Opening of the Natural History Museum


Opening of the Natural History Museum

Kensington, London The 18th of April 1881 AD

For decades the natural history collection housed in The British Museum was very much a poor cousin to the historical artefacts. Its origins were in the collection of Hans Sloane , left to Britain in 1733, but this collection was treated abominably by a series of uncomprehending philistines: parts of it were burned; and many of the prize human and related items were sold to the Royal college of Surgeons; 100 years after the collection came to the nation not one of the more than 5,000 insect specimens obtained by Sloane remained. Major figures at The British Museum, such as Librarian Antonio Panizzi, were contemptuous of science, and actively discouraged the use of the collection by scholars. This situation finally changed with the appointment in 1856 of Richard Owen to the post of Superintendent of the Natural History Department.
Owen systematized the collections, welcomed their use and viewing by scholars and general visitors, and pushed for a separate building for the natural history collections. Work only began on this project in 1873, however, according to the designs of Manchester architect Alfred Waterhouse, replacing Francis Fowke who had originally been selected to design it but died before he could make any real start to the work.
Waterhouse made the building a graceful but imposing Romanesque structure, whose style still seems somehow to chime perfectly with the dinosaur skeletons and display cases housed within it.
The actual building work only finished in 1880, and even then there were further delays before the place opened on Easter Monday 1881, and it took a further two years before all the exhibits had been moved in.
A visit to the Cromwell Road site is now a central part of a day in London for many visitors with scientific curiosity – more than 3,000,000 pass through its doors every year.

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