The commodious NHM, which attracts 5.3 million visitors a year (mostly families, and by far the most of the three big South Ken museums), is a true blockbuster museum and it’s good for several hours’ wander, but you’ll have plenty of company. In all ways, it’s a zoo. You get a hall of dinosaur bones, a taxidermist’s menagerie, and case after case of stuffed goners. Mostly, you’ll encounter the wildest creatures of all: lurching, wailing, scampering children in all their varieties. On weekends and school holidays the outdoor queue can be an hour long, so go at opening and enter through Exhibition Road for lighter crowds. The trove is rich: At the top of the stairs, the Treasures gallery holds such historically meaningful stuff as a dodo skeleton and Britain’s only moon rock. The pretend kitchen full of hiding places for insects and Creepy Crawlies (the Green Zone) is a longtime visitor favorite, as is the Red Zone (the Earth Galleries), anchored by a toned-down, ride-along mock-up of a Japanese supermarket jolted by the 1995 Kobe earthquake. Even the dinosaurs (in the Blue Zone) are supplemented by scary robotic estimations of how they sounded and moved. The Darwin Centre’s Cocoon looks like a seven-story egg laid in the back atrium; hidden inside are some 20 million bottled specimens (including those that came back on the Beagle) on 27km/17 miles of shelves. Most of the discussion here, and throughout the museum, is aimed at a child’s mind, with signs answering such riveting questions such as why we study nature, but now and then you’ll see an expert through a window into the stacks of Centre who can use a microphone to respond to more intelligent concerns.
Even if you don’t give a hooey about remedial ecology, the cathedral-like 1880 Victorian building is an unforgettable landmark. Its columns crawl with carved monkeys whimsically clinging to the terra-cotta and plants creeping across ceiling panels. Daily Nature Live talks are given at 2:30pm on a huge range of topics; they’re put online, too. The Museum’s brainiacs even cultivate a garden and pond (the Orange Zone; open Apr–Oct) that attracts a range of English creatures and flowers. It’s all about families: Kids under 7 can borrow free Explorer backpacks with pith helmets, binoculars, and activities themed to Monsters, Birds, Oceans, or Mammals (they tend to run out early on weekends); and those 7 to 14 should look for the free Investigate hands-on lab in the basement (afternoons are less crowded). All that and the requisite ceiling whale.