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How Has Scientific Knowledge Informed

How has scientific knowledge informed the design of the Natural History Museum?

The Natural History Museum in London, one of London’s most iconic landmarks, is one of Britain’s most striking examples of Romanesque architecture and is considered a work of art in its own right. Though the building was not always planned to be the Romanesque building that ended up being constructed.

The concept of the Natural History Museum was the inspiration of a great naturalist of the 19th century, Richard Owen. Owen worked in the British Museum and wanted to create a new educational museum by bringing together the fossil bones from the British Museum and the pieces of recent comparative anatomy at the Hunterian Museum. Richard Owen was known as a strong opponent of Darwinism and evolution, and believed there was a boundary between god-made and man-made objects. Owen believed the purpose of a natural history museum was to show the greatness of God in the variety of nature. Owen’s beliefs influenced the design and architecture of the Natural History Museum in London, where he placed a stress on order rather than randomness that paralleled his belief that the history of the natural world was not random or by chance but was created by God. He created a sketch of his vision for the museum and a competition was put in to place to choose who the architect would be.

In the end, there were thirty-three submissions for the architect competition for the Natural History Museum. The winner was Captain Francis Fowke, though it is unclear if Fowke’s entry was chosen because of its functional planning or the exterior, or both. Fowke’s entry was a Renaissance palace the he envisioned being decorated with terracotta. Unfortunately, Fowke passed away before any construction began and the commission was then given to a devoted medievalist named Alfred Waterhouse. Waterhouse turned the design into a Romanesque cathedral. Waterhouse worked closely with Richard Owen to ensure that the new design still had his approval.

Owen made sure that Waterhouse incorporated his desire to have displays of animals and plants divided between living and extinct, as he did not believe in the newly discovered theory of evolution. Owen insisted that these specimens of extinct and living species kept apart at a time when Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution was revealing the links between them. This would lead to much controversy as the creation of the building progressed. The architecture of this museum of natural history was based on opposite concepts to the recent scientific findings of the time. The designs being based on ecclesiastical themes was wildly out of date but Owen’s “scientific rank” superseded any theoretical controversy.

The building itself is became as Owen described it a “cathedral to nature”. The building was completed and finally opened to the public is 1881. The museum was designed to draw attention to both itself and to its contents, and this was effectively done. The building was around 230 meters long and proportionately tall, as Waterhouse had a knack for creating a romantic skyline for large buildings. The building has a bilaterally symmetrical plan around a central entrance. This entrance has a cathedral-like feeling with a grand staircase and a high domed ceiling. Walking in the main entrance of the museum evokes similar feelings to entering a grand cathedral or church, with the grand ceiling and arches decorating the room. The entrance almost seems like the nave of a church. To even the common visitor, the museum feels like a religious space, which is not exactly the feelings one expects when entering a natural history museum. Further in, past the grand entrance, the museum has perpendicular galleries arranged with no forced linear path, and the layout often requires the guests to retrace their own steps. This nonlinear path design reflects Owen’s beliefs that history did not follow a linear path through evolution as was suggested by Charles Darwin, but that there was a plan decided by a greater figure or power.

The most striking and controversial part of the Natural History Museum’s architecture though is the ornamentation. The building is completely covered, on the exterior as well as the interior with terracotta. This material was chosen because it was easy to mold into new designs and could withstand the demanding weather found in London. The terracotta was resistant to acids and washable, ideal for use in facing buildings during the Victorian era. The terracotta ornamentation mixed the secular and sacred. According to J. B. Bullen, author of an article about the Natural History museum in journal by architectural historians of Great Britain, the terracotta’s “earthy nature fit the primitive aspects of the architectural style, and was charged with Biblical symbolism connected with the power of the potter’s hand,” further linking the architectural design with Owen’s personal beliefs rather than the scientific knowledge of the time.

Owen did not believe in evolution and therefore he separated biology from paleontology, and these views are then set in stone—literally and figuratively—in this museum. With the shiny buff-colored terracotta, with blue accepts, Waterhouse used incredible illustrative detail to decorate the already expansive and impressive building. Waterhouse ornamented the building with zoological and geological flora and fauna of the natural world, but the extinct or dead beings were placed on the east side of the building, while the living were placed on the west side. Terracotta monkeys climb in the interior arches; flowers decorate the columns, while extinct animals like a pterodactyl were crafted as decorative pieces as well. Using this division of living and extinct animals, rather than showing a progression of evolution, was just based on personal beliefs, and had no basis in scientific knowledge. Adding to the controversy, though it is no longer in place, a statue of biblical figure Adam was placed on the highest gable over the entrance, at the intersection between the living and the dead. Including one biblical figure, surrounded by animals and other natural beings seems contradictory, though to Owen, it seemed exactly right. The controversy and contradiction of the architecture and ornamentation of the building did not go without comment by the public and critics.

The building opened on Easter Monday in 1881, furthering the implications of the religious connotations. People that visited the building often focused more on Waterhouse’s ornamentation and the animals he crafted rather that the actual specimens in the museum, taking away from the meaning of the historical artifacts. The ornamentation deflected from the impressive scientific collections housed in the museum. Architecturally, the building was praised because of the new use of terracotta and the style of the building itself. The Times compared the building to Noah’s Ark, another famous biblical story, with the animals within the ornamentation, and the statue of Adam it is easy to see how this association could be made. Another publication, Nature, “disapproved of the religious associations, [and] hoped the building would present science as accessible and secular, rather than exotic and religious.” Critics claimed that there would be a perpetual conflict between the views of the Museum keepers and the views of the architect of the building. The response of the public and the critics to the museum shows distaste for the religious implications found in the museum. This was the reaction to the public in 1881, over 100 years ago, just as Charles Darwin’s theory was just beginning to be widely accepted. It is easy to imagine how the reactions would continue to be even more averse as time went on and science continued to evolve. As time went on, and the museum grew, the additions attempted to be more conscious of scientific knowledge and incorporate it into the building. After all, the building was created as a hub for natural history and scientific findings; it seems fair that the architecture itself should reflect this.

Since the museum was opened in 1881, it is no surprise that there have been additions and extensions made to the building since. The majority of the original design still stands today as it did in 1881, though the statue of Adam that once stood over the main entrance was knocked down during a bombing during the Second World War and was never replaced. There have been multiple additions to the museum; the most notable for the sake of the discussion of the scientific basis of the architecture is the Darwin Centre. The Darwin Centre was built in two phases, the first designed by HOK Architects and completed in 2002, and the second the second, completed in 2009 on a design by the Danish firm C.F. Møller architects. The Darwin Centre is a research facility and an exhibition space, dedicated to biodiversity and climate change. As a visitor to the Darwin Centre, one can view exhibits in the Cocoon exhibition as well as see in to rooms in which research is currently being conducted. The second phase of the Darwin Centre is a pod-shaped “cocoon” placed inside a transparent glass atrium. The difference between the original architecture of the Natural History Museum and the Darwin Centre is striking, and the architecture could not be more different. Perhaps this distinction is highlighting the difference between the architects and influence of scientific discovery on the design of the building. It is very ironic that the addition of the museum is named after Charles Darwin, when the museum was originally created by someone who was anti-Darwinism and even went as far as to instill anti-Darwinism themes in the architecture.

The Cocoon is constructed of 300-millimeter thick sprayed-concrete walls, with a geometric form based on mathematical equations. The surface finish is a plaster that resembles a silk cocoon with joints wrapping around it resembling silk threads. The architecture of the cocoon really displays the scientific advances that have been made since the creation of the terracotta building that originally housed the entire Natural History Museum. Since there was virtually no scientific knowledge put into the architecture of the original building, as it was heavily religiously influenced, it is interesting to see the new additions of the museum counteract the original design. The second phase of the Darwin Centre is intended to manage the difference in scale and architectural approach, as well as create a physical link between the Waterhouse designed building and the first phase of the Darwin Center. An article in Inexhibit states that the Darwin Centre “changes the Natural History Museum’s relationship with the site from that of an introverted to an extroverted building, and improves and transforms the existing buildings into something more than the sum of their parts – by bridging the past, present and future of the museum.” So, perhaps the Darwin Centre was built in an attempt to mend the scientific errors that are displayed throughout the building designed by Waterhouse and help the visitors see how thoughts and knowledge has evolved over time as more scientific discoveries have been made.

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