I often find museums as intriguing for their buildings as for their contents. London’s Tate Modern, housed in an abandoned power station; the Musée D’Orsay in Paris, in an old railway station; or Doha’s Museum of Islamic Art, whose interior resembles a giant oyster shell. And, as I discovered, the architecture of the Natural History Museum in London is equally fascinating.
The Natural History Museum Building
The Natural History Museum building stands in Exhibition Road, alongside the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. It was purpose built for the museum by the architect Alfred Waterhouse. Building began in 1873 and was completed by 1881.
Built of terracotta, the museum is a grand Victorian building in the Romanesque style. Like those other giants of 19thcentury architecture – the great railway stations – it resembles a cathedral: a glorious concoction of space, arches, sweeping staircases and stained glass windows.
I’d been to the Natural History Museum many times when I was younger, but I remembered it as a dingy, dusty building, a poor rival to the nearby Science Museum. All that has changed now; the museum has been cleaned and given a facelift, so that you can see it in all its finery.
Animals and Plants in the Natural History Museum
The building may be grand and ornate, but you never forget that you are in a natural history museum. A statue of Charles Darwin sits on top of the main staircase, and other scientists can be spotted as you walk around. Until 2016 the entrance hall was dominated by a 32 metre long replica Diplodocus skeleton. However, this has now been replaced by a blue whale.
The Victorian era was a time of immense curiosity about the world. There were lots of private collectors, and the activities of explorers aroused interest in exotic animals and plants. All of this was reflected in Alfred Waterhouse’s design: he wanted the building of the Natural History Museum to reflect its contents.
Images of animals are incorporated everywhere in the museum. Look carefully at the details on the tiles and pillars, and see how many animals you can spot. Then look up at the ceiling for the pictures of plants and flowers. Waterhouse went to great trouble to ensure that all of his images were scientifically accurate.
The Minerals Gallery
In 1986 the Natural History Museum absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum to create the Minerals Gallery. The Geological Museum was opened in 1851, a smaller building but grand in its own way. It is filled with brick pillars and the original oak display cabinets. Look for images of fossils and extinct animals around the edge of the Minerals Gallery.
As you leave, remember to glance at the outside of the museum, where you will find more animals climbing up the stonework.
Visiting the Natural History Museum
Entry to the Natural History Museum is free. However, there may be a charge for special exhibitions.
The nearest underground station is South Kensington.