The Grand Architecture Of The Natural History Museum, London

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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 London’s Natural History Museum in London is equally fascinating, and a work of art in itself.

Architecture Of The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum stands in Exhibition Road, alongside the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum. In the mid 19th century the naturalist Sir Richard Owen persuaded the British Museum that a new building was required for its natural history collections. The museum was originally to be designed by Francis Fowke, but after his death the work was taken on by the architect Alfred Waterhouse. Building began in 1873 and was completed by 1881.

The grand architecture of the Natural History Museum, with columns, arches and deep windows
The exterior of the museum is reminiscent of a cathedral, or a railway station

Built of terracotta, the new museum was a grand Victorian building, combining the then fashionable Gothic Revival style with Romanesque architecture. Like those other giants of 19th century architecture – the great railway stations – it resembles a cathedral: a glorious concoction of space, arches, sweeping staircases and stained glass windows.

Interior of the Natural History Museum, a vast cavernous hall with columns and arches and stairs to an upper level
The Great Hall with the diplodocus skeleton – this has now been replaced with a Blue Whale

I’d been to London’s 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 However, this has now been replaced by a blue whale.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 natural sciences. There were lots of private collectors, and the activities of explorers aroused interest in exotic animals and plants. Indeed, the original basis for the museum was the vast collections bequeathed to the nation by Sir Hans Sloane and Sir Joseph Banks. All of this was reflected in Alfred Waterhouse’s design: he wanted the building of the Natural History Museum, and its architectural details, to reflect its contents.

Ceiling panels with pictures of plants
Look up to the Hintze Hall ceiling for pictures of plants and flowers

Images of the natural world are incorporated everywhere in the museum. The Hintze Hall, home to the blue whale skeleton, has 162 decorated panels on its ceiling. These are hand-painted botanical illustrations, showing the abundance of the world’s plantlife and featuring fruits, flowers and even drugs like opium poppies.

Elsewhere in the museum look carefully at the details on the tiles and pillars, and see how many animals you can spot. Waterhouse went to great trouble to ensure that all of his images were scientifically accurate.

Carving of birds
Panels on pillars have intricate carvings of animals and birds

The Minerals Gallery

In 1986 the Natural History Museum absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum to create the Minerals Gallery. The Geological Museum opened in 1851, a smaller building but grand in its own way. The earth galleries are filled with brick pillars and the original oak display cabinets. Look for images of fossils and extinct species around the edge of the Minerals Gallery.

Interior of the Minerals Gallery, with brick columns and wooden display cases
Inside the Minerals Gallery of the Natural History Museum
Carving of a fish
Look for pictures of fossils and extinct animals in the Minerals Gallery

Recent Developments At The Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum may be a Victorian museum, but time has not stood still. The award winning Darwin Centre – a light, modern space – was added in 2009 to accommodate research facilities, exhibition space and more than 20 million specimens, both plants and insects.

More recently, Niall McLaughlin Architects and Kim Wilkie were commissioned to redesign the grounds around the museum. It is hoped that the museum’s gardens will open to visitors in 2024.

A Grand Exterior

As you leave the Natural History Museum, stop to look at the exterior, with its grand columns and arches. Then examine it more closely, to see more animals climbing up the stonework. It really is the “cathedral to nature” that Richard Owen first envisaged.

Carving of a long tailed animal surrounded by leaves outside the Natural History Museum
Look for carvings of animals outside the museum

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, and the main entrance is on Cromwell Road. (Note that the Exhibition Road entrance is not step-free.)
  • If you are planning to stay overnight in Kensington have a look at the recommendations on booking.com.
  • Alternatively you can rent one of the English capital’s finest serviced apartments and stay just around the corner from the Natural History Museum.

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12 thoughts on “The Grand Architecture Of The Natural History Museum, London”

  1. Ahhh, my favourite London museum, used to visit lots as a child, and was always fascinated by the giant bug collection! But you're right, we often overlook the buildings housing the collections, which are so often just as magnificent! I'll remember to look up a bit more on my next visit!

  2. The architecture of the Natural History Museum looks fantastic from your photos — haven't been there yet. I always appreciate the architecture and design of places I visit. You mentioned the exterior resembling a cathedral or railway station which reminded me of the gorgeous central station in Antwerp, Belgium which is nicknamed "The Railway Cathedral".

  3. What a great place indeed! I love the minerals gallery, it looks like one of these ancient Hungarian baths inside! Love the details (monkeys, fish, …) as well. The architecture alone seems to make the museum worthwile!

  4. I agree with you – it's definitely an architecturally stunning building. I must admit though that I often prefer art museums to natural history ones!

  5. The terracotta work was modelled by the company Farmer and Brindley, based in Lambeth, south London. There’s an interesting article on them by Emma Hardy in the Victorian Society Annual (1993). They were rivals with the nearby firm Doulton’s in terracotta work, although F&B also did work in stone and wood, often working for GG Scott as well as Waterhouse. But they collaborated with Doulton in establishing the Lambeth School of Art (now known as City and Guilds of London Art School). Lovely pictures of the museum Karen.

    1. Amazing building. Always thought the coloured banding looked like geological strata. Can you tell me if that was that intentional in the design?

      Ellie F.

      1. Hi Ellie, that’s an intriguing idea (especially as geological strata were a relatively recent discovery at the time – only found at the end of the 18th century). Unfortunately I think it’s unlikely as the main museum was originally only for natural history, and the adjoining Geological Museum was absorbed later. In fact, banded terracotta exteriors were a common feature of grand Victorian buildings, whatever their purpose.

  6. I love to always admire the architecture as since a child I was always shown the animals and told that my great grandfather x2 was one of the stone masons who made some of them, so not only loving the beauty in the art work of the building I’m so proud that the artist gene of my family helped make this wonderful building. From the gargoyles on the roof to the tiles with the animals.

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren.

I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 70 countries at the last count), and I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way. Read more…

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