Dino-Tours: The new Hintze Hall at NHM London

I'll admit that, like many, I am sore that 'Dippy' has been evicted from her home after more than thirty years of service, taking with her many happy childhood memories. As the only truly gargantuan dinosaur exhibit in the NHM's collection, one has to wonder if subsequent generations of schoolchildren will get to enjoy being so completely awed by dinosaurs as I got to be when I first visited at the grand old age of six? If I'm honest, I would not have been so upset by the decision to replace Dippy the Diplodocus  had the NHM not raised the funds to refit the Hintze Hall a couple of years ago (in dire need of a face-lift at the time) with a public fundraising campaign entitled "I Love [heart symbol] Dippy". This I felt had strongly insinuated that the funds would be used to restore the NHM's beloved mascot along with her hall of residence, and so it has since felt to me that the money raised to carry out the refit was somewhat taken under false pretences...

However, I also believe in progress and having bemoaned the NHM's languishing public-facing exhibits for some years I applaud the museum for finally achieving a new look which I appreciate has been a long and challenging project to make a reality. And so, following our evening excursion a couple of weeks ago to 'Movie Nights at the Museum', Mike of the Mesozoic & I returned to the NHM the very next day to grab some breakfast and take in the delights of the new main hall (which we could not really explore on the previous evening due to time constraints).

The first thing that I would say is that 'Hope'; the new juvenile Blue whale specimen mounted above the central hall; is spectacular. Beautifully and sensitively mounted to reflect the natural posture of a whale in motion, she does provide a big and beautiful statement to greet visitors as they enter through the main doors.
However, I don't know if it's just that the specimen is mounted so high up or the placement of the specimen being closer to the staircase at the back of the room, but it just doesn't give that arresting impression that the Diplododus did (and no, I promise I'm not just being dinosaur-ist here!). I can't help but feel that if only Hope was joined by maybe a couple of smaller cetaceans maybe (Orca, Pilot whale, etc), then the hall might feel "fuller"? Part of the problem is the fact that skeletons viewed from below are basically a lot of negative space. The ribcage and limbs of floor-mounted skeletons give an impression of volume that disappears as soon as you elevate a skeleton above head-height.

Of course the absence of a large, central floor-mounted specimen means that the information desk is now placed in the centre of the space, which I daresay is useful on busy holidays. However I personally found the security diversion that visitors are now required to go through both distracting and unfriendly. I was also not impressed that I was forced to check my very small overnight suitcase with the cloakroom for the princely sum of £5, whether I wanted to or not.

However, having taken in the overall layout of the shining new hall, we then made our way to the adjacent cafe for breakfast and one thing I will say for the NHM is that the quality of food and drinks on offer has greatly improved over recent years! Whilst more than we would normally expect to pay for brekka, the cafe is not especially expensive by London standards and we enjoyed a delicious breakfast for our money (I never mind paying slightly more at a museum cafe just so long as I feel I've got my money's worth. See our experiences with refreshments and nightmare popcorn though in the previous instalment for more on such matters!). I can honestly say that the good ol' NHM served up one of the nicest cappuccinos I have enjoyed in a long time and their generous slice of carrot cake was one of the tastiest I have ever had!

Ron the Raptor agrees that the NHM cafe serves a mean piece o' carrot cake!

Suitably refreshed and breakfasted, we returned to the main hall to take in some of the new alcove exhibits before the museum got too busy. The specimens on display are diverse, representing many ages in prehistory and chosen to reflect broad concerns facing the natural world. Extant species include giraffes and a Blue Marlin (delightfully encased in creepy formaldehyde which churns slowly around the tank, tiny particulates glinting as they pass through the light) and prehistory is represented by the newly remounted Mantellisaurus, a North American Mastodon and numerous seaweeds and rocks including an exquisitely patterned slab which records the birth of life on Earth in its striations.

Of course, as dinosaur people, Mike & I spent most of our time looking at the Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis. This is one of the most complete dinosaur specimens found in the UK and it just so happens that of all dinosaur species, M. atherfielensis is my personal favourite, so seeing this specimen at close-quarters was a goosebumps moment for me.

Mantellisaurus atherfieldensis tries to keep a straight face whilst being photo-bombed by idiots...

The specimen itself has been remounted with a brand-new armature which has been deftly crafted to display the specimen in a natural pose, based on the latest scientific understanding. As the dinosaur hall has not been extensively refurbished for at least twenty years, seeing a familiar dinosaur specimen remounted in a manner that reflects current science is a great thing to see and it gives me hope that there are plans to update more of the exhibits in the NHM's collection over the coming years.

So, when all is said and done, what did we make of the new and improved Hintze hall? Whilst, as I say, it was emotional walking around that space without Dippy the Diplodocus in it, we were impressed with the new layout. The alcove exhibits are thought-provoking and have the veneer of new, dynamic and exciting science which inspires visitors to learn more and enjoy the thrill of discovery. I don't honestly think that a Blue whale (even one so beautiful as Hope) is any replacement for a Diplodocus, but I do know that Dippy is being welcomed by the public around the country as she goes on an extended tour. Having enjoyed having Dippy within travelling distance for pretty much my whole life, I recognise that wishing to keep her forever in her London home is not a little selfish of me: it does make me happy to think that people around the country who can't normally hop on a train to London will finally be able to enjoy Dippy in the same way that I have over the years.

Plus the NHM has stated that she remains part of the museum collection, so the chances are that she will eventually be homed back in the NHM sometime in the future. And hopefully this time with a full set of front feet: I'm ashamed to say that my awe for Dippy has been so strong over the years that it had never occurred to me to notice...that she had four hind feet all that time! A fact that I only learned recently whilst reading an article about her new adventures in Dorset. Maybe therein lies a lesson for us all: that in science and in life, sometimes it's best to let go (even temporarily) of the things that you love, just to see how the world looks without them.

The verdict:
Experience: 8/10
Food: 10/10
Customer service: 6/10 (the security guys were unfriendly, but the staff we spoke to at the information desk were very helpful)
Value for money: 9/10

The last word: I would advise visitors to get to the museum as early as possible to avoid the crowds in the main hall. The alcoves are quite small and even though it's a big space, it will fill up quickly! We were there for 9:30am and by 11am it was already feeling like a bit of a scrum, especially around the Mantellisaurus and the Mastodon. Also, the tills in the cafe don't open until 10am, so I'd recommend browsing the Hintze hall exhibits until then before making a break for the cafe whilst it's still nice and quiet (we basically had the place to ourselves, so it felt like a real treat!)


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