NHM looks to future with members’ centre

The Natural History Museum today opens a new £4m suite of rooms for members and patrons as it re-focusses its fund-raising and public engagement policy on its scientific research.

The Mary Anning Rooms, celebrating the early19thcentury fossil hunter and palaeontology pioneer, have been created in the long-unused south central towers of the 1870s Alfred Waterhouse building, include a new restaurant and dining rooms with wallpaper designs inspired by the original ceiling in the main Hintze Hall, a study centre and a coffee lounge.

All images courtesy of NHM trustees

Two floors are connected by a staircase which incorporates a “cabinet of curiosities, a large glass display case containing 150 objects that highlight the museum’s unrivalled collections. The rooms had been little used for decades, and post-war false ceilings and room divides have been removed to reveal the original lay-outs. The new designs borrow heavily from the original architecture of the admired Grade I listed Waterhouse building, with tiling patterns and floors referring to the Victorian terracotta coursing and mosaic-work.

Each room has displays and interpretation linking with the history and collections of the museum, and they offer unprecedented views of the building and of South Kensington beyond.

“We are delighted to be able to breathe new life back into this neglected, historic space” said Christina Heap, head of membership, who said there are currently 16,500 members. “The beautifully curated suite of rooms will provide an exciting, inspiring and engaging space for members and patrons to enjoy.”

The museum, said its director Sir Michael Dixon, was looking to its members and patrons to not only increase income by refocus attention on the NHM’s world-leading research, which is not funded.

“We have a lot of one-time visitors from overseas” he told AI, “but we want to build a more loyal following among UK residents, and as the museum’s own scientific work  focusses on work that has impact on societal issues - a lot of work on the eradication of disease, securing food supplies for the future, availability of scarce minerals, we think we will engage an audience much more effectively

A drive to increase membership – at an annual subscription of £62 – over the last four years has brought an increase of 42% and it is hoped that the new facilities wil help boost the annual income from members and patrons (of which there are currently 65 paying between £1,000 and £10,.000 a year) from £500,000 to £1m.

The museum has just under £40m a year from the government in grants but has had its subsidy cut by 30% since 2010, Dixon said. There has been a recent drop in visitor numbers among national museums in London, he said, and while the NHM’s figures fell by 400,000 over two years they are now almost back to the 5m it enjoyed following the scrapping of admission fees in 2001.

“But it’s not overtly about fundraising, it’s also about supporting the causes of the museum” Dixon said. “The museum needs to be much more visible in talking about big societal issues, big environmental issues, the fact that our current methods of producing and consuming food are unsustainable - not to be strident about it but providing evidence for people to make up their own minds.

“I hope people will become members of the museum because they support the causes of the museum more than to enjoy the benefits that accrue. We want people to join and stay because of what we do rather than what we are.”

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