The Natural History Museum in London is a spectacular building in many senses (Fig. 1). As one of the outstanding landmarks of high Victorian architecture, it was designed to draw attention both to itself and to its contents. No other museum building in Britain adopted a Romanesque style on this scale; no other building had used terracotta in such a rich and decorative manner, and no other building (other than, perhaps, the University Museum, Oxford) so curiously employed external decoration to illustrate its internal function. It was calculated to appeal to a wide public and its animal sculpture was selfconsciously didactic in the way in which a number of contemporary museum buildings were created to a programme. Planned as a showcase for the nation’s imperial scientific achievements, its appearance was strongly ecclesiastical. When it opened in 1881, The Times leader called it a ‘true Temple of Nature’, which, the writer said, demonstrated ‘the Beauty of Holiness’. But for many visitors in 1881 Nature had abandoned the temple for wilder places; she had bloodied her claws, and the beauty of holiness had been replaced by the more severe, mechanistic principles formulated by Charles Darwin.
The concept of a large museum of natural history was the inspiration of the great naturalist Richard Owen. It was also the crowning achievement of his lifetime in science. The ‘Temple of Nature’ that Alfred Waterhouse built for him embodied Owen’s belief that the history of the natural world was not a matter of randomness and chance but the creation of a transcendent presence. In other words, the Natural History Museum is the expression of an ideology, and its shape, size, position, style and decoration are charged with legible meanings. Some of those meanings are readily interpreted, others less so, and although the building history of the museum has been well documented, many questions remain. Why, for example, was Waterhouse chosen as its architect? What spurred him on to use terracotta in such an original way? And above all why did he risk the unusual Romanesque style? The choice of Romanesque for such a building, although it was later imitated elsewhere, was highly original. But that choice was conditioned by a substantial web of aesthetic, social, and political factors. The Natural History Museum was not just Waterhouse’s creation; it was very much the product of its time. It was born of national and local politics; it was shaped by Owen’s unusual position in the scientific world, and it was an expression of Waterhouse’s passion for early medieval architecture.