The Natural History Museum was voted London's best free attraction last yearDavid Attenborough summed up his impressions of the Natural History Museum for a six-part television series that starts this week: “The front door is pretty impressive stuff. You’re into something special.”
He’s right. If the three million visitors who pour through that threshold each year stop to look, they’ll see it framed by a bundle of tree trunks, reproduced in terracotta. Step back and the doorway appears as a weird take on a medieval arch, as the architect intended.
Inside, the visitor flips between a double vision: hundreds of animals, living and extinct, depicted in terracotta; and gigantic architecture framing a cathedral of natural history. This Museum of Life (as the BBC series is called) houses 70 million specimens.
“Beyond the public displays is really where the museum begins,” says series presenter Jimmy Doherty. Is that true? History suggests not. Its opening in 1881 fulfilled a life’s ambition for its founder, the palaeontologist Richard Owen: a museum with free entry for all, introducing the whole of the animal and plant kingdoms. And the building that tourists know today still expresses its original message.
From the outset it provoked fierce controversy. “A serious mistake has been made in the erection of a building with such elaborate and ornate internal decorations for museum purposes,” commented the journal Nature in 1881. The Field claimed that it was “ornamented – if so it may be termed – both externally and internally with incorrect and grotesque representations of animals”.
Yet it nearly failed to be built at all. When Richard Owen became superintendent of the natural history department of the British Museum in 1856, a jumble of items was crammed into old buildings in Bloomsbury: a stuffed bison, a marine iguana from Darwin’s voyage of the Beagle and a 17th-century “vegetable lamb from Tartary”.
The Natural History collection needed space, lots of it. What it nearly got was a second-hand monstrosity, for in 1862 “one of the ugliest public buildings that was ever raised in this country”, as The Builder called it, became vacant. It was a leviathan stretching 1,152 feet along Cromwell Road, on the site where the museum now stands.
This overpowering building housed the International Exhibition of 1862. Everyone knows about the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Crystal Palace. Its successor is as unknown, as no doubt the Millennium Dome will be in 150 years.
It was the fevered brainchild of one of those overheated Victorians who died young: Francis Fowke. This Captain in the Royal Engineers, aged 31, helped mount the Paris Universal Exhibition of 1855. He got to know Prince Albert, and just as importantly Henry Cole, the abrasive dynamo behind the founding of the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Fowke, with no architectural qualifications, got the big job for the 1862 exhibition because of his connections. The building went up at a dizzy speed. Its main feature was the biggest dome in the world, made of glass. Then Fowke decided to make it two domes. Their polyhedral shape looked lopsided, an enemy calling them “tumid bubbles, with a green and half–transparent tint of gooseberry”.
Such jibes might have convinced history that Fowke’s design was utterly despicable, had it not been for remarkable contemporary photographs by William England, of the huge space stuffed with exhibits and visitors.
Six million saw the show. Among them was Dostoevsky, who wrote that “a feeling of fear somehow creeps over you. It is a Biblical sight, something to do with Babylon, some prophecy out of the Apocalypse.”
Once it closed, this most elephantine of white elephants was earmarked as a home for Owen’s new Natural History Museum. But the government, having secured the site, failed to persuade Parliament to buy the building, too. Most of the materials were carted off to become part of Alexandra Palace. The stubborn remains were blown up with dynamite by Sapper friends of Fowke’s.
This farrago of waste and cultured disapproval reached a low when Fowke won a competition in 1864 to design a new building on the site for the Natural History Museum. Obligingly, from the viewpoint of history, he died of a burst blood vessel just before Christmas.
Enter Alfred Waterhouse. Still in his mid-thirties, he had recently secured the commission to build Strangeways Prison in Manchester. In changing Fowke’s plans he had to overcome opposition from Henry Cole and Queen Victoria herself. Richard Owen proved an ally of vision.
The wide, lofty central space – in which Museum of Life shows children open-mouthed at the 83ft dinosaur diplodocus – was intended by Owen as an “Index Museum”, introducing visitors to all categories of life from fleas to a stuffed whale.
Waterhouse, boldly dropping Fowke’s renaissance style, declared that south German Romanesque was better suited to the kind of ornamentation with “objects of natural history” that Owen wanted. No medieval cathedral ever looked like Waterhouse’s creation.
The whole thing is covered with fantastic terracotta animals and plants: extinct in the east wing; extant in the west. A gargoyle of a hoofed mammal, the Great Paleotherium, sits on the roofline. Flying fish play on the lightning conductors and dragonflies alight on the air vents. On the arches of the Central Hall climb 78 monkeys, all to Waterhouse’s design. More than 300 such sculptures were made from his drawings between 1875 and 1878.
Terracotta, which lent itself to mass production, was a hot potato at a time when a dominant authority in aesthetics was John Ruskin. He insisted on craftsmanship as a key to beauty and social responsibility. At Oxford, the recently completed University Museum of Natural History boasted stone ornamentation carved in situ by two Irish sculptors, John and James O’Shea. They cut animals on columns to their own fancy, even caricaturing university officials.
In his use of terracotta, Waterhouse managed to win approval of the Ruskinians while embodying the latest scientific discoveries. As a decorative skin, terracotta was to the Victorians what marble was to medieval Venetians. Before being baked it could be moulded by a craftsman to reproduce “the exact work of the artist”. Waterhouse first checked his sketches with a professor on the museum staff, then relied for the clay modelling on a certain Monsieur Dujardin. Not much is known about him, but Ruskin himself is thought to have praised the “charming details” he added to the moulding that visitors see today.
Common themes remain. Museum of Life shows current research in Mauritius into a cache of 7,500 bones of extinct giant tortoises and dodos. The dodo features prominently among Waterhouse’s panels. It looks for all the world like an illustration by Tenniel for Alice in Wonderland, and with good reason. Both Tenniel and Waterhouse drew the bird from a 17th-century depiction painted by Jan Savery before its extinction.
If the opening of the museum was the apotheosis of Waterhouse’s patron Richard Owen, Museum of Life shows Owen’s vision in retreat. Gone is his Index Museum. The BBC cameras show a statue of Darwin, whose theory of evolution Owen bitterly opposed, being hoisted into position on the grand flying staircase where his own effigy once stood.
- Museum of Life starts on BBC Two at 8.00pm on Thursday