The University Museum of Natural History opened in 1860 and was designed to lie at the intersection of art and science. The building was originally the home of all Oxford science activity, and the names of the departments it housed can still be seen above the doorways. Artistically, the building and its decoration were designed by Benjamin Woodward, an Irish architect who had already produced the geology museum at Trinity College Dublin, and was particularly influenced by John Ruskin and the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood. The building represents one of the first attempts to merge Renaissance artistic ideals with ‘railway age’ architecture and iron construction.
The roof and its supports are made of a combination of cast and wrought iron undertaken by Skidmore of Coventry, who also produced the ironwork for the Albert Memorial in London. The cast iron arches have delicately painted detailing – newly exposed by recent cleaning – and gilded wrought iron foliage adorns the capitals of the columns.
Around the arcades of the first floor gallery are stone columns that were designed from the outset as a teaching tool: each is made from a different material to illustrate the building stones of the British Isles. The tops of the columns feature carved capitals based on individual species of plants in which animals hide and entwine. Many of the plant carvings were made from life, based on specimens brought each day from the University’s Botanic Garden. Much of this decorative carving was carried out by the O’Shea brothers of County Cork, a characterful team who also carved the ‘cat window’ on the south frontage of the museum, and around whom many Museum legends are based.