Essential Architecture-  London

Museum of Natural History


Alfred Waterhouse




1860 to 1880


Victorian German Romanesque, Romanesque Revival 
Romanesque symmetrical facade. 


iron frame, concrete vaults, terra cotta cladding


One of the grand Victorian museums of the 19th century, Alfred Waterhouse's Museum of Natural History had roots in designs by Sir Richard Owen, the museum's creator, and an 1864 competition won by Francis Fowke. The building integrates the romantic and the practical in an eclectic whole: German Romanesque stylistic use of dramatic arches and towers, decorated with a rich sculptural program of terra cotta, and a practical use of structural iron and contemporary mechanical systems.

The building has a bilaterally symmetrical plan around a central entrance which leads to a cathedral-like hall with grand staircase to second floor galleries. The street facade marches 680 feet along a Kensington street. Two three story wings of side-lit galleries with tower pavilions at their ends flank a slightly projecting central entrance with two towers around a recessed arched portal. Behind this layer, internal courtyards separate top-lit back galleries, which are parallel to the central cathedral gallery and perpendicular to the facade. The facade's towers and those in the back which house stairs and mechanical shafts give the simple rectangular massing a romantic and punctuated skyline.

The building has a structural iron framework of columns and beams, supporting concrete vaults masked by plasterwork ceilings or iron and glass roofs. Fawn and blue-grey colored terra cotta both faces and ornaments the building. Inexpensive and durable, terra cotta was both resistant to acids and washable, ideal for use in facing buildings in dirty Victorian cities. At the same time, the ability to mold it allowed great artistic expression in making a rich sculptural program of ornament of zoological (living) and geological (extinct) flora and fauna of the natural world.

Top lit galleries have iron and glass roofs in the tradition of Victorian train buildings with daylighting admitted from the lower roof slopes. Water, ventilation systems and fire protection systems are integrated with the building massing (in tower elements) and the ornamental systems (plaster fireproofing and terra cotta forms). — JY

"The opportunity to ornament the Natural History Museum with designs derived from plants and animals was irresistable. The museum director provided specimens and Waterhouse developed designs for the terra-cotta ornaments, using living material as models for the embellishment of the walls surrounding the zoological exhibits on the west side of the building and extinct models for the geological section on the east side."

— Cecil D. Elliott. Technics and Architecture p 59.

The Natural History Museum is one of three large museums on Exhibition Road, South Kensington, London (the others are the Science Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum). Its main frontage is on Cromwell Road. The museum is home to life and earth science collections comprising some 70 million items. There are five main collections: Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology. There is also a wildlife garden containing native fauna and flora.

The museum is renowned for its exhibition of dinosaur skeletons, particularly the large Diplodocus cast which dominates the entrance.

The foundation of the collection was a bequest by Irish doctor Sir Hans Sloane (1660–1753). Sloane's collection, which included dried plants, and animal and human skeletons, was initially housed in Montague House in Bloomsbury in 1756, which was the home of the British Museum. In the late 1850s, Professor Richard Owen, Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum saw that the natural history departments needed a bigger, separate building.

Land in South Kensington was purchased, and in 1864 a competition was held to design the new museum. The winning entry was submitted by Captain Francis Fowke who died shortly afterwards. The scheme was taken over by Alfred Waterhouse who substantially revised the agreed plans, and designed the façades in his own idiosyncratic Romanesque style. Work began in 1873 and was completed in 1880. The new museum opened in 1881, although the move from the old museum was not fully completed until 1883.

Both the interiors and exteriors made extensive use of terracotta bricks to resist the sooty climate of Victorian London. The terracotta for the interior and exterior was made by the famous Gibbs And Canning Limited of Tamworth. The bricks include images of plants, animals and fossils. The central axis of the museum is aligned with the tower of Imperial College London (formerly the Imperial Institute) and the Royal Albert Hall and Albert Memorial further north. These all form part of the complex known colloquially as Albertopolis.

Legally, it remained a department of the British Museum with the formal name British Museum (Natural History), often abbreviated in the scientific literature as B.M.(N.H.). In 1963, the Natural History Museum became an independent museum with its own Board of Trustees, and in 1986 absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey. However it was not until the Museums and Galleries Act of 1992 that the Museum's formal title was finally changed from B.M.(N.H.) to The Natural History Museum.

Between 1974 and 1988 the Geological Museum became world-famous for exhibitions including an active volcano model and an earthquake machine, and housed the world's first computer-enhanced exhibition (Treasures of the Earth). The museum's galleries were completely rebuilt and relaunched in 1998 as a multimedia exhibition entitled The Earth Galleries. In the 1990s, the other departments in the Waterhouse building were retitled The Life Galleries. The Natural History Museum's own Mineralogy displays remain unchanged as an example of the 19th-century display techniques of the Waterhouse building.

The newly-developed Darwin Centre (named after Charles Darwin) holds a collection of millions of preserved specimens, interactive materials and new workspaces for the Museum's scientific staff. Lectures and demonstrations occur daily, and are sometimes webcast. The shared space is designed to bring visitors into close contact with working scientists. Phase one of the Darwin Centre has been completed, and houses the Zoological department's spirit collections — organisms preserved in alcohol. Phase two of the project will bring the Entomology collections and Botanical collections under the same (new) roof. As of 2005, the Entomology Department is storing its collection before the building is pulled down and replaced.

The Darwin Centre is also home to Archie the squid, an 8 metre long giant squid taken alive in a fishing net near the Falkland Islands. The squid is currently on display in a prominent position in the large specimen room, in a reinforced glass tank containing a mixture of formaldehyde and saline solution.

The museum holds the remains and bones of the River Thames Whale that lost its way on 20 January 2006 and ended up in the Thames. Despite major rescue attempts, the Bottlenose Whale died shortly before it was due to be released back into open waters, when it suffered a convulsion and died on board the barge taking it toward the sea. These bones were donated following a campaign by The Sun newspaper. They will not however be put on display and are instead in their warehouse for the storage of the larger collections such as mammals and paleontology in Wandsworth.

The closest London Underground station is South Kensington – there is a tunnel from the station that emerges close to the entrances of all three musuems. Admission is free to all, though there are donation boxes in the foyer.