By Mark Carnall, Life Collections manager
The museum holds the only remaining soft tissue of the extinct dodo known anywhere in the world. The partially dissected skin of the head and scales from the feet of a single dodo represent one of natural history’s most iconic specimens. In fact, it is so tied to the museum’s identity and history that we use the dodo as our logo and it is even incorporated in the name of this blog.
Although the dodo head had been at Oxford University since the formation of the original Ashmolean Museum in the 17th century, it wasn’t really until the 19th century that the specimen really became celebrated.
Around this time, publications confirmed the extinction of the dodo from the island of Mauritius, where it was endemic. To capitalise on the rising interest in the animal, Ashmolean Museum Keeper John Duncan commissioned a number of casts of the Oxford Dodo head to give to, and exchange with, other museums.
One of the earliest of these casts was presented to the British Museum in 1828; later casts are recorded as being sent or exchanged with leading scientists of the time, as well as with Leiden Museum and the Royal College of Surgeons.
From these original and later casts further casts and models were presumably made, and eventually, dodo specimens spread to virtually every major natural history museum in the world. Today, many museums display casts of this head, all stemming from the single specimen held here in Oxford.
The Museum contains a number of models and casts of the head too; some are made from plaster and resin, some are painted to resemble the original specimen. The head of the dodo was actually dissected in 1847, by Henry Acland. He removed the skin from one side of the face so the early casts are a record of how the specimen would have looked originally.
In preparation for the Presenting display in the Museum I contacted natural history museums through the Natural Sciences Collections Association asking people to share information and photos about their casts and models of the dodo head. I wanted to try and construct a picture of how the dodo head was disseminated, as well as capture the diversity of quality and colours of representations of the original specimen. Here’s how far some of the dodos have flown:
American Museum of Natural History
Cast of head with no further catalogue information about provenance.
Bradford Museums and Galleries
© Bradford Museums and Galleries
Cast of the head labelled as coming from Cartwright Hall. Curator Gerry McGowan suspects this may have come via the Bradford Philosophical Society collections. The first curator of the society, Louis Compton Miall was friends with Thomas Henry Huxley and through him had contacts with many other geologists who may have gifted or exchanged this cast.
Bristol Museum & Art Gallery
Bristol received a cast of the head directly from Oxford from Philip Duncan in 1834, keeper of the Ashmolean Museum between 1826 and 1855. Unfortunately, the head was likely destroyed in bombings of Bristol in 1940.
Canterbury Museum, New Zealand
Received a cast of a head from Professor Rolleston on 21 July 1871 in exchange for two kiwi skeletons which are still in the museum collections today.
Grant Museum of Zoology UCL
Cast of head and foot presented to the museum by E.Ray Lankester in 1891/1892 just after leaving UCL and being appointed the Linacre Professor of Comparative Anatomy at Oxford.
Great North Museum Hancock
The Great North Museum Hancock’s cast was presented by George Townsend Fox. This specimen had been presented to the Natural History Society of Newcastle in 1841 by Fox and had originally been presented by Philip Duncan.
Horniman Museum and Gardens
Cast of the head that had quite a circuitous route to the Horniman Museum. The Horniman received the cast from the geology department of Queen Mary’s University of London in 1964 which received the cast from the Saffron Walden Museum in 1962.
Cast of a head, presumed to have been presented by William Boyd Dawkins. The cast is currently on display in the Living Worlds gallery in Manchester Museum.
The National Geological Repository British Geological Survey
Cast of a head recorded as from the ‘original in the Ashmolean Museum’, purchased from the sale of Gideon Mantell’s collections in 1853.
National Museum of Ireland
Cast of head with ‘J.Johnson’ inscribed into the base, possibly referring to John Johnson, who commissioned five casts from the museum in 1837.
Natural History Museum London
The Natural History Museum’s collections contain three casts of the Oxford Dodo head – two in the ornithology collections (pictured) and one in the palaeontology collections. The unpainted cast in the ornithology collections has the name ‘Johnson’ inscribed into the base.
Nottingham Natural History Museum
Colleague Adam Smith got in touch with some interesting specimens from Wollaton Hall. The first one looks like another cast in this series but the second cast is unlike any of the others gathered here. The cast shows an open eye, detail on the beak as well as a more defined hook to the end of the bill.
Unfortunately, there’s not much information about the origins of these two casts so it’s probable that the ‘open eye’ cast may be a cast of a model reconstruction or an in progress sculpt. There’s an extremely slight chance it’s a cast of an otherwise unknown dodo head… If you recognise this dodo head do get in touch so we can solve this mystery for colleagues in Nottingham (it’s not the model dodo that we have on display here!).
Cast of a head at Warwickshire Museum with damage to the beak. Donated to the museum by clergyman and naturalist Reverand Andrew Bloxham in the 19th century. As the museum is currently moving stores, further information about when this cast was acquired is inaccessible.
If you work at a museum and have a dodo head cast to share, please do get in touch and we’ll update this blog accordingly.
Last updated: 10/11/17
‘Presenting… The Flight of the Dodo’ was on display at the Museum of Natural History from the 25 January to 22 March 2017.
With many thanks to colleagues across the sector who helped with information and images about dodo specimens: Adam Smith, Alice Adams, Jack Ashby, Carol Davies, Bonnie Griffin, Dan Gordon, Yvette Harvey, Mike Howe, Emma-Lousie Nicholls, Laura McCoy, Gerry McGowan, Nigel Monaghan, Henry McGhie, Pat Morris, Paul Scofield, Paul Shepherd, and Paul Sweet.