The post I did right back in the first days of this blog, London’s museum fish, featured the lovely terracotta tiles seen inside the Natural History Museum. At the time this had been the most successful post so far on my blog. Two more posts were done as a follow up, one in November 2013 when the site was still at wordpress.com and the most recent in March 2016.
Gate pillar without terracotta animal panels
Five years on from that first one is this new post. This time its about the museum’s fish and animals outside of the building. The idea came about quite by accident. I ventured straight past the Natural History Museum a week ago and like most others, almost went by without even noticing these other terracotta panels sited on Cromwell Road. It was in fact the investigation of an old fire hydrant sign that led me to inspect these other features created by Alfred Waterhouse.
Gate pillar with terracotta animal panels
There is something very curious about this aspect of the museum and that is the gates upon which these terracotta panels stand. The gates cover quite a section of the frontage on Cromwell Road, however it is just the eastern half of the gates that have these. The western half is fully complete except for its empty panels where these terracotta features should have been placed. I cant say what the reason for this is, possibly it was costs since the gates would have been an expensive feature and the panels a luxurious extra.
Even on those pillars that have the terracotta panels, its only on the front side. There too should have been these panels on the sides, and in hindsight there probably should have been 90 of these altogether. Just 15 were done. These panels are more intricate and detailed than the others seen inside the museum and if my reasoning is right, each of these panels, two pairs of forty five panels, would have been a huge job. The other panels inside the museum are numerous but consist of fewer designs on smaller panels which could be easily be replicated across a wider area.
The animals and fish represented consist of a wide range of species. The difference is these are ordinary animals, unlike most of those inside the museum which cover quite a lot of special species including those that are extinct. Its clear the idea was to represent the ordinary animal world at the gates, and to represent the extraordinary animal world inside the museum. A simple way of saying to all the museum’s visitors that the everyday animal world we see outside is far more intricate and complex than any of us could imagine. And by venturing inside the museum itself, the many different and non ordinary species of animal would be more obvious, showing us how little we know of the real world that is about us.
Even to this day that is still true. We do indeed know of so many more countless species than those recorded in the days of Darwin and we can see practically every one in books or on the internet. But the human world still remains ordinary in essence and these other species are often in special circumstances such as inaccessible rain forests or the very deepest parts of our oceans, or perhaps remain just as a fossil or two.
Although it is not intended as such as in those days when the museum was built, this being the 1880s, these days we can see how the gates themselves represent human progress. In those days matters were the other way round. More new species were being found and extinctions were actually quite a rarity, the most celebrated to that time having been effected by humans was the Dodo. As we build and expand our artificial empires, the number of species that can be seen goes down. Its difficult to say because we still don’t know what is exactly out there! See this WWF page.
Nevertheless humans too have been responsible for an extraordinary loss of species in the animal world. Its not known exactly how many have gone but the most recent reports suggest we are responsible for having accelerated the natural extinction rate exponentially. I would imagine the true number will never be realised but it is very clear we are responsible for the demise of a very large number of species. Thus the 75 empty panels on the front gates can easily represent what humanity has achieved. The widespread decimation and extinction of so many different types of animals 🙁
Most of the panels are in a quite good condition considering they have been outdoors for a very long time. It seems the material used varied slightly as one can see subtly different elements of erosion or degradation, not that these are serious to any extent. Just one panel exhibited any serious signs of degradation, but this could be due to its having been created with a slightly sub standard material base. This panel is the final one as shown below.
These outdoor panels make a fantastic addition to the museum’s large collection of terracotta sculptures. I only wish the others had been done and then we could have seen the full extent of what had been planned. But as I said, the present set-up is quite appropriate because the empty spaces can easily been seen as a reminder of the many species, probably lots we do not know of, that have disappeared as a result of our human activities.