A brief history

The Natural History Museum began with the Government’s acquisition of Sir Hans Sloane’s collections in 1753. These became part of the newly formed British Museum, and later the collections in South Kensington.

Sloane and the British Museum

Sloane amassed a huge number of antiquities, manuscripts, medals, books and paintings as well as anthropological and natural history specimens that were purchased by the Government for the British Museum.

As the British Museum collections grew from other purchases and donations, the 'Department of Natural History and Modern Curiosities' was renamed 'Departments of Natural History' and subdivided into Botany, Geology, Zoology and Mineralogy. 

A new role was created to head these and the first appointee was Richard Owen, a well-known natural scientist who had been curator of the Hunterian Museum of the Royal College of Surgeons of England.

A New Museum

Owen had a clear vision for the natural history collections and this included a dedicated building to ensure adequate storage and display. 

His campaign, which started almost as soon as he was appointed in 1856, was initially opposed by a number of eminent scientists but the Trustees agreed to his proposals in 1860 and the former site of the International Exhibition at South Kensington was purchased in 1863.

Terracotta columns and painted ceiling.

Terracotta columns and painted ceiling in the North Hall of the Museum. Photo by Siorna McFarlane, 2012.

Renowned architect Francis Fowke was commissioned to design the new museum. However in 1865 he died and it fell to little-known designer Alfred Waterhouse to complete the project.

Waterhouse worked closely with Owen and amended the original design to include the terracotta facing and grand staircase. The new building was opened gradually between 1881-1883. Owen retired and his role was replaced by that of a Director in 1884.

The British Museum (Natural History)

The Museum remained part of the British Museum until a 1963 Act of Parliament, which assigned a separate Board of Trustees to each. The Museum was not renamed however until 1992, when it became officially known as the Natural History Museum.

Growth

The Museum continued to expand and in 1937 took over Walter Rothschild’s private Natural History Museum at Tring. 

In 1986, the Museum absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey. The geological galleries were completely rebuilt and relaunched in 1996 as The Earth Galleries, with the other exhibitions in the Waterhouse building retitled The Life Galleries.

By the new millennium the Natural History Museum had outgrown the space and a large extension was built on the back of the South Kensington site to house some of the collections and curators. Known as the 'The Darwin Centre', it opened in two stages in 2002 and 2008.

Museum staff moving Diplodocus carnegii.

Museum staff hauling the torso and legs of Diplodocus (Dippy, now housed in Central Hall) across the east Waterhouse corridor.

For more information on the history of the Museum follow the links on the left hand side, consult our research sources or contact the archives.

Museum telephonist, 1933.
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Chimpanzee skeleton, 1907.
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