The Sunday family day out was a Jopson obligation. Not ones for lazy sofa days, our family would rise as the dawn broke, before being piled into the trusty ‘people carrier’ and carted off into the great unknown. With our ‘where are we going?’ whines being answered with the haunting phrase: ‘We’re going there and back again to see how far it is,’ Laura and I would devote those long car journeys to our gameboys – or, preferably – kicking our parents in the back of their seats. Such delightful children. Amongst all of our many Jopson Sunday escapades, however, there’s one trip that we look back on with unusual fondness.
No Dad, not that trip to the unimaginably dull locomotive museum, but our first visit to the National History Museum, London.
I remember the visit clearly: breathlessly rounding the corner into Hintze Hall, clutching a souvenir fridge magnet (a staple buy on any day trip), I gazed up at the vast structure of bones towering above me. The cluster of bones, of course, belonged to the Nation’s much loved Dippy the Dinosaur. Naturally, as avid dinosaur fans as kids, we were ecstatic to meet him. Our Sunday family day out had hit an all time high. Alongside the five million other visitors to the museum each year, our memory of our first visit to the Natural History Museum is one filled with (aside from relief) intrigue and fun: igniting our curiosity to explore more of this mysterious planet (and, embarrassingly, to subscribe to the world’s nerdiest dinosaur magazine, aged just 9).
It was by coincidence that my second return to the Natural History Museum took place just last December, twenty years on after my first visit. Excited to be reunited with Dippy, I made my way through to Hintze Hall on a cold and frosty morning to learn that I was, in fact, visiting this cherished dinosaur on what would be his final week at the NHM. After 100 years – and having been on display in Hintze Hall since 1979 – it was time for pastures new; Dippy was heading off on a two-year nationwide tour, apparently embracing the new gig economy. Gazing fondly at Dippy and feeling a tug of both nostalgia, I asked the question on everyone’s mind: who was to be Dippy’s replacement? Surely nobody could be as loved as this particular Diplodocus?
My question was answered just a few weeks ago, when we were kindly invited to the grand reopening of Hintze Hall, where Dippy’s replacement was waiting for us.
As we emerged from the tube station, early on the 14 July, we were greeted by the buzz of a large crowd gathered outside the Museum’s entrance. As we hovered nearby, eagerly awaiting the gates to open, I surveyed the motley crew surrounding us: individuals ranging from the age of 3 to 70. Little children hopped around excitedly, whilst elderly couples clutched their tickets; the anticipation etched across their faces. It was clear that Dippy’s replacement mattered a great deal to a great number of people. As 8.30am struck, the gates creaked open and a glamorous red carpet led us up to the Museum’s entrance: Hintze Hall rising upwards beyond the doorway. There, suspended dramatically from the ceiling, was the enormous 25.2 metre skeleton of Hope the Blue Whale – the Museum’s latest star attraction. She was quite the sight for sleepy eyes so early on a Friday morning. As visitors streamed in – open mouthed and gawping at the enormous structure – we listened to a fascinating speech on Hope, her history, and most importantly – how she got her name.
Blue whales were hunted to the brink of extinction in the twentieth century, decreasing from 250,000 in the 1800s to just 400 in 1996; the victims of intense commercial hunting. The blue whale, however, would also be one of the first species that us humans decided to save on a global scale, with the decision to legally protect these beautiful creatures coming into effect in 1966. This act has seen the blue whale population rise again to 20,000 – a fantastic achievement. Her name, Hope, therefore provides a symbol of optimism for a sustainable future; a future that must be shared with these majestic mammals. As the Director of the Natural History Museum, Sir Michael Dixon, said: ‘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.’
Hope was initially discovered in 1891; having been stranded in Wexford Harbour in Ireland. The Museum, only ten years old at the time, bought the skeleton, before putting her on display in the Mammal Hall in 1934. Moving Hope from her original home in the Mammal Hall was an historical revelation in itself, with conservationists finding newspapers from the 1930s filling the gaps between the vertebrae. Even the decades of dust that had settled on Hope’s bones were kept for analysis; this little lady was an unwitting time capsule.
Bag: Harper small cross body by Fossil
Having gawped at Hope for long enough, we set about exploring the other ten new displays now settled in the alcoves of Hintze Hall, referred to as the ‘Wonder Bays’. The ten new additions have been carefully picked by the Museum scientists from a mind boggling 80 million specimens, and include a 4.5-billion-year-old meteorite and a Mantellisaurus dinosaur skeleton. The five displays on the Eastern side of the Hall represent the origins and evolution of life, whilst those on the Western side have been chosen to represent the diversity of life. Together, the specimens in Hintze Hall represent the past, present and future of our planet – a lovely little bit of curation. A particular favourite of mine was the new Birds Balcony, which features over 70 birds from across the world, including the Falkland Islands.
Having explored every nook and cranny of Hintze Hall, it was time to head off on a tour of Hope, courtesy of our incredibly knowledgable guide. Making our way up onto the balcony of the Natural History Museum for spectacular views, we amassed our favourite type of facts: those that are geeky and unlikely to ever be used again. For instance, did you know that the blue whale still retains a tiny pelvis (you can see Hope’s) from the days during which a whale was actually a land animal? No, neither did we. Or, did you know that an adult blue whale can eat up to 40 million krill a day? We’d hate to think what their breath smells like. Somewhat bemused by mine and Laura’s enthusiasm for blue whales; conversations on evolution; and musings on the state of the world more generally, our guide quickly led us to our final stop: the brand new whale exhibition.
Exploring the exhibition: ‘Whales: beneath the surface’, in all of its watery blue glory, helped us to understand Hope a little more. Twenty years may have passed but in such an immersive setting, we were 10 year olds again – shouting to one another to come take a look at a whale tooth or attempting to impersonate a whale song. We were truly in our element: all we needed were our dino magazines.
The Natural History Museum – a treasure trove of 80 million species, one million books and half a million pieces of artwork – is somewhere we could have immersed ourselves indefinitely (please let ‘Night at the Museum’ come true). Surprised by how touched we were by Hope’s unveiling and all that she symbolised, we vowed to not let another twenty years pass before our next visit. Who knows, we could be showing Hope to our children or grandchildren in future, installing in them the same sense of curiosity and adventure that this Museum once gave to us.