Oxford University Museum of Natural History – A Rooftop Tour

Our guide, Geoffrey Tyack (Fellow, Kellogg College) had told us that the vision of the Victorian architects who built the Natural History Museum was to create an organic, breathing space in the spirit of Gothic Architecture. And yet, stepping into the main hall of the building I was utterly surprised. I had expected heavy columns, no light, the solemn feel of a gothic church. The opposite was true. The space we walked into resembles a greenhouse. There are columns and arches, yes, but these are astonishingly slender steel colums. The columns support a beautiful glass roof which lights the room in an even, mild daylight.

The Natural History Museum was founded in 1860 to give a new home to the emergent Natural Sciences. The building was supposed to enable not only research activity (providing lab spaces and the like), but was also meant to facilitate exchange between scholars. The main hall just described was meant to provide space for exhibitons of scientific findings, which could then be discussed among peers. Thus the magnificent architecture of the building is closely linked to the modern scientific approach of its founders. There is at least one well-known occasion where the building lived up to that expectation hosting the “Great Debate” between Thomas Henry Huxely and Bishop Wilberforce in July 1860.

The biggest treat of our visit was when Wendy Shepherd from the museum adminsitration took us up to the roof – or, more accurately, to walk around it. The view was wonderful, and one could quite well discern the different colleges. Again, my surprise was genuine, when we arrived on top of the roof. Having stood under the roof just before, I did not expect it to be possible to walk on it, it looking so fragile and slender from below.

Something to take from this lunch time tour to the museum was surely, that some buildings which look plain to the unknowing eye might turn out to be real marvels. I am grateful for the Ertegun Scholarship to provide me with the opportunity to go.

– Annina Loets

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