Scaffolding sketches


The Museum has a long history as a source of inspiration for artists; from the involvement of the Pre-Raphaelites in the building’s construction, to the thousands of art students that visit each year. This year’s closure period has been particularly interesting for one artist, Kate Kay.

Kate Kay in the Museum
Kate Kay in the Museum

Kate, who lives locally in Oxford, is doing a continuing practice course through Ovada, an Oxfordshire contemporary arts organisation.

An architectural background and interest in drawing in large internal spaces led Kate to the Museum. She said “I’m particularly interested in framed structures through which one can see. The Museum of Natural History certainly provides this, with its dramatic and innovative structure, and its remarkable collection of skeletons adding further layers of interest. When I heard that the Museum was to be closed for renovation works, I realised that the scaffolding, and the protective wrapping of the skeletons would add yet more layers.”

Cut paper work inspired by the layers in the Museum
Cut paper work inspired by the layers in the Museum

During the early part of the year, Kate visited regularly and was welcomed on site by the contractors. With hard hat and high-vis jacket, she was allowed to  go anywhere on the site, and she made numerous sketches and took photos. From May she then worked on a very large charcoal drawing (top of this post), incorporating various elements of the Museum and the renovation project in one image. She also produced a work in cut paper (right) combining several ‘see-through’ images. These were exhibited in an end-of-year show at the Oxfordshire Museum in Woodstock.

P1030503“Now that most of the scaffolding is down, one can see how the Museum has been transformed. I’ve really appreciated the opportunities that this project has provided, particularly in exploring up in the roof structure. I look forward to drawing in the Museum again, once it’s back in action in the spring, possibly focusing more closely on some of the other exhibits.”

It’s important that this special year of closure has been documented in Kate’s drawings. When we re-open, I hope that more artists than ever will be inspired by the Museum, as sunlight floods through our sparklingly clean roof.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

What’s on the van? – Bumble bee


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr. James Hogan, of the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.

Bumblebees and honeybees busily working away are one of the iconic visions of summer. Bumblebees and honeybees are also closely related, both belonging to the order Hymenoptera, family Apidae.

In the UK 28 species of bumblebee (species of Bombus) have been recorded, although several species are sadly now extinct or have been seen only a few times.

The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) has been the focus of recent conservation efforts. Although extinct in the UK, descendants of some British short-haired bumblebees still survive– in New Zealand! These bees originate from a deliberate introduction to New Zealand in the late 19th Century for pollination of clover crops. Unfortunately, attempts to re-introduce these New Zealand bees have been unsuccessful because they are too inbred, but by introducing short-haired bumblebees from Sweden the species is establishing again in Kent (more details about the short-haired bumblebee re-introduction can be found at )

Although we have lost some species we have recently gained one more, the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). This species is believed to have colonised the UK naturally from France and since its arrival about 10 years ago is spreading rapidly across Britain. We first became aware of this new bee in Oxford in 2008 when Steven Williams, one of our regular volunteers, brought in a strange-looking bumblebee which none of us recognised. It had a colour pattern unlike any other British species, with a red-brown thorax and a black abdomen with a white tip.

After a bit of detective work (and some help from local bee expert Ivan Wright) the arrival of the tree bumblebee in Oxford was confirmed. This bumblebee is now a common sight in Oxford gardens –look out for it next spring!

What's on the van?

Seaside Minerals

Russell Society

Last week, members of the Southern Branch of the Russell Society came to visit the Museum. They especially wanted to see some of the minerals in our collection that came from the South Coast of England. The Russell Society, in case you are wondering, runs lectures, museum visits and fieldtrips for people who enjoy finding out about minerals. It is named after Sir Arthur Russell, one of Britain’s most gifted amateur mineralogists. I’m a member and so is one of our volunteers, Jane Randle.

Baryte from Babbacombe, Devon (80mm across)
Baryte from Babbacombe, Devon (80mm across)

Now, Jane and I know the Russell Society folk are a very knowledgeable lot, so we put our heads together a devised a challenge for them. We got out from the stores a whole lot of interesting minerals from quarries, mines, beaches and cliff exposures all along the coast from Kent round to south Devon, and laid them out in a random way. Then came the fun bit; we took away all the labels!

The task was to work as a team and organise the minerals according to where they were found, from west to east. Easy? Well, that depends on how good you are at recognising the different kinds of minerals and where they come from.

One of the fun things about minerals is that each kind  – calcite, quartz, gypsum, etc, – can look very different according to where it is found. Some are very easy to recognise but some are not. After much debate, looking at maps, and rearrangement of specimens came the moment of truth as Jane and I put the labels back with their specimens, and everyone could see whether or not they were right.

Fossil sponge preserved in chalcedony from Brighton beach (110mm across)
Fossil sponge preserved in chalcedony from Brighton beach (110mm across)

Our Russell Society folk certainly showed they know their local minerals!  They recognised the little round masses of baryte crystals from the Isle of Sheppey,  large transparent  gypsum crystals from Battle, powdery white masses of aluminite from Newhaven, rare blue vivianite crystals from near Southampton, sparkling pointed crystals of calcite from Charmouth, branching crystals of real gold from near Torquay, and many more. Others did elude them, and came from surprising places. Our beautiful polished slices of fossil sponges, for example, came from pebbles collected on Brighton beach in the 19th century!

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections

Secrets of Bones

Once in a Whale

Although the conservation of our whale specimens has drawn to a close, there’s still a hub of activity in the ‘whale aisle’. This week, we had an opportunity to finally uncover the Sperm Whale mandible as it was featured in a new BBC Nature Series, ‘Secrets of Bones’. To see the specimen for the first time, under natural light without the shelter of scaffolding was a real delight.


The conservation team was eager to oversee the action and learn about the process of putting a documentary together. Ben Garrod, evolutionary biologist, used the museum specimens to look at the evolution of the mandible and its diversity in nature.  The beautiful Sperm Whale jaw is an excellent example of this.


The series will be televised in February 2014, and we’re excited to see if we made it on-screen!

The re-installation of the remaining skeletons is expected to happen in 2 weeks…

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A blur of activity


After almost a year of being ensconced in metal scaffolding and boarded hoardings the working structure inside the Museum was brought to ground with impressive rapidity – and a whole lot of noise – last week.

The tiles before cleaning!
The tiles before cleaning!

The blurry figure you can see above is one of a number of construction staff who struck the scaffold in a matter of days, throwing sunshine on the north aisle once again. Now only the central column of scaffolding remains, with just 80-odd glass tiles still to be fitted. Once this section comes down the roof again becomes an inaccessible domain, populated with secret graffiti and the newly-installed plaque.

The cleaned glass tiles waiting to be reinstalled
The cleaned glass tiles waiting to be reinstalled

Down on the ground the light is flooding in to the Museum, as you can see in the picture below. To the left you can see why: this is an example of the state of the tiles before they were cleaned, so you can imagine how much light was being blocked by a century or so’s grime.

Now our attention is starting to turn to the task of repopulating all the empty aisles and cases. It’s a big job that requires a lot of careful planning, but we’ll keep you posted along the way.

OUM Project 2013 (2)
Photo: Mike Peckett

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator

What’s on the van? – Beryl gemstones


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

This time, it’s a special double issue of ‘What’s on the van?’! Two gemstones, that look very different, turn out to be exactly the same mineral, beryl. On the right is a greenish yellow variety of beryl called ‘heliodor’. It gets its name from the Greek word for the sun, and is coloured by a trace of ferric iron. The stone on the left is absolutely colourless because it has no impurities colouring it. This kind is known as ‘goshenite’ after Goshen in Massachusetts, USA, where it was first found.

Beryl is composed of beryllium, aluminium, silicon and oxygen (Be3Al2(SiO3)6 to be precise) and it is not very common. Flawless transparent crystals are rare, and as they are also very hard and durable, they are ideal for cutting into gemstones. Heliodor and goshenite are not often seen in jewellers shops, and nor is the pretty pale pink variety called ‘morganite’. There are two kinds of beryl which are much better known, ‘aquamarine’ and ‘emerald’. Aquamarine is  coloured light blue or green by a trace of ferrous iron, while rare and highly prized emerald is vibrant green because it contains a little bit of chromium.

We talk about ‘cutting’ gemstones, but in fact the faces are ground away on a flat fast-revolving flat metal plate charged with abrasive powder, called a lap. The faces are then polished using finer and finer grades of abrasive powder. Each face is cut at a very precise angle to get the maximum amount of sparkle in the gem.

Our heliodor and goshenite gems are from a beautiful collection generously presented to the Museum by Mr Bernie Peel in 2004. You will be able to see lots more cut stones from the Peel collection in the Museum’s gemstone display when the Museum reopens in February 2014.

What's on the van?