Geological Museum

Pages 257-259

Survey of London: Volume 38, South Kensington Museums Area. Originally published by London County Council, London, 1975.

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CHAPTER XX - Geological Museum

The smallest of the public museums at South Kensington was built in 1929–33, under the auspices of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to house the Museum of Practical Geology and the offices of the Geological Survey on their removal from Jermyn Street. In coming to South Kensington they were following the Royal School of Mines which had already (though slowly and hesitantly) moved thither. (fn. 1) The union of the Museum's collection with part of the Natural History Museum had been suggested to the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction in the 1870's. (fn. 4) Its conjunction with the other science collections at South Kensington was recommended in 1898 by a Select Committee of the House of Commons: this noted that the disposal of the Crown site in Jermyn Street would pay for a 'fine building' at South Kensington, (fn. 5) and in 1904 applicants for a lease of that site, the catering firm J. Lyons and Company, offered to spend £50,000 on a new museum elsewhere but the offer was refused. (fn. 6) The long travail of removal really began with the recommendations of the Departmental Committee of the Board of Education under Sir Hugh Bell in 1910–12. This pointed to the present site for a new museum which, placed between the proposed Science Museum and the palaeontological and mineralogical wing of the Natural History Museum, would contribute to an unrivalled collection of geological material variously displayed (plans c, d between pages 54–5). The British Museum consented to the museum's location on part of the site hitherto reserved for the expansion of the Natural History Museum, and in 1911–12 a scheme was evolved by the Office of Works for a building that would be structurally part of an eastward extension of the Natural History Museum, with the same floor levels. It would also be united to the proposed Science Museum by a bridge. (fn. 7)

This arrangement postulated interconnexion between the three museums. The 1851 Exhibition Commissioners, the former landlords, with whom the Government had covenanted to use the land for the purposes of science or art, were henceforward strong advocates of this, (fn. 8) and generally the staffs of the Science and Geological Museums remained favourable.

The plans of 1911–13, prepared under Sir Henry Tanner as Chief Architect of the Office of Works, were for a terra-cotta building continuing the style of the Natural History Museum, and wholly different from the intended Science Museum being planned by Tanner's assistant, (Sir) Richard Allison. (fn. 9) The latter had succeeded Tanner by 1914, however, and thereafter the Geological Museum was destined (whether or not as part of the Natural History Museum extension) to be classical and stone-faced. (fn. 10)

It was 1923 before progress again seemed practically possible, when the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, to which the Museum and Geological Survey had been transferred from the Board of Education in 1919, extracted from the Treasury a statement that it was 'not opposed in principle' to the removal. (fn. 11) The very unsafe condition of the Jermyn Street building was henceforward an added incentive to action. In the following year Labour's Chancellor of the Exchequer confirmed the Bell Committee's choice of site, and a token sum was approved in the Estimates towards the anticipated cost of £226,000 plus £40,500 for furnishings and fittings. (fn. 12) Plans were made, but in the summer of 1925 progress was stopped for a time when the Conservative Government contemplated putting the Museum into the easternmost part of the new Science Museum instead. (fn. 13) The following year of the General Strike was not auspicious for new building projects, although Lord Balfour as Lord President of the Council argued against excessive economy in scientific research institutions at a time of industrial depression, and included in this the Museum and Survey, 'so intimately concerned with the development of the coal-mining industry'. (fn. 2) (fn. 14) By the end of 1926 plans evidently approximating to those finally executed, and also to the main gallery of the Science Museum, were in existence. But in the face of reluctance at the Treasury (which in 1927 demolished a longcherished hope that the revenue from the valuable Jermyn Street site could be applied towards the new museum) plans for a two-storeyed brick carcase to cost only some £150,000 were prepared by Allison. (fn. 15) In July 1927, however, a Royal Commission on the National Museums and Galleries was appointed under Lord D'Abernon, and in December the Conservative Government, in which Balfour was still urging the Museum's case, announced that it would implement as soon as financially possible the Commission's preliminary recommendation that the Bell Committee's report should be acted upon. (fn. 16) A sub-committee of the Royal Commission considered a cheaper museum-plan but accepted the insistence of Sir John Flett, the Director of the Geological Museum, and his staff, that the excellent main gallery of the Science Museum represented a much more satisfactory arrangement than a narrower, wholly side-lit, gallery. (fn. 17) In its Interim Report of September 1928 the Royal Commission advocated the full Science Museum-type scheme. Over a basement storey, three storeys of side-lit galleries would open into a top-lit well, with reserved galleries over them. It noted that the Office of Works thought a recent fall in building prices made £220,000 the likely cost of the building (less furnishings and fittings). It also asserted the general proposition that the value of the Jermyn Street site, however appropriated, was in fact a substantial set-off against the real cost of the move to the public. (fn. 18) A rearguard action by the Treasury early in 1929 sought to reduce the extent of the proposed building by the argument that the Museum should be regarded as 'primarily for study and research and only secondarily for the delectation of the general public'. (fn. 19) But by the end of the year the foundations were begun to Allison's plans for the £220,000 building. (fn. 20)

The Summary of Progress of the Geological Survey for 1929, published in 1930, announced that the exterior would resemble that of the Science Museum. It also announced that 'the mineralogical and palaeontological galleries of the British Museum [Natural History Museum] and the mining, metallurgical and geophysical galleries of the Science Museum will be in close juxtaposition with the exhibits of stratigraphical geology and economic geology in the Geological Museum' and would be linked 'by means of passages through which the public can travel from one series of galleries to the other'. (fn. 21)

The steel framework (by Banister, Walton and Company) was completed by the beginning of 1931 and the work was half-finished by the main contractors, Galbraith Brothers, at the end of the year. (fn. 22) It was early in 1932 before the Museum authorities seem to have realized that although there was a bridge to the Science Museum no connexion with the Natural History Museum was being provided. (fn. 23) The eastern extension of the latter, which would have abutted on the eastern end of the Geological Museum's south side, had been abandoned, and although the two museums were still juxtaposed at the new museum's west end the Office of Works could only suggest, reluctantly, an improvised bridge to join them. This was given up when it was found that the British Museum (Natural History Museum) authorities did not accept the principle of public interconnexion, although its abandonment was regretted in the Geological Museum. ('We can do nothing. We cannot knock a hole in the wall of the British Museum'.) Even structural provision for mutual access of the museum staffs was by then found impracticable. (fn. 24) (fn. 3)

The building was completed in 1933, the east end and front being the last part to be finished. (fn. 26) Occupation by the Museum and Survey was delayed by the use of the building to house the world monetary conference in the summer of that year, but the removal from Jermyn Street was effected in 1934. (fn. 27)

New principles of display were adopted. The stratigraphical series of fossils and rocks was largely withdrawn to the study collection. Far fewer specimens were shown than in Jermyn Street, and more use was made of illustrative and explanatory material. Wall surfaces had been reduced to a minimum to give the greatest possible natural light and the vertical wall-displays of the old museum were replaced by horizontal cases. These were designed by H. B. Allum and C. E. W. Buck of the Office of Works, and special gemstone cases by Gerald Brown. (fn. 28)

The Museum was opened by the Duke of York (later King George VI) in July 1935. Allison had retired in the previous year and the execution of the work had been in the hands of J. H. Markham. (fn. 29) The interior closely followed Allison's Science Museum (where Markham had superintended much of the work) but at the opening Markham was said to be the architect. This presumably referred chiefly to the elevation (Plate 75c), which the First Commissioner of Works thought 'expressed in a fitting manner the importance of the Museum'. (fn. 30)

The materials were chiefly 'dark cherry red' Bracknell bricks and the 'best brown' Portland stone (Whitbed): the roof-slates were green Tilberthwaite. (fn. 31)

The First Commissioner stated the cost at about £220,000 (to which the fittings added another £25,000). He observed that the rent from the Jermyn Street site (£11,000 per annum (fn. 32) ) exceeded the interest on this capital sum. The finances at least permitted some show of opulence in the ironwork near the entrance, and in the decorative British 'marbles' (mainly from Devon, Derbyshire, Purbeck and Connemara) in the entrance hall and staircases.

In 1973 the south side of the museum was joined to the new extension of the Natural History Museum then under construction (see page 216 and plan d between pages 54–5).


  • 1. For the Jermyn Street building see Survey of London, vol. xxix, 1960, pp. 272–4.
  • 2. In November 1926 he wrote semi-privately to Winston Churchill (Chancellor of the Exchequer): 'from the point of view of making the best of our coal resources, it is really important to bring to an end, if that be possible, the present unhappy position of the Geological Museum'.
  • 3. The Office of Works argued that the cost of a bridge would be increased because the ground floors of the two museums were 14 feet above site level, although the ground floor of the Geological Museum (unlike that of the Science Museum) had been raised specifically in order to facilitate interconnexion. The Natural History Museum thought the connexion of two great museums wrong 'as it tends to encourage visitors to make too cursory a survey of the exhibits in each and to occupy in walking time which might with greater advantage be devoted to study'.22
  • 4. P.P., 1874, XXII, Fourth Report of the Royal Commission on Scientific Instruction, 1874, p. 11.
  • 5. P.P., 1898, XI, First and Second Report from the Select Committee on the Museums of the Science and Art Department, 26 April, 29 July 1898.
  • 6. Crown Estate Office, file 12789, 14 Nov. 1904, Jan. 1906.
  • 7. Preliminary Report of Departmental Committee on the Science Museum and Geological Museum, 13 July 1910: P.P., 1911, XVIII, Report of same, Part I; P.P., 1912–13, XXII, Report of same, Part II: P.R.O., Ed 23/523 (14, 17 June 1911); Ed 79/2 (1, 5 July 1913); Works 17/151 (18 March, 4, 16 April 1912): J.S.A., vol. LXI, 2 May 1916, p. 606.
  • 8. E.g., 1851 Comm., file 68, June 1911.
  • 9. P.R.O., Ed 23/521 (16 July 1912); Works 17/151 (29 Nov. 1912): N.H.M., Boardroom, Portfolio, J, Nos. 10, 11, and Plan A ('10.12.13').
  • 10. N.H.M., Boardroom, Portfolio J, No. 2 (May 1914), and Plan [B], 22 May 1914: Report of Royal Fine Art Commission, 5 July 1926, p. 4.
  • 11. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 24 July, 18 Oct. 1923.
  • 12. Ibid., 7 July 1924: Supplementary Estimate 1924–5, 16 July 1924: T. 29 July 1924.
  • 13. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 14 Oct. 1926; Works 17/152, Dec. 1925: Geological Museum, GSM 2/487a, 1924–5 passim.
  • 14. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 14 Oct., 3, 8 Nov. 1926.
  • 15. Ibid., DSIR 9/3, 16 Dec. 1926, 27 Jan., 10 Feb., 12 March, 16 July 1927.
  • 16. Ibid., 12 Nov., 22 Dec. 1927.
  • 17. Ibid., 9/20, 4, 15, 17 Feb. 1928.
  • 18. P.P., 1928–9, VIII, Royal Commission on National Museums and Galleries. Interim Report, p. 41.
  • 19. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 4 March 1929.
  • 20. Ibid., 21 Nov. 1929: Summary of Progress of the Geological Survey . . . for 1929, 1930, Part 1, p. 1.
  • 21. Summary of Progress of the Geological Survey . . . for 1929, 1930, Part 1, p. 5.
  • 22. Summary of Progress . . . for 1930, 1931, Part I, Plate 1, p. 1; for 1931, 1932, Part 1, p. 30: P.R.O., Ministry of Works class-list, 17/29/2; DSIR 9/21, 7 April 1931: B. 12 July 1935, p. 70.
  • 23. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 17 March 1932.
  • 24. Ibid., March-Oct. 1932.
  • 25. Ibid., 10 June, 8 July 1932.
  • 26. Summary of Progress . . .for 1932, 1933, Part 1, p. 5: P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, c. 21 March 1933.
  • 27. Summary of Progress . . . for 1934, 1935, Part 1, p. 5.
  • 28. Summary of Progress . . . for 1932, 1933, Part 1, p. 5; for 1935, 1936, Part 1, p. 48: P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, 8 March 1932: Sir J. S. Flett, The First Hundred Years of the Geological Survey, 1937, p. 192: The Museums Journal, vol. 35, pp. 118–19.
  • 29. P.R.O., DSIR 9/3, Jan. 1930 et seq.
  • 30. Summary of Progress . . . for 1935, 1936, Part 1, pp. 5–6: The Museums Journal, vol. 35, p. 114: T. 4 July 1935: B. 12 July 1935, p. 70.
  • 31. Geological Museum, bill of quantities, Feb. 1931 (in plan-chest).
  • 32. T. 28 March 1935.