Pterodactyls and saber-toothed cats peer down from the parapet of the Natural History Museum in London, a grand Victorian edifice designed and built over a twenty-three-year period. Conflicting definitions of nature during this period, ranging from nature as the unwritten Book of God to nature as secular science, affected the architectural development of the institution. Although Victorian scientists, politicians, and architects agreed on the cultural worth of museums, they disagreed on the proper presentation of science to the public. Alfred Waterhouse, the museum's architect, bravely entered this storm, designing a monumental building which needed to respond to impermanent accounts of natural history. This article retraces three issues in the museum's architectural history: the scope of the displays, the suitability of exhibition architecture, and the appropriateness of ecclesiastical imagery in the final building. Beginning in the 1850s, Richard Owen (1804-1892), an upper-class conservative natural theologian, and Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895), a middle-class secular evolutionist of the younger generation, debated the breadth of the museum's displays, with Owen proposing an encyclopedic museum of the entire imperial collection, while Huxley preferred a small didactic museum for the public and a private research center for scientists. Just after the competition in 1864, the architect Robert Kerr and the engineer Francis Fowke disagreed about the extent to which the lightly framed, iron and glass architecture used for exhibition buildings should encroach upon museum design, revealing a tension between the ideas of the museum as showplace and the museum as a place of scientific study. Finally, the article looks at the reception in journals and newspapers of the museum's architecture, especially the ornament and the nave-like central hall. Owen had divided the collections into living and extinct species, located on either side of the Great Hall; Waterhouse's ornament was correspondingly based on either familiar animals or prehistoric beasts. This schism in the planning and decorative program of the museum appealed to newspaper reporters, but it did not represent nature as seen by most late Victorian biologists, since by 1881, when the museum opened, almost all scientists believed in the continuity of nature over time. The scientific journal Nature objected to the church-like interior, calling the "semi-ecclesiastical" style a "mistake." Because science depends upon currency for its legitimacy, scientists like Huxley sought to demonstrate progress in up-to-date buildings that reflected modern scientific ideals. Ironically, Owen's powerful leadership, coupled with the political obstacles and complex construction of any large public institution, insured that, as the decades passed, its architecture lagged behind the visions of secular, evolutionist science.
- Copyright 1996 The Society of Architectural Historians