20th September 1996 at 01:00
It is the dawn of time. Around the Earth's molten core the rocks harden and minerals crystallise within them. Immense forces of compression and eruption shudder through the ball of cooling magma which is the nascent planet. As tectonic plates on which continents rest slam together, mountains are formed and seas ripple up. Water swirls around the globe, transforming climates. Upon the tumultuous surface the sun's rays beat fiercely down, the wind scours away particles and snow and ice crack the hardest surface to powder. Rivers wind away through cliffs and avalanches crash into valleys.

Among the ruthless splendours of nature, people scurry hither and yon, building futile roads and bridges and standing passively in supermarkets while the Earth shakes. And that's just the queue for the new Earth Galleries at the Natural History Museum. I won't mention the scenes in the toilets.

Seriously, the scenarios for these new galleries, the first phase of revamping for the old Geological Museum (cut adrift from its parent Royal Geological Survey in 1985) owes much to the kind of Hollywood natural disaster movie so familiar to cinemagoers this summer.

I'm not sure if I learnt more from seeing Twister, but it was certainly more comfortable.

The snazzy design consultants have created a dramatic new entrance for the galleries: a huge chamber in which prime specimens of rocks and minerals are displayed in glass cases while large, free-standing sculptures symbolise primeval forces and the place of human beings in the cosmos.

Joining a queue, you rise up on an escalator (small groups only at a time) through a cracked bronze sculpture of the fissured Earth's crust into the display of the beginnings of the planet, entitled The Power Within.

Impressive as this is, it also hypes expectations to fever pitch, so that the fairly detailed information in the next sets of push-button text panels can hardly satisfy. You just want to get to the earthquake.

The earthquake is the same old machine, I believe, that the Geological Museum housed before, but this time - a clever touch - instead of being surrounded by fire and brimstone, it is set in an "ordinary" Japanese supermarket, with the ceiling sagging and a trolley moving. Younger members of the party may have to be referred back to earlier exhibits like that on the fall of Pompeii and the eruption of Mount Pinatubo to assure them that the angry Earth can throw much more spectacular wobblies than this.

Still, it is an oddly pleasant sensation and a nice break between fingering lava and working out if you know anyone who lives on a fault line and going on to the next section.

Restless Surface, which is about weathering and external forces, harks back slightly more to traditional displays, but with numerous push-and-pull gadgets to demonstrate facts such as the kind of snow most likely to create avalanches, how constant water dripping changes land mass, silt and sedimentation in streams and how cold and heat affect rocks and soil.

The strange marvels of the Grand Canyon, carved out by the Colorado River for the past 20 million years, and the life cycles of mountains and plains, are thoroughly explored in an exhibition probably most useful to key stages 2 and 3. For older and younger age groups, there is still a case for a trip to the movies (the volcano one is due out this autumn).

Natural History Museum, Cromwell Road, London SW7. Tel: 0171 938 9123

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