Outings: Variations on a theme of dinosaurs

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The Independent Online
How does Britain's biggest science gallery measure up, for a six- year-old and a teenager? Sarah Jewell finds out whether the Natural History Museum really does appeal across the ages.

The magnificent, cathedral-like building of the Natural History Museum was designed by a Victorian architect, Alfred Waterhouse, as a place worthy of "housing the works of the Creator". And that's still how it is today. Yet the sense of awe which the Victorian public would have felt at viewing thousands of newly-discovered animal, plant and mineral specimens has changed to wonderment at the man-made exhibits on display.

The museum has risen to the challenge of the theme-led Nineties with an impressive range of exhibits - including the death-throes of robotic, life-size dinosaurs, the power within a volcano, and the ecology of the Serengeti Plain.

The visitors

Sarah Jewell took her niece Agnes Arnold-Forster, six, and Claire Bratley, an A-level student aged 17

Sarah: The exhibits throughout the museum are targeted at different ages and interests, but the Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition, which has just opened, will appeal to all ages. The 150 winning images, chosen from over 20,000 entries, reflect the extraordinary beauty and diversity of the animal kingdom, from the electric blue angel fish of the Cayman Islands to the elegant grass snake of Oxfordshire.

The earth sciences do not have the universal appeal of the animal world, but the new Earth Galleries have been designed specifically to try to inspire interest in the earth's internal forces. The visitor rises on an escalator through the centre of a huge globe suffused with purple and green light to "the power within", an explanation of the natural forces within the earth that cause volcanoes and earthquakes, I found the loud, futuristic music and the mass of information presented on TV screens, videos, labels and interactive gadgets hard to absorb, but the simulation of the Kobe earthquake in 1995 was chillingly realistic.

In contrast to the noise and technology of the Earth Galleries, the mineral exhibits on the first floor are quietly old-fashioned. The long, airy room is laid out with a neat row of polished wooden, glass-topped cabinets containing the museum's meticulously labelled mineral collection. There are 12,600 specimens on display, all grouped according to their chemical composition and crystal structure.

A uniformed warder, as rare a sight as the gemstones he was protecting, stood guard over the precious metals. Big, ragged lumps of gold panned during the 19th-century Californian gold rush gleamed near the glass model of the "Star of Africa" the largest diamond in the world.

At the far end of the room is the meteorite collection: extraordinary, huge lumps of black rock from outer space that are as mystical as the tiny, brown, glistening piece of the moon displayed with them.

The old and the new are juxtaposed neatly throughout the museum, and between the three of us we managed to visit most of the exhibits.

But there is too much to see, and it is too tiring to try and look at everything in one day - particularly if you're with small children.

Agnes: I liked the mammals best, because of how big the whale was - I never thought that it would be that big, and its eyes so small. I liked seeing the other animals lined up in size next to the whale. Even the stuffed elephant looked really small, and the sheep looked tiny. I liked listening on a special telephone to the trumpeting of the elephant and the singing noises of the dolphin.

I also really liked the "Creepy Crawlies" room because there was lots of information and it was easy to understand. I learnt how little insects grow, and there were lots of machines to play with. We went inside a special house which showed where all different types of insects live - like little bugs in the kitchen in the flour and beetles in the carpet and flies in the rubbish. There was a huge, moving scorpion, and some children were trying to stuff their notepads between its claws.

I didn't really like the Earth Galleries because they were a bit scary, and they told you a lot of things that I didn't understand, but I liked learning how it felt to be in an earthquake. It is a very full museum and I would like to go back again and spend an even longer time there.

Claire: My first thoughts about the museum were that it would be full of eccentric professors with small round spectacles, as it seemed like such an old-fashioned and full place to visit. After spending the day there, however, my prejudices were overturned and I realised that I had enjoyed myself more than I expected, and I really had a good day out.

As I am studying A-level biology and geography I was most interested to see the human biology exhibits and the Earth Galleries. I enjoyed the human biology best. It is well laid out and explains clearly how our bodies work using models, videos, slides and gadgets.

I enjoyed fiddling with the gadgetry in the Earth Galleries, but that didn't hold my attention for long. Most of the information I already knew from my A-level course, and although the exhibition is big and bold I thought it would be more interesting for 13-year-old boys.

I enjoyed the dinosaur exhibition: I liked the huge skeletons suspended in mid-air, and the roaring, robotic dinosaurs feasting on a freshly killed tenontosaurus. The exhibition on The Origin of Species and Charles Darwin was also interesting.

The deal

The Natural History Museum is on Cromwell Road, London SW9 (0171-938 9123). Opening times: Mon-Sat 10am-5.50pm, Sun 11am-5.50pm (closed 23- 26 December).

Admission: pounds 6 adults, pounds 3 children 5-17 years, children under 5 free), pounds 3.20 concessions, pounds 16 family ticket (2 adults and up to 4 children).

Access: Wheelchair and pushchair access to all areas.

Toilets and baby-changing facilities: Clean, plentiful, plus toilets for the disabled.

Catering: Restaurant, cafe and snack bars, plus picnic area during school holidays and at weekends for eating packed lunches.

Shop: Gift and book shops full of reasonably-priced goodies.

Education: Free National Curriculum-based tours for schools.

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