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  • Writer's pictureLucy Walker

A Brief History of the Natural History Museum in London

What is the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is a museum and leading science research centre built in the late 19th century that houses 80 million specimens related to fungi, plants, animals, ecology, climate, geology, palaeontology and more.

natural history museum facade

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Natural History Museum History

The Victorians were obsessive collectors. The gradual territorial expansion of the British Empire in the 18th century, and its acceleration in the 19th, opened new frontiers for anyone who could afford to get on a ship out of Europe. Scientists and explorers ventured abroad and plundered, gathered, purchased or shot whatever they could find, and took it back to Britain.

There were huge profits to be made from selling to museums, and museums (with their imperialist mindset) didn’t view their new collections as having been sourced unethically. (You’ll notice that many of the taxidermy specimens and botanical drawings in the Natural History Museum date from this period.) This, combined with the 19th-century belief that it would be nationally bolstering and morally edifying to have national collections, led to the foundation of this and other similar museums around the country.

The museum’s original collection dates even further back, to the late 17th century. It had belonged to Sir Hans Sloane, an Anglo-Irish physician who spent several months in the West Indies as a young man. Sloane acquired 8oo previously unrecorded plant specimens in this period, although they were actually collected by the enslaved Ghanaians and Ivorians who worked for him on the plantations. These people were neither credited nor renumerated for their discoveries, but Sloane’s name will be forever associated with many of the new species he brought back to London, and is still commemorated by such place names as Sloane Square and Hans Crescent.

natural history museum interior

The Natural History Museum was commissioned when Sloane’s core collection at the British Museum had rapidly outgrown its home in Bloomsbury. The new building was constructed in the 1870s by Alfred Waterhouse as a ‘cathedral to nature’. It’s a spectacular example of Victorian architecture: the Gothic Revival style, famous in contemporary churches and buildings, is evident in the structure; the tone and ornamentation, however, is neo-Romanesque. The main hall, with its high windows and chapel-like alcoves, resembles the nave of a medieval abbey. A white marble statue of Charles Darwin watches over the exhibits from the staircase, like a saint above the altar.

The building is covered with ornate carvings of animals and plants that were inspired by the museum’s collection. The outer walls are guarded by terracotta gargoyles resembling lions, wolves, pterodactyls and sabre-toothed tigers. Waterhouse used terracotta rather than stone to create these decorations, because it was cheaper and easier to produce than hand carved stone.

The museum contains one of the world’s finest mineralogy collections, whilst its ever-popular zoology collection, full of extinct and endangered species, has been gathered over 250 years from around the world. When you enter the main hall, look up! The ceiling is adorned with 162 decorated panels depicting Earth’s abundance of plants, including coffee and tobacco. There’s a panel paying tribute to Hans Sloane, but also to an African man named Graman Kwasi. Kwasi was born in West Africa, enslaved and transported to Suriname in South America. He gained freedom and is credited with discovering the medical properties of the Quassia amara plant, in whose first word Kwasi’s name lives on. Sloane’s Ghanaian and Ivorian slaves did not receive the same credit; this is a vanishingly rare example of a non-European person recognised for their botanical discoveries.

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