A cabinet of curiosities greets visitors to the new rooms. 

Image: James Medcraft

Anning Rooms open to Museum Members

New rooms for Members and Patrons of the Museum have been named in celebration of palaeontologist Mary Anning.

The rooms are in the South Central Towers of the Grade I listed Waterhouse building, accessed via a private door on the second floor of the Museum's central Hintze Hall.

The space has been designed to meet the needs of the Museum's growing number of Members and Patrons. It includes a new restaurant, dining room and study, and boasts spectacular views looking out over Cromwell Road and beyond, to Crystal Palace and the North Downs. 

Visitors can also get a closer look at architect Alfred Waterhouse's 1870s terracotta façade embellished by terracotta animals and plants.

Image: James Medcraf

Christina Heap, Head of Membership at the Museum, says, 'We are delighted to be able to breathe new life back into this neglected, historic space. The beautifully curated suite of rooms will provide an exciting, inspiring and engaging space for Members and Patrons to enjoy, celebrating the Museum's world-class collections, work and activities.

'In line with the Museum's aim of championing women in science, we are proud to have named the rooms in recognition of Mary Anning's vital contribution to early palaeontology and geology.'

Immediately upon entering the rooms, visitors are met with a U-shaped staircase built around a five metre cabinet of curiosities.

The display of over 150 specimens and objects - from ancient stone tools and antique instruments to minerals and insects - reflects the breadth and diversity of specimens housed and studied at the Museum.

This feature was inspired by cabinets of curiosity from the sixteenth century. A precursor to modern museums, these cabinets, or Wunderkammer ('wonder rooms' as they were known), showed off extraordinary objects and specimens collected from around the world. 

The restaurant and dining rooms, which can seat up to 54 diners, celebrate the natural world using imagery from the Museum's vast collections of botanical illustrations, showcasing a variety of fruits, vegetables and grains.

Image: James Medcraft

Carpet tiles in the rooms were supplied by Net-Works, an organisation tackling the growing environmental problem of discarded fishing nets in some of the world's poorest coastal communities by recycling them into carpet. The nets are bought from fishermen in developing countries and baled to turn the plastic into carpet-friendly fibres.

Recycling these nylon fishing nets, which take an average of 600 years to break down, negates the need for new plastic production and prevents them from polluting the oceans and damaging marine wildlife. The process of collecting the nets transforms behaviour in fishing communities and provides a local income.

The botany department in 1934

The history of the rooms

The rooms originally housed the botany department, back when the British Museum's natural history section had been moved to South Kensington to become its own museum in 1881.

The rooms in the South Central Towers bustled with activity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Photographs from the Museum's archives reveal that by 1925 the rooms contained desks and large bookcases, stacked high with research material. There were also collection spaces as well as a mounting room where specimens were prepared for display.

Also housed within the towers was the cryptogamic laboratory, which contained 'a well-equipped laboratory with sterilisers, steam and electric ovens, an ultra-violet lamp, cameras for photomicrography, and facilities for storing the sealed test tubes and encouraging the growth of the contents.'

This photo shows bomb damage to the roof of the botany department. It was sustained at 4.30am on 9 September 1940. Two incendiaries and an oil bomb hit the building.

This area of the Museum sustained a broken roof and shattered windows between 1940 and 1941 during the Blitz.

During renovation works in the following decades, the opportunity was taken to develop the tower rooms with a series of post-war alterations, which included additional storage, partitions and further office and laboratory facilities.

The towers were used as laboratory and office space for more than 100 years before these facilities were moved to other locations in the Museum.

As part of the current transformation, the post-war additions have been removed, offering a modern suite of rooms influenced by the original Victorian Gothic architecture.

Mary Anning

Mary Anning was a pioneering palaeontologist and fossil collector. Born in 1799 in Lyme Regis, Dorset, she spent her life uncovering prehistoric remains along the Jurassic Coast.

Like many women and girls in Lyme Regis at the time, Mary had little formal education. She was able to read, however, and taught herself geology and anatomy. When her father died suddenly, she started selling fossils she found to help pay off her family's debts.

She was 12 when her brother, Joseph, found a fossilised skull, and she spent months painstakingly digging out the rest of the 5.2-metre-long skeleton. People assumed she had found a monster.

This ichthyosaur - her first of several extraordinary discoveries over the course of her life - was unearthed just as George Cuvier's theory of extinction was being introduced to the scientific community, decades before Charles Darwin's theory of evolution.

Mary Anning’s sketch of some belemnites

Portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Tray. Unknown artist, mid 1800s.

By the early 1820s Anning had cultivated a reputation for finding and identifying fossils. People sought her advice on anatomy, classification, fossils and geology. She found, dug out, cleaned, prepared and identified countless specimens, and sold them to men from the field of palaeontology.

These same men would go on to publish the scientific descriptions, taking credit for the specimens she found. As a working-class woman, she was forever on the fringe of the scientific community, rarely acknowledged for her essential contributions to their work.

Today the Museum displays several of Mary Anning's finds, including her ichthyosaur, plesiosaur and pterosaur. Much like they did two centuries ago, her fossils continue to captivate visitors from around the world.