The Geological Museum (originally The Museum of Practical Geology, started in 1835) is one of the oldest single science museums in the world and now part of the Natural History Museum in London. It transferred from Jermyn Street to Exhibition Road, South Kensington in 1935 in a building designed by Sir Richard Allison and John Hatton Markham of the Office of Works.
When the museum was reopened in 1935 following the move to Exhibition Road, it became well known for the many dioramas (three-dimensional paintings) used to interpret geology and one or two mining techniques. These have largely been dismantled since the Natural History Museum took over the Museum in 1986.
In 1965, the museum had been merged with the British Geological Survey and Overseas Geological Surveys, under the name "Institute of Geological Sciences". In 1971 the Museum employed the late designer James Gardiner to design and produce The Story of the Earth, which was acknowledged as a significant breakthrough in science museum design and critically acclaimed and imitated worldwide. It was opened by Queen Elizabeth II and became well known for the huge reproduction of a rock face, cast from site in Scotland, and for its planetarium, active volcano model and earthquake machine.
Between 1971 and 1974 the museum formed its own design team which, working closely with the scientists and technicians, produced a series of temporary and permanent exhibitions starting with the re-presentation of the gem collection and then, with a design team led by Giles Velarde (Head of Exhibition Design from 1974–1988), produced Early Days of Geology in Britain, Black Gold, Britain Before Man, Journey to the Planets, British Fossils, Pebbles, Treasures of the Earth and finally British Offshore Oil and Gas, which opened in 1988.
Treasures of the Earth was the first major museum gallery in the world to integrate computers presenting images and text adjacent to artefacts as part of the information process within the exhibition. The central feature film, Liquid Assets, in the Oil and Gas exhibition was shot and viewed vertically from a circular gallery and won a major award from the IVCA in 1989.
Following the relocation of the British Geological Survey's academic activities to Keyworth, the museum was transferred from the custody of the Natural Environment Research Council to the newly independent Natural History Museum. Although an administrative merger with the Natural History Museum had been effected by 1988 (from which time the former Geological Museum was promoted as the The Earth Galleries), it was not until 1998 that the previously difficult to find corridor between the two museum buildings was replaced by a new link gallery.
Surveys had shown that relatively few visitors navigated the Geological Museum's monumental staircase to the top floors. The re-ordering of the galleries means that visitors are now encouraged to start their visit at the top of the building. This was achieved in 1996 by a design by Neal Potter including the installation of a large escalator (rising eleven metres at a 30° slope) in the former Central Hall of the museum, renamed Visions of Earth. The escalator ascends continuously over two storeys and passes through a model globe. The previously open-sided balconies of the atrium space are now solid walls lined with slabs of recycled slate. These are sand-blasted to show the major stars in the night sky and the planets in the solar system. When first opened, the globe rotated around the escalator, with dramatic sound effects based on Jimi Hendrix's "Third Stone from the Sun", attempting to give an impression of the flux in the core of the Earth.
The Museums Association's journal Museum Practice reported in 2007 that “the contrast between galleries just before and just after Potter’s arrival (at the Natural History Museum) is like switching over from a television programme made for schools to a big-screen epic, choreographed by Busby Berkeley.”