The Natural History Museum in South Kensington, south-west London, is one of the world’s most famous museums. Housing over 80 million specimens, it’s located close to the Science Museum and Victoria and Albert Museum and has been open to the public since 1881. Prior to this time, the museum’s zoological and palaeontological specimens were part of the collection of the British Museum, located in Bloomsbury in north-central London, and this is where our story starts.

The Natural History Museum's main entrance hall, today dominated by dinosaurs... though it won't be for much longer. Credit: Cezary P. Polish Wikipedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

In 1856, control of the natural history section of the British Museum fell to Richard Owen (1804-1892), an incredibly talented, ambitious and influential anatomist and palaeontologist. Owen is famous for many things: he described the fossils of many amazing beasts from overseas, invented the term Dinosauria in 1841, and described the anatomy of numerous remarkable modern animals that were sent to London from the corners of the British Empire.

Owen built the collections up – he was of course expanding on the work of his predecessors, in particular John Edward Gray – but also realised that they needed new accommodation. He therefore set about planning the construction of a new dedicated natural history museum and proposed plans to the Trustees of the museum in 1859. But debate in the House of Commons and the decision of a Select Committee appointed to investigate the issue led to rejection of his grand idea, it being deemed preferable to expand the building at Bloomsbury (Stearn 1981). The early 1860s then saw several proposals and counter-proposals regarding the need for a separate natural history museum, Owen using his influence with both the royal family and Chancellor of the Exchequer (and later Prime Minister) William Gladstone to gain leverage.

The museum's east wing as seen at sunset in February 2013. Gargoyles and ornate stonework are obvious. Credit: Darren Naish

Ultimately and despite setbacks, Owen’s plans prevailed. The House of Commons approved in 1863 the purchase of land in South Kensington, specifically on a plot previously used for the International Exhibition of 1862 (a celebration of Imperial achievement, and a follow-up to the better known Great Exhibition of 1851). Following an open competition to arrive at a winning design, the building was initially modelled after plans devised by the civil engineer and prominent architect Francis Fowke. However, he died in 1865 and the project was then taken over by architect Alfred Waterhouse who designed a Romanesque structure inspired by continental architecture. Work began in 1873 and construction was complete by 1880. The result: a grand ‘cathedral to nature’; indeed it can be said that Owen and Waterhouse transformed our very expectation of what museums are meant to be.

The Natural History Museum's cathedral-like Central Hall (or Hintze Hall), looking north. Note the presence of the dark Richard Owen statue on the staircase; today it has been replaced by a white statue of a seated Charles Darwin. Credit: Leonardo Cassarini Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)

The main hall – properly called Central Hall or Hintze Hall – has a painted, vaulted ceiling, there are ornate staircases, carved pillars and hanging buttresses, and engravings and statues depicting all manner of creatures, living and extinct, are arranged on the outside and inside of the building. The gargoyles include pterosaurs and sabre-toothed cats, the weathervanes are poorly known fishes, and fishes, birds, monkeys and other animals – carved in terracotta tiles and bricks – are arranged on the walls and climbing up the columns. They include Stomias (the extant deepsea dragonfish), a Seychelles giant day gecko Phelsuma sundbergi (a species actually not named until 1939), a Passenger pigeon Ectopistes migratorius (still very much extant at the time) and many others (Stearn 1981).

Features on the exterior of the NHM: a pterosaur gargoyle, and tower-top fishes. Credit: Darren Naish

Living and extinct animals occupy different sections of the museum: living animals are on the west wing, extinct animals (including a coelacanth...) on the east. It has been suggested that this division may be a reflection of Owen’s efforts to rebuke Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, though I don’t personally think that this idea has much merit.

Richard Owen, the brilliant and outstandingly important scientist behind the creation of the museum. Try not to repeat the same tired factoids about him whenever you hear his name. Credit: Public Domain

A statue of Owen was long positioned at the top of Hintze Hall, overlooking the entrance to the museum. It has recently been relocated and replaced by a statue of Darwin. Indeed, history has not been kind to Owen. Due predominantly to his disagreement with Darwin and his rejection of Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection, Owen has been cast as the great villain of Victorian biology, as someone the museum should almost be ashamed of. There’s no doubt that Owen’s ambition did, at times, cause him to fail to give appropriate credit to others and he was said to be both “feared and hated” (to quote Thomas Huxley); he was also on the ‘wrong side of history’ as goes our developing idea about evolutionary science. However, the cartoon stereotype of him as an arrogant bully hell-bent on nothing but his own advancement belies his gargantuan contribution to science and culture, the human side of his story, and the fact that his battles often involved people who were no less ambitious and dastardly than he was.

Despite its existence as a separate building on a very separate site, the Natural History Museum was formally part of the British Museum until 1963, still being known at this time as the ‘British Museum (Natural History)’. Not until 1992 did it officially become the Natural History Museum.

At peak times the NHM can be somewhat busy. This photo is from August 2014. You might have heard that the famous Diplodocus cast - 'Dippy', ugh - is set to be removed some time very soon. Credit: Darren Naish

Today the museum is a leading centre of research in palaeontology and zoology, home to one of the world’s most important collections of fossils, minerals and extant species. It is visited by over 5 million visitors a year, ranking it number 3 in London’s most popular tourist attractions. The museum is regularly used as a filming location and an enormous number of film and TV projects use it as a filming venue. Indeed, if you know what to look for you can often see the architecture of Hintze Hall in the background, two surprising recent examples that caught my eye being Jupiter Ascending and The Amazing World of Gumball (the latter link is to a screengrab I put on twitter).

For previous Tet Zoo articles on material in the collections of London’s Natural History Museum, see…

Refs - -

Stearn, W. T. 1981. The Natural History Museum at South Kensington. Heinemann, London.