As soon as you set foot inside the Natural History Museum, you are greeted by some of the collection’s most amazing skeletons. Depending on which entrance you use, you will be met by one of two Natural History Museum highlights: Hope the blue whale, or Sophie the stegosaurus. Both are remarkably complete specimens that have allowed us to learn a huge amount about how they once lived.
Hope: the Natural History Museum Whale
Hope is the new centerpiece of Hintze Hall, the grand hall at the heart of the Natural History Museum. This was spot was previously held by the beloved Dippy the Diplodocus, who was installed in 1979. Dippy greeted generations of visitors to the Natural History Museum. But, after a last farewell tour of the UK in October 2020, she was due for retirement.
Hope was unveiled on July 14th, 2017. She is suspended from the ceiling, mouth gaping wide as if swimming down to swallow up anyone walking through the front doors. Hope’s name is a symbol for our ability to protect the environment in the future. Whales as a species were almost hunted to extinction before concentrated human effort began to put their numbers on the rise again. Thus; Hope.
What do we know about Hope?
She is a real skeleton taken from a young female blue whale that beached in Ireland in 1891. Although some whales live to be 100 years old, Hope may have been only 15 years old when she died. Despite her youth, she measures an incredible 25.2m, and her bones alone weigh 4.5 tonnes. Just imagine how much she must have weighed when she was alive! Blue Whales are the largest creatures to have ever lived on our planet, even bigger than any dinosaur or prehistoric creature.
Museum scientists have been able to work out Hope’s likely behaviour and travels by studying chemicals left behind in her baleen plates. Like your hair and nails, a whale’s baleen plates are made of keratin. Unlike any part of you though, their job is to filter out plankton from the seawater for the whale to eat. This means that unlike other mammals, whales don’t need to have teeth. Amazingly, scientists can also study whale ear wax to discover their age and hormone levels. Imagine your whole life dedicated to studying massive plugs of ear wax! It must be disgusting work — but important.
Sophie: One of the Natural History Museum’s Most Famous Dinosaurs
At the other entrance to the museum on Exhibition Road, you enter into the old Royal Geological Society building, where you’re greeted by Sophie the Stegosaurus. Found in Wyoming in the United States in 2004, this skeleton is by far the most complete one of its kind ever found.
Sophie’s bones are remarkably preserved in their original form, not crushed flat by millions of years of earth’s pressure. This means that the museum scientists have been able to 3D model and scan the whole skeleton to get an amazing picture of how Sophie could have moved. In truth, we have no way of knowing whether Sophie was female or male as no soft tissue survives. She gets her name from the daughter of the donor whose gift allowed the museum to buy this amazing piece!
These two skeletons are without a doubt some of the highlights of the Natural History Museum’s collection. However, since we’re talking about a museum with some 80 million specimens, there’s plenty more to see! Feeling overwhelmed and unsure about what to see at the Natural History Museum? A Natural History Museum treasure hunt with THATMuse will take you to the highlights of the collection, while injecting a bit of fun and competition for good measure.
If you can’t get there right now, check out the Natural History Museum category on our blog. We have plenty of posts about Natural History Museum highlights to keep you going!
Our THATMuse Dinosaur and Extinct beasts Treasure Hunt focus on the incredible treasures inside the Natural History Museum’s 80 million strong collection, but this blog contains 7 fascinating facts about the natural history museum building itself.
1. Founder Richard Owen invented the word Dinosaur
Sir Richard Owen was a world-famous naturalist and the man who created the term ‘dinosaur’. He took three unusual fossils and realised they were all of a kind: Megalosauraus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. When put in charge of Britain’s natural history collection he decided they needed a new home outside the British Museum. He set out to purpose build the perfect building to house the wonders of the natural world.
2. It was built from terracotta so it wouldn’t be stained by the Victorian smog.
Eventually Alfred Waterhouse, a relatively unknown young architect from Liverpool was given the job and he set out plans for a ‘Cathedral to Nature’ as it would soon be nicknamed. Waterhouse used terracotta to decorate the building as it was quicker and cheaper to carve, and it would be less affected by Victorian London’s sooty, smoky atmosphere. Others were being stained black by the smog!
3. Every surface in Hintze hall is crawling with life!
Under Owen’s guidance Waterhouse created a huge central space in the style of a cathedral, now named Hintze Hall. This space was deliberately big enough to house the biggest pieces in the collection, from diplodocuses to blue whales! Almost every surface in Hintze hall is adorned with scenes from the natural world. Monkeys climb the arches. Woodland critters cuddle the corner columns. The ceiling is decorated with real plants and their scientific names, from beautiful flowers to cocoa and tea.
4. The outside is covered in gargoyles, from lions to pterodactyls.
Even the outside of the building is decorated! Terracotta gargoyles loom off the façade. On the East wing, next to exhibition road and the V&A Museum you can see Pterodactyls and saber-toothed tigers perched outside windows and roaring from the rooftop. On the West wing nearer the museum’s wildlife garden you can instead see wolves, lions and kangaroos watching over the London streets.
5. It was designed to disagree with Darwin
It was by Owen’s decree the east wing is decorated entirely with extinct creatures, and the west entirely with living species. The museum was built as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was gaining prominence and revealing the connections extinct species have to our modern ones. Owen however disproved of Darwin’s removal of God as the true creator of our living species. He agreed with the science, he could see the evidence of species evolving but believed it all began with God. So he build a huge cathedral in between the living and the extinct wings to show gods role at the heart of the natural world.
6. Some animals are now on the wrong side of the building
There have been many changes to the environment of our world over the last 150 years. So there are now two animals on the wrong sides of the building. The passenger pigeon used to fly over North America in flocks of millions. But thanks to human expansion by 1914 there was just one left, called Martha in San Diego Zoo. Carved into the living side, it should now be with the pterodactyls and other extinct animals. The opposite is true of the coelacanth. A fish thought extinct for 66 million years until in 1938 a fisherman caught one off the coast of South Africa! This is known as a Lazarus Taxon: species that have risen from the dead.
7. A giant cocoon houses the new Darwin Centre
The newest part of the building is the Darwin Centre. Comprising several buildings, the most interesting is the Cocoon containing the UK Diodiversity lab. It is also home to the Entomology department studying the museum’s bugs. 28 million specimens had to be carefully moved from the old building to the new. There is also the Zoology Spirit collection which has 22 million animal specimens preserved in jars of alcoholic spirit. The biggest is a 9m long Giant Squid!
We are very excited to announce the arrival of our new London KidPack! Joining our ever-successful Paris KidPack, it is full of fun activities, puzzles and creative fun. Add one as a bonus after a family treasure hunt at any of our three London museums, and keep the discovery going!
Learn how to write in Egyptian hieroglyphics with the Rosetta Stone, decorate your own Sutton Hoo Helmet with Norse warriors and gods and spot the differences with Shiva; Destroyer and Lord of the Dance!
We’re rolling it out this winter to celebrate our Public Easter Hunts in London. Discover a unique Easter Egg hunt at the Natural History Museum and search for eggs from creatures great and small, from Dinosaurs to platypuses on Sat 28th March. Can you beat our tricera-top score?! Or celebrate a world of festivities at the V&A on Sat 11th April. Don your Easter bonnet to hunt for Britain’s burning Guy Fawkes and treasures of China’s Lunar New Year.
Keep an eye out on our blog, the first Tuesday of every month for our THATKid Tuesdays project. Each day we’ll reveal another KidPack page and use it to learn about art history and the museum collections!
Find all our Public hunts at Eventbrite or book a hunt at any of our five museums across London and Paris including the Louvre, Musee d’Orsay and British Museum, and coming soon in FLORENCE!
We’ll meet on the corner of Cromwell Road & Exhibition Road and together will grapple with the security line entrance to the museum. Your THATMuse host will have a white canvas THATMuse tote. The name and contact details of your greeter will be sent to you via email prior to your hunt.
Freshly charged batteries in your phones/cameras (per team) & comfy shoes.
Your THATMuse Mission
Photo your team in front of as many pieces of Treasure as possible within the given amount of time (90 minutes to 2 hours)!
Teams must stay together, must not run, jump or shout & of course NO NO NO TOUCHING anything…
No external help… If seen speaking to a tourist-in-the-know or staffer you’re automatically eliminated; Likewise, no googling Marsupials, no GPS-ing where fossilized skin is, no phoning your geologist Aunt for help!
Please be sure you have one (1) Master Copy with all the answers and only use one (1) camera/phone (to facilitate score tallying). In respect to Museum policy please mute your phones & no flash photography
Must meet back at end point (same as Starting point) at the precise time agreed. Each minute late merits 5 negative points — that’s 5 pts debited! — per minute (!!) Sometimes there are strategical reasons to be late, but attention: if you’re more than 10 mins late you’re ousted, eliminated, no point in coming back… Ouch!
Please note, you can answer bonus questions without having found the relevant treasure, as it proves you’ve read the treasure text (& will hopefully want to return to find it after your hunt or another day; our very goal is to extend your visit and plant the seed to want to return!).
Discussing team break ups (often a 4-person family will break into two teams, one parent and one child per team) before your hunt can drum up excitement and anticipation. For a leg up on some treasure, see our THATNat category on the blog. Morsels like Human or Ape? Or Rock or Bone or Bird or Dinosaur? May just have answers to bonus questions embedded in your text!
For a sneak peek, check out this video of THATNat at the Natural History Museum:
On your THATNat at the Natural History Museum, you’ll come across lots of objects that look like skeletons. Mighty T-Rex skulls, a full Iguanodon, and winged pteranodons. But are the skeletons the same as the skulls of the mammoths and mastodons in the museum’s collection?
It’s a tricky question – one that we will answer on the hunt, of course!
Not all fossils are bones. Any trace of a long-dead creature can be a fossil. Footprints are fossils. Bones are fossils. Egg shells are fossils. Even droppings are fossils – and we can learn a lot from them! But don’t expect to find some dino do-do with any organic matter in it. That stuff is long gone.
Dinosaur remains are millions of years old, and none actually have any cell tissue in them anymore. They aren’t, well, bones. They are simply mineral replications of the bones that they once were. They have the shape and form of bone, but they are essentially rocks. There is a particular process that leads to these bones becoming the fossils you see today.
This process is called petrification. If you can remember that you’ll have some bonus points in your pocket for the THATMuse Dinosaurs and Extinct Beasts treasure hunt!
Just in time for Easter, we’ll be celebrating these creatures by bringing them back to life, even if just in our imaginations!
Meet Archaeopteryx, the most valuable fossil in the Natural History Museum!
Pronounced Ark-ee-op-ter-ix, this is believed to be the earliest bird ever discovered. This fossil was found in Germany in 1861, just two years after Darwin had published On the Origin of Species. This helped prove the value of his ideas. Never before had such a clear link between the animals of today and extinct creatures been discovered. It has teeth and claws like many dinosaurs yet is covered in feathers and seemed adapted to flight. Some people found its discovery so incomprehensible they thought it must be an angel!
This fossil is so well preserved it has been designated the ‘type specimen’ for the species. This means it is the best version we have in the world and all other possible Archaeopteryx finds are compared to this one. It seems the creature fell onto a muddy riverbank and was quickly covered up with another level of thick clay like mud, preserving it intact and flat.
Recent studies have also managed to 3D map the inside of its skull. Bird brains are squeezed so tightly inside their skulls that it leaves an imprint of the shape of the brain on the inside of the bone over time. By reconstructing Archaeopteryx’s brain they could see it had a big enough brain to actually fly, not just glide or flap about. It had excellent eyes and co-ordination just like modern birds.
Recent fossil discoveries in China have also shown many more dinosaurs with feathers. Not for flight but for display and for warmth. It could be that many more dinosaurs we know were covered in feathers, and looked more like giant chickens than the scary creatures we picture today! In February 2020 the Royal Mint released a series of 50p coins with british dinosaurs on them. Drawn by real scientist paleoartists, one depicts the Megalosaurus with a coat of feathers!
The Beatles had a famous song (at least one) where they sang, “Look for the girl with the sun in her eyes, and she’s gone.” They were not talking about the Lucy you’ll meet on your THATNat hunt at the Natural History Museum in London, (but she was named after this song!) but imagine this tiny human living many, many years ago. She probably had a few happy moments, with sun in her eyes. Or at least we like to think so. Lucy was not a human; however, she was not an ape either. So, what was she?
Discovered in Ethiopia, Lucy belongs to a group of pre-human creatures called Australopithecus. There is a lot of speculation about her, but scientists are pretty sure that she is a female – because of her pelvic bone – and that she walked upright like a human. This was a big deal back in the 1970s.
Today we know more about our early ancestors, but of course it’s hard to know a whole lot about Lucy, who lived around 3.2 million years ago. We learn a lot from her, especially from teeth – of which Lucy has precious few left. You’ll find out more during the THATNat hunt, Dinosaurs and Extinct Beasts.
Keep this blog in mind if you want to have a few bonus points in your pocket when you arrive!