I had an hour and a bit to fill after work yesterday, so I went to the Natural History Museum. That's one of the joys of working in Central London - you can nip out for a ton of culture in the evening in a way that's not possible in, say, Ipswich. I should nip out more often.
4:30pm The Museum Ice Rink
Walk out of the subway at dusk and ooooh, all the trees are magically lit up with fairy lights. By now the ice rink's already busy with families and couples swirling around in slow circles. They all seem to be enjoying themselves, which at £13.50 for 50 minutes you'd hope they were. It's still early so few crowds are watching, and there are no queues for the rinkside refreshments either. The tented cafe is brought to you by a well known High Street coffee chain, stretching their menu beyond "Red Cup favourites" to a selection of mulled alcohols. The only natural history related features here are the penguin-branded stabilisers for kids, plus the equine merry-go-round illuminated by the entrance. But if you're a top museum with outdoor space and two months to fill, why wouldn't you freeze it over.
This is usually packed, or at least it is at weekends. But come late afternoon in the week after half term and the experience is considerably more manageable. Turn left at Dippy in the main hall, then up onto the central walkway to stroll between old bones. The gallery's been very well done, whether you're after facts or spectacle, right down to the giant T Rex behind the screen at the far end. This scared the willies out of my nephew several years ago, growling and roaring at the bottom of the ramp with animatronic largesse. I skedaddled past the ground level displays on that occasion, but they're really varied and informative if you stop to read them. The hanging skeletons look like fibreglass, but these are proper old skulls and ribs, some of them from deepest Sussex. Oh yes, the dinosaurs are definitely best viewed without kids (sorry kids).
4:55pm The Darwin Centre
It's been open three years, but for some reason I've not made it here before. An eight storey glass extension, located just round the back of the blue whale, built to house a properly scientific exploratorium. Take the glass lift to the 7th floor to delve inside the Cocoon, which is a multi-storey egg-shapedconcrete shell housing the museum's comprehensive collection of plant and animal specimens. You won't get right inside to see the rows of shelves, but there is clear view of the scientists working in their labs alongside. Some were working late, others were packing up after a hard day's analysing and classifying. The visitor experience does a really good job of explaining what these folk do, and might well inspire an inquisitive teen to consider a career in some related scientific field. Don't forget to pick up a barcoded Nature Plus card on the way in, then you can "collect" experiences on the way round to investigate further when you get home. I had a good time on the interactive panels pretending to be twelve again, in the absence of any twelve year old audience looking on and wishing they were playing instead. If you think you've 'done' the NHM, thanks to Darwin you might not have done.
5:30pm The Minerals Gallery
It's often one of the emptiest rooms in the museum because most visitors are here for the animals not the rocks. But I love this 1881 gallery, with its rows and rows of Victorian display cases and a long row of elegant pillars stretching off into the distance. This is the largest public display of minerals in the world, from quartz to Blue John and topaz to iron pyrites. The best part is right down at the far end, in The Vault, where some truly out of this world exhibits are kept. Here are the meteorites, two of them chipped-off chunks of Mars, others formerly part of the Moon. A powder of micro-diamonds formed in a supernova before the solar system was born is described as the oldest thing you will ever see, which is fairly mind-blowing late on a November afternoon. Ladies and Gentlemen the museum will be closing in ten minutes.
5:47pm The NHM shop
There are three museum shops, one full of dinosaur-related goodies, one selling rocks, and the other larger and more mainstream. There's some serious stuff, and some gifty stuff, and quite a lot of stuff aimed firmly at children, but nothing I'd descibe as in any way tacky. It being this time of year I should probably mutter the words "stocking filler" and leave you to mull that over. Just try to arrive before ten to six.