03.04.2015
11:51

Natural History Museum

Address:

Cromwell Road, South Kensington, SW7 5BD

Phone:

020-7942 5000

Website:

www.nhm.ac.uk

Opening times:

Daily 10:00–17:50

How to get there:

Tube: South Kensington

Entry fee:

Free

Additional information:

Cafés and shops

The Natural History Museum’s collection was originally a department of the British Museum, where the myriad stuffed animals, fish, skeletons, botanical specimens, rocks and fossils were first displayed. A critical lack of space prompted the move to South Kensington, an idea which had been aired as early as 1853 but which only came to fruition in 1881, when Alfred Waterhouse’s astonishing new building finally opened to the public. Since then the collection has grown immeasurably. Between them the five departments of Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology contain over 70 million natural history specimens and the museum—as it has always been—is one of the world’s leading centres of taxonomic research (the science of classifying species). The museum gained independence from the British Museum in 1963.

 

The Collection

At the core of the collection is the hoard of natural history ‘curiosities’ of the eminent botanist and physician Sir Hans Sloane, whose entire collection constituted one of the three foundation collections of the British Museum in 1753. Sloane’s items were joined by the eye-opening specimens brought back from Captain Cook’s great voyages of discovery to the South Pacific including the botanical manuscripts of David Solander and the natural history specimens and herbarium of Sir Joseph Banks, both of whom had accompanied Cook on the Endeavour in 1768–71 and were museum employees. Objects from Darwin’s revolutionary voyage to the Galapagos Islands in HMS Beagle in 1831–36 also came to the museum as did, in 1856, the entire collection of the Zoological Society, soon followed by that of the East India Company. The burgeoning collection of specimens from parts of the globe far distant from London quickly outstripped the building’s display capacity and stored items deteriorated quickly. Dr George Shaw held annual ‘cremations’ of Sloanian material. Of Sloane’s original 1,886 mammals, 1,172 birds (or eggs or nests), 1,555 fishes and 5,439 insects only a fraction remains today, although his important 330-volume Herbarium has survived, as well as drawers of minerals from his pharmaceutical cabinet and his magnificently carved pearly nautilus shell.

 

The Building

Waterhouse’s magnificent new building (1873–80), a great secular Romanesque cathedral clad in ornamental terracotta, was built on the site of the International Exhibition of 1862. Its design incorporated the ideas of Professor Richard Owen, a great comparative anatomist and palaeontologist and Superintendent of the Natural History Department from 1856. Owen was the prime agitator for a new museum and envisaged it as a great storehouse of divine creation. A broad flight of steps leads from the road up to the giant portal, centrally placed in the 680-ft frontage, above which, surmounting the gable, Owen desired a statue of Adam, man being creation’s crowning glory (he fell off in the 1930s). Covering the façade and the interior is a veritable menagerie of birds and beasts cast in terracotta, symbolising the museum’s function: to the west, where Zoology was displayed, designs of living animals; to the east, where Geology and Palaeontology were housed, extinct species. Owen’s idea was brilliantly realised in Romanesque style by Waterhouse, whose beautiful designs (based on specimens and natural history drawings) are in the museum library. Extinct beasts line up on the entrance façade, monkeys scramble up arches in the entrance hall, fishes swim in rippling water around columns where further up lizards lurk, and on the stairs animals and birds—including a beautiful pair of demoiselle cranes—peep from twining plants. Waterhouse’s dramatic entrance hall is conceived as a vast nave with a triforium above and, at the far end, the great staircase rising to the upper floors. Owen wished the Hall to be an ‘Index’ gallery, with displays of minerals, plants and invertebrates on one side and vertebrates on the other—a simple guide to the ‘types’ of the animal, plant and mineral kingdoms, carefully arranged according to the Linnaean system of classification. Owen’s successor Sir William Flower introduced evolution to the display, a theory to which Owen had not wholly subscribed. In the centre were large mammals—whales, elephants and giraffes. Today the hall is dominated by the museum’s most famous inhabitant, Diplodocus carnegii, 150 million years old and one of the largest land mammals which ever lived, cast from the original specimen at the Carnegie Museum, Pittsburgh and given to the museum in 1905. It is a fitting tribute to Owen, who coined the name ‘dinosaur’ in 1841.

 

Tour of the Museum

The museum today offers a very different visitor experience from the museum which opened its doors in 1881. Instead of carefully arranged classified specimens in mahogany cases are interactive audio-visual life- and earth-science displays on ecology, evolution and man. This popular staging of science, which sometimes fits uneasily in a building designed for scientific knowledge of a different era, was first introduced to the museum in 1977 with the opening of the Human Biology display. It outraged scholars, who believed that the Victorian founding ideal, both to educate and to amuse, had swung too far in one direction.

 

Life Galleries

The mainstay of the sequence of Life Galleries are of course the ever popular Dinosaurs, to the left of the main entrance—a new set of animatronic ones have recently been introduced, including a vast model of Tyrannosaurus rex. Beyond the staircase and through the café (with Chi Chi the Giant Panda who died at London Zoo in 1972 in a case to one side, his skeleton on the other), a corridor lined with reptiles and amphibians leads to the Mammal Hall, almost completely filled by the vast 91-ft Blue Whale suspended from the ceiling, with the White Whale, Sperm Whale and dolphins alongside it. The Zoology department, with over 27 million specimens, is one of the most comprehensive in the world, but only a tiny fraction of the taxidermy, skeletons, jarred specimens and skins are on show. Large polar bears, tiny pigmy shrews, and skeletons of the extinct sabre-toothed tiger can be seen. To the right of the Hall is the Bird Gallery with a remarkable collection of stuffed specimens, some in their original Victorian display cases (only a few remain), delicately arranged against painted backdrops. Of particular note is the dodo. On the first floor is a permanent photographic exhibition ‘Plant Power’; the primates section; African animals; and a separate Evolution Gallery, with Darwin in his study, focusing on his Origin of the Species (1859) and theory of natural selection. On the second floor is a cross-section of a giant sequoia tree from the Sierra Nevada, California, 1,335 years old when felled in 1892. At the time of writing the Ecology Gallery was closed for refurbishment.

 

Earth Galleries

The entrance to the Earth Galleries is from Exhibition Road. In the atrium, lined with extraordinary figurative sculptures, an escalator takes visitors on a journey to the top of the building through the middle of a 36-ft revolving model of Earth, of beaten copper, iron and zinc, with sound and light effects. ‘The Power Within’ explores volcanoes and has an immensely popular earthquake simulator. ‘From the Beginning’ takes you from the Big Bang, the formation of Earth 4,560 million years ago, to the creation and sustaining of life. ‘Earth’s Treasury’ has a display of minerals and gemstones, including the Latrobe gold crystal, a fraction of the museum’s collection of 180,000 specimens. The ‘Earth Lab’ explores the diversity of rocks and fossils, drawing on the museum’s great mineralogy and palaeontology collections, which include 160,000 rocks and ocean bottom deposits, 3,000 meteorites and 30,000 ores, many collected on great expeditions such as that of HMS Challenger in 1872–76 and Scott’s second polar expedition (specimens brought back by the naturalist Edward Wilson proved that Antarctica had once been warm).

 

The Darwin Centre

The new Darwin Centre is the storehouse for the museum’s zoological ‘Spirit Collection’: 22 million jarred specimens preserved in alcohol. Standing in the atrium you can look up seven storeys and see the extent of the storage. A small section on the ground floor is available for viewing, although you can take behind-the-scenes tours of other storerooms and the laboratories where over 100 scientists carry out taxonomic research. The Darwin Centre is the public face of the museum’s core research work of identification and classification, but only Phase I has been completed. Phase II, the proposed new home of the Botany and Entomology departments, where, for instance, the ‘dry’ collections of insects and butterflies will be housed, is scheduled to open in 2007 (C.F. Møller Architects).

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MUSEUMS & GALLERIES OF LONDON

Details below are taken from our Blue Guide Museums and Galleries of London.  This is a 2005 title, here generally updated for website address and opening times, with useful comments from some of the museums themselves.  More recent information is given in Emily Barber's magisterial new Blue Guide London, "Exceptional update to a classic and useful guide to this amazing city" (Amazon reader review).

FULL LISTING of CURRENT EXHIBITIONS in London from Apollo Magazine »

Emily Barber recommends five major London museums »

Please do share your comments and updates with us via the form below the entry for each museum.

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