Hintze Hall’s Hidden Masterpiece

The ceiling of the Natural History Museum's Hintze Hall is a golden cover for a spectacular natural treasure trove.

The Natural History Museum

Natural History Museum

Hintze Hall ceiling (1881)The Natural History Museum

It is a detail that most visitors miss in the rush to see the Natural History Museum's collections, but Hintze Hall's ceiling is a work of art.

The soaring vault is a golden cover for a spectacular natural treasure trove, adorned with 162 illustrated panels showing plants from across the world.

A gleaming canopy has been created with paintings set against wood, glass and metal, fashioning a roof that complements the splendour of the specimens below.

Each panel tells a story - of emerging and fallen empires, prosperity and slavery, and explorers pushing the boundaries of the known world.

Alfred Waterhouse, who designed the Museum, almost certainly dreamt up the ceiling's concept and probably sketched the original designs.

The Natural History Museum in about 1890The Natural History Museum

The Manchester-based firm Best and Lea were charged with making the panels, and experts think artist Charles James Lea scaled up the original drawings to panel size. 

The building was opened to the public in 1881, and the species on its ceiling bring the Victorian age to life.

Decorative ceiling panels in Hintze HallThe Natural History Museum

Many of the plants have medicinal uses, while others are purely ornamental. Some, like cotton and tobacco, were the plants that fuelled the British Empire's economy.

Hintze Hall ceiling (1881)The Natural History Museum

Arranged in sets of six, the illustrations encompass the familiar and the exotic. Fruit features heavily on the ceiling. The illustrations include lemons, oranges, apples, figs, grapes and olives (pictured here).

Olives and olive oil are common across Europe today, but at the time the Museum was built they would have been foreign to many British visitors.

For the Victorian visitor, the Mediterranean olive plant would have had Biblical, rather than culinary, associations.

Apple treeThe Natural History Museum

Other fruit trees can be found closer to Britain, including the apple tree, labelled Pyrus malus. Victorians believed apples were native to Britain, thinking they were a domesticated variety of the wild crab apple.

Hintze Hall ceiling (1881)The Natural History Museum

It's now known that apples can be traced back to central Asia, but scientists are still studying the history of cultivated varieties we eat today.

Peaches (labelled Amygdalus persica, now called Prunus persica) are thought to have originated in China, probably from some wild species still found there.

They do not grow well outdoors in Britain's wet climate, so were grown in greenhouses in the nineteenth century, and eating them would have been considered a special treat.

All Victorian medicine was also based on plants, and their use fascinated both botanists and the general public. Castor oil, taken as a health tonic, was a Victorian household staple.

Castor oil plantThe Natural History Museum

But the seeds of the plant, Ricinus communis, also have a sinister side. They contain a water-soluble protein called ricin, which is a powerful poison. Castor oil itself is not toxic, provided there is no cross-contamination during production.

Hintze Hall ceiling (1881)The Natural History Museum

Illustrations of cotton (pictured here), tobacco and tea remind us of the importance of plants throughout the age of global economic expansion.

Cotton plantThe Natural History Museum

Above the south landing of Hintze Hall, an image of the cotton plant (Gossypium barbadense) reflects the impact of European colonisation on the world. It is a plant that has left a dark and permanent stain on global history.

Hintze Hall ceiling (1881)The Natural History Museum

Cotton, along with tobacco, was a New World mainstay of British trading dominance in the eighteenth century. But cultivation depended upon slave labour, leading to millions of people being taken from their homes and shipped from Africa to plantations throughout the Americas.
Cotton's presence on the ceiling reflects the immense social and economic role it played in nineteenth-century Britain.

Global exploration changed British culture as well as the economy. New plants poured into the country during the nineteenth century, as explorers sent home seeds and cuttings. Their discoveries inspired Victorian gardeners to cultivate fruit and flowers from around the world.

Plants from the foothills of the Himalayas often thrived in British gardens, as both regions have similar climates.

One such plant was the rhododendron, pictured here. Since the 1800s, rhododendrons have been cultivated and hybridised to create a huge range of colours.

All life on Earth depends on plants, so it is fitting that botany is prominent throughout this cathedral of nature. Plants provide the air we breathe and sustain the world's food chains. They are symbols of new life, growth and biodiversity.

Hintze Hall's ornate ceiling, painstakingly designed and gilded, is a tribute both to the immense diversity of life on Earth, and those working to protect it.

Credits: Story

All rights reserved © the Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London.

Words by Katie Pavid.

Find out more Hintze Hall's ceiling.

Read about the exciting changes in store for Hintze Hall.

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