Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

Design for the entrance front of the Natural History Museum

Design for the entrance front of the Natural History Museum, c.1868
Copyright: RIBA Library Drawings & Archives Collections

The iconic Natural History Museum was designed by the architect Alfred Waterhouse, although initially it was intended to be designed by an engineer and to look very different.

By the 1850s the natural history collections of the British Museum had outgrown their Bloomsbury site, and after much debate it was decided in 1860 to build them a new home in South Kensington.

The founder of the Natural History Museum and its first director Sir Richard Owen, along with the museum commissioners, initially employed the engineer Francis Fowke. The choice of Fowke caused a bit of a stir, being an engineer rather than an architect. Fowke's recent 1862 International Exhibition building had also not proved popular, and ironically this sat on the proposed site for the new museum.

Waterhouse changes Fowke's design

Fowke died unexpectedly in 1865, and the commissioners turned to a rising star from Manchester, Alfred Waterhouse, to complete Fowke's design. At first Waterhouse simply revised Fowke's plans, but with a change in government in 1866 he was given greater licence to make changes and effectively designed a new building.

Waterhouse replaced Fowke's Renaissance façades with Romanesque. This medieval round-arched style was well suited to naturalistic decoration with plants and animals, such as Waterhouse and Owen had planned. As a simple style it was also more apt for a collection to do with the most primitive forms of life evolving into more sophisticated species.

Press reaction to the building

The museum opened in April 1881 to much praise, including a description in The Times as 'a true Temple of Nature' (1). It also caught the headlines as the first building in Britain to be faced entirely in terracotta.


(1) The Times, 18 April 1881