Journeys of the mind: California dreaming . . . in London’s Natural History Museum

This article is part of a guide to London from FT Globetrotter

It’s 2.45am, October 19 1999. In our darkened, silent living room in San Diego, California, I’m desperately trying to soothe our baby daughter to sleep. Then our cat starts running madly round the house. Car alarms go off, as do the neighbourhood dogs. Our house creaks and rocks as if it’s an old boat at sea.

Finally, my wife clarifies matters, shouting from upstairs that it’s an earthquake and to get under a doorway immediately. The San Andreas Fault, the 1,200km fault where Pacific and North American tectonic plates grind past each other, was giving us, and many others in southern California, an unsettling reminder of its existence.

I was taken back to that night during a recent visit to London’s Natural History Museum while exploring some of the earthquake-related exhibits. With California on my mind, I realised that many of the other displays also evoked memories of my seven years living on the US west coast — a place I long to revisit some day soon. The museum is, of course, full of countless curiosities — and many people will have their own preferred exhibits — but here I’ve shared an illustrated guide to my own personal favourite route through the museum: a trip through the natural history of the Golden State that also happens to be in the heart of London.

The Natural History Museum, housed in a magnificent 1873-81 Alfred Waterhouse building, is split into four zones. The Red Zone was initially a separate institution, the Geological Museum, which merged with the main museum in 1985. Its galleries reflect its heritage. In the 1990s, visitor revealed that many people bypassed the zone’s upper galleries because of the museum’s layout, and so a dramatic 22-metre escalator was built to funnel visitors to the second-floor Volcanoes and Earthquakes gallery, this guide’s starting point.

Illustrations showing a cutaway model of the Earth plus a piece of slickensides volcanic rock, both on show in London's natural History Museum

One floor below is the Earth’s Treasury gallery, which displays a stunning range of minerals, some as mundane as granite and sandstone, others more exotic, such as diamonds, platinum and the glittering metal most associated with California.

The California Gold Rush, which began when gold was discovered in Coloma in 1848 by James W Marshall, transformed the state. News of Marshall’s discovery drew thousands of people to California. The economy boomed and a population of 26,000 at the time of the strike rocketed to 93,000 by 1850, when California was officially declared a US state because of its rapid growth. Sutter’s Mill, the site of Marshall’s strike, is open for tourists to pan for gold. My family and I once spent an enjoyable afternoon trying our luck there; the gold we found didn’t cover the cost of the bottle it was put in, but my daughter’s delight was priceless.

Illustration of a prospector's gold pan on show in London's Natural History Museum

From Earth’s Treasury, head down to the ground floor to enter the first Green Zone gallery, which focuses on birds. Collectors such as James Audubon, Charles Darwin and Joseph Banks (the naturalist on Captain Cook’s HMS Endeavour) all contributed to the museum’s catalogue of 750,000 bird specimens. Just a fraction are on public display here, from huge birds of prey such as the bald eagle and king vulture, to hummingbirds, the smallest migrating bird that can travel up to 500 miles at a time. More than a dozen species of these exquisite little birds can be spotted in California: they typically migrate through between mid-February and mid-May, and again between mid-June and October. Anna’s hummingbird, a species native to California, enjoy the state year round. I used to watch in fascination as they zipped around our bird feeder.

Illustration of a hummingbird on show in London's Natural History Museum

After admiring the imposing fossils of marine reptiles, many unearthed by the renowned 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning, I head for the Creepy Crawlies gallery, which highlights the vast diversity of invertebrate animals, from locusts, scorpions and termites to spiders, butterflies and even crustaceans. California is said to have the richest insect diversity in the US — some 27,000 species and counting, or roughly 30 per cent of the estimated North American total. Walking through the gallery, however, my eye was caught by the monarch butterflies. Millions travel almost 5,000km between Canada and Mexico each year, and once I was lucky enough to catch their migration through San Diego County. For one day they were everywhere — a truly amazing sight.

Illustration of a Monarch Butterfly on show in London's Natural History Museum

Crossing from the Green to the Blue zone, you’ll encounter the relatively small, yet delightful, Fish, Amphibians and Reptiles gallery. This exhibition showcases some of the ocean’s most interesting species, from the deep sea fish that illuminate the water, to some of the largest snakes on the planet. Here you’ll see the eastern diamondback rattlesnake, similar to species that can be found in California.

A rattlesnake’s aural warning to keep clear — its rattle — is impossible to ignore and unforgettable. On one occasion, after I thanked an animal- control employee for removing one from my garden, he said, “No problem — I’ve already dealt with seven on this street today.” If it was meant to sound reassuring, it didn’t.

Illustration of a rattlesnake on show in London's Natural History Museum

Our next stop is the spectacular Mammals hall, where large land mammals such as giraffes and elephants can be inspected up close — though they’re dwarfed by the life-sized model of a blue whale that dominates the gallery. (The best view of the blue whale is from the balcony that overlooks the hall.) Here I felt transported to the Californian coast, rich with marine life, with mammals including several species of seals, sea lions and otters, orcas and humpback, grey and blue whales. Dolphins often swim particularly close to California’s shores, and can be seen silhouetted in the breaking waves or leaping clear of the water.

Illustrations of dolphins and other marine mammals on show in London's Natural History Museum

Finally, we reach the Dinosaurs hall, one of the museum’s most renowned, where visitors can explore the different time periods during which the now-extinct reptiles roamed the earth — and what the institution’s research has revealed about the prehistoric giants. It houses part of the first Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton ever discovered alongside the skull of the horned Triceratops and the skeleton of a Scolosaurus, a dinosaur that had armoured plates covered with thick skin along its back.

The museum has a staggering seven million fossils in its collection, so it’s unsurprising that this gallery has such a beautiful selection on show. The geography and geology of much of the prehistoric western US was perfect for fossil formation, and examples of the abundant numbers found in this region and elsewhere can be seen here.

Illustrations of fossils of dinosaur skulls on show in London's Natural History Museum

Nearing the end of this walk, climb the stairs to take in the view of the majestic Hintze Hall, the main entrance to the museum’s collections and galleries — and a lovely spot to take in its striking architecture. The hall’s soaring cathedral-like quality, contrasted with the many terracotta animals and plants playfully scattered through the museum’s stonework, seem to hint at the heated debate about creation and evolution that was consuming the science of natural history at the time the museum was built.

Finally, at the top of the stairs, turn around to inspect the huge slice of California Sequoia trunk on display. This sample of Earth’s largest tree species was 1,300 years old when it was felled in 1891. I lived in California for 0.5 per cent of the time that the tree did. I’m grateful for that short period, and for the pleasant reminders of it that can exist in unlikely places.

Illustration of the slice of giant sequoia tree on show in the main hall of London's Natural History Museum

What is your favourite museum in London, and why? Tell us in the comments

For more pieces like this visit or read our guide to the UK capital, London with the FT

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