HNM London – analysis of a minor disappointment

Last post I noted that I was disappointed by the Natural History Museum in London. Now, I want to expound on this a bit, and shows you a bunch of nice photos.

As I said, it is a great museum! I came away dissatisfied mostly for three reasons:

  • the exhibitions are cramped, especially the dinosaurs,
  • the dinosaur exhibition is badly done regarding craftsmanship, and
  • much in the dinosaur exhibit is plain wrong!

There are other, minor things to criticize as well, but no place can ever be perfect, and I don’t intend to bash a great museum unfairly. I’ll focus on the building/exhibition space problem first. The content of the dinosaur exhibit and the issues with it will have to wait for another day.

The NHM has a building that was purpose-built for it, but that was a long time ago. Demands have changed, the building is, for good reason, protected to the fare thee well (I’ll post about it later), and thus the museum must make do with what the building offers, without any chance to knock down walls or alter ceilings. That makes it a bit hard to plan a modern museum, a problem that the MfN Berlin also faces. In contrast to London, however, the MfN was build with double-high rooms throughout, whereas the NHM has a lot of low-ceiling-ed passages.

When you enter the NHM you pass through an entrance area, opening into a Main Hall, a day-light flooded “cathedral”. The entrace is prolonged, so to speak, by a grand stair being built into the hall, part of which forms a kind of bridge across the entrance, which is on the hall’s midline. (Don’t get confused: there is another stair on the other side, which is the one you can see behind the skeleton.) The Main Hall is the place to exhibit dinosaur skeletons, and in fact the NHM’s Diplodocus carnegii cast is mounted there.

OK, they messed up getting the full effect out of it by having the souvenir guide stand and other stuff in the way. But when it gets busy there’s people in the way anyways, so the difference is minuscule. But – and it is a sad thing – the Diplodocus (inanely nicknamed “Dippy”!) is the only dinosaur in the entire hall! Seriously!

What the hall is used for today is basically a queuing area (ironically mainly for the dinosaur exhibit), a place for people to spill to when they come out of other parts of the museum, a thoroughfare for going from one wing to the other, a place to rest, yell a the kids, wander around with the mind blank after having seen to much natural history, and so on. There are niches along the sides with a handful of specimens strewn about, including a marvelous glyptodon, but is is a rather lackluster affair. The specimens are behind glass, so that you can’t really see them too well – remember there is a huge, light-flooded hall behind you! Taking photographs? Unless you bring a 2m by 2m black cloth on a folding frame you can forget it (slight exaggeration).

And the glass reflection problem takes us right into the dinosaur exhibit. It is one of those things set up so that you must follow a predetermined path, being herded along on a too-narrow path, so that you can never go back, and even standing still to look at something in peace or take a few photos will quickly result in impatient shuffling of feet and jostling behind you (I could turn this around and say the width is fine, it’s just that there shouldn’t be more than 50 people in the darn place simultaneously). Now, before you claim that this was only the case for me on Friday because the place was packed, let me explain that my colleague Sebastian and I were among the first 50 people to enter the museum, and headed for the dinosaurs within minutes.

OK, we went in, and were immediately confronted by a Camarasaurus (cast) mount! Cool! It could stand being dusted once in a while, but it is cool! The next thing in view is a Triceratops.

Like most other specimens, neither of the two is an especially British dinosaur, or stems from a NHM expedition. Instead, in time-honored tradition, the specimens were bought from various sources. The Sternbergs, Cutler, and many others contributed, and that’s why the NHM has a fairly diverse collection from which to choose exhibition material. In contrast, the MfN is more limited, to “only” Tendaguru, Halberstadt and a handful of other dinosaurs. But that’s not what I wanted to talk about. Rather, look at the picture again – is it up to the standards you’re used to at dinosaurpalaeo?

There are again three problems:
– too little light in the right places,
– too much light in the wrong places, and
– too much glass all over!
I had to use ISO 1600, 1/6 s, f/3,5, focal length 18 mm (the lowest my lens can do) to get a miserable picture! The room is just too friggin’ dark! I can’t afford a 2000 EUR lens, just because some people think science is best presented in a cave! And then that picture is full of reflections, because some smart person decided to have upward-directed spots all over the floor, so that many things are rather brightly lit so they mirror well in the glass. Add this to cramped conditions, and taking good photos gets very hard indeed.

Admittedly, the exhibition designers can’t be blamed for the wide, height, and length of the room, nor for the position of the windows. Furthermore, there are pillars throughout it. But I do blame them for using the available space badly, and for using a rather unfortunate lighting concept. Maybe the latter has to do with the timing of the renovation: LEDs were not available then, and what I would have done may not have been affordable back then. They did one good thing: they put up blinds covering the windows – sunlight streaming into a gallery can really make it hard to see things properly, because it causes such strong shadows.

And, as I mentioned, things are just way too cramped. To solve their problem with insufficient space, the museum installed a raised walkway down the center of the hall. As I said, it is too narrow, and it is also a blight on the eyes. Additionally, it happens to be a dark and quite massive metal structure at the right height for sauropods backs, theropod skulls and various other dinosaur body parts:

Thus, taking pictures becomes even harder, because stepping away from a mount is difficult, and if you manage you have that walkway across your view. Even if it is behind the dinosaur it is irritating and distracting from the desired subject of the photo.

Obviously, the intent of the walkway was good: the hall has a high ceiling, and there would be much unused air space above the heads of visitors and dinosaurs alike, but for the one-story-up passage. And so, in addition to the somewhat unusual perspectives you get of the dinosaurs mounted at ground level, there are dinosaurs mounted (mainly casts, that is!) at the upper level.

An Iguanodon (a British one!)

Massospondylus (cast)

All these and all the other dinosaurs need the be dusted, too. Aside from that they are (I have to admit) well visible, although the poses could use some work.Some, however, are well mounted, including an Allosaurus. In some cases the old building’s pillars make for weird and neat views, too.

Night at the museum or The Relict?

Once the walkway hits the end of the room it goes through an arch to the next one, where it turns into a ramp leading back to floor level. This ramp goes around an exhibit featuring a barely visible Tyrannosaurus robot life model (dark again!). To be honest, it is pretty well made. In fact, this is the best robot dinosaur I have ever seen with my own eyes.

and that’s enough ranting for now! Next time we’ll look at the lower level of the exhibit, where most of the content problems are. I promise a minimum of bitchin’ about the space and light issues.

Oh, yeah, before I forget to mention it: the NHM’s men’s WC is a health hazard! Please, please, please, can someone go and measure the noise level at a kid’s head’s height under the air-blasting hand driers? When both are operating? I am dead sure that’s way beyond any regulation limits! My hears hurt, and I walked out slightly deafened – and my ears were above, not below the nasty hurricane-creating machines! I can’t begin to imagine how a small child with much better ears will feel when exposed to the full roar and blast!

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About Heinrich Mallison

I'm a dinosaur biomech guy working at the Museum für Naturkunde Berlin.
This entry was posted in "Prosauropoda", Allosauridae, Allosaurus, Ceratopsia, Dinosaur models, Dinosauria, historical buildings etc., NHM London, non-palaeo, Ornithischa, rants, Sauropoda, Sauropodomorpha, Theropoda. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to HNM London – analysis of a minor disappointment

  1. protohedgehog says:

    I totally know what you mean about these issues – it was supposed to have been fully revamped last summer. I was waiting for it be all sparkled up, re-jigged, and the lighting/visibility redone so you could actually *see* the dinosaurs properly (kind of the point, right?), but instead it just looked like a few screens were added. Did you find the Hysilophodon hiding away?

  2. steve cohen says:

    It certainly sounds like a cave.

    By contrast, when I shoot at AMNH (using 50mm lens at f1.8) I can usually set the ISO at 400/800 and shoot at 1/80 sec.

    BTW, did you use a tripod? If not I’m impressed with the lack of camera-jitter shooting at 1/6 sec. Even without coffee, I have trouble shooting slower than 1/20 hand-held.

    • No tripod! I hadn’t had coffee yet 😉
      In fact, this image does suffer from the jitters; I’ve done way better even at 1/4! Usually, however, I find something to lean against, but in this case that wasn’t possible. Have I told you that I love my camera and lens combo? Good center of mass, not front heavy at all, despite it being a 18-200mm zoom.

  3. Paul Barrett says:

    Some of these criticisms are definitely just, but have to be viewed in the context of the fact that the exhibition is now over 20 years old. It was also designed at a time when the museum charged entry fees and the spaces were designed to accommodate far fewer visitors than we receive now that we are free to enter. The lighting was a design decision at the time to try and make the hall more atmospheric – also partially as a conservation measure for the real material, though it can be frustrating for photography. The glass around the Triceratops is a fairly recent addition (this is actually a cast – the skull you can see from the walkway is, however, real). This was added reactively to protect the specimen – if you look at it closely you will see it has suffered from curious members of the public touching it. This is also the reason why many of the exhibits in the Central Hall are also under glass: many were originally open, but interactions with the public led to the glass having to be installed to protect the specimens. Unfortunately, the Central Hall is not really big enough to have multiple dinosaur mounts and allow the people flow that it now has to deal with (we get over 4 million visitors a year). The closure that Jon alluded to was to replace a number of the original information panels and to provide some conservation work – it was not meant to be a ‘revamp’. The NHM is currently in the early stages of re-assessing many of its permanent galleries for refurbishment, but this is likely to be a long, drawn out process, particularly during this period of fiscal austerity.

    • Paul,
      welcome to dinosaurpalaeo!

      I did suspect that the space problem was related to a surge in visitors. I remember someone noting that “the skull of the Diplodocus is right over the cash register” – different times back then. Berlin faces similar problems, with half a million people showing up a year instead of the expected 250,000 or so. Four million – I don’t even want to imagine how bad it would be! And I must say that I am really surprised the NHM can handle that number without someone freaking out from agoraphobia every day!

      It is a sad affair that people damage exhibits, and I fully understand about adding the glass. Again, if there was more room, you could protect specimens with rails – it all revolves around space! Sigh! In case someone breaks on of the glass cages in the main hall, may I suggest tilting the replacement so that the top is further out than the bottom?

      As for the lighting: I fully udnerstand the motivation of making museums more like TV shows. That’s, basically, what was the unconscious idea behind all the re-vamping we saw all over Europe over the last 20 years. The MfN has a hall that is similarly dark, a hall that is tolerable wrt lighting only because it is high (even higher than the full dino hall height at the NHM), and has ample room to hang and direct spotlights. Additionally, it is spacier, so that spotlights from the ground can be tilted onto the specimens, away from the visitor. The specimens could be set on bases, adn the spotlights recessed into them despite being angled – all this helps a lot with photography. Admittedly, our people learned from the NHM, too!

      I haven’t gotten to ranting about the panels yet, but you can probably guess what’s on my mind. Dinos = birds – it seems as if a BANDit designed the NHM! It’s not as if the idea hand’t been around in the 1990s. Please make sure that feathers come in!

      • Dave Godfrey says:

        Unfortunately, as Paul notes, given the number of people the museum has to accommodate (the figures for last year were 4.75M!) and the fact almost all of them want to see the dinosaurs you really couldn’t have anything else in the Central Hall- the Triceratops, Euplocephalus and a T-rex skull all used to be on display there, but were moved when the “new” dinosaur gallery opened. Even the temporary plastinated camel made things a little awkward, and that’s relatively tiny. Unfortunately the Dinosaur Gallery is in the biggest one available, and given the popularity and ease of use the Central Hall gives us for queuing I can’t see them using a different one when the time comes to revamp it.

        • True – you’d have to totally change the way all parts of the museum are used, and very likely you’d have to remove parts of the exhibit to a new building. Or – heresy! – cut down on what you show in the dinosaur exhibit. Maybe try not to be another-dinosaur-museum, competing wither everyone, but find something unique? “British dinosaurs only”?
          I know, a very difficult decisions, and very likely there is no good solution. There certainly is no perfect one.

          • Dave Godfrey says:

            A “mostly British Dinosaurs” would probably be my choice- although I’d keep the historical mounts like the Triceratops. However you then run into where one puts an entire Camarasaurus!

            • Oops, yeah – can’t just bin that, can they? Maybe split the dino exhibit into two pieces? “British” and a biomech (comparison with mammals) one?
              I guess it takes a smarter mind than mine to come up with a good solution 😦

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Easy: move all the ornithischians to another gallery, and spread out the saurischians. Works for the AMNH.

          • Dave Godfrey says:

            I think we’ll need to get a raiding party together and take over the V&A, we need a placoderm gallery too…

  4. himmapaan says:

    My sentiments too; and those of many others I know.

    To be fair, you did go (as I recently did) smack during the Easter holidays, where all those problems would have quadrupled, especially those of the main hall being turned into a queuing space and noisy children…

  5. Marc (Horridus) says:

    That’s not Iguanodon, that’s Mantellisaurus! 😉

    I look forward to your commentary on the content issues. Scaly Deinonychus-bots aside, it’s something I’ve stayed away from criticising on the basis that I pick enough holes in things as it is. Suffice it to say that not a lot has changed since the early 1990s.

    As Jon said – I hope you saw the Hypsilophodon pair! They’re hiding behind the Euoplocephalus.

  6. Mike Taylor says:

    For a harsher perspective — but not an uninformed on — see Matt Wedel’s classic 2007 rant on museum design in general (the NHM is not the only one in the firing line!) http://drvector.blogspot.co.uk/2007/09/i-am-not-muse-d.html

    • Marc (Horridus) says:

      I’m still wading through the comments on that one since I followed your link on Twitter. It’s a fascinating and tricky subject. From a purely selfish point of view, I’d rather museums went back to a more ‘Victorian’ model, absolutely rammed with specimens that you can see from every angle (the OUMNH and Grant museum had me giggling with glee), especially as the people who visit such places are there, like me, because they want to take their time and look at specimens. But in the real world, museums do need to attract people who aren’t normally so interested in natural history – and, yes, kids.

      I might have to blog about this…hey, it’s been a while over at LITC…

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