Terracotta Tour

Welcome to this online architectural tour of the Natural History Museum, one of the most distinctive buildings in London.

Please note this section is the online terracotta tour. On your next Museum visit you can take your own tour by seeking out the highlights detailed below.

This building owes its existence to the passion and vision of Richard Owen, who took over as superintendent of the Natural History Departments at the British Museum in 1856. Owen was unhappy with the cramped storage conditions for the ever-growing collection of natural history specimens, and began a campaign for a separate building that would house this national treasure. Helping him to realise this project was an up-and-coming young architect, Alfred Waterhouse.

When this extraordinary building opened in 1881, it was hailed as ‘a true temple of nature’ and ‘the animal’s Westminster Abbey’.

This tour tells you about the Museum’s creation and highlights some of the details that are often overlooked.

Books and gifts
If you’re interested in knowing more about the design of the Natural History Museum, related books and gifts are available in the Museum Shop.

  • View of the Central Hall.
    Cathedral of Nature

    Find out why the Central Hall is testament to the vision of the Museum's founder, Richard Owen.

  • Early plan of the layout of the Museum by Richard Owen.
    Design

    Finalising the design for the building was a long process. Discover what inspired and influenced Waterhouse along the way.

  • A stunning arch decorated with birds.
    Central Hall arches

    Take a look at Waterhouse's stunning Central Hall arches featuring terracotta ornamental examples of the Museum's collection.

  • Terracotta ornament on the stairs of the Central Hall.
    Terracotta ornaments

    Waterhouse's plan to clad the entire building in terracotta was pioneering and a world first. See how terracotta ornaments are sculpted and used in the Museum.

  • Ceiling panels in the North Hall.
    North Hall

    Explore the statues, stained glass windows and intricately painted ceiling panels in the North Hall.

  • Terracotta columns
    Column designs

    Some columns in the Museum exhibit patterns similar to those found on fossil trees. Watch video and read more about the inspiration behind Waterhouse's columns and ornaments.

  • Around the balconies.
    Around the balconies

    Learn about the magnificent 'flying staircase' and what influenced the ceiling design of the balcony.

  • View inside the Museum's Minerals Gallery.
    Minerals Gallery

    Explore the Minerals Gallery with its columns and ornaments. Of all the Museum's galleries, this one most faithfully retains Waterhouse's original vision.

  • The Dodo
    The Dodo

    Many images of the Dodo are not very accurate, including Waterhouse's terracotta ornament. Take a look at his dodo and watch a video that explains the issues.

  • One of the Waterhosue building vents.
    Functional design

    Waterhouse made artistic features out of even the most basic practical fittings. Discover more about these functional yet innovative structures, and go behind the scenes of the Museum's Herbarium.

  • Iron arches in the Museum's Central Hall.
    Ceiling arches

    Five iron arches span the Central Hall, each an integral part of the building's framework. Listen to Museum botanist Sandy Knapp talk about the significance of the plants on the ceiling panels in this video.

  • Early visitors in the Museum's galleries.
    Open to all

    Find out about the ambition to make the Museum accessible to a wide audience, and how this affected its design.

  • Extinct giant ground sloth.
    Extinct giants

    Owen's desire to display large specimens dictated the scale of the museum. Take a look at some of the Museum's terracotta highlights.

  • The exterior of the Museum.
    The view from outside

    Take a look at the Museum from the outside. For Waterhouse, the surrounding landscape was just as important as the building itself.

The Natural History Museum from Cromwell Road, 1880.
History of the Museum

Trace the evolution of the Natural History Museum, from Hans Sloane's collections at the British Museum to cutting-edge research taking place today.

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