I wonder what the little terracotta monkeys think of their new neighbour, “Hope” the Blue Whale, now centrepiece of the Natural History Museum’s great hall , with its immense jaws and its powerful arched body flowing down to the visitors below. Once there were over 300,000 of these whales, but by the late 20th century there were only 400. Today, through successful conservation initiatives the population is estimated at 25,000, but it is still under threat from climate change, pollution and illegal hunting.
Hence the name “Hope”.
Alfred Waterhouse’s Natural History Museum in London is one of the triumphs of 19th century museum architecture. Built from 1873 to 1880 and covered in architectural terra-cotta tiles bursting with animals, flora and fauna, the grand central hall with its triumphal staircase is a space which would be value-engineered out of any project today. Fortunately the Museum knows how to use it to best advantage – which is to have one central focus that dramatically fills the space, with supporting exhibits in the alcoves on the ground floor and on the balcony of the first floor.
The previous focus was “Dippy”, the much-loved dinosaur skeleton, who in fact only took the prime space in the central hall (now named the Hintze Hall) in 1979, though it was presented to the museum by Andrew Carnegie in 1905. Also, Dippy was not a real skeleton, but a plaster cast.
Dippy has his suitcases packed and is being prepared for a grand tour across the UK, to Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and across England. His final space, interestingly, will be Norwich Cathedral in summer of 2020. Each partner will take advantage of Dippy’s stay to link with their own nature and natural history collections and to build partnerships between regional cultural, scientific and wildlife organisations.
Dippy has gone, but we now have Hope, the 25.2-metre-long blue whale skeleton suspended from the ceiling, one of the largest creature ever to have lived and displayed here as a symbol of man’s ability to determine a sustainable future.
‘We are living at a critical point in the history of the Earth. This generation’s decisions will have an unprecedented impact on the world we live in….It is within the grasp of humanity to shape a future that is sustainable, and now more than ever we want our galleries and exhibitions to inspire a love of the natural world, and our scientific expertise to inform solutions to the big, global challenges we face.’ (Sir Michael Dixon, Director of the Natural History Museum)
The Museum has quietly being moving things around and improving displays and, as if to make up for the loss of Dippy the dinosaur, a stegosaurus welcomes visitors to the Exhibition Road entrance.