Science and the Language of Natural History Museum Architecture: Problems of Interpretation

John Robert Holmes


The historicist styles and decorative schemas of natural history museums built from the 1850s to the 1930s provide a unique opportunity to study the architectural expression of scientific ideas. At the same time, the significance of individual buildings varies widely. Drawing on examples from Britain, Ireland, Canada and continental Europe, this article explores three specific problems that arise in the interpretation of the architectural language of natural history museums. Firstly, the same motifs can convey very different meanings in different places. Secondly, the same governing idea can be communicated through different architectural styles which in turn inflect the idea itself. Finally, it is often hard to reconstruct the exact roles of the different actors in creating a museum building. The most complex museums, and the most challenging and rewarding to analyse, are those with the greatest number of scientists and artists working together to create them.


natural history museums; architecture; decorative arts; natural theology; evolution

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Copyright (c) 2019 John Robert Holmes

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Museum and Society

ISSN 1479-8360

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