Event review: National Geographic’s Evening of Exploration, Natural History Museum

Event review: National Geographic’s Evening of Exploration, Natural History Museum

Posted on 09 March 2018 • Written By Heather Steele

Event review: National Geographic’s Evening of Exploration, Natural History Museum

We go behind the scenes at one of the museum’s high-profile events

As a member of the Natural History Museum, I’ve spent many an afternoon discovering its many galleries, from eying up ammonites in Fossil Way, witnessing the dodo skeleton in the Treasures room right up to experiencing tremors in the Volcanos & Earthquakes gallery. Yet, as I shadow the museum’s events team for an evening, I discover that what the public sees is just a fraction of what goes on behind closed doors. 

Natural History Museum National Geographic event plating catering food gala dinner

I’m observing the set-up of National Geographic’s annual black-tie Evening of Exploration. The two institutions seem a natural fit, but tonight the environment-focused pairing is going one step further. This dinner is to be the first time that the entire catering operation at the venue will be sustainable from start to finish – even the leftovers will be composted. The same goes for all branding and building materials: all will be recycled or reused post-event, and flower arrangements will be donated to local hospices.

The moment the last visitor is politely ushered out at 5.50pm, it’s all go. A huge white curtain masks the interior of the main entrance so that the 372 guests can make their way towards Fossil Way for a drinks reception without seeing the Hintze Hall being overhauled. You certainly don’t want to blow that crucial first glimpse of Hope the blue whale before the space is ready.

Natural History Museum National Geographic event plating preparation catering black tie event

All in all, it takes just over 90 minutes to transform the hall from visitor attraction to fully themed event

From a balcony, head of venue hire Robert Wetherell gives me the chance to look down over Hope as tables and bamboo-style chairs are wheeled in and set up by an array of waiting staff. Behind them, a team of 20 men in hi-vis jackets are erecting a huge custom-made stage and screen at the foot of the Hintze Hall’s imposing staircase, as a statue of Darwin looks on. I learn that ‘nothing is allowed to touch the terracotta walls’ throughout the museum, and notice that cardboard has been placed on the corners of every cabinet in the venue to protect the exhibits.

There are a lot of ladders. The information desk has become a makeshift filming booth. AV & lighting is being tested from all balconies and a smoke machine is being put to good use. Last-minute candles are added, as are place settings that resemble the yellow frame of National Geographic’s magazine cover. Nigel Mullins, senior operations manager, oversees the lot with a steely eye. All in all, set up takes just over 90 minutes to transform the hall from visitor attraction to fully themed event.

Tonight there are two parties taking place: Gumtree has taken over the Earth Hall over on the other side of the building. In order to pop up in different parts of the museum without being intrusive, I’m led down a series of warren-like corridors that I didn’t even know existed – I’m glad I didn’t wear heels. As we return from sampling a couple of canapés and watching a band sound-checking, we encounter tonight’s hosts Joanna Lumley and Professor Brian Cox testing the mic. Robert wasn’t exaggerating about the VIP guest list.

Natural History Museum National Geographic event catering black tie food starter vegan

As the guests begin to file in for dinner, we retreat to the Central Cafe where Moving Venue has spent most of the evening preparing hundreds of plates. I watch hungrily as the brigade of chefs deftly plates each starter. Luckily, our very own table has been set up at the back of the canteen, beneath a giant leatherback turtle. From here, we continue to watch the kitchen team work wonders while tucking into each dish. Our vegan starter – crispy sprouts with fennel jam, smoked paprika tofu-mayo, burnt chicory and mustard dressing – is a revelation.

I discover that tonight’s brief was not nose-to-tail but root-to-fruit

There’s a backstage lull between mains (treacle-roasted venison with glazed carrots, sea beet and red wine sauce) and dessert (a non-dairy 80% chocolate and salted caramel ganache, poached pear and coconut ice cream) as the speeches take centre stage in the hall. Eco-chef Tom Hunt and Moving Venue head chef David Ridgway, who collaborated to create tonight’s sustainable menu, join us for a glass of bio-dynamic champagne and a chat.

I discover that tonight’s brief was not nose-to-tail but root-to-fruit. Tom’s aim was to craft a meal that would stimulate a conversation: ‘This philosophy is a step up from nose-to tail. The veg used tonight was grown in Bermondsey, and none of it was stripped or peeled.’ The predominantly plant-based menu was a fun endeavour for David and the Moving Venue team too. ‘The absence of dairy was a challenge for the pastry section – we’ve never had a purely vegan menu before,’ he explains. ‘But I’ve learned how to use nuts to make cheese and create tofu mayo. I’ve even bought four vegan cookbooks!'

Natural History Museum National Geographic event gala dinner presentation showcase sitdown meal black tie Hintze Hall

As 11.30pm rolls around, the party begins to wind down. Unless you’re the events team – clear up and shut down takes hours, and operations manager Gavin Bevan won’t lock the doors until 3am. Luckily I manage to slip out before the clock strikes midnight. Considering the venue hosts events around four nights a week, after tonight I definitely hold event managers in even higher esteem than I did before.

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The menu was 95% plant-based, but the team knew they had to make meat the star of the main course. That’s where 70g per person of sustainable venison came into the mix. ‘We chose venison because they don’t have any natural predators, so they need to be culled,’ Tom told me.


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Photos Hannah Viney

Like the idea of hosting your event in an iconic venue like this one? Well, then check out our directory of museums, galleries and attractions available for exclusive hire