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The Natural History Museum's real treasure? The building itself

A blue whale skeleton hangs in the Natural History Museum
A blue whale skeleton hangs in the Natural History Museum Credit: Getty Images

Distracted by the Natural History Museum’s remarkable contents, it is easy to overlook the magnificence of its architecture; but it is one of Britain’s finest Victorian buildings. It grew out of the natural history department of the British Museum, which by the 1850s was bursting at the seams; this coincided with the movement, inspired by the Prince Consort in the aftermath of the Great Exhibition of 1851 (and using its profits), to devote South Kensington to the arts and sciences. The Natural History Museum would be a central part of what is now known as Albertopolis, along with the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Science Museum, the Albert Hall, the Royal Colleges of Music and of Organists, and Imperial College.

A competition to design it was won by Captain Francis Fowke, who was not an architect but a civil engineer. He had form, in that he had designed the Albert Hall. He saw neither building completed: one day, with remarkable presence of mind, he suddenly stood up in his office and announced: “This is the end!” He then dropped dead, at the age of 42. The Albert Hall is smaller than Fowke had intended, but he would have recognised it. The same cannot be said for the Natural History Museum. In 1868, three years after Fowke’s death, the trustees invited Alfred Waterhouse to take over, and he revised it greatly.

Waterhouse was born in 1830 into a prosperous Liverpool milling family, and started an architectural practice in Manchester in 1854. He built extensively in the North, specialising in grand country houses, but his greatest building there is Manchester Town Hall. His reputation spread and in 1865 he was invited to compete to design the Law Courts, but did not win. However, he built parts of several Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and the Cambridge Union Society.

Waterhouse had picked up from Europe a love of the Romanesque, and he revised Fowke’s design for the Natural History Museum extensively to accommodate that passion. He faced the building with terracotta tiles, many decorated with flora and fauna that allude to the collection within. The idea of the tiles – which had in fact been Fowke’s – was that they would weather better in a highly polluted London, where millions of tons of coal were burned each year, and not, like stone, simply go black within a few years. Work began in 1872, and although parts of the museum opened in 1881, it was only finished in 1883.

Waterhouse’s plans, scaled back to keep down costs, were even more ambitious than the great monument we see today. It is a classic example of the Victorians building on a vast scale in order to leave the imprint of their self-confidence on their capital city. Its twin entrance towers, a shade under 200ft high, give it a cathedral-like aspect, which was undoubtedly intentional – even though Mr Darwin’s recent discoveries were driving the proverbial coach and horses through conventional religion.

Many Victorian buildings ramble; the museum is symmetrical, has great unity, and its vast interiors evoke an order and sense of light rare in great works of the era. Waterhouse would go on to build other London landmarks: notably the National Liberal Club and the massive Prudential Building in Holborn – but nothing he later did had the charm, the stature or the visual power of the Natural History Museum.