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The origins of the Natural History Museum go back to 1753, when Sir Hans Sloane left his extensive collection of curiosities to the nation. Over the years, voyages of discovery, such as Cook's epic journey aboard the HMS Endeavour, have boosted the collections.
Originally this was housed in the newly-formed British Museum but by 1860 Sir Richard Owen, who was in charge of the natural history collection, had persuaded the Government that a new building was needed.
The chosen site in South Kensington was previously occupied by the 1862 International Exhibition building, once described as ‘one of the ugliest buildings ever raised in England’. Ironically, its architect, Captain Francis Fowke, won the competition to design the new Natural History Museum.
But in 1865 Fowke died suddenly, and a relatively unknown young architect, Alfred Waterhouse was selected to continue the project. He changed the style from Renaissance to German Romanesque. The building opened to the public on 18 April 1881.
Inside, with more than 70 million specimens, ranging from microscopic slides to mammoth skeletons, the Museum is home to the largest and most important natural history collection in the world. The scope of our specimens is simply vast. They include material from the ill-fated dodo, meteorites from Mars and a full-size blue whale skeleton. They cover almost all groups of animals, plants, minerals and fossils, and range in size from cells on slides to whole animals preserved in alcohol.
The items are divided within five main collections: Botany, Entomology, Mineralogy, Palaeontology and Zoology. The museum is a world-renowned centre of research, specialising in taxonomy, identification and conservation. Given the age of the institution, many of the collections have great historical as well as scientific value, such as specimens collected by Darwin.
The museum is particularly famous for its exhibition of dinosaur skeletons, and ornate architecture — sometimes dubbed a cathedral of nature — both exemplified by the large Diplodocus cast which dominates the vaulted central hall.