Natural History Museum

Entrance hall

Design for the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum

Design for the entrance hall of the Natural History Museum, 1878
Watercolour, sepia pen and wash
Artist: Alfred Waterhouse (1830-1905)
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings Collections

The famous terracotta entrance hall to the Natural History Museum is immediately recognisable from this watercolour by the building's architect, Alfred Waterhouse. In his early days Waterhouse had wanted to be an artist, an interest which is reflected in the skilfulness of this painting.

The building is entered via a magisterial staircase and cathedral-like portal, a theme which is continued in the grand entrance hall which resembles a church interior. Waterhouse’s predecessor, Francis Fowke, had already suggested a church-like structure, however his was Classical in style, drawing on St. Peter's, Rome.

The entrance hall, which was finished in 1880, was described by Waterhouse as 'the nave of a Cathedral' (1) and the press also likened the interior to a large Romanesque church.

Visible structural elements

Five large iron arches span the hall, each an integral part of the building's structure. Between the arches are arcades, triforium, and side chapels to hold the Index Collection. Above, instead of a dark Romanesque vault, Waterhouse adds a very Victorian flavour - a roof of iron and glass, with painted ceiling panels by Best & Lea of Manchester.

Decorative features

As on the outside, didactic decoration is used inside, an idea which came from the museum director, Richard Owen. The capitals are decorated in terracotta with plants and animals. Scrambling up the great entrance arches and innovative flying staircase are 78 monkeys, all produced from nine different plaster mouldings.


1. Quote from Alfred Waterhouse to Jones, 25 August 1873, NHM Archive, DF 930/1