Pompeii and Herculaneum. The compressed layers of ash acted as a perfect preservative, leaving us with a creepily pristine snapshot of the cultures and customs of Ancient Roman life. The hardened ash also preserved the town’s unlucky residents, who were suffocated by the toxic, volcanic clouds. Their corpses eventually rotted away, leaving perfect impressions of the agonising positions in which people died. These casts show the twisted silhouettes of a man and a dog.

Next up: the best of the Geffrye Museum

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