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.
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.
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 However, this has now been replaced by a blue whale.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.
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.
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.
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.
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.