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Natural History Museum
London, England

[Thursday - 11/03/94] One of the great things about staying at the Vanderbilt is that we were within easy walking distance to both the Museum of Natural History and the Victoria and Albert. It's really not that far to Harrod's or Knightsbridge either. Just come out of the hotel, turn left and walk down Cromwell Road. Which is what we did this morning!

The Natural History Museum traces its roots to the middle of the eighteenth century with the establishment of the British Museum in Bloomsbury. The British Museum housed the collection of Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), a prominent London physician and collector. Sloane's collection was extremely varied, including everything from dried snakeskins from the West Indies, 336 volumes of dried plants, animal and human skeletons, and artifacts from the ancient world. He regarded his collection as his life's work and began to concern himself with its preservation toward the end of his life.

Sloane stipulated in his will that he desired his collection to 'remain together, and not be separated, and that chiefly in and about the city of London, where I have acquired most of my estates and where they may by the great confluence of people most be used.' He offered the collection to the Crown for the sum of 20,000 (a small amount compared to its value), payable to his two surviving daughters. In his will Sloane nominated a large group of 'Trustees' to oversee his collection, and on 27 January 1753, 34 of these Trustees met and drew up a proposal for the purchase of the collection and foundation of a museum. The proposal was accepted by Parliament on 19 March 1753 and approved by the crown on 7 June of the same year.

Beginning in 1756, Sloane's collection was housed in Montagu House in Bloomsbury, the first home of the British Museum. Along with the artifact collection and library, the natural history collections grew over the next hundred years with the acquisition of various specimens and items from private collectors, voyagers and explorer-scientists. One of the most important was the Banks herbarium, donated by Sir Joseph Banks after his 1768 voyage with Captain Cook on board the Endeavour.

In 1856, Professor Richard Owen was appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum. He was a celebrated anatomist and paleontologist, who gave us the word 'dinosaur'. Owen immediately began a campaign to address issues faced by the natural history departments, noting that '...the most pressing, and the one essential to rendering the collection worthy of this great empire, is "space".' With the help of William Gladstone, Owen succeeded in convincing the government of the need for a new museum. Following these discussions, land was bought in South Kensington for a new museum.

Richard Owen's personal vision for the new museum was based on his view that specimens should be displayed according to taxonomic groups. He sketched out an ambitious plan that would have housed related species together in huge galleries surrounding a grand central 'index museum'. This museum within a museum was to display typical specimens with prominent qualities. For example the skeleton of a whale would represent the largest size attained by a mammal and that of a giraffe the tallest. These sketches, though not actually implemented, formed the basis for the general design of the new building.

In 1864 a design competition was held for the new museum buildings in South Kensington. Owen's sketches were included as general guidelines for the competitors. The winning entry was submitted by Captain Robert Fowke, the designer of the 1862 Exhibition Building that stood on the same site intended for the new natural history building. Fowkes died suddenly in 1865 and a rising architect from Manchester, Alfred Waterhouse, was appointed to carry out his plans.

Waterhouse followed Fowkes' basic design, but made many changes in the detail and style of the new building. His initial revisions of Fowkes' plans were accepted, but before work could begin a slight detour took place. A change in government brought about the possibility of locating the new museum on the Thames Embankment, and Waterhouse designed a stunning building that would have followed the waterline in a gentle curve. However, the original plan in South Kensington was brought back and work began in 1873. Seven years later the Museum was finished and ready for the transfer of the collection from Bloomsbury.

The transfer of the natural history collections from Bloomsbury to South Kensington began in July 1880 with the Mineralogy Department. The keepers of the individual Museum departments were responsible for moving their own department's collections. They quickly discovered problems as they tried fitting their old display-cases into Waterhouse's new building. Owen's 'index museum' also became a point of contention during the set-up of the new museum. Waterhouse had built six bays along each side of the central hall for Owen's museum, but opposition from several keepers prevented Owen from a realization of his 'museum within a museum'. Regardless of these difficulties, the Museum's doors were opened to the public in 1881 and the move from Bloomsbury to South Kensington was completed by 1883.

The museum building in South Kensington, the product of over 12 years of design and construction, bears traces of Owen's early sketches, Fowkes winning design, and Waterhouse's own ideas. Owen's sketches included a sprawling single-floor building with top-lit galleries, and a central lecture theatre, reflecting his opinion that a museum was a place for both scholarly research and public education. Fowke's design resembled an enormous cathedral to science, reflecting the philosophy of natural theology: the glory of God revealed through the wonders of nature. He created a Victorian-style Italian-Renaissance building, with round-arched windows and highly detailed columns and ornament.

Waterhouse made many practical changes to Fowke's design, enhancing the lighting in the galleries and toning down the cathedral-dome of the central hall. Most strikingly, he changed the style of the building from Fowke's Renaissance to German Romanesque. The exquisitely detailed ornamentation of the Romanesque style allowed Waterhouse to decorate the Museum with figures of animals and plants symbolic of the building's function as a museum of natural history. In addition, Waterhouse decided to face the entire building with terracotta.

The building itself is as much a feast for the eyes as its contents. Visitors enter through a set of recessed arches set on top of decorated columns, inspired by the basalt columns of Fingal's Cave in western Scotland. The huge central hall, containing the twelve bays of Owen's 'index museum', leads from the arched entrance to a grand staircase that rises to the second floor of galleries. Looking up one sees bare iron and glass that Waterhouse purposely left exposed to illustrate both the functionality and beauty of the building materials.

Throughout the galleries there are an enormous number of decorations. Many feature carvings of animals and plants, representing biological diversity. These creatures cling to the corners of walls and perch on columns, patterns reminiscent of foliage decorate arches and doorways, and terracotta panels of all sorts of life line the walls. Living animals dominate the West galleries while images of extinct creatures are displayed in the East.

Waterhouse chose to face the building with terracotta for a variety of reasons. The material fascinated him with its ability to be set into different shapes and sizes, and the variety of colors produced when the clay is fired. Using terracotta was also a practical discussion since it was highly resistant to the acidic smog of Victorian London. The buff-colored material can be seen throughout the interior of the Museum in panels and niches in the form of various animals and plants, and outside interspersed with blue bricks across the entire face of the building. From perched pterodactyls outside to climbing monkeys inside, the blue and buff terracotta contributes to making the Museum one of the most striking buildings in London.

It was not until much later that the natural history collections were officially separated from the other collections of the British Museum. In 1963, The Natural History Museum was finally established by Act of Parliament as an independent museum with its own board of Trustees. In 1986, The Natural History Museum incorporated the former Geological Museum that had been constructed on an adjacent site in 1935. To consolidate the merger a new gallery, Lasting Impressions, linking the two buildings was opened in 1988. Since then, visitors have been able to enjoy superb natural history collections under one roof: the Life Galleries, and the Geological collections, and most recently, the Earth Galleries.


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