The world of the natural history museum

I have a fascination and fondness for the natural world. I love nothing more than watching animals in their natural habitat, and I have been lucky enough to see them doing just that from the African plains to the Canadian Rockies and many places in between. And while I love watching living animals hunting and at play, I am equally interested in the myriad of long dead and extinct animals and the evolutionary processes which have lead to the flora and fauna we see today.

While I would always prefer to see nature in the wild, or as close to the wild as possible, I also have a love for museums, and in particular natural history museums. It began with a visit to the Natural History Museum in London (more on this later) I find the exhibits and the buildings and the ambience, even the smell of these places calming and thrilling at the same time.

Over the years, as I have been able to travel to some amazing places across the planet, I have tried where possible to also visit the local natural history museum, dragging my long suffering wife with me to many of them. With my museum count currently standing at 9 (with 2 special mentions which we shall discuss at the end) I felt it was a good opportunity to discuss the museums I have visited and how I feel they rate against one another.

As with my review of Muller Rice, it is important to have a set of criteria I am using to compare them. For me, there are five things I consider important in a natural history museum which I shall be using for this review;

  1. The range of exhibits
  2. Uniqueness/quality of the exhibits
  3. The building style and maintenance
  4. The building layout
  5. Dinosaurs*

I know for some people, issues such as entry price or accessibility or child- friendliness are important things to consider as well in a review. I have purposefully avoided this here and focussed instead on the museum content instead. If you want to find out more about getting to the museums and the cost etc. then I have included links to websites and social media at the end of each review.

The museums presented here are listed in the order I first visited them, and I have given the year of my visit. Obviously, museums may have changed since my visit, so you might find newer exhibits or attractions when you go.

*I am not ashamed to say I love dinosaurs, so any museum with a large or high quality selection are going to get bonus points in my eyes

London, UK

I think the Natural History Museum is the archetype which I imagine when I think of a museum. Built in a magnificent Victoria building in West London, the space oozes knowledge and authority. The first museum I visited, and the only one I have had the pleasure of returning to on several occasions, it has changed over the years I have been visiting yet still maintains what gives it its charm.

Most people enter via Hintze Hall, with the commanding statue of Charles Darwin over looking what was when I visited Dippy the diplodocus, but I would strongly also recommend the Earth Hall entrance where you can take a magical escalator into the centre of a glowing earth.

For me the Natural History Museum has a good balance of animals, both alive and dead, as well as an exploration of the geological history of the planet, and takes people nicely along a journey of understanding and deep time. And of course, they have plenty of dinosaurs. The only downside at my last visit, lots of building works, but of course this will not last forever

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4.5/5

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Nairobi, Kenya

I visited the Nairobi National Museum in 2008 when I was travelling around East Africa with friends. I am not sure who suggested we go to the museum, but I seem to have visited without taking any picture, and my memories of the museum are limited.

Two things do stick out which are definitely in Nairobi’s favour: a giant stuffed gorilla and a replica of Lucy, one of the oldest hominin fossils discovered at the time we visited. While the museum seemed small, it had an great variety of displays, and for those of you more interested in human cultural history, there is plenty there for you too.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 3.5/5

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Tokyo, Japan

Set within the beautiful surroundings of Ueno Park, the National Museum of Nature and Science was a real gem of a find. I was visiting my brother who was living in Tokyo in 2011, and knowing my love of museums he suggested we visit. Seeing the full size blue whale replica in front of the building as we approached was a promising start.

Set over two buildings, while the museum does not have the classic museum facade I like in a building, it more than makes up for it on the inside. The building at the front focuses on the natural history of Japan and clearly excels, whole the building to the rear covers a broader history of evolution and science, with a particularly impressive hands on science section cover one of the floors.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4/5

Website Twitter (Japanese) Facebook (Japanese)

Helsinki, Finland

Luomus, the Finnish Museum of Natural History, was an obvious destination when I visited the country in 2014. Having had a day on my own before meeting up with a friend, I decided to spend my time perusing the museum. Looking at the map it was within walking distance of the city centre, and if I had not have gotten lost I am sure would have taken less than thirty minutes.

The first thing which strikes you about Luomus is the pair of giraffe hanging over the balcony to the front of the building, a playful touch which carries throughout. The museum is small but compact, fitting in a lot of exhibits in a small footprint. I particularly recall the evolution section being very good with replica models giving life to the subject. My only criticism, some of the exhibits felt as if they had been dropped in place with little thought for how they worked within the room.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4/5

Website Twitter (English and Finnish) Facebook (Finnish)

New York, USA

For anyone who has seen the Night at the Museum films, visiting the American Museum of Natural History in New York is a must. I was extremely excited about the chance to visit in 2016 when we went to New York for my Dad’s 60th Birthday, and the museum did not disappoint.

The specimen selection was incredible, including a newly installed Titanosaur which dominated (and in fact could not quite fit) in an enormous dinosaur hall, while the reproduced dioramas provided much a touch of realism to the specimens. Unexpectedly, the highlight of the visit may actually have been a showing in the Hayden Planetarium which is well worth booking tickets for. Add all of this to the amazing building, and the AMNH is in the running for my favourite.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4.5/5

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Cape Town, South Africa

Visiting the South African Museum in Cape Town was not originally on the agenda when we visited in 2016. My wife and I had planned a variety of sightseeing trips around the city, but when our boat to Robbin Island was cancelled due to bad weather, one of our filler activities was to head to the museum.

Unfortunately the planetarium was closed the day we were there, but the rest of the museum was worth the visit. Of course the dinosaurs were a highlight, but the unexpected gem was the marine mammal hall, with an assortment of life size models of whales and their skeletons hanging from the ceiling. In the process of updated several galleries in the museum, even the scaffolding and drilling could not distract from a pleasant afternoon.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4/5

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Berlin, Germany

I tend not to do much in the way of research before visiting a natural history museum, if I know one is nearby to where I am staying I will want to visit, and the Museum für Naturkunde in Berlin in 2017 is a great example of why this can sometimes be a good thing. I had no idea the museum held one of the original Archaeopteryx specimens, so when I walked into the small darkened room where the specimen is kept, I was like a child on Christmas morning.

Despite my attempts to explain my enthusiasm, I do not think my wife quite understood my excitement, but that might have been the rather long walk away from the main attractions of Berlin to get there. The rest of the museum was a pleasant collection of animal specimens and minerals, with the dinosaur hall being well laid out, while the building oozed a knowledgable charm I love in a museum.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4.5/5

Website Twitter (German) Facebook (German)

Dublin, Ireland

I only discovered the Natural History section of the National Museum of Ireland existed by chance when we walked past it on the way to the Book of Kells exhibition. We were visiting Dublin earlier this year, and after a little begging persuaded my wife to go inside. I was so unprepared for the museum, I seem to have managed to visit without taking any pictures, but I am sure you can find plenty online if you want to see it before you visit.

It is a fairly small collection, covering two floors, with the ground floor housing exhibits covering Irish fauna and flora while the first floor has a mammals of the world exhibit. While only small, they manage to cram a lot of specimens in, if I had to gripe I might say too many specimens, but the whole museum is clean and pleasant, and despite it’s size, it still has an authoritative sparkle.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 3.5/5

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Brussels, Belgium

We visited the Royal Belgian Institute of Natural Sciences this summer during what turned out to be the hottest day on record in Brussels. The museum was hot, though no fault of theirs, but it was worth the sweat to see what is the most impressive selection of complete iguanodon skeletons you will ever see. If you know your history of dinosaur discovery, you will know the iguanodon was one of the first dinosaur types formally named by science, and to see such magnificent specimens on display in the enormous glass enclosure was a joy.

Outside of the dinosaur room, the museum boasts a selection of galleries dedicated to evolution, with a particularly clever and up to date take on human evolution, using carved wooden sculptures to show how our species has evolved. I did find the layout of the museum confusing, set over multiple not well signposted levels, and one gallery did not always flow to the next, but it was a lovely visit despite the heat.

Jamie’s Museum Rating: 4/5

Website Twitter (English, French and Dutch) Facebook (English, French and Dutch)

Special mentions

Not everywhere I visit or go on holiday has a natural history museum, and more’s the pity. I do however try to visit as many places as I can with natural history themes, and I wanted to give special mention to two places I have visited in the last couple of years. While not technically natural history museums, I have still given them ratings to give you an idea of how they compare with the other museums in this post.

Reykjavik, Iceland

A lesson in doing your research before travelling, I only discovered Iceland has a natural history museum after I had left the country in 2017. I do not feel too bad, it is a fair distance from the centre of Reykjavik, I was on my honeymoon at the time, and I was still able to visit the amazing Whales of Iceland instead.

Set in what seems to have been a warehouse in a past life, Whales of Iceland has a large selection of life sized whale models weaves throughout the building, leading you from the smaller toothed whales and dolphins through to the giant baleen whales, it is the place to visit for people who want to know anything about whales. I thoroughly enjoyed the trip and learnt more about whales than I could ever need to know, but the sterile building was certainly lacking the museum charm I love most.

Jamie’s (not quite a) Museum Rating: 3.5/5

Website Twitter (English and Icelandic) Facebook (English and Icelandic)

Lake Louise, Canada

We had visited Lake Louise Ski Resort in the middle of summer 2018 because we wanted to ride the ski lift up the mountain, and had been told we had a good chance of seeing bears if we did. Unfortunately they were not out to play that day, and once we were at the top of the mountain we found ourselves with little else to do as we could not ski back down. Lake Louise had clearly considered this, as they had set up a small Interpretive Centre near the ski lift station.

Containing a selection of stuffed animals, including a brown and black bear, it was a great way to learn how to distinguish the animals you might be seeing out on the trails. With the focus of the resort being skiing for much of the year, the interpretive centre was small, but they managed to pack in a number of interesting specimens into the space.

Jamie’s (not quite a) Museum Rating: 3/5

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