What’s on the van? – Stromatolite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr Tracy Aze, Museum of Natural History Research Fellow.

This rock called a stromatolite (from the Greek strōma, meaning mattress or bed and lithos meaning rock) is from a very old suite of rocks called the Porsanger Dolomite Formation in Norway, and is at least 542 million years old.

Modern day stromatolites in the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, Shark Bay, Western Australia. Image from www.rockhounds.com.
Modern day stromatolites in the Hamelin Pool Marine Nature Reserve, Shark Bay, Australia.

Stromatolites are produced by the activity of ancient blue-green algae, otherwise known as cyanobacteria. The algae are photosynthetic and need good light conditions to allow them to photosynthesise, consequently they live in shallow waters where sunlight can penetrate. They grow in thin mats on the sea floor, which helps them maximise the amount of light they receive. Over time these mats are covered by sediment grains, which block the sunlight and the algae move up through the sediment layer as they migrate back towards the light. This process happens time and time again over many years and the layering that can be seen in this rock is built up as a result.

The algae that produce stromatolites represent some of the earliest life forms on Earth and some deposits have been dated at 3.5 billion years old! Although they are some of our most primitive life forms, communities of these types of algae can still be found living today in shallow warm waters in places such as Western Australia and The Bahamas and visiting these places is thought to be bit like looking through a window to our distant geological past.

What's on the van?

Conservators in the making

Once in a Whale

Over the last couple of weeks our conservation team has been involved in the popular ‘Making Museums’ school project hosted between the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Bethany, Nicola and I took turns to lead behind-the-scenes tours of our ‘whale aisle’, during which 10-11 year old pupils from East Oxford primary schools were introduced to ‘conservation’ as a wonderful museum profession.

Pupils learned about the importance of specimens to the museum and scientists, what affected the condition of the skeletons, how we conserved the whales, how and why whale anatomy differs between species and about what talents and special interests conservators bring to the profession.

We loved seeing their eyes widen at the size of our enormous Sperm Whale mandible, their disgust at handling a ball of tar-like degraded whale oil, their bewilderment at the fact whales have floating pelvises, and their bemusement at…

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What’s on the van? – Jervis Label


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections.

A story to tell
Each of the millions of different objects in our Museum has a story to tell – what it is, where it is from, who collected it, when and why. All that information is collected together on the specimen’s label, and museum curators look after labels like this just as carefully as they do the specimens themselves.

Some of the labels in the Museum are very old, but the handwriting can be distinctive. Although this label does not say who wrote it, we can tell from the handwriting, the style of number, and the Italian locality, that it was written by an Englishman called William Jervis. He was a geologist who worked at the Museo Industriale Italiano (Italian Industry Museum) in Turin during the second half of the 19th century.

Label 2William Jervis wrote books on the rocks and minerals of Italy that are important for ores, building materials and water supplies. He also put together sets of rocks samples to be sold to other museums and universities. He trimmed each one to a neat rectangular shape and gave it a number. On the label, he’d write the number, what the rock was, and exactly where it was collected. Some of his labels are very detailed indeed and show that his samples came from places no longer accessible today. The specimen accompanying this label is one of a set of Sardinian rocks. It comes from San Giovannni mine, near Iglesias, and shows the kind of grey limestone that was found close to the ‘lode’, the vein of lead and zinc ore minerals which was being worked by the miners.

Do you have a collection of geological specimens, or maybe shells, plants or insects? It is always a good idea to do what William Jervis did, put a number on each specimen (maybe using a little paper label), and then write all the information about it on a label. It’s also a good idea to keep that information all together in a book or on a computer so that if a label goes missing, the information is kept safe. Don’t forget to keep a back-up of your computer file though, just in case!

What's on the van?

Goings and comings!

Amoret Spooner (left)  and Zoë Simmons (right) dismantling the exhibition (photo: Keiko Ikeuchi, MHS)
Amoret Spooner (left) and Zoë Simmons (right) dismantling the exhibition

This week we’ve been at the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street, taking down our temporary exhibition, ‘Natural Histories’. We had some lovely feedback from people who saw the display. They enjoyed seeing old friends from the Museum of Natural History’s displays such as the giant ammonite that people can touch, the jaw of Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur ever to be described by scientists, and the lovely old insect collecting tools used by entomologists.

Specimens stored in spirit need very careful handling
Specimens stored in spirit need very careful handling

The exhibition also had some things we are rarely able to put on display. The beautiful hand-painted butterflies in William Jones’ Icones, and White Watson’s inlaid stone slabs representing the strata of Derbyshire, are just two of the treasures we normally keep in a darkened room because too much light will damage them. We showed crabs collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of The Beagle, and even a plant from the University’s herbaria that was collected by Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who devised the system of ‘Latin’ names we still use for plants and animals today.

Every item is being carefully checked and packed up, but don’t worry, they are not staying in our stores for long. We will be taking them to Banbury Museum where ‘Natural Histories’ will be going on show again from 30th November 2013 until late February 2014. So, even if you missed the exhibition in Oxford, you’ll have a last chance to see it in Banbury.

Conservator Gemma Aboe packs away the pigmy anteater
Conservator Gemma Aboe packs away the pigmy anteater

All photos, Keiko Ikeuchi, MHS

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections

Coming down


The picture above gives some impression of the latticework of scaffolding and ladders that have grown to occupy the spaces inside the Museum. In places the density of the scaffolding is visually impenetrable as you can see in the black and white photograph below.

A dense structure of lines  and levels cuts across the upper gallery level of the central court.
A dense structure of lines and levels cuts across the upper gallery level of the central court.

Some of the very top layers of this scaffold are set to come down now that the tiling on the central apex is completed. Where tiles have been cleaned or replaced the sunlight pours in to the upper spaces and the sky is clearly visible beyond. Previously, the tiles offered only a murky view of the outside world, obscured by decades of dirt and organic growth.

It is a great experience poking around in the normally sequestered heights of the Museum’s architecture. I have been lucky to be able to get up there a number of times during the construction work, photographing the different phases and the unexpected finds that have been uncovered in the process.

One thing you notice up in the roof is the level of intricate detailing that was applied right to the very top of the structure. Beams are painted with strikingly colourful geometric patterns; finials and capitals offer ornately-sculpted flora, each distinct from its neighbour; and even the pipework carries little decorative flourishes here and there.

The story of the design and construction of the building is recounted in articles available in the Learning More section of our website. These are worth a read if you’d like to know more about the thinking and work behind the Museum building, which originally opened in 1860. There are also plans for an exhibition that will reveal the Pre-Raphaelites’ influence on the design of this so-called ‘cathedral to science’, following a period of research by Dr John Holmes.

As the scaffolding is struck and the building contractors descend back to the lower levels, so the secrets of the Museum return to their hiding places. We have already discovered a number of names and dates scrawled, painted and even carved into the structures – more on that soon. But perhaps there are more messages from the past, overlooked during the current roof work. If so, could it be another century or more before anyone claps eyes on them?


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Scott Billings, Communications coordinator