Museum of Natural History
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Architect Alfred Waterhouse
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Location London, England   map
Date 1860 to 1880   timeline
Building Type museum
 Construction System iron frame, concrete vaults, terra cotta cladding
Climate mild temperate
Context urban
Style Victorian German Romanesque, Romanesque Revival
Notes Romanesque symmetrical facade.


Photo, exterior overview of main entry

Photo, wing elevation facade bays

Photo, exterior close view of main entry


Plan Drawing

Section Drawing


More drawings available on The GBC CD-ROM.   Contributions appreciated.

Discussion Museum of Natural History Commentary

One of the grand Victorian museums of the 19th century, Alfred Waterhouse's Museum of Natural History had roots in designs by Sir Richard Owen, the museum's creator, and an 1864 competition won by Francis Fowke. The building integrates the romantic and the practical in an eclectic whole: German Romanesque stylistic use of dramatic arches and towers, decorated with a rich sculptural program of terra cotta, and a practical use of structural iron and contemporary mechanical systems.

The building has a bilaterally symmetrical plan around a central entrance which leads to a cathedral-like hall with grand staircase to second floor galleries. The street facade marches 680 feet along a Kensington street. Two three story wings of side-lit galleries with tower pavilions at their ends flank a slightly projecting central entrance with two towers around a recessed arched portal. Behind this layer, internal courtyards separate top-lit back galleries, which are parallel to the central cathedral gallery and perpendicular to the facade. The facade's towers and those in the back which house stairs and mechanical shafts give the simple rectangular massing a romantic and punctuated skyline.

The building has a structural iron framework of columns and beams, supporting concrete vaults masked by plasterwork ceilings or iron and glass roofs. Fawn and blue-grey colored terra cotta both faces and ornaments the building. Inexpensive and durable, terra cotta was both resistant to acids and washable, ideal for use in facing buildings in dirty Victorian cities. At the same time, the ability to mold it allowed great artistic expression in making a rich sculptural program of ornament of zoological (living) and geological (extinct) flora and fauna of the natural world.

Top lit galleries have iron and glass roofs in the tradition of Victorian train buildings with daylighting admitted from the lower roof slopes. Water, ventilation systems and fire protection systems are integrated with the building massing (in tower elements) and the ornamental systems (plaster fireproofing and terra cotta forms). — JY

"The opportunity to ornament the Natural History Museum with designs derived from plants and animals was irresistable. The museum director provided specimens and Waterhouse developed designs for the terra-cotta ornaments, using living material as models for the embellishment of the walls surrounding the zoological exhibits on the west side of the building and extinct models for the geological section on the east side."

— Cecil D. Elliott. Technics and Architecture p 59.

The Creator's Words

. . . "hoped that the Gothic revival would be more than a mere revival -- that it would turn from a revival into a growth."

Alfred Waterhouse quoted in Mark Girouard, Alfred Waterhouse and the Natural History Museum, p. 34.

. . . "wherever I thought that the particular objects in view could not be best obtained by a strict obedience to precedent, I took the liberty of departing from it."

Alfred Waterhouse, Ibid., p. 35.

. . . "to clothe over practical necessities with such beauty as they were capable of receiving."

Alfred Waterhouse, Ibid., p. 36.


First major terra-cotta clad building (Technics and Architecture p58-59).

Sources on Museum of Natural History

"Alfred Waterhouse's Terracotta Menagerie", by Colin Cunningham, ArchitectureWeek No. 161, 2003.0903, pC1.1.

Cecil D. Elliott. Technics and Architecture : the development of materials and systems for buildings. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1992. TH18.E45 1992. LC 91-28298. ISBN 0262050455. — A fascinating and illuminating history of the technical side of architecture. Available at

Mark Girouard. Alfred Waterhouse and the Natural History Museum. London: British Museum (Natural History), 1981. ISBN 0-565-00831-5. interior photo of main hall, p39. interior photo of gallery, p60. exterior aerial photo, p46. exterior elevation photo of window details, p19. exterior photo from street, p2. plan drawing, p47. section drawing, p47.

Alene Stickles, University of Oregon. Slide from photographer's collection, June 1993. PCD.2365.1012.0634.002, Main entry. PCD.2365.1012.0634.003, Wing elevation detail. PCD.2365.1012.0634.001, Main entry.

Kevin Matthews. The Great Buildings Collection on CD-ROM. Artifice, 2001. ISBN 0-9667098-4-5.— Available at  Find books about Museum of Natural History


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