Natural History Museum, London

Transforming a National Treasure

Natural History Museum


Experiential exhibition design meets one of Britain’s most loved museums

The Natural History Museum is one of Britain’s most treasured institutions. It cares for more than 80 million objects and welcomes over five million visitors every year. Part of its pull is its reputation for innovative, brave and bold displays – a place where children and adults alike can get hands on with science and be wowed by the natural world. But this was not always the case. Rewind just 30 years and the museum was still very much a relic off the Victorian era.

We were part of a team of agencies that helped transform the museum into what it is today. In a first for a large national museum, we moved away from traditional collections display and instead turned to the world of visitor attractions. The result was a truly theatrical, experiential and interactive series of new exhibition spaces. Though relatively familiar today, this was a pioneering approach at the time that has gone on to revolutionise the industry’s approach to museum design.

A bold new entrance set the tone for the revamped museum. The foyer was transformed by a new escalator and a dramatic installation of the earth shattered into pieces. This immediately changed the space from stiff and stuffy to open and enticing. Our role in the team to was design Power Within, a gallery that explores the earth’s unseen processes.

Taking our cue from the tone set in the foyer, we used experiential design to bring to life the sheer power and staggering force of earth’s most formidable processes – volcanoes erupting, tectonic plates moving, earthquakes shaking. Multimedia installations and mechanical contraptions let visitors see, hear and feel the energy of the earth’s core all around them and get a visceral understanding of its strength. Highlights include stepping inside a recreated Japanese supermarket which shakes violently to recreate the 1995 Kobe Earthquake. Products fall off shelves, the electricity temporarily cuts out and CCTV screens show live footage of the real earthquake.

The impact of this project cannot be underestimated. Not only did it transform the Natural History Museum’s reptation, it created a ripple effect that transformed the industry’s approach to museum design on a global scale. Today, visitors expect to be wowed by innovative and experiential museum displays and they have the Natural History Museum to thank for that.

The earthquake simulation comes out as one of the most popular exhibits in the Museum.

Giles Clarke, Head of Exhibitions and Education, The Natural History Museum