The idea was hatched four years ago. My buddy Jill and I decided to attend a special function. After several cancellations (thank you, Covid), our plans finally fell into place. I hopped on a plane in Toulouse, Jill drove from the north of England, and we met in London for our event at the Natural History Museum. And this wasn’t your usual kind of do. This was Dinosnores for Grown Ups, an all-night date with dinosaurs.
Typical of my favourite museum in the world, the NHM sent out lots of instructions before the evening. Bring torches, sleeping bags, a pillow would be handy, cosy clothes for sleeps, oh, and don’t forget your toothbrush. It was all helpful stuff. But what to wear?
As dedicated grown-up kids, we made the profound decision to go dino with themed cosy tracksuits. We even managed to find Brontosaurus earrings. A nice touch. We were loud and proud.
After a day’s sightseeing, with gathering anticipation, we got ready and headed for the museum. Top tip here. If you’re considering travelling on the London underground at rush hour covered in dinosaurs with a bulky sleeping bag plus kit, don’t. It’s amazing how frazzled one gets loaded like a Sherpa during tube change skirmishes.
We bumbled through, scrambling to ground level and a velvety night. It was six thirty. Ahead was a queue outside the museum. Joining the happy babblers, it was clear that we weren’t the only ones excited about spending a night at the museum. But this was a worry. There were so many people, would it be a disappointment?
Soon, we were flowing into the sandy-toned interior with its hug-worthy ambient warmth. Smiling staff members beckoned us, supplying programmes, lanyards, sleeping mats and cries of, ‘Enjoy, and try not to get lost!’
Fittingly, we were Team T. rex. It worked nicely with our tracksuit bottoms’ design. Our MC appeared with a rousing welcome and instructions to set up camp. Dressed in black with a podgy dino tail, he cut quite a dash.
The ‘crowd’ we worried about melted, disappearing in the soft lights past animal-sculptured columns into the lofty interior. We smiled. Let’s face it, the museum is enormous. Many streamed up the main stone staircase, hunkering down on the first gallery among avian collections and a fair number of skulls. Others preferred the main Hintze hall. They’d wake up gazing at the famed twenty-five-metre blue whale, Hope, who gracefully soars, suspended from the ceiling. Alcoves housing exhibits line the great hall. We found a cosy nook next to a marlin. It was snug.
A call to dinner followed, and bright lights meant it was the first time we could properly see our fellow campers. I had a quick worry. Did our clothes look silly? Nope. Who knew there were so many different designs of dino onesies?
Murmurs of mutual admiration rippled around the dining hall as outfits were admired, including stripy tigers, lions, and a particularly fetching unicorn. Compared to some, we were decidedly underdressed.
We chatted above the party atmosphere hubbub, guesstimating what lay ahead. Would the night drag on? The schedule suggested not. There were so many options. Our job was to choose which timed lecture or show we wanted to see and ensure we left enough time to get there.
With delicious meals demolished, people filed in different directions back into the cosy depths of the vast museum. First on our list was a science lecture. Off we headed, and, just for a moment, we were utterly alone. It was 9.30 p.m., in the home of 80 million objects, some of the world’s greatest natural history collections. It seemed ridiculously surreal. Actually, it was.
As someone who loves the species, I was delighted to find that the talk was on sharks. Better still, it was given by the museum expert and curator on fossil fish, Emma Bernard. A specialist with a top sense of humour, she had brought many sets of shark jaws and teeth.
The time flew, ending with a feature on the largest shark that ever lived, the megalodon. There were hushed gasps as Emma passed fossil megalodon teeth around the audience. Real ones. It was hard to believe we were holding the tooth of an animal that lived around 20 million years ago. And the animal’s size? Emma, using audience participation, lined up volunteers to demonstrate. The megalodon was around eighteen metres long: longer than a London bus, or three great white sharks, orrrrrr the five giggling volunteers making shark faces. What a great way to learn.
Next up, it was a dash to another part of the museum and our special dino tour. We joined our expert guide, who was wearing a dino print dress. We knew we’d love this lady.
With only four of us in the group and the dinosaur hall to ourselves, we felt pretty special. Our guide told us about Sir Richard Owen, the first Superintendent of the Museum. He was a feisty chap. It was he who first used the term Dinosauria. It’s a word rooted in Greek, frequently quoted as meaning ‘terrible lizard’, but Owen described dinosaurs as ‘fearfully great’. Both terms worked for us. As we wandered among the immense creatures, we learned more about the first fossil hunters, the first fossils and more about astonishing specimens.
Most people use bags to hold shopping, wallets and personal items. Not our expert. It was stuffed with bones. Out came fossilised teeth, claws and other body parts. She handed them around for us to guess what we were holding. I stared in wonder at the specimens in my hand. These were so, so old. It turns out that I was holding the tooth of a T rex and a (I think) an Iguanodon. Marvellous! We could have stayed there all night, but our time was up. We left the dino hall for an altogether different experience.
Despite it being almost midnight, it occurred to us that, strangely, we weren’t feeling tired. We settled down to a talk about living creatures with special powers. Better still, Phillip Burnett, a Zoolab specialist ranger, had brought some with him.
First, we had a frog that glowed in the dark and secreted healthful peptides. Impressive. Then came a cane snake, which was very lovable. Those who were keen (us) were encouraged to stroke the docile reptile, discovering that, despite their appearance, snakes aren’t slimy at all. Their skin is smooth and dry.
A scorpion was the third exhibit, a remarkable arachnid whose sting, we were told, was similar to a bee. He stayed in the box. It was probably wise. The next creature came with a warning. All Phillip said was, ‘I’m about to show you a spider’, and that was enough for one poor lady. She fled.
There’s no doubt about it, the Chilean rose tarantula was a big lass. She wasn’t up for being stroked, and I can’t claim to have been disappointed. She stayed in her box, too. The last animal was a gorgeous Leopard gecko with a surprisingly warm fat tail – he loved a cuddle.
We could have listened to Phillip all night, but time had flown again. Our last scheduled event was an epic. It had to be done. We refreshed our wine glasses, grabbed a bag of Maltesers and sat in the front row to watch Jurassic Park. Perfect.
It was close to 3 a.m. when the film finished. Several dino diehards continued the film series screening through the night, but not us. We’d begun to flag, and it was time to hit the sack. We ambled back, passing several open galleries beneath ceilings decorated with exquisite natural history motifs. It was hard to believe the generosity of staff in allowing us to roam so freely. Jill heard a strange noise coming from the Creepy Crawlies gallery. Obviously, we had to investigate.
Bees. At the far end was an exhibit on bees together with sound effects. It’s amazing how loud that buzzing can sound in the dead of night. We continued, unable to resist the temptation of just one last look at the immense dinosaur collection. There we were, alone. What a treat.
Bodies in sleeping bags were strewn all over; gentle snoring came from some, quiet chats and the glow of a Kindle from others. Different, magical sounds attracted our attention. They were coming from a corridor. Distracted again, we explored. A harpist was playing, her audience sitting cross-legged on the floor. We stopped. It was one of those moments where we had to pause and absorb the beguiling music and extraordinary atmosphere.
Hunkering down in our sleeping bags, we slept pretty well, to be woken not that many minutes later by the theme tune from Jurassic Park. Another first. A bit bleary-eyed, we listened to announcements and an invitation to visit the colossal titanosaur Patagotitan mayorum, one of the largest known creatures. We’d seen this big boy before, but the chance to see him again was too good to miss.
It was now just after 9 a.m. on Sunday. The doors would soon open to the public, but there was one last place we had to visit before leaving. The Treasures gallery has twelve special exhibits spanning 4.5 billion years of Earth’s history. Just imagine.
You know what it’s like when you look forward to something for ages, and when it finally happens, it’s an anti-climax? As you can tell, that didn’t happen to us. So, if you’re an animal and nature lover like me and fancy doing something unique, I reckon you’ll enjoy a night at the museum, too. It certainly blew our socks off.