Saturday, December 19, 2009

Night at the Museum

The Natural History Museum in London is an amazing building. Its main entrance is in Cromwell Road, and as you walk in the massive doors it is easy to be overwhelmed by the building itself, before you even begin to look at the exhibits. The main entrance hall contains a cast of a diplodocus dinosaur, which stretches almost from one end to the other. To give you an idea of how big the hall itself is, Dippy, as he is affectionately known, is 105 feet long. The vaulted ceiling is ornately decorated and at one end of the hall a huge staircase goes up and then off to both sides, leading up to galleries on either side. A seated statue of Charles Darwin sits on the first landing, looking very serious as its sightless eyes gaze out over the massive cathedral-like hall in front of him.

Up till now my experience of this building consisted of visits with my son, walking through its hallowed halls talking in hushed tones as we surveyed the very carefully arranged exhibits. The only noise was the hushed babble of other visitors, interspersed with the occasional delighted squeal of a child on its first glance at the quite impressive Dippy. When I heard that the company my husband works for planned to have its Christmas party in the museum, I was curious as to what it would be like, and had in my mind the idea of a rather staid, quiet celebration in an historic setting. What I actually experienced could not have been further from what I imagined.

When we arrived at the museum gates, we were met by several burley security guards asking which party we were attending. It seems that there was not just one, but actually several parties in the museum that night. We were directed through the entrance halls towards the party we were attending in the great hall, and when we walked through the arched entrance,what I saw took my breath away. Dippy was completely illuminated, as were all the galleries. The statue of Charles Darwin almost hid in the darkness, occasionally lit by a beam from one of the spotlights moving round the room. A light show played over the ceiling of the hall, and at the end, a curtain of fairy lights gave the impression that Dippy was looking into the night sky. The buzz of people was louder than any noise I had ever heard in the museum before, and as a waiter offered me a glass of champagne, I noticed that there was a bar right underneath Dippy, a huge circular installation with more than four barmen offering wine, beer and water. The light show in the museum was so spectacular that it made taking photographs nearly impossible, but this photo gives a bit of an idea of what we saw:-

Waiters and waitresses wandered through the crowds offering interesting hors d’oeuvres - tiny hamburgers, little slices of beef Wellington, baby crab cakes, tiny cones of fish and chips, and brie and cranberry club sandwiches sliced tinier than any tea sandwich I have ever seen. My glass was never empty, either refilled or replaced by a passing waiter, something I would sadly regret the next morning!

Later in the evening, a DJ set up on the stairs in front of the statue of Charles Darwin, who would definitely not have approved of the very loud and boisterous disco that followed. To escape the loud music from time to time, we wandered through various exhibits just off the great hall, including one of the winning and commended entries from the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition. The quality of the entries was staggering, especially some of the images captured by children as young as eleven. By this time, the waiting staff were offering tiny desserts - mince pies the size of fifty pence pieces, tiny cookies no bigger than my thumbnail and baby squares of light fruitcake.

It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening and gave me a glimpse of the Natural History Museum as I have never seen it before. Although the founders of those hallowed halls might not have approved, I found the transformation quite incredible. Even more amazing is that, next morning, the hall was back to its original quiet self, the bar gone, and Dippy surveying nothing out of the ordinary. Things were even back to normal for dear old Charles Darwin, until the next time the great hall is hired for a celebration - something that happens much more often than you might imagine!

If you fancy hiring a room in the Natural History Museum, click here for more information. It requires very deep pockets, and might be better considered on a corporate rather than a personal scale, but it certainly is one of the most impressive party venues I have ever visited anywhere in the world.