7 Secrets Of The Natural History Museum

Laura Reynolds
By Laura Reynolds Last edited 12 months ago
7 Secrets Of The Natural History Museum
The Earth Hall opened as a result of the NHM acquiring the Geological Museum's collection in 1986. The Earth escalator was designed to encourage visitors to go to the often-overlooked upper floors. Photo: joephoto uk

1. It used to be part of the British Museum

Actually, it was the founding collection of the British Museum. In 1753, following the death of doctor and explorer Hans Sloane (who gave his name to Chelsea's Sloane Square), the government bought his collection of 71,000 specimens. The British Museum's first home, Montagu House in Bloomsbury, housed this collection and displayed it to the public.

It was only when scientist Richard Owen took over caring for the British Museum’s natural history collection in 1856 that the idea of having a separate building for the objects was raised.

The museum remained part of the British Museum until 1963, when its own separate board of trustees was appointed, but was still known as the British Museum of Natural History until 1992. In 1986, the museum absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey.

2. It should have looked like the Royal Albert Hall

The central entrance which lines up with the rest of Albertopolis. Photo: Joyce Dela Paz

When it was agreed that natural history specimens deserved their own building in 1864, a competition took place to find an architect to design it. Francis Fowke, who was already responsible for the Royal Albert Hall and parts of the V&A, won, and submitted his designs.

However, he died a year later, and the project was passed on to Alfred Waterhouse, who significantly changed Fowke's plans, coming up with his own ideas for the building. It may have been just as well — Fowke had also designed the building which housed the International Exhibition of 1862 and it wasn't all that popular.

3. Albertopolis

The central entrance of the museum on Cromwell Road lines up perfectly with the tower on the Imperial College campus, the Royal Albert Hall and the Albert Memorial in Hyde Park. The area is collectively nicknamed Albertopolis.

'Albertopolis' from the air. Photo: Andreas Praefcke

However, the institutions are in different boroughs; the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum are in the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea, but Imperial College and the Royal Albert Hall are in the City of Westminster. The boundary is on Imperial College Road.

4. East vs West

The ornate nature of the museum isn't random. When the building was built, the sculptures and representations were of living species in the west wing, and extinct species in the east wing. It's thought that Richard Owen planned this as a rebuttal of Darwin's contemporary attempt to link present and past species.

5. How many monkeys?

Photo: John Willoughby

Three of the arches of the Central Hall are adorned with 78 monkeys like the one above. They were part of Waterhouse's designs for the museum. He was keen on accuracy, and checked his initial sketches with the museum's scientific staff before allowing the carving and moulding to take place.

6. Look up

As buildings go, it's one of London's more impressive offerings. It's hard to know where to look in the marvellous Hintze Hall, but make sure you look up. The ceiling is covered with 162 individual panels depicting plants from all over the world. You can get a closer look here.

A closer look at some of the elaborate ceiling tiles in the Hintze Hall. Photo: Never House

7. Just when you think you know everything...

We take our hats off to the museum's excellent scientists. Not only do they know more than we could ever hope to know about the natural world, but they are still doing research and uncovering new things.

In 2008, a species of insect not seen in the UK before was found in the museum's own Wildlife Garden, and in December 2016, scientists discovered three new species of parasite wasp. Keep an eye on this page for further updates from the museum's research teams.

Last Updated 23 December 2016