Gothic Revival Explored through Oxford Museum of Natural History

Oxford Museum of Natural History exterior on a bright, sunny day | ProfJoeCain

A guided tour through key architectural and design philosophies underpinning the Oxford Museum of Natural History by Henry Acland, who played a key role in the design of the new university science museum in the 1850s. The museum is famous as an architectural wonder, a cathedral to science. The building is famous for the over-imagined skirmish, the Huxley-Wilberforce debate (an event at the 1860 meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, held in Oxford that year to commemorate the museum’s opening.)

In this short book, Acland describes his expectations for the building, nearing completion while he wrote. He also discusses its famous connection to the “Gothic revival” in British Victorian architecture and why it was so important to leave behind its neo-classical predecessor. While guiding readers through some of the building’s chief features, Acland leaves no doubt this was a project meant to combine nature and God; reverence and rigour. It’s a vision of science and religion that’s largely forgotten today.

Acland appends two 1858-59 letters from John Ruskin. In this correspondence, the great advocate of Gothic design elaborates some of the core principles of that architectural style and design concept, then relates Gothic to Oxford’s museum. This is a superb summary of Gothic Revivalism. Ruskin summarised his ideas in The Nature of Gothic, itself a quick summary of his book, The Stones of Venice.

Acland also adds 1859 correspondence from John Phillips, describing plans to integrate geological materials into the building’s decorative features, such as the many columns, each chosen to sample a type of rock. 

Like so many people, I love to wander through the Oxford Museum of Natural History. With this book in hand, I find I see so much more and I can answer the marvelling  questions that pop into my head: why that? what’s this? who decided to make it that way? This is not a guidebook in the strict sense of a map through exhibitions. But it’s a guide, to be sure. 

Oxford Museum of Natural History, close-up of exterior window | ProfJoeCain


Henry Acland (1815-1900) was physician and natural scientist closely associated with the revival of the medical school and the study of natural science at University of Oxford.


Acland, Henry, and Ruskin, John (1859) The Oxford Museum (London: Euston Grove Press), 128 pages. 2010 facsimile of 1859 edition.

ISBN13: 9781906267193 (paperback)
dimensions: A5 5.8 x 8.3 (inches) or A5 148 x 210 (mm)
Apple iBook edition is available 

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Acland and Ruskin's (1859) The Oxford Museum - describes architectural decisions for the famous building.