What’s on the van? – Four-horned trunk fish


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Malgosia Nowak-Kemp, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Zoological Collections.

The name “four-horned trunk fish”, Acanthostracion quadricornis, comes from this animal’s unusual appearance. The fish looks rather like a stiff box or trunk with solid walls that allow only small openings for the tail, fins, eyes and mouth, but keeps all the internal organs safe from predators. Some members of this group are not only protected by the box’s shape and its structure, but also have the ability to release a poison when threatened. Acanthostracion quadricornis, can be easily identified by the presence of four “horns”, two at the front of the head and two at the back of the body. The animal’s other name of “cowfish” makes a clear reference to them. This and other members of its family, Ostraciidae, live in shallow waters of oceans: Atlantic, Indian and Pacific

This particular example is one of the oldest specimens in the country, as it dates from the seventeenth century. It belonged to the Tradescant Collection, also known as the “Tradescant Ark”, assembled by the two John Tradescants, father and son. Their collection of “Naturalia” and “Artificialia” contained not only exotic, hitherto unknown animals and plants, but also portraits,  clothes, weapons and jewels brought by sailors and traders from newly discovered  lands. The collection was displayed for many years at the Tradescants’ home in Lambeth, London and all the specimens were listed in 1656 in the very first printed museum catalogue in the country.

In 1678 their collection became the property of Elias Ashmole, who in turn offered it to Oxford University. In 1683 fourteen carts containing the collection travelled on barges to Oxford to be displayed in the newly built Ashmolean Museum, then located on Broad Street. This ancient fish is now one of the real treasures of the Museum of Natural History’s collection.

What's on the van?

Getting about


With our Goes to Town exhibits in place all over Oxford city centre, we are keeping our collections hard at work even while the Museum is closed. But it isn’t just our specimen collections that are getting all the action – material from the Archives has journeyed outside the Museum walls too…

In association with the Friends of Summertown Library, we have put together a display from our archival collections celebrating former Summertown resident and Museum scientist John Obadiah Westwood. Westwood was the first Hope Professor of Zoology at the University in the late 19th century, and in addition to being a leading figure in the development of entomology as an academic discipline, he was also an amazing artist.

Westwood was so well known for his ability to accurately capture the details of insect specimens in his own work that he was commissioned to complete illustrations for a number of important entomological texts of his time.

Chairman of the Friends of Summertown Library, Marcus Ferrar, with the display at Summertown Library
Chairman of the Friends of Summertown Library, Marcus Ferrar, with the display at Summertown Library

Our archive is full of examples of Westwood’s talents, though most of his drawings have never been on display to the public before. This first-of-a-kind display for our Archive features a number of original copies of his work, including drawings of butterflies, beetles and even medieval manuscripts. It also features lots of interesting facts about Westwood, including his love of gardening and his fascination with biblical texts.

Westwood by Chris JarvisThe exhibit in Summertown Library runs until 18 October 2013 and can been seen during library opening hours. If you’re there with children don’t forget to ask for a Museum of Natural History colouring sheet, featuring this drawing of Westwood in action by our other talented Museum artist and Education Officer, Chris Jarvis.

A big thanks goes to the Friends of Summertown Library for working with us to make this unique opportunity happen. Do let us and the library know what you think.

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

Featured photo – Crystals within crystals

Crystals within crystals

We have been doing a spot of mineral photography today, as part of an imaging project being undertaken by Dara Lohnes, a Leicester Museum Studies student who will be based with us for the next eight weeks. This is one of her shots – beautiful isn’t it?

It shows crystals within crystals – sprays of golden brown rutile crystals (titanium dioxide) inside colourless crystals of quartz (silicon dioxide). The metallic silver  is a mineral called hematite (iron oxide). The specimen comes from Ibitiara, Bahia, Brazil and was purchased by the Museum in 2007.

What’s on the van? – Cold Bokkeveld meteorite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Monica Price, Assistant Curator, Mineral Collections.

“The loudest thunder we had ever heard…”
It’s a very good thing this little piece of dull grey rock, less than 30mm across, has a label on it to say what it is! ‘Meteorolite’ is an old name for a meteorite, and this is part of one that fell over the Cold Bokkeveld valley, Cape Province, South Africa, on 13 October 1838. Kieviet, a servant out collecting wood, gave an eye witness account:

 ‘It was a fine clear morning; there were no clouds in the sky, and there was no wind. At about nine o’clock a.m., whilst we were busy loading the waggon with wood, close to the foot of the mountain, we heard a strange noise in the air resembling the loudest thunder we had ever heard, and on looking up we perceived a stream passing over our heads, issuing a noise which petrified us with terror; a burst took place close to the waggon, when something fell and a smoke arose from the grass. My master sent me to look what it was that had fallen, when I found a stone quite warm, so much so that I could not hold it in my hands’.  (Phil.Trans.Roy. Soc., vol. 130, 1840, 177-182)

The Cold Bokkeveld meteorite came all the way from the asteroid belt, where large and small chunks of rocky debris, left over from the formation of the planets, orbit in a band between Mars and Jupiter. When asteroids collide with each other and get knocked out of their orbits, some pieces find themselves on a collision course with Earth to become meteorites.

The other side shows the meteorite itself

This one is a ‘carbonaceous chondrite’, a kind of meteorite that is particularly interesting for scientists because it contains large organic molecules such as amino acids. These are also essential for living organisms; just possibly, meteorites played a role in the origin of life on Earth. It also contains minute diamonds.

The meteorite is about 4.5 billion years old, as old as the Earth itself. The diamonds in it are much older – real star dust from outer space!

What's on the van?

Dodo Loco

Michael Rosen enters the 'Alice Door', Christ Church Oxford
Michael Rosen enters the ‘Alice Door’, Christ Church Oxford

I had a magical day of wonderland adventures recently. Each year Oxford celebrates one of its favourite literary daughters with Alice’s Day, a festival of theatre, art, stories and general silliness that takes place throughout the city. As we’re closed this year, we couldn’t join in on the day, so we decided to do something special in the run up.

_DSC2739Along with the Story Museum, Christ Church cathedral and Blackwell’s, the Museum has created the Alice Team… or A Team! Our mission is to show Oxford’s children what an inspiring city they live in, tell them tales of Alice in Wonderland and help them create something fit for an imaginary world. With this year’s Alice’s Day theme set as nonsense, we created a project called Dodo Loco.

Dodos may be extinct, but we certainly tracked a few down on our hunt around Christ Church. _DSC2694Children from Larkrise, East Oxford and St Ebbe’s Primary Schools joined us for an exciting behind-the-scenes trail, visiting special spots like the rooms where Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson, or Dodo Dodgson) lived, and the lawn where the real Alice (Alice Liddell) played croquet. 

Along the way, they tracked down nonsense words dotted around the college and cathedral. Once we were fired up and had soaked up the atmosphere of Alice in Wonderland, we all marched over to the Story Museum for the next stage of our Alice adventure. _DSC2802

_DSC2815The 120 children (and the A Team members) were treated to a spectacular nonsense poetry workshop by the fabulous Michael Rosen. He got everyone laughing and moving as he performed some of his own poems; my favourite was Hand on the Bridge and I really recommend watching this video for a glimpse of his style. Then, using the words gathered around Christ Church and lots of ideas from the children, he created some more hilarious nonsense poetry, before handing over to the children themselves.


I must admit to being enormously in awe of Michael, so it was great to see how patient and warm he was towards the children and even the adults! He joined my group for the tour around Christ Church, which was both exciting and quite nerve-wracking! He was great, though, joining in with the activities and even telling me a few extra stories about the Alice in Wonderland characters. Here I am with Michael, enjoying another inspiring story.

More Dodo Loco updates coming soon!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

A puzzle of maps

William Smith

Over the past six months the Museum Archive has been working on project to catalogue and digitise the William Smith collection. Often referred to as the ‘Father of English Geology’, William Smith was a land surveyor and mining expert in the early 19th century. He developed the techniques of geological mapping that are still used today.

William Smith
William Smith

The Museum’s collection came from Smith’s nephew, John Phillips, a geologist and first keeper of the Museum. It contains Smith’s notes, diaries and correspondence, as well as a large selection of geological maps. While digitisation projects are always complex, Smith’s maps have presented some challenging problems, including the fact that a number of them have been cut up into small pieces!

Recently, work-experience students Matthew and Alex (hiding under his hat in the photograph) helped to sort out Smith’s maps of Yorkshire and Northumberland, which were stored as a large number of rectangular pieces. Both were likely cut up by Smith himself, or his nephew John, to use in the field.

Matthew and Alex were quick to catch on to the best technique for sorting a map- do the outside pieces first, just like a puzzle!
Matthew and Alex were quick to catch on to the best technique for sorting a map- do the outside pieces first, just like a puzzle!

Large and detailed maps were necessary for the type of surveying and geological work undertaken by the two men in the early 19th century, but such documents were unwieldy to carry in their original format. Folding the map was also not a good idea, as the folds would wear quickly and tear, making it impossible to read along the tear lines.

Instead, maps would be cut into a number of small pieces and mounted to linen. This allowed the map to be folded to a nice portable size without wearing any section of the map. It looks as though Smith and Phillips never got around to mounting these.

Once the map was sorted into its original order, the students scanned it with the help of our collections assistant and digitisation expert Sarah Joomun. Even after some quick work we can see that the techniques used to recreate the map as a single piece were quite successful.

All of Smith’s maps and a large number of his notes and documents will be available online early next year, with the launch of the Archives’ new online catalogue. This work is being completed thanks to the generous funding received for this project by Arts Council England.

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections