Natural Selection

There’s more to the Natural History Musem than bones and butterflies – it’s also one of the most exciting and versatile venues in the country. V&E pays a visit and unearths a wealth of event space


Natural History Museum - Central hall 0807_N178-094b_RGBc.jpgThere are two main questions Zoe Watts hears on a daily basis as she walks the halls of the Natural History Museum. What was the building originally built for? And, is the dinosaur real?
One of these enquiries is undeniably more sensible than the other. Both questions are perhaps forgivable though, when you consider that 4.6 million curious visitors a year pass through the museum’s Central Hall to see the famous bronze cast of the Diplodocus.
During school holidays, 22,000 people a day explore the museum’s event spaces, which include the Darwin Centre, Earth Hall, Tree Gallery and Central Hall.
‘Working here, it’s easy to take the museum’s architecture for granted,’ says Watts, the museum’s head of events and catering. ‘But most visitors are convinced that it must have been built originally as a cathedral due to its stained glass windows and amazing facade. The fact is, it was built and opened in 1881 specifically to house the nation’s natural history collection, which by that time had outgrown the British Museum.’
The Natural History Museum’s impressive visitor statistics support the notion that most British people have, at one time or another, wandered around its collections. But knowing the museum as a tourist and seeing it after it’s been transformed for an event are two completely different experiences.
‘Many people come as children on school trips so believe they know what to expect when they return for a reception in the Earth Hall or an awards dinner in Central Hall,’ says Watts. ‘You see them arrive fairly nonchalantly and then watch as their eyes widen and the camera phones come out to take photos of the diplodocus lit up in pink or the globe beautifully lit from within.’
natural history museum 2011 - Eart hall 0211_glasses-globe-earth_38693_1.jpgWhen a company phones to make an event enquiry, they often get through to one of Watts’ seven-strong team of event managers. The client is talked through the event process and those suppliers who are listed on the venue’s rosters for catering, production and entertainment are recommended. Then, two weeks out from the event, a contractors’ meeting, involving the chosen suppliers, the client, plus the venue’s operations and sales teams, takes place.
‘I know that a lot of other venues don’t hold contractor meetings any more,’ says Watts. ‘But we still find them exceptionally useful. Everyone does a walk-through together so no detail gets missed.
‘Our tied supplier rosters change every three years but we are constantly reviewing and seeking out new innovative catering or poking around in agency warehouses. We’ve been holding events for the past 25 years so our processes are highly regarded.’
According to Watts, a common sticking point when deciding whether to stage an event at the museum is the belief that there’s never enough time to set up between the public leaving and event guests arriving. ‘The fact is that it can be done and is done most nights of the week,’ she says. ‘If a client truly believes there won’t be enough time for their set-up, we invite them to stand on the bridge overlooking Central Hall and watch the set-up spectacle take place. It’s such an impressive sight.’

For more information on holding events at the Natural History Museum, call 0844 873 4974, or visit squaremeal.co.uk/nhm

1. Central Hall
The capacity of the museum’s most popular space has recently increased to 700 for a sit-down awards dinner in the shadow of the diplodocus. This is due to exhibits being removed from the bays that run down one side of the room, allowing for more tables. Guests arrive via the museum’s main doors and pass through the gift shop to enjoy a drinks reception in Waterhouse Way before being ushered into Central Hall for dinner.
Presenters use the sweeping staircase to make a grand entrance, descending the stairs, past the seated statue of Charles Darwin. Guests dine under soaring arches with gilt and terracotta ceiling panels. For receptions, Central Hall can cater for between 200 and 1,200 guests.

Natural History Museum - Galleries 0807_nhm10b.jpg2. Earth Hall
Earth Hall is ideal for a 200-capacity dinner or 400-capacity reception. It is often used following daytime conferencing in the museum’s 209-capacity Flett Theatre. If guests are arriving  for an evening function under Earth Hall’s giant globe, they can make use of their own private entrance on Exhibition Road.
The gallery’s grand entrance for presenters and hosts is down the escalator that descends from within the globe (which can be illuminated from within to dramatic effect). ‘It’s a magnificent entrance for musicians and entertainers,’ says Watts. ‘The space lends itself well to clients who have a “global” theme to their event message and it’s also where we stage our Christmas parties, produced by The Ultimate Experience.’

3. Tree Gallery
The 60-capacity mezzanine room at the top of the Central Hall staircase was refurbished and reopened at the start of 2010. It now forms one of Watts’ favourite event spaces.
‘It’s ideal for dinners or receptions with shorter lead times,’ she says. ‘Guests enter via the splendour of Central Hall’s staircase, experience the contemporary nature of Tania Kovats’ 17m-long cross-section of a 200-year-old oak tree inlaid into the ceiling, and still get to enjoy views overlooking an empty Central Hall, which looks so impressive when it’s dramatically lit.’
The room’s artwork was commissioned to celebrate Charles Darwin’s bicentenary in 2009 and took inspiration from the great naturalist’s tree of life sketch.

4. Darwin Centre
natural history museum 2011 - Darwin centre 0211_darwin-centre-butterflies-falling-490_44427_1.jpg In stark contrast to the historic architecture of the main Waterhouse building, the Darwin Centre is the museum’s newest and most contemporary space. Taking 12 years to build and costing £78m, the centre was opened by HRH Prince William on 14 September 2009. It is home to teams of scientists and millions of preserved specimens, including a giant squid named Archie.
Event planners can use the white walls of the centre’s eight-storey cocoon to project logos and imagery during receptions for up to 350 guests (or dinners for 150).
‘It’s always interesting to see how companies use the Darwin Centre space as it’s a completely blank “white canvas”,’ Watts says.

5. Darwin Centre courtyard
Last year, the museum launched the outdoor space adjacent to the Darwin Centre to event planners. The atrium and courtyard area doubles up as an amphitheatre and has seen performances ranging from live music to ballet. Organisers have also placed bars and temporary structures within the grounds or simply used it for balmy summer evening drinks before guests head inside for dinner.

6. Alternative event spaces
The Natural History Museum rotates its temporary exhibitions every six months and hosts Wildlife Photographer of the Year annually. These temporary exhibitions are ideal for private cocktail-and-canapé receptions. According to Watts, the venue can also host dinners and drinks in many of its other galleries and spaces. ‘A mining company may prefer to host a dinner in Earth’s Treasury amongst the gemstones and minerals,’ she says. ‘Images of Nature, a new permanent gallery showcasing the museum’s collection of natural history artworks [pictured below] is also available for private hire.’


This article first appeared in Square Meal Venues & Events magazine, spring 2011