I’m a friend of the Natural History Museum and I go there a lot, especially with the kids. Both of them love the place. Today though we found a new part of the NHM that we’d never been in before. Hidden away in the basement, under the green zone, there is the Investigate Centre which is generally open to the public. As the demonstrator told us “Everything in here is real, except the human skeleton, because we’re not allowed to let you handle human bones“.

Alex finds out about a toad grasshopper in the...
Alex finds out about a toad grasshopper in the Investigate Centre @NHM_London (Photo credit: James Kemp)

In the centre there are a lot of artefacts that you can handle, look at with magnifying glasses, video cameras and microscopes. As well as that you can look them up on the computers in the centre that use symbols on the trays to speed up the matching process. Once you’ve found the artefact that you have in your hand then you can see what it is, how it is classified, notes about how it was found, habitats etc.

As well as the exhibits and the tools to look at them there are also copies of many relevant books, including almost all of the ones that the NHM has published itself when doing special exhibitions. There are also a fair number of friendly, helpful and knowledgeable demonstrators in the room too, all ready to encourage people to explore and discover for themselves. They also listen to the youthful enthusiasm and tolerate experimentation very well (including letting my two year old play with fossils and a magnifying glass – see below).

While we were there Alex looked through several trays of artefacts and settled on a toad grasshopper encased in a plastic box to find out more about. He looked it up on the computer, weighed the specimen he had and then drew a picture of it noting down some facts. You can see it on the blue balance in front of him along with the notes he was taking in the picture.

Toddler doing science in the Investigate Centr...
Toddler doing science in the Investigate Centre @NHM_London (Photo credit: James Kemp)

It wasn’t just fun for Alexander though. Lucy went through almost every tray she could get her hands on and looked through it. She was also introduced to magnifying glasses by one of the very patient demonstrators. Lucy didn’t quite get those, but she did put it up to her eyes and then hold the item right underneath while telling me  ‘Look up close!’

Overall this was a very pleasant and happy discovery for us and I would recommend it to others. Way better than spending half an hour queuing for the dinosaurs. We also saw the Mammoths and the Million years of humans in Britain special exhibitions, both of which we really enjoyed. Between the three of these things we spent almost four hours in the museum and didn’t do anything else.

There may be better family days out, but you don’t get them cheaper than this one was. Entry to the museum and the Investigate Centre are both free, there is a charge for the special exhibitions (but as a member I didn’t pay for them). We also had lunch in the members’ room, which is a quiet room next to the main entrance. It’s definitely worth while visiting.