A black and white pencil sketch showing the Museum facade and informal gardens in the foreground.

An early sketch of the planned Museum and its grounds by architect Alfred Waterhouse, published on 4 January 1873 in The Building magazine

A history of the Museum grounds and Wildlife Garden

Take a stroll through the gardens of the past.

The Natural History Museum first opened its doors on 18 April 1881, providing a permanent home for the ever-growing collection of natural history specimens originally housed in the British Museum.

Richard Owen, the first superintendent, envisaged a cathedral to nature that anyone could visit for free. He worked with young architect Alfred Waterhouse to create one of the most iconic buildings in London.

Originally the Museum gardens were an area set aside for future expansion of the building. There was no intention to open them to the public. However, a lack of money resulted in a smaller building than planned and a need to landscape the gardens.

The east and west outdoor spaces started as formal gardens, but the addition of winding paths on the west side (now home to the Wildlife Garden) gave it a more natural feel.

Through the years the two sides of the garden continued to develop independently. 

A black and white map showing Royal Horticultural Society land

An Ordnance Survey map from 1871 shows the extent of Royal Horticultural Society land before the Museum was built

 

1871

A large landscaped garden existed in South Kensington before the Natural History Museum was built. The garden was opened in the 1860s and maintained by the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS).

1873

A drawing of the proposed Museum by Alfred Waterhouse (shown at the top of this page) reveals that early designs for the garden were informal, with bushes and trees in clumps.

Work began on the new building in the spring of 1873. Landscaping went on hold for several years while the Museum was built, but by 1879 it had become practical to start work on the garden.

1878

Myles Fenton, the General Manager of the Metropolitan Railway, wrote to the Trustees of the Museum asking if they had any objection to the construction of a pedestrian subway which would pass under Exhibition Road. None did and the Railway pressed ahead with the project. The tunnel was largely completed by 1885.

A plan from early 1879 shows a garden layout following the lines of the building, with two large ponds and ornamental trees

 

1879

The image above shows a sketch of the Museum grounds by Waterhouse. Two large ponds or fountains were proposed, flanking the building. Waterhouse also suggested providing additional structure using plane trees, Lombardy poplars, ground ivy and thorn bushes.

However, Commissioner of Works Gerard Noel did not approve Waterhouse's proposed fountains and ruled that they should be replaced by flower beds instead.

A drawing from September 1879 of new plans for the Museum garden

 

A new proposal for the garden was produced in September 1879 by the superintendent of St James, the Green, Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens. It shows 16 different types of trees, two varieties of ivy and beds of evergreen and flowering shrubs.

However, only limited planting was practical. Low maintenance and permanent alternatives, like the ornamental railings designed in 1885, were considered a better investment.

A black and white photograph of the Museum exterior

A photograph of the Museum taken in 1900, 19 years after it opened. Image: RIBA

 

1881

The Natural History Museum opened to the public on 18 April. A sense of how it looked upon opening can be gleaned from the photo above, which was taken in 1900.

A dark sketch showing paths through the grounds

This drawing from 1883 shows that none of the previous plans for the Museum gardens were realised except for the layout of the paths

1883

This plan of the garden was produced after the Museum opened and shows that only the layout of the paths was achieved from previous plans.

A drawing of the Museum's Cromwell Road entrance from August 1891, when a plan was put together to install ramps for greater access

 

1891

In 1891 a plan was drawn up to allow access to the gardens via ramps next to the steps at the main entrance on Cromwell Road.

Very few activities had been permitted in the gardens until this date. Among other petty restrictions, walking on the grass was forbidden, as was the use of perambulators and riding in 'barrows or velocipedes'. Children had to be under strict supervision.

People were now allowed to bring children into the gardens in prams and bath chairs, and the west side of the grounds was transformed from Waterhouse's rigid geometry to snaking paths amid lawns and woodland. 

An Ordnance Survey map of the South Kensington area from 1894. It shows the Museum at the bottom of the page, as well as the Royal College of Music and the Royal Albert Hall.

An Ordnance Survey map of the South Kensington area from 1894. It shows the Museum at the bottom of the page, as well as the Royal College of Music and the Royal Albert Hall.

 

1894

In this Ordnance Survey map you can see the winding pathway through woodland on the west side that moved the garden away from the first formal designs by Waterhouse. 

Farms were established at the eastern end of the grounds and tended by staff and wounded soldiers. In this photo the Victoria and Albert Museum is visible in the background.

 

1914-18

To support the wellbeing of troops during the First World War, the Museum turned part of its gardens into allotments and a farm. The allotments grew potatoes, artichokes, cauliflowers and other green crops. The farm also boasted chickens, rabbits and eight pedigree black Sussex pigs.

A team of five men surround a giant skull, which is being winched out of the ground

A sperm whale skull is dug out of a pit in the Museum grounds

 

1938

Whale carcasses were buried in sandpits between 1913 and 1938 in the northwest corner of the gardens, roughly where the Darwin Centre is now.

They were left to decompose so that their skeletons could be added to the collection. In the photograph above, Museum staff are digging up a sperm whale, before cleaning and placing the bones in the research collection, where they remain to this day.

1939

In 1939 a bunker was built beneath the gardens as a home for a regional war control room. After the war, this room was sealed. It remained closed until 1976 when the land was needed for a new extension to the main Museum building.

In a plan from 1950, the area was shown as being occupied by a tennis court. 

Museum Palaeontology Building

The east wing of the Museum as seen from Cromwell Road in 1975

 

1976

Completed in 1976, the Palaeontology Building was the first major building project on the east side of the grounds. It covered the site of the tennis courts and the wartime bunker.

A view of the wildlife garden captured by a drone, showing winding paths and large trees

An aerial view of the Wildlife Garden, taken in 2009

 

1995

A portion of the west garden was given a new purpose in 1995 - as a place to put habitat creation and wildlife conservation into practice, where Museum visitors could learn about UK wildlife and where naturalists, students and Museum scientists could carry out research.

In an area covering a single acre, a mosaic of woodland, grassland, scrub, heath, fen, aquatic, reedbed, hedgerow and urban UK habitats was created.

The Wildlife Garden opened to the public on 10 July 1995.

The Museum's then Director, Sir Neil Chalmers, said at the time, 'Our Wildlife Garden symbolises a unique interaction between two important elements which underpin our work: science and education. It creates for the first time an outdoor classroom combined with a living laboratory.'

2020

Today, the gardens remain two distinct areas - the open and more formal east, and the winding woodland and other habitats that make up the Wildlife Garden.

The Museum's gardens will continue to change as part of the Urban Nature Project, and the east and west sides will be united for the first time. The whole space will tell the story of life on Earth.

The Urban Nature Project

We're transforming our outdoor space to start a new urban nature movement.