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FIRST LOOK

Dannatt Johnson’s giant ‘cabinet of curiosities’ enlivens Natural History Museum

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Named after the 19th-century palaeontologist Mary Anning, the new rooms provide a restaurant, dining rooms, lounge and study for members and patrons

The Anning Rooms are located on two floors of the south central towers of the Grade I-listed Waterhouse building, originally home to the botany department. Following their redevelopment after damage during the Blitz, these rooms were previously used as storage, office and laboratory space.

Now, with these facilities removed to other areas of the museum, Dannat Johnson Architects has worked to remove all the postwar accretions to bring out the quality of the original spaces. The rooms, which enjoy views out over London and the roofscape of the building, will accommodate the museum’s growing number of members and patrons.

DJA NHM 0030

DJA NHM 0030

The interior and fit-out have been designed to ‘celebrate nature down to the smallest detail’, from wallpaper prints to a 5m-tall ‘cabinet of curiosities’. The latter forms the centrepiece of the space, housing over 150 specimens, with a new staircase wrapping around it that connects the restaurant and dining room level (capable of seating 54) to the lounge and study above.

The design of the wider Waterhouse building is referenced in tiling and floor patterns, while the original terracotta window reveals and sills have been cleaned of paint and exposed. Carpets have been sourced from Net-Works, a company that turns discarded fishing nets into plastic fibres.

549 Section through Cabinet Colour

The Anning Rooms by Dannatt Johnson Architects

Section through cabinet

Architect’s view

The brief – to include highly serviced accommodation and significant structural components in a comparatively inflexible and complex original building structure and fabric – has required an intensive design process between the design team and the client, and close dialogue with the local conservation officer and Historic England.

The new stair and ‘cabinet of curiosities’ is a key feature of the project, and is placed at the entrance into the Members Room creating a focus both for arrival and for the vertical circulation, physically and visually linking the spaces.

To achieve this within the sensitive and physically restricted space, the staircase and cabinet is a complex structural design. The stair is supported on new steel beams that have been carefully inserted into the existing masonry in the floor void, and between original iron girders at the third floor level.

The 5.3m-tall glass and aluminium cabinet contains 150 carefully selected specimens from the museum’s collection, which have been arranged to showcase the diversity of the sea at low level, the earth at mid level and the sky at the top level.

Frameless glass balustrades support a demountable stainless steel handrail which allows future access to the display cabinet. The construction sequence demanded that the steel staircase members be hoisted over the roof of the museum and into the building through a single access door to avoid alteration of the external fabric.

Sophie Potter, partner, Dannatt Johnson Architects

Project data

Start on site November 2016
Completion August 2018
Gross internal floor area 384m²
Form of contract or procurement route Traditional, JCT Standard Building Contract
Architect Dannatt Johnson Architects
Client Natural History Museum
Structural engineer Buro Happold
M&E consultant Buro Happold
QS Gardiner & Theobald
Access consultant Access Matters
Planning consultant Deloitte
Heritage consultant Purcell
Fire safety consultant The Fire Surgery
Project manager Equals
CDM coordinator Baker Mallett
Approved building inspector Oculus
Main contractor Jerram Falkus Construction
CAD software used Vectorworks

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