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The Museum’s grand main entrance has been enhanced by two brand new botanical displays showcasing the diverse and unique flora of the Macaronesian region – the islands of the Canaries, Madeira and the Azores in the North Atlantic.
Respected plantsman and conservationist Robbie Blackhall-Miles collaborated with Museum experts, Botanist and Head of the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division Dr. Sandra Knapp, Principal Curator in Charge of the Algae, Fungi and Plants Division Dr. Mark Carine and Palaeobotanist Dr. Paul Kenrick to design the striking displays.
The raised bed planters feature species that only occur in the Atlantic Islands. Some of the species are rare and under threat in the wild and several are not commonly cultivated.
The planters house an array of genera that have species known only from the region such as date palms (Phoenix), foxgloves (Digitalis), lavenders (Lavandula), houseleeks (Aeonium), sowthistles (Sonchus), and bellflowers (Canarina). Several large and woody species of Echium, the viper’s bugloss, are also featured in the display.
The displays reflect both the Museum’s historical and ongoing connections to the rich and varied flora of the Atlantic Islands and the Museum’s support for rare and endangered species. The planters were made possible by a generous donation by the Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 which played an important role in establishing the Natural History Museum.
Natural History Museum Director of Science Professor Ian Owens says:
'Our rich botanical collections include centuries-old specimens from voyages of discovery undertaken by naturalists including Sir Hans Sloane, Sir Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander; as well as original fossil plants collected by geologist Sir Charles Lyell; these remain an invaluable resource for both scientific and historical research.
'We also have active botanical research in these islands, which feature such remarkable concentration of plant diversity, such as the work by Museum PhD students Ollie White and Rachael Graham who are using the flora of the region as a model system to understand plant evolution.
'It was important to us to feature rare plants to help support their survival but another consideration was showcasing plants that will be better able to withstand climate change and the expected extreme variation of temperature and precipitation this may bring. We also wanted to include nectar-rich plants that can provide a much-needed food source for the pollinating insects we harbour within our urban environment.
'We are delighted to have benefited from Robbie’s expertise on this project. His specialism is propagating rare and unusual plants and ‘Fossil Plants’, his backyard botanic garden, houses a wonderful collection we have been able to draw on.'
Alfred Waterhouse’s striking Romanesque architecture is considered a work of art in its own right and has become one of London’s iconic landmarks. The new planters have been carefully designed to ensure they are sympathetic to Waterhouse’s vision, following the formal style of the gardens that would have surrounded such public Victorian buildings. Front doors of this era would traditionally have had an urn on either side planted with bright, exotic, seasonal bedding and adorned with a tropical or architectural species such as a palm in the centre as a statement of status.
Robbie Blackhall-Miles says:
'The creation of these planters at the Natural History Museum has been one of the most interesting projects I have been fortunate enough to be involved with. They bring together so many aspects of not only my own interest but also the work of the museum; ecology, evolution, conservation and the long history of both the museum and British horticulture. It’s so exciting to be able to put such unique plants in such a central position at London’s cathedral to the natural world.'
The installation of the planters outside the main entrance is part of a bold transformation of the five acre site surrounding the Museum. This first phase has seen changes to the main entrance including a redesigned ramp which have enabled step-free access through the front doors for the first time in the Museum’s history.
The Museum conducted an extensive terracotta review to assess historic and environmental damage and discolouration to the front façade. Refurbishment of the terracotta has restored the main entrance to its former glory and restored the original architecture details of louvered openings. In addition, the railings have been repainted in their original resplendent red and golden colour scheme.
The displays are positioned in the centre of a planned scheme which will include a walk through timeline illustrating the evolution of life and key geological aspects of Earth history in the eastern gardens.
This walkthrough will take visitors to an extended natural area in the western Grounds which will focus on the vital importance of nature today and the roles that we can all play in securing its future. The central position of the planters will reflect the current process of visible evolution that this part of the world is undergoing – placing visitors in the ‘right now’ part of the walkthrough timeline.
The Natural History Museum exists to inspire a love of the natural world and unlock answers to the big issues facing humanity and the planet. It is a world-leading science research centre, and through its unique collection and unrivalled expertise it is tackling issues such as food security, eradicating diseases and managing resource scarcity.
The Natural History Museum is the most visited natural history museum in Europe and the top science attraction in the UK; we welcome more than 4.5 million visitors each year and our website receives over 500,000 unique visitors a month. People come from around the world to enjoy our galleries and events and engage both in-person and online with our science and educational activities through innovative programmes and citizen science projects.
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851
The Royal Commission for the Exhibition of 1851 awards grants and fellowships in support of science and industry to the value of around £4m a year. First established in 1850 to stage the Great Exhibition, the Commission initially invested the Exhibition's profit by purchasing the land for development of the South Kensington cultural estate of museums, colleges and the Albert Hall.
Details of the 1851 Royal Commission’s awards are on its website.