The ornate terracotta facade of this enormous Victorian museum is strewn with relief panels depicting living creatures to the left of the entrance and extinct ones to the right (although some species have subsequently changed categories). Most are represented inside the museum, which contains more than 70 million different specimens. Only a small percentage is on public display, but you could still spend a day here and not come close to seeing everything. The museum is
full of exhibits with plenty of interactivity and other cutting-edge technology to appeal to younger visitors.
A giant diplodocus skeleton dominates the vaulted, cathedral-like entrance hall, affording you perhaps the most irresistible photo opportunity in the building. It's just a cast, but the Dinosaur Gallery (Gallery 21) contains plenty of real-life dino bones, fossils, and some extremely long teeth.
You'll also come face to face with a giant animatronic Tyrannosaurus rex—who is programmed to sense when human prey is near and "respond" in character. When he does, you can hear the shrieks of fear and delight all the way across the room.
A dizzyingly tall escalator takes you into a giant globe in the Earth Galleries, where there's a choice of levels—and Earth surfaces—to explore. Don't leave without checking out the earthquake simulation in the new Volcanoes and Earthquake Gallery.
The Darwin Centre houses some of the (literally) millions of items the Museum itself doesn't have room to display, including "Archie," a 28.3-foot giant squid. The Centre's new Cocoon Experience is a 45-minute tour guided by virtual wall-projected scientists where you can see specimens from plant and insect collections previously in storage, such as huge tarantulas and some of the Museum's most historic items dating back 400 years. Several of the displays (not including the tarantulas) encourage a hands-on approach. You can also watch the Museum's scientists at work cataloguing, imaging, and analyzing specimens' DNA in a molecular lab.
"Nature Live" is a program of free, informal talks given by scientists, covering a wildly eclectic range of subjects, usually at 2:30 (and on some days at 12:30) in the David Attenborough Studio in the Darwin Centre. The museum has an outdoor ice-skating rink from November to January, and a popular Christmas fair. Free, daily behind-the-scenes Spirit collection tours of the museum (recommended for children over eight years old) can be booked on the day, but space is limited so come early. Got kids under seven with you? Check out the museum's free "Explorer Backpacks." They contain a range of activity materials to keep the little ones amused, including a pair of binoculars and an explorer's hat.