Architecture of the Natural History Museum

Designs for the Natural History Museum

An original colour wash illustration showing how Waterhouse intended the finished terracotta reliefs to appear

Following the sudden death of the architect originally appointed to design the Natural History Museum, Alfred Waterhouse, a young architect from Liverpool, took over the task. He used a mixture of Gothic Revival and twelfth-century Romanesque-style architecture, in line with Museum founder Sir Richard Owen’s vision of creating a ‘cathedral to nature’.

Waterhouse chose to incorporate living and extinct animals into the architectural details of the building, with extinct species in the east wing and living ones in the west. The building is dominated by the cathedral-like Hinzte Hall (formerly Central Hall) at the Museum’s main entrance.  

The original Waterhouse building has since been added to, with the Palaeontology building to the east in the 1970s and more recently in 2009 with the completion of the Darwin Centre to the west.

Hintze Hall

Hintze Hall, designed by Alfred Waterhouse


The Library and Archives holds 136 of Waterhouse’s original individual architectural drawings, a single volume of 66 pencil drawings, and one additional illustration of a dodo carving.

Also held are Owen’s sketch plans from 1859, and Waterhouse’s plans from 1868, 1872 and 1881, which are preserved alongside plans of each section and an elevation diagram. There is also a large collection of more recent plans for additions to the original building. 

An illustrations made with terracotta wash

An illustration made with terracotta wash indicating how Waterhouse intended the finished pieces to appear


  • Composition: Artwork, architectural plans, photographs
  • Focus: Architecture
  • Authors/Artists: Alfred Waterhouse 

NHM Images