History and architecture

The Natural History Museum opened on 18 April 1881

Portrait of Richard Owen

The origins of the Natural History Museum go back to 1753, when Sir Hans Sloane left his extensive collection of curiosities to the nation. Originally this was housed in the newly-formed British Museum but by 1860 Sir Richard Owen (right), who was in charge of the natural history collection, had persuaded the Government that a new building was needed.

The chosen site in South Kensington was previously occupied by the 1862 International Exhibition building, once described as ‘one of the ugliest buildings ever raised in England’. Ironically, its architect, Captain Francis Fowke, won the competition to design the new Natural History Museum.

However, in 1865 Fowke died suddenly, and a relatively unknown young architect was brought in to complete the project. Alfred Waterhouse created a new design, changing the style from Renaissance to German Romanesque. The beautiful Waterhouse Building opened to the public on 18 April 1881.

  • Waterhouse building
    Waterhouse building

    The entrance to this world-famous London landmark was inspired by basalt columns in western Scotland. Its architectural style is Romanesque.

  • Terracotta in Hintze Hall, formerly the Central Hall.
    Terracotta Tour

    Once described as a 'true temple of nature', the Natural History Museum is one of the most distinctive buildings in London. Discover more about its architecture in this online multimedia tour.

  • Ceiling panels
    Ceiling panels

    Explore the fascinating histories of the exotic species and British flora depicted on the Waterhouse building ceiling panels.

  • Geological Museum building entrance.
    Geological Museum

    The Geological Museum - now the Red Zone - once housed part of the Geological Survey. It merged with the Natural History Museum in 1985.

  • The Darwin Centre's lower ground floor
    Darwin Centre architecture

    The state-of-the-art Darwin Centre took around 25 months and 280 people to build. Find out more about this ambitious project and take a walk through the building's spectacular atrium while marvelling at the gigantic cocoon inside its glass box.

  • Specimens in the Museum's collection
    Our collections

    From microscopic slides to mammoth skeletons, the Museum is home to the largest and most important natural history collection in the world.

  • Exhibit case explaining the role of insects in spreading disease, 1927.
    Museum Archives

    The Museum Archives look after the official records of the Natural History Museum, a unique resource documenting our collections, collectors, staff and iconic buildings.

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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