An ever-evolving museum

Oxford University Museum 1860

As we embark on our Life, As We Know It redisplay project – the first substantial changes to the permanent exhibits in more than 20 years – our Senior Archives and Library Assistant Danielle Czerkaszyn takes a look back at 160 years of an ever-evolving museum, in the first of a series of posts around the redisplay.

On 15 June 1860, Henry W. Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, wrote:

The Oxford Museum slowly approaches completion. The building will shortly sink into insignificance when compared to the contents it will display, and the minds it will mould.

The University Museum at Oxford, as the Museum was originally known, was established to bring together scientific teaching and collections from across the University under one roof. The doors opened in June 1860, and soon after several departments moved into the building – Geometry, Experimental Physics, Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Medicine.

Ground floor plan 1866

Ground floor plan of the University Museum in 1866

When the University Museum opened, it was not simply a museum; each department got a lecture room, offices, work rooms and laboratories, as well as use of the library and display areas. According to Acland, a key figure in the Museum’s foundation, in 1860 the outer south aisle of the main court featured mineralogical specimens and chemical substances, while the inner aisle exhibited Oxfordshire dinosaurs.

Acland’s detailed descriptions of the central aisle highlighted zoological specimens with twelve parallel cases of taxidermy birds, four side cases of taxidermy animals, including animals on top of the cases, and six table cases down the centre showing shells, crabs, insects, corals and sponges, starfish and urchins. The inner north aisle presented reptiles and fish, while the outer aisle introduced the Ashmolean‘s zoology specimens, as well as anatomical and physiological collections.

The Museum in 1890

The Museum court in 1890

Although members of the public were welcome in the Museum from the start, the departments which inhabited the building were more concerned with teaching space, research facilities and the storage of their specimens than the needs of visitors. As a result, most of the early displays and cases were arranged in a systematic manner that focused on space-saving practicalities and communicating scientific knowledge, rather than aesthetics.

Geology specimens on the walls

Geology specimens displayed on shelves on the walls

Early Dodo display case

An early display focused around the Museum’s famous dodo specimen

Tracing through old annual reports it is clear that cases in the main court have been almost constantly refreshed and updated, with displays highlighting new specimens and changes to scientific understanding, or through practical improvements to lighting, electricity points and environmental monitoring. Nonetheless, the overall layout of the cases remained the same until the early 1980s.

The Museum court, unknown date

The Museum court, unknown date

From the early 1990s a focus on public engagement began to increase. Longer opening hours were introduced and displays were redesigned to link to both undergraduate teaching as well as the National Curriculum. Temporary exhibitions also regularly featured in the main court to increase the variety of specimens on display.

The Museum court in 1994

The Museum court in 1994

Megalosaurus temporary exhibition

A temporary exhibition about the Megalosaurus dinosaur in the 1990s

The turn of the millennium marked the start of a major project to update the main court displays. The central cases were reconfigured and a new set of introductory cases installed, including many themes familiar to visitors in recent years, such as exhibits on the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, Alice in Wonderland, and the Oxford Dodo.

T. rex makes its presence known

These showcases were complemented by the addition of an imposing cast of ‘Stan’ the Tyrannosaurus rex in the centre aisle, positioned behind the historic Iguanodon cast. The changes were well received and attendance in the month of July 2000 was the highest ever recorded. The Museum also introduced live insects for the first time in 2000, with Upper Gallery tanks containing Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, South American Burrowing Cockroaches, a variety of stick insects, and some large tarantulas.

The project completed in late 2005 when the displays on Evolution, the History of Life, and Invertebrate Biodiversity were installed. Touchable specimens were also given their own permanent display area, allowing visitors the opportunity to physically interact with natural history material. These and other public engagement activities were recognised when the Museum won The Guardian newspaper’s Family Friendly Museum of the Year Award for 2005.

People around a table of touchable taxidermy specimens

New tables of touchable specimens were introduced for visitors in the 2000s.

The last substantial update to the fabric of the building took place in 2013, when the Museum closed for a year to fix the leaks in the glass roof. Taking advantage of the closure, a major piece of conservation work was undertaken on the seven whale specimens suspended from the roof. Having been on display for over 100 years, the whales were in need of considerable TLC.

A conservation team worked on the whale skeletons during the Museum’s closure for roof repairs in 2013.

Today, new and exciting changes are afoot as we embark on the first major changes to our permanent displays in almost 20 years. New high-end showcases will present displays under the concept of Life, As We Know It – beautiful presentations of the diversity of life, and the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment. The new exhibits will look at how the biological processes of evolution combine with the geological processes of our dynamic Earth to give rise to the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

Looking back across the decades we can see that the Museum is never static, but instead constantly changing and adapting, shifting from its foundation as a Victorian centre of academia to the accessible and engaging space we know and love today.

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