London is one of my favourite places in the world, and one of my favourite places in London is the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I hadn’t been to London since my Keeper for a Day experience at London Zoo in 2015, during which time I hadn’t been in the NHM. My main purpose for going back this year was to see the exhibition Venom: Killer and Cure, which is on until 13th May 2018, and which researcher Dr Ronald Jenner had given a lecture about at a conference I attended last November. While I was there, I also thought I might as well see another exhibition – Whales: Beneath the Surface – which finishes at the end of this month.
It was an uneventful train journey to London and to the NHM itself; there were several Tottenham Hotspur fans onboard as the North London Derby against Arsenal would be on that day. (Tottenham won 1-0.) The first thing I did once I got into the museum was to admire Hope, the blue whale skeleton which was erected in the Hintze Hall last year. I hardly felt any nostalgic wistfulness at the loss of Dippy the Diplodocus – who is currently going on tour around the UK – as I was too impressed by the whale. The skeleton was a 25-metre-long female who washed up on a beach in Ireland in 1891. It was chosen for its current position to symbolise the majesty, mystery and fragility of the natural world: the blue whale is the largest animal that has ever lived, much remains to be learned about its behaviour, and it is currently classed as Endangered. It certainly looked majestic, especially the massive head.
The exhibition Venom: Killer and Cure was set in a confined, low-light environment which made it appropriately eerie. On display were a great variety of preserved specimens, including snakes, spiders, insects, jellyfish, a vampire bat, and even a whole Komodo dragon, the largest living venomous creature. The exhibition was divided into three sections, with the first covering the mechanisms by which different animals administer venom; this included species less familiar to the general public, like the bloodworm, and ones which people are less likely to view as venomous, like the mosquito. The middle section covered the effects of venom, including animated sequences depicting different venoms in action, and audio clips from people who had been bitten by snakes or attacked by bees. The exhibition rounded off by examining humans’ relationships with venomous creatures, in particular the production of antivenom. It was all fascinating and well-designed, and I would highly recommend it.
I then headed for the part that had always been my favourite as a child: the dinosaurs! Sadly, it didn’t quite bring back the same level of wonder that I remembered. First off, the walkway which previously allowed a good look at the skeletons suspended from the ceiling was not in use; you could only walk among the informative displays at ground level, with most of the skeletons above your head, which didn’t seem ideal. A member of staff explained to me that access to the walkway had been closed off during the work of removing the Diplodocus and installing the blue whale in the nearby Hintze Hall; the current layout had apparently received positive feedback from visitors for being more open. Second, the information on the displays appeared much the same as in my childhood, despite how far palaeontology has marched on since then. A pair of once-scaly Deinonychus animatronics had been given feathers, but old images of naked raptors were still present elsewhere. I suppose it would be pretty costly and time-consuming to update the whole thing, and by the time they were finished, new discoveries would have rendered the displays out of date all over again!
After that, I went through the Whales: Beneath the Surface exhibition, which was another very good one. Starting with the remains of prehistoric whales and their ancestors – including a ghoulish-looking Dorudon – most of the exhibition was contained in one room containing many different specimens, both complete skeletons and isolated bones, accompanied by informative displays. Of particular interest was the skeleton of the Thames whale, a northern bottlenose which swam into the River Thames in 2006 and drew much attention, but sadly died despite all efforts to assist it. Some specimens were bizarre, like the twisted jaw of a sperm whale, which the animal was apparently able to survive perfectly well with. Some emphasised the scale of these animals: what looked from a distance like a huge clam shell, well over a metre across, was actually a blue whale shoulder blade. Several of the displays emphasised the similarities and differences between whale anatomy and our own. While the whole exhibition wasn’t quite as big as I expected, I still learned a lot from it.
The rest of the museum was still a pleasure, particularly the marine reptile skeletons, and the mammal hall with its blue whale model. I was in the museum for nearly four hours, but by the time I left, I still had a few hours before my train. So I went for a general wander, which I always enjoy doing in London. I walked along the Thames Embankment to Westminster Bridge – the Houses of Parliament and the tower of Big Ben are currently covered in scaffolding and not looking their best. Then I passed the entrance of Westminster Abbey, noting a nearby plaque commemorating the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge. I walked through St James’s Park, down the Mall up to Buckingham Palace, before finally heading to the nearest Tube station. Back at Euston, with more than an hour left to kill, it suddenly occurred to me that I was not far away from King’s Cross Station, and there was something else I had never actually seen before…
Contrary to what the Harry Potter books portray, there isn’t any barrier between Platforms 9 and 10 at King’s Cross for wizards to run through; the two platforms are actually on either side of a railway line and in a different part of the station than Platforms 0 to 8. The platform scenes in the Harry Potter films were still filmed at King’s Cross, but on Platforms 4 and 5. In the central area of the station, however, a sign for Platform 9 3/4 has been placed on a brick wall, with a trolley – complete with trunk and owl cage – disappearing halfway through it. When I went for a look, there was a huge queue of Potter fans waiting to get their pictures taken with the trolley! Beside that was a Harry Potter shop, where I could finally get my hands on something I’ve always wanted to try: Bertie Bott’s Every-Flavour Beans. I’m only eating a few of the beans at a time: the first one I tried was marshmallow, and the second was soap. All of them so far have tasted authentic, for better or worse.