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Anniversary of Museum designer Alfred Waterhouse

26 August 2005

The Natural History Museum celebrates the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Waterhouse, the designer of the museum building.

From a budget of only £330,000, Waterhouse designed a building full of eclectic style, taking inspiration from sources such as gothic revival and twelfth-century Romanesque-style churches he had seen in Germany.

Natural History Museum Waterhouse building

Natural History Museum Waterhouse building

Waterhouse produced 202 sketches for the terracotta ornaments that appear around the building. Original plans, and a recently acquired album of sketches, reveal that a man known to us only as Monsieur Dujardin was responsible for turning these detailed sketches into hundreds of ornaments.

The terracotta models of different species cover the building of the Natural History Museum - the species are extinct in the east wing and living in the west. However, one of the animals, featured in a terracotta column on the East side of the Museum and thought to have been extinct has been rediscovered. A coelacanth, was found in 1938 swimming off the coast of South Africa, 80 million years after its presumed extinction.

Decorative tiles inside the Waterhouse building

Decorative tiles inside the Waterhouse building

When the building opened in 1881, it received a mixed response: The Times dubbed it '...a true Temple of Nature, showing, as it should, the Beauty of Holiness...' (18 April 1881), whereas The Field (28 April, 1881) stated that it is: '...ornamented - if so it may be termed - both externally and internally with incorrect and grotesque representations of animals.'

Sculpture on the outside of Waterhouse building

Sculpture on the outside of Waterhouse building

Waterhouse's system for heating the galleries is still used today, doing away with the need for radiators. It is innovative even now and engineers are developing similar systems for new environmentally friendly buildings.

Launching this week are the Museum's new Architecture Multimedia Tours where you can discover more about Alfred Waterhouse.