Horrors in the Mist
Natural History Museum
THE NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM, SOUTH KENSINGTON.
A high place among the fine public buildings in South Kensington must be given to the Natural History Museum, which faces Cromwell Road. Mr. Waterhouse R.A., was the architect, and the erection occupied the years 1873-80. The structure is Romanesque in style, and the terra-cotta façade is, with good reason, greatly admired. The Museum is 675 ft. in length, and the towers which rise from the wings are 192 ft. high. Hither were brought the Natural History collections of the British Museum, in order to relieve in some measure the congested condition of the national institution in Bloomsbury. The museum officially opened in 1881 although the move from the old museum was not fully completed until 1883.
Considering the popularity of such collections, it is not surprising that the annual number of visitors to the Natural History Museum should be over 400,000.
The history of the Natural History Museum and its collection has been a troubled one. In the previous century and in the first half of the current one, a long and somewhat shameful list of incompetent or uncaring curators has almost destroyed completely the invaluable collection. Many of these faults were corrected by Richard Owen, appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum in 1856. His changes led Bill Bryson to write that “by making the Natural History Museum an institution for everyone, Owen transformed our expectations of what museums are for”.
Owen saw that the natural history departments needed more space, and that implied a separate building as the British Museum site was limited. Land in South Kensington was purchased, and in 1864 a competition was held to design the new museum. Work began under the direct supervision of Mr Alfred Waterhouse in 1873 and the new building was completed in 1880.
Since then, the scientifically-oriented minds of the Royal, Linnean and Zoological Societies as well as naturalists including Darwin, Wallace and Huxley, have been asking that the museum gain independence from the board of the British Museum, and heated discussions on the matter continues to fuel enmities between the humanists and scientific departments of the British Museum.
The Natural History Museum hosts a series of remarkable collections. The ZOOLOGICAL COLLECTIONS comprise, in large part, the specimens brought together by Sir Hans Sloane, mammals, &c.; Colonel Montagu, ornithology; Hardwicke, Indian animals; Hodgson, mammals and birds; Yarrell, fishes; Ross and Be1cher, antarctic specimens; Stephens, entomology, 88,000 specimens; Bowring, entomology; Reeves, vertebrate animals from China; Clark, coleoptera; Hugh Cuming, shells, the largest collection ever formed, acquired in 1866; A. R. Wallace, birds; Dr. Bowerbank, sponges; and the specimens collected during the Transit of Venus Expedition (1875), and the recent Arctic exploration. The GEOLOGICAL DEPARTMENT comprises fossil plants, fishes, reptiles (South African, &c.), saurians, wingless birds, gigantic eggs, sponges, corals, shells, insects, the mammoth, megatherium, pigmy elephant, human remains, principally formed from the collections of Dr. Solander, Hawkins, Mantell, Dr. Croizet, Bain, &c., and extensive purchases. The MINERAL DEPARTMENT includes a splendid collection of meteorites, aerolites, siderolites, portions of other planets, and aerial formations; the Melbourne meteorite, three and a half tons ; the collections of Greville, Greg, Kokscharoff, &c. a well-arranged series of minerals, including diamonds, gold nuggets, crystals, and gems of every variety and degree of purity and splendour. In the BOTANICAL DEPARTMENT are flowerless plants, fungi, sea-weeds, lichens, mosses, ferns, flowering plants, grasses and sedges, palms, cycads, conifers, parasitical plants, fruits and stems, fossil plants, polished sections of woods, cones, &c., from the herbaria of Sir Hans Sloane, 1753, Sir Joseph Banks, 1827, Robert Brown, Rev. R. Blight, and others.
The collection is accessible to the public and single specimen can be examined by formal request to the curator of the relative collection or to the Superintendent himself.
The nobel mission of the museum is to promote novel, and sometime controversial, scientific ideas to a wider public therefore it is also proud to host many lectures by distinguished members of the scientific community.
(thanks to Wikipedia and to Lee Jackson for parts of the text)