Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Wednesday, 2 October 2013

Natural States

Step into the 19C century...
Photo by Nick Garrod
This weekend, for the first time in over 15 years, I visited the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. I used to spend a lot of time there as a child, (when I had serious plans to become a zoologist), peering at stuffed quaggas, hummingbirds and bison in glass cases. Although the lay-out of this vast collection hasn’t changed very much in the intervening decades, it all looked rather different viewed through a historian’s eyes.

The Natural History Museum was split off from the main collections of the British Museum in the late nineteenth century. The first architect assigned to the project, Captain Francis Fowke, promptly died, and the successful Liverpool-born, Quaker-raised Alfred Waterhouse took over and made the design his own. With its metal and glass roof, idiosyncratic neo-Romanesque façade, terracotta cladding and sweeping staircases reminiscent of a vast railway station, the Museum feels like a Victorian fantasia – built as a temple where the complexity of creation could be venerated, and where the working man could go (after work, by the aid of gas lamps) for self-improvement. The buildings Victorian-ness is etched completely into its fabric: everywhere you look, on every column or patch of ceiling, there are 19C frescos of ferns, reliefs of dodos, fish or rams’ heads. Even empty of any collections, this building would feel as if it were creeping and crawling with natural life, as imagined over a century ago. 
Stuffed slow loris in the museum
Photo by Peter Taylor

The Museum’s collections, however, are a strange mix of the archaic and cutting edge. There is a Darwin Centre in a new wing which showcases zoological research, and a modern dinosaur exhibit with a colossal animated tyrannosaurus rex. Most of the building nonetheless still consists of long galleries of glass cases, filled with intriguing but badly faded stuffed mammals, birds and sea life, displays from another age.

In Reading, in Berkshire, there used to be a rather dilapidated green space called Forbury Gardens in the middle of the town. Using a National Lottery grant, the council transformed the park to look as it would have done in its Victorian hey-day: using plants from 19C catalogues, and flowerbed shapes from the period. As a historian, I’d quite like to see the Natural History Museum do just that – continue doing its cutting edge science in the labs which are out of bounds to the public, but recreate within Waterhouse’s extraordinary building the collections as they would have looked in the 1870s, to give us again the Victorian Natural History Museum. A Natural History Museum which brought to life Victorian England (its ideals, aesthetics, beliefs), could teach us a lesson in British social and cultural history, the history of science, and the history of museums, while keeping all that intriguing taxidermy centre-stage. That might be a novel and stimulating way of utilising, and honouring, this unique building. But as a historian, and a thwarted zoologist, I’m bound to say that.

Photo by Alh1