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Natural History Museum

UK’s Top 20 Historic Listed Buildings: The Museum of Natural History (London)

Building History – The Natural History Museum is located in central London and is another fine example of a Grade 1 listed building and is considered to be one of the great Victorian museums of the 19th century. Although the museum itself did not open it’s doors to the public until 1881, it has a history which now spans in excess of 250 years. As per usual with any growing collection of specimens, the original site soon become too small and petitions were made to the government of the day to help acquire a new, more fitting site on which to construct a permanent building. The chosen location was South Kensington and the site previously housed the International Exhibition of 1862, a building which had attained the honour of the ugliest building in London. This being the case, it was strange then that the architect of this former carbuncle, a Captain Francis Fowke, was chosen to build the new structure, in fact he actually won the competition designed to find a new improved design. The curator at the time was Sir Richard Owen and it is thought that he had a heavy influence in the design work and perhaps it was thought that with his obvious influence, a building could be constructed utilising the skills of Fowke who had detailed knowledge of the site. As fate would have it, Fowke died suddenly and instead the contract was awarded to a young architect, Alfred Waterhouse from Manchester who proceeded to make some alterations to Fowkes design work.

Waterhouse decided to alter the design from Renaissance to German Romanesque thus creating the visually stunning “Waterhouse” building that is still present today. Many consider the Waterhouse building to be a work of art and it is known the world over, many visitors come to study this Grade 1 listed building and almost study the exhibits as an after thought. Waterhouse admitted that the rounded arches and grand entrance were inspired by basalt columns that he had seen at Fingal’s Cave in Western Scotland. Inside, the building is cavernous with a wonderful feeling of space, unlike many museums, there is plenty of floor area available and exhibits do not feel squeezed in.

When you first arrive at the building, the first thing you notice is the huge façade and high, spired towers. One might be forgiven for thinking that this building was a cathedral not a museum. The building integrates the romantic and the practical using a symmetrical plan, the central entrance which leads to a cathedral like hall and incorporates two very grand stair cases that lead to the other galleries.

Outside the building stretches some 680 feet in length and it is constructed with a bilateral symmetrical plan designed around it’s grand historic building entrance, at the sides are located two three story wings with side lit galleries with tower pavilions at each end. Internal courtyards separate top lit back galleries, which are parallel to the central cathedral gallery. The building was constructed with a structural iron framework of columns and beams, supporting concrete vaults covered by plasterwork ceilings with iron or glass roofs.

The top lit galleries below the iron and glass roofs were constructed on the same principle as the Victorian railway stations allowing light and ventilation to enter the building. The structure is faced with Terracotta, which was pretty much a first at the time, this material is inexpensive, durable and highly decorative and was easy to clean, a fact that was quite important in grey smoggy Victorian times.

This washable surface is still much appreciated today, this fine grade one listed building is still under attack from modern pollutants and hopefully on going renovation will enable it to be enjoyed for many years to come.

This article was written by Assetsure- a provider of Listed Building Insurance.

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