Natural History Museum

Campaign for a new museum

Plan for the Natural History Museum in 1859

 Plan for the Natural History Museum, 1859
Pen and ink
Artist: Sir Richard Owen (1804-1892)
Copyright: The Natural History Museum, London

This plan was produced in 1859 to accompany a report to the Trustees of the British Museum. It was created by Richard Owen, the superintendent of the natural history departments at the museum, and inventor of the word 'dinosaur'. The Prince Consort had admired Owen's work, and at the invitation of the prince, Owen had given a lecture at the Great Exhibition of 1851.

Why a new museum was needed

Like his colleagues, Owen was unhappy with the cramped storage and difficult conditions at the British Museum and in the late 1850s he began to campaign for a new separate building for the natural history departments.

The campaign was considered favourably, however a series of government changes, initial concern over the suggested location of South Kensington, and decreasing budgets, resulted in the project taking over ten years to really begin.

Owen's plans for the museum

Owen became the first director of the Natural History Museum. He played a key role in its design, with his 1859 and revised plan of 1862 influencing the final design. It was Owen's idea to decorate the outside of the building with representations of the collections inside.

Owen had strong opinions regarding the arrangement of the collections. He was a creationist, and although he later reluctantly accepted Darwin’s theory of evolution, he felt that natural order within it was God’s will. This stress on order is reflected in his plan, and ultimately in Waterhouse’s symmetrical rational design.

Initially Owen wanted to show almost the entire collection in a single-storey museum. Without gas lighting the galleries had to be top lit, therefore a clever arrangement was devised of alternating wide, public galleries with narrow ones for private study. This allowed light in from skylights, whilst the front façade galleries were given long rows of windows at the front. In the end site and cost restrictions meant that less of the collection could be on display, and multiple stories were required.