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Terracotta at NHM

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Terracotta at the Natural History Museum

For a few weeks in 2006 the Natural History Museum ran a terracotta tour which was self-guided using a hand-held computer and headset. Ten HHGS members travelled to the museum to take this tour which visited 15 points of interest inside the building. The commentary and accompanying illustrations of each point of interest was triggered by touching a sensor installed at each location with a stylus connected to the machine. For some, however, the apparatus was difficult to operate and there weren’t enough units available to go round everybody so a couple of people had to share.

Briefly, here is the background to the use of terracotta in the construction of the Natural History Museum building. When Richard Owen was put in charge of the Natural History Department of the British Museum in 1856, he wanted a separate building for the collection, “a temple to natural science”. Fortunately he was allowed to realise his dream and he and the architect Alfred Waterhouse between them designed and built the cathedral-like museum we know today. An architect of many public buildings, he was particularly associated with the Victorian Gothic revival; the Natural History Museum is perhaps Waterhouse’s best known commission. He started his practice in Manchester in 1853 before moving to London 12 years later and was responsible for Manchester Town Hall, another spectacular building.

The original design for the museum had resembled a Renaissance palace, and Waterhouse took from this the idea of building in terracotta, which is fireproof and has high tensile strength. All the bricks, columns, mouldings and decorations in the museum are of terracotta, fired in kilns for six days at over 1000oC to get the biscuit colour used throughout. The columns contain iron supports and their interiors were packed with rubble before the brick cladding was put in place. The roof is supported by iron arches, as is the bridge staircase at the south end of the building. Owen and Waterhouse wanted the ceilings to be of wood, but the cost was prohibitive, so they settled for plaster which could, like wood, be carved and decorated.

The east wing of the museum is decorated with models and carvings of extinct species and the west wing with living species. Upstairs in the mineral gallery the idea of education through decoration is continued. The columns in the gallery show plants on the capitals, with the bricks below displaying designs of extinct marine animals. Columns in the upstairs galleries are decorated with patterns of stylised fossil trees and plants. Owen and Waterhouse wanted the decoration to enhance the building and educate the public.

The tour opened one’s eyes to the architectural features of the building, which can so easily be taken for granted. It led us to marvel at Owen’s vision realised in Waterhouse’s clay.

Based on an account by Vanessa Harley in the 2007 issue of the HHGS magazine.

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