Access

You are not currently logged in.

Access your personal account or get JSTOR access through your library or other institution:

login

Log in to your personal account or through your institution.

If you need an accessible version of this item please contact JSTOR User Support

Divine Display or Secular Science: Defining Nature at the Natural History Museum in London

Carla Yanni
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians
Vol. 55, No. 3 (Sep., 1996), pp. 276-299
DOI: 10.2307/991149
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/991149
Page Count: 24
  • Download ($24.00)
  • Subscribe ($19.50)
  • Cite this Item
If you need an accessible version of this item please contact JSTOR User Support
Divine Display or Secular Science: Defining Nature at the Natural History Museum in London
Preview not available

Abstract

Pterodactyls and saber-toothed cats peer down from the parapet of the Natural History Museum in London, a grand Victorian edifice designed and built over a twenty-three-year period. Conflicting definitions of nature during this period, ranging from nature as the unwritten Book of God to nature as secular science, affected the architectural development of the institution. Although Victorian scientists, politicians, and architects agreed on the cultural worth of museums, they disagreed on the proper presentation of science to the public. Alfred Waterhouse, the museum's architect, bravely entered this storm, designing a monumental building which needed to respond to impermanent accounts of natural history. This article retraces three issues in the museum's architectural history: the scope of the displays, the suitability of exhibition architecture, and the appropriateness of ecclesiastical imagery in the final building. Beginning in the 1850s, Richard Owen (1804-1892), an upper-class conservative natural theologian, and Thomas H. Huxley (1825-1895), a middle-class secular evolutionist of the younger generation, debated the breadth of the museum's displays, with Owen proposing an encyclopedic museum of the entire imperial collection, while Huxley preferred a small didactic museum for the public and a private research center for scientists. Just after the competition in 1864, the architect Robert Kerr and the engineer Francis Fowke disagreed about the extent to which the lightly framed, iron and glass architecture used for exhibition buildings should encroach upon museum design, revealing a tension between the ideas of the museum as showplace and the museum as a place of scientific study. Finally, the article looks at the reception in journals and newspapers of the museum's architecture, especially the ornament and the nave-like central hall. Owen had divided the collections into living and extinct species, located on either side of the Great Hall; Waterhouse's ornament was correspondingly based on either familiar animals or prehistoric beasts. This schism in the planning and decorative program of the museum appealed to newspaper reporters, but it did not represent nature as seen by most late Victorian biologists, since by 1881, when the museum opened, almost all scientists believed in the continuity of nature over time. The scientific journal Nature objected to the church-like interior, calling the "semi-ecclesiastical" style a "mistake." Because science depends upon currency for its legitimacy, scientists like Huxley sought to demonstrate progress in up-to-date buildings that reflected modern scientific ideals. Ironically, Owen's powerful leadership, coupled with the political obstacles and complex construction of any large public institution, insured that, as the decades passed, its architecture lagged behind the visions of secular, evolutionist science.

Page Thumbnails

  • Thumbnail: Page 
276
    276
  • Thumbnail: Page 
277
    277
  • Thumbnail: Page 
278
    278
  • Thumbnail: Page 
279
    279
  • Thumbnail: Page 
280
    280
  • Thumbnail: Page 
281
    281
  • Thumbnail: Page 
282
    282
  • Thumbnail: Page 
283
    283
  • Thumbnail: Page 
284
    284
  • Thumbnail: Page 
285
    285
  • Thumbnail: Page 
286
    286
  • Thumbnail: Page 
287
    287
  • Thumbnail: Page 
288
    288
  • Thumbnail: Page 
289
    289
  • Thumbnail: Page 
290
    290
  • Thumbnail: Page 
291
    291
  • Thumbnail: Page 
292
    292
  • Thumbnail: Page 
293
    293
  • Thumbnail: Page 
294
    294
  • Thumbnail: Page 
295
    295
  • Thumbnail: Page 
296
    296
  • Thumbnail: Page 
297
    297
  • Thumbnail: Page 
298
    298
  • Thumbnail: Page 
299
    299