Five of the best... British natural history museums

| 26th August 2011
T Rex
Don’t despair if this weekend turns out to be a washout; the UK’s natural history museums are the perfect place to spend a rainy afternoon. Gervase Poulden has five of the best

According to Oxford University Museum researcher Elee Kirk, the UK has 116 museums that deal with natural history with 17 devoted entirely to the topic, each one boasting its own highlights and unique collections. Although many are slanted towards taxidermy, many more have undergone renovations and now feature advanced interactive displays, as well as new galleries dedicated to contemporary environmental issues.

Natural history museums play an important role in educating children and adults alike about the wonders of the planet. The hope is, according to the London Natural History Museum’s mission statement, that the museums can use their collections to ‘promote the discovery, understanding, responsible use and enjoyment of the natural world.’ So whether you’re looking for a way to keep the children entertained or just hoping to learn a little more about our planet and the wildlife that occupies it, our favourite natural history museums are the perfect way to spend a rainy bank holiday.

Oxford Museum of National History
The 151 year old neo-gothic building that houses Oxford’s natural museum is in itself worthy of a visit. Particularly striking are the carvings inspired by the natural world, created by Irish masons O’Shea and Whelan, which are dotted throughout the museum. According to museum educational assistant Rachel Smith, the museum’s most popular attractions include the world’s most complete remains of a Dodo, as well as ‘the first described and named part of a dinosaur in history’, belonging to the Megalosaurus, which was discovered in the Oxfordshire countryside in 1824. The museum has an entire education team dedicated to helping children enjoy their visit and a learning zone that deals specifically with topics on the natural curriculum for sciences. The success of these educational activities was underlined earlier this year when the museum was awarded the inaugural Clore Award for Museum Learning, part of the Art Fund Prize.

Where to stay: The Ethos Hotel, located close to the city centre, has a sustainable energy tariff, grey water well and pump, and stocks Fairtrade, natural products.

Nearest station: Oxford

National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh
In July of this year, Scotland’s third most popular museum reopened 16 galleries dedicated to the natural world, which include over 6,500 objects never seen before by the public. There is a particular focus throughout the museum on Scottish natural history, including a gallery dedicated to ‘the first three billion years of Scottish history.’ From more recent times, the preserved remains of Dolly, the first successful clone of a mammal from an adult cell, are also on display. Other attractions include a vast treasure trove of taxidermy, a stunning two-metre high amethyst geode formed in Brazil 130 million years ago and a world famous collection of fish and whale fossils. There is also plenty available to keep children amused, including the adventure planet section, which provides opportunities to discover more about ecosystems from the past and present, including the chance to take part in a ‘Dino dig’.

Where to stay: The Glenora Guest House, a short walk from the museum, recently won a Bronze Award from the Visit Scotland Green Tourism Business Scheme. It offers an entirely organic breakfast using local produce.

Nearest station:
Edinburgh Waverley

Great North Museum, Newcastle
Short-listed for the European Museum of the Year Award 2011, the Great North Museum is another institution that has recently undergone a restoration. It reopened its doors to the public in early 2009, with a wide array of advanced new exhibits including one that offers visitors the chance to reassemble prehistoric creatures using virtual technology. The Great North Museum also plays a direct role in environmental conservation, housing the Environmental Records Information Centre for the North East, which offers members of the public the opportunity to go on outings into the local countryside led by experts to learn about the natural habitat and conservation techniques. ‘We’re not just educating, inspiring and illuminating our visitors we’re contributing to the conservation of the region too,’ says Dr Sarah Glynn, manager of the Museum. The best time to visit is on Tuesdays, when the gallery has resident experts on hand which means that visitors get the chance handle the museum’s specimens.

Where to stay: The Newcastle branch of the Jurys Inn hotel chain, located next to the train station, is the only hotel in the city to be awarded Green Tourism Business Scheme Gold Award. They are currently aiming to divert 70 per cent of all waste produced by the hotel away from landfill and towards recycling.

Nearest station:

The Herbert Museum, Coventry
Although the Herbert Museum only features two galleries dedicated to natural history, it merits inclusion largely on the basis of its astounding facilities for children, which were recognised when the museum was awarded the Guardian Family Friendly Museum of the Year award in 2010. The museum ‘takes a very different approach to natural history’ to other museums, according to Senior Curator Martin Roberts, with the aim of creating ‘a sensory exploration of the collection and the natural world’. This means that visitors are free to touch many of the exhibits, including the fossils, and there is even the opportunity to create music influenced by the different ecosystems around the world. The museum is currently running an exhibition based on the BBC series, Walking With Beasts, which does indeed offer visitors the chance to walk amongst these prehistoric animals with the aid of digital blue screen technology.

Where to stay: The Gilly and Grant Bed and Breakfast in Balsall Common, a short train ride from Coventry city centre, offers food sourced from the local area, including home-made jams and marmalades and home baked bread.

Nearest station:

The Natural History Museum, London
With over four million visitors coming through its doors every year, London’s Natural History Museum is the fourth most popular museum in the country. It houses over 70 million items, making it the largest collection of natural specimens in the UK. As well as the ever-popular permanent collection of dinosaur skeletons, the museum is also running a temporary exhibition until the beginning of September, ‘The Age of Dinosaurs,’ which features to-scale moving animatronic models of the prehistoric reptiles. The museum provides an excellent introduction to the topic of climate change for children, as well as offering further information for adults, with a 12 metre-wide interactive wall and an entire gallery, ‘Earth Today and Tomorrow’, chronicling the effects of human beings on the planet. Covering the entire museum in day can be a challenge so, if you feel like a rest, there are also talks and interactive films screened daily in the Attenborough studio.

Where to stay: Situated on the banks of the Thames, Hotel Rafael is a fifteen minute tube ride from the museum. The hotel has a bamboo grove fed with rainwater captured by irrigation systems, a hotel-wide ‘no plastic’ policy, and has nearly eliminated all use of paper within the building.

Nearest station: South Kensington Underground



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