The history of the Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum opened in 1881, but its history actually goes back to the eighteenth century, thanks to Sir Hans Sloane, a wealthy physician (whose fortune came partly from links with the slave trade). His income enabled him to travel, and to indulge his passion for natural history, and for collecting in general.

After his death in 1853, his collection was purchased for the nation, and held at the British Museum. Its first curator, Sir Richard Owen (the scientist who named dinosaurs), argued that more space was needed for the many artefacts, and he pressed for new premises in London’s South Kensington.

The appointed architect, Francis Fowke, designer of the Royal Albert Hall and part of the V&A, died soon afterwards, and he was succeeded by the little-known Alfred Waterhouse, with an inspired alternative choice of design.

Waterhouse felt sure that terracotta was the best material to withstand London’s polluted atmosphere, and he was proved right. The warm and welcoming building is now admired as an attractive example of the Romanesque style, with its long hall being the perfect home for a Diplodocus skeleton. Resident from the 1970s to 2016, and nicknamed Dippy, the reconstructed dinosaur has been touring the UK since then, gaining new fans everywhere, while a large blue whale skeleton has taken his place at the museum.

Richard Owen believed that museums should be accessible to ordinary people – not always the case in Victorian times – so he insisted on free entry, and the museum has always stayed popular with visitors, particularly children. Families can have fun with interactive exhibits, find answers to all their questions, and follow the development of life on earth from its very beginnings. More learning opportunities are arising as the museum continues to expand, acquiring the next-door Geological Museum in 1986, and the Darwin Centre in 2006.

If you are staying at the Royal Lancaster Hotel Hyde Park this is a visit you can’t miss.

By Diliff – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

By jhlau — a.canvas.of.light –, CC BY 2.0,


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