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British Industrial History

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Natural History Museum

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1856 Sir Richard Owen - a brilliant natural scientist who originated the term "dinosaurs" - left his role as curator of the Hunterian Museum and took charge of the British Museum’s natural history collection. Dissatisfied with the lack of space for its ever-growing collection of natural history specimens, Owen convinced the British Museum's board of trustees that a separate building was needed to house these national treasures.

c.1863 Proposals were made to purchase the Exhibition buildings designed by Francis Fowke, and to move the British Museum (except the books) into them, but this was rejected by the House of Commons. Mr. Gladstone then obtained authority to purchase 16.5 acres of the unoccupied building ground of the estate of the Commissioners of the Exhibition of 1851 at South Kensington for this purpose[1]

1864 Francis Fowke, the architect who designed the Royal Albert Hall and parts of the Victoria and Albert Museum, won a competition to design a building for this collection, which would become the Natural History Museum.

1865 After Fowke's unexpected death, the relatively unknown Alfred Waterhouse took over and came up with a new plan for the South Kensington site using terracotta for the entire building as this material was more resistant to Victorian London's harsh climate.

1881 The Natural History Museum opened its doors to the public.

Four natural history departments were established - Zoology, Botany, Mineralogy, Geology. Each department had its own Keeper, who was largely autonomous from the Director. At that time the Director was subject to the supervision of the Principal Librarian of the British Museum.

1884 On the retirement of Sir Richard Owen, Sir William Flower was appointed to the directorship of the Natural History departments of the British Museum in South Kensington.

1898 Sir William Flower retired after suffering a prolonged period of ill-health. (Edwin) Ray Lankester was appointed to succeed Flower; he made effective changes to the museum's displays, and also tried to reform its role as a research institution but came into conflict with the principal librarian, Sir Edward Maunde Thompson, who was determined to keep the natural history collections subordinate to the central museum administration in Bloomsbury.

1907 Lankester was forced to retire at the end of 1907. Mr Fagan virtually ran the Museum until Lazarus Fletcher's appointment as Director nineteen months later.

1919 Fletcher retired

1930 The British Museum Act formally gave care and custody of the natural history departments to the Director of the British Museum (Natural History)

1963 The Museum remained part of the British Museum until 1963, when a separate board of trustees was appointed

1986 the Museum absorbed the adjacent Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey and its collection of more than 30,000 minerals.

1992 Officially renamed the Natural History Museum

See Also


Sources of Information

  1. The Engineer 1870/08/05
  • Archives in London and the M25 area [1]
  • Natural History Museum [2]