7 Facts About the Natural History Museum Building

Our THATMuse Dinosaur and Extinct beasts Treasure Hunt focus on the incredible treasures inside the Natural History Museum’s 80 million strong collection, but this blog contains 7 fascinating facts about the natural history museum building itself.  

1. Founder Richard Owen invented the word Dinosaur

Sir Richard Owen was a world-famous naturalist and the man who created the term ‘dinosaur’. He took three unusual fossils and realised they were all of a kind: Megalosauraus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. When put in charge of Britain’s natural history collection he decided they needed a new home outside the British Museum. He set out to purpose build the perfect building to house the wonders of the natural world.  

2. It was built from terracotta so it wouldn’t be stained by the Victorian smog. 

Eventually Alfred Waterhouse, a relatively unknown young architect from Liverpool was given the job and he set out plans for a ‘Cathedral to Nature’ as it would soon be nicknamed. Waterhouse used terracotta to decorate the building as it was quicker and cheaper to carve, and it would be less affected by Victorian London’s sooty, smoky atmosphere. Others were being stained black by the smog! 

3. Every surface in Hintze hall is crawling with life! 

Under Owen’s guidance Waterhouse created a huge central space in the style of a cathedral, now named Hintze Hall.  This space was deliberately big enough to house the biggest pieces in the collection, from diplodocuses to blue whales!  Almost every surface in Hintze hall is adorned with scenes from the natural world. Monkeys climb the arches. Woodland critters cuddle the corner columns. The ceiling is decorated with real plants and their scientific names, from beautiful flowers to cocoa and tea. 

4. The outside is covered in gargoyles, from lions to pterodactyls.  

Even the outside of the building is decorated! Terracotta gargoyles loom off the façade. On the East wing, next to exhibition road and the V&A Museum you can see Pterodactyls and saber-toothed tigers perched outside windows and roaring from the rooftop. On the West wing nearer the museum’s wildlife garden you can instead see wolves, lions and kangaroos watching over the London streets. 

5. It was designed to disagree with Darwin 

It was by Owen’s decree the east wing is decorated entirely with extinct creatures, and the west entirely with living species. The museum was built as Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection was gaining prominence and revealing the connections extinct species have to our modern ones. Owen however disproved of Darwin’s removal of God as the true creator of our living species. He agreed with the science, he could see the evidence of species evolving but believed it all began with God. So he build a huge cathedral in between the living and the extinct wings to show gods role at the heart of the natural world.  

6. Some animals are now on the wrong side of the building 

There have been many changes to the environment of our world over the last 150 years. So there are now two animals on the wrong sides of the building. The passenger pigeon used to fly over North America in flocks of millions. But thanks to human expansion by 1914 there was just one left, called Martha in San Diego Zoo. Carved into the living side, it should now be with the pterodactyls and other extinct animals. The opposite is true of the coelacanth. A fish thought extinct for 66 million years until in 1938 a fisherman caught one off the coast of South Africa! This is known as a Lazarus Taxon: species that have risen from the dead.  

7. A giant cocoon houses the new Darwin Centre 

The newest part of the building is the Darwin Centre. Comprising several buildings, the most interesting is the Cocoon containing the UK Diodiversity lab. It is also home to the Entomology department studying the museum’s bugs. 28 million specimens had to be carefully moved from the old building to the new. There is also the Zoology Spirit collection which has 22 million animal specimens preserved in jars of alcoholic spirit. The biggest is a 9m long Giant Squid! 

If you enjoyed these facts about the Natural History Museum, book a Dinosaur and Extinct Beasts treasure hunt and go exploring with family or friends! 

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