Drawing amongst the dinosaurs

For the past few years the Museum has been working with second year students on the BA (Hons) Illustration course at the University of Plymouth. As part of a module on interpreting information, students are given information on research that is going on in the Museum or related departments and asked to interpret this information visually. This year one of the students, Sally Mullaney, took on the project ‘Key to the Past: exploring the life and work of Charles Lyell’. Sally continued her work with the museum on a week’s placement during the summer, and was supervised by Eliza Howlett, Earth Collections Manager.

Sally Mullaney talks about how she interpreted the project and her experience here at the Museum.

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Illustrated map of Lyell’s European travels on which we can mark the fossil localities by Sally Mullaney

“For the past two months on my illustration course at Plymouth University, I’ve been working with the Museum of Natural History on an illustrated timeline of geologist Charles Lyell. At first I was pretty daunted at the amount of travelling and ‘geologising’ he did in his life throughout the Victorian era. But after I spent time reading his letters and journals, I really got a feel for what Lyell was like. His musings and good humour shine through in his many letters to various siblings, professors and his wife, Mary. This really made the Charles Lyell project a pleasure for me to do, and I was thrilled when the museum asked me back to work for a week’s placement continuing with Lyell.”

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Charles Lyell and Captain Cooke spend a night in a shepherd’s hut in the Pyrénées, 1830 by Sally Mullaney

After a weekend of sightseeing Oxford’s many attractions (the museum being one of them!), Jade, a fellow student from Plymouth, and myself reported to the front desk to begin our week.  We were welcomed warmly with a cup of tea overlooking the main court of the museum, and were briefed about the week to come. I was also given the opportunity to work with the Public Engagement team to create a new logo for the Family Friendly Sunday events, as well as the continued work on Lyell which would be a map illustrating his travels and collections.

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New logo for family friendly activities by Sally Mullaney


The week really flew by and I managed to complete the projects with a little time to spare, which I spent sketching in the court amongst the dinosaurs! The building is such an incredible place to work in, and it has been a pleasure to be working in such a fantastic museum – I’ll definitely be visiting again!”

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Pianist and the T. rex, 30 July 2017 by Sally Mullaney

Sally’s characterful and charming illustrations of Charles Lyell’s bring his geological travels across Europe to life. Charles Lyell (1797-1875) was a student of William Buckland at Oxford, and went on to become the foremost geologist of his day. The Museum is lucky to house a large proportion of the Charles Lyell Collection, comprising of over 16,000 documented fossil specimens. A number of the specimens in the collection would have been collected in Europe during his travels. LBEC004 small

Lyell was a close and influential friend of Charles Darwin. Lyell’s important Principles of Geology was one of the few geological books that Darwin took with him on his voyage with HMS Beagle, and it helped shape his hypothesis for the mechanism of coral atoll formation amongst other things.

Last year the Museum undertook the large task of starting to make Lyell’s collection publicly accessible by cataloging and taking high resolution images of the specimens. The collection will be available online via a user-friendly database in the foreseeable future – watch this space!

You can learn all about the project, the collection and the man himself via this dedicated blog.



Calling all artists

We’re happy to announce an exciting opportunity to coincide with our  new exhibition – Settlers, opening at the Museum of Natural History in February 2018.

Settlers is the upcoming exhibition in our Contemporary Science and Society series. The latest of the series, Brain Diaries: Modern Neuroscience in Action is currently running until 1 January 2018.

The history of the people of Britain is one of movement, migration and settlement. Tracing patterns revealed by genetics, archaeology and demography, Settlers: Genetics, Geography and the peopling of Britain will tell the dynamic story of Britain’s ever-changing population.

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Planning for Settlers is going well and we’re happily getting to grips with the science and archaeology, but we’d also love to have some artistic input. Can you help us?

The Museum would like to commission up to two pieces of contemporary art that explore themes such as genetics, DNA, migration, settlement and ancestry.

We’re particularly interested in work that will provoke thought and discussion and engages with 18-25 year olds, and we welcome all media, including digital and installation art.

The artwork could be displayed in the gallery itself, in the main court or even on the museum lawn.

The Museum’s centre court

If you like the sound of adding some artistic flair to Settlers, you can find out more here:.  Don’t delay, though; the deadline for applications is Friday 1 September 2017.

The Big Brain Competition

What happens in your brain when you receive compliments? And what’s going on in your mind when you watch your football team win a match? Does the brain respond differently when recalling music, compared to listening to it? All these questions, and more, have been posed in our Big Brain Competition

Coinciding with the Museum’s Brain Diaries exhibition, the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging is inviting you to ask your own question about the brain to be in with a chance to have it tested by neuroscientists using Oxford’s state-of-the art Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scanner.

The advanced MRI scanner at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford is one of the strongest in the world. It allows scientists to carry out functional MRI (fMRI) scans to see the brain in action. This mind-blowing procedure can reveal how the brain changes when learning a new skill or how it compensates when someone recovers from brain damage. It can also reveal which areas are used when people speak, move or laugh, to give just a few examples.

This fMRI scan shows how blood flows to the visual cortex region at the back of the brain when viewing a visually-stimulating checkerboard pattern
Dr Stuart Clare of the Nuffield Department of Clinical Neurosciences is asking you for questions about the brain

Functional MRI shows when a brain area is more active by detecting the changes in blood oxygen levels and blood flow that happen in response to neural activity. The technique can be used to produce activation maps showing which parts of the brain are involved in a particular mental process.

The scientist behind the Big Brain Competition is Dr Stuart Clare, whose research involves pushing the technological boundaries of the fMRI technique to reveal new insights about how the brain functions normally and how it is affected by disease. There is still so much that the fMRI scans can bring to light, so Stuart is asking you for ideas!

Over several years of inviting people in to see the beautiful pictures that our MRI scanner can produce, I’ve been fascinated by the questions they have about the brain and whether you can see this thing or that thing in our fMRI scans.  With this competition we want to give people the unique access to our scanner and the chance to try an idea out for themselves.

When coming up with an idea for investigation there are a few practical things to bear in mind. Any activity has to be something people can do when lying down in the scanner and it has to be clear when they start and stop doing the activity. But Stuart is very open to ideas for experiments that they haven’t come across before – something that scientists really don’t already know the answer to.

The animation below explains how fMRI works and what it can do. So take a look, think up an experiment of your own and enter your idea via this form. The best one will be put into action by the research team and you will be able to watch the scans take place at the John Radcliffe Hospital yourself!

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone

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Each year the Museum works with members of the community on a wide variety of projects using our collections to enthuse and engage people in natural history. These projects often result in some amazing outcomes but until now we have been unable to find the right space to celebrate this work in the Museum. So this month we are very happy to unveil our new Community Case, dedicated to doing just that.

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Stories from Stone, Body and Bone in the new community case

Our opening display focuses on the Children in Need-funded Story Makers programme. In partnership with Fusion Arts, this initiative helps Oxford primary school pupils to develop their communication skills by taking inspiration from museum collections. And this year they teamed up with us to create Stories from Stone, Body and Bone.

Pupils from New Marston, Wood Farm, and Rose Hill Primary schools worked with Story Makers founder and arts psychotherapist Helen Edwards in two visits to the Museum, stimulating and developing imaginative ideas, stories and artwork.

During these visits the Story Makers met with our education officer Chris Jarvis and together they looked at rocks and minerals, tectonic plate formation, and the evolution of skeletons and animal posture. They explored the collections creatively through sensory observation, using the hands, body and senses to develop self-awareness and self-confidence.

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Getting creative with chalks and textiles

We work with the children as artists and we carefully designed a series of sessions that enabled them to have direct sensory engagement with objects in the museum. We then used art processes to portray their experiences and feelings about their interactions.
Helen Edwards, Integrative Arts Psychotherapist

Back at school, the pupils used visual art, drama, movement and modelling to communicate feelings and ideas that emerged from these museum encounters, sharing thoughts with the group in a playful and trusting atmosphere.

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Group sessions back at school involving movement, drama and art

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Detail from one of the Stone Age caves

Each Story Maker then created a Stone Age character – someone who might dream up and pass on stories full of meaning and myth. They imagined places in which their Stone Age characters might live, thinking about what they might see looking out from these spaces, through the cracks, crevices and windows in their caves.

From these ideas emerged beautiful, bright, and colourful models of these fictional abodes, as well as stories and poetry about their characters.

Story Makers built the children’s capacity to think reflectively, enriching their speech and language, and helped them to develop their writing skills as the stories were compiled into Story Makers books.

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Stone Age houses and landscapes as part of the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Everyone should get to do this, it is like a dream come true
Story Maker, from the Stories from Stone, Body and Bone project

Stories from Stone, Body and Bone is on display until Sunday 21 May in our new Community Case. The next display, installed on 22 May, will feature artwork by our community of artists who use the collections as inspiration for their work.

Brain washing


Our next exhibition – Brain Diaries: Modern Neuroscience in Action – opens on 10 March and in preparation we have indulged in a little bit of brain-washing… This article contains an image of a preserved human brain.

One of the first displays visitors will encounter is a ‘wall’ of 23 fluid-preserved mammal brains – from a Short-nosed Bandicoot to cow. The style of jar, with its black bitumen and paint backing, tells us that these were once used for display so it is exciting to put them in the public galleries again. Museum conservator, Jacqueline Chapman-Gray, runs us through the meticulous process she undertook to ensure these brains will look their best for their return to the limelight.

Cow brain before conservation treatment
A number of the brains had become dehydrated over time as the level of fluid – alcohol – had dropped. These needed to go through a rehydration programme to ensure their long-term preservation. This is more complex than simply adding more fluid to the jar. Instead the alcohol level needs to be increased gradually to avoid damaging the tissues.

Brains soaking in alcohol
Others had started to detach from their glass mounts, or anatomy labels that marked each of the different areas or sections of the brain had come loose. These were carefully remounted using specialist conservation-grade materials and a steady hand! Three brains had become completely detached and were repaired using a polyester monofilament thread, otherwise known as fishing line.

Repairing a human brain with a beading needle

Labels found detached at the bottom of the jar
For the smallest of the brains a normal sewing needle was enough to pass through the tissues but for the larger two either a flexible 10cm beading needle or large 25cm mattress needle was needed. The original threading points were reused wherever possible though in one case this proved to be too difficult, as the tissue was soft and susceptible to breaking. With precision and patience I was able to gently stitch them back into place on the backing plate so they look as good as new.

All of the jars were given a thorough clean to ensure that seals were tight fitting and that the contents were shown off to their best. They were then filled with fluid to 4/5ths from the rim and the brains gently placed back inside.

Lids were sealed with clear silicone and each jar was topped up with a syringe through a small hole in the lid that is there for this very purpose – once full, this hole is also sealed.

Lastly, after the seals had dried, for the final finishing flourish black paint was reapplied to the backs and tops of the jars to provide a contrasting backdrop.

Ta-dah… the cow brain after conservation treatment
Brain Diaries opens on Friday 10 March and runs until Monday 1 January 2018. Take a look at the website to find out more about the exhibition and accompanying programme of events at braindiaries.org

Visions of Nature

As part of our Visions of Nature year in 2016, we invited you to send in your own ‘visions of nature’. We didn’t know what to expect, but week after week we received pictures of beautiful paintings, drawings, photographs, and textile art, all inspired by the natural world or by the Museum and its collections.

All of these artworks can now be found in the online gallery, but we’ve picked out a few here to show you and to mark the end of the project. Thanks very much to everyone who took part.

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Emma Reynard

Jake Spicer - Main court Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Jake Spicer – Main court Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Jane Tomlinson - Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Jane Tomlinson – Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Deidre Bean - Cicada
Deidre Bean – Cicada


Mark Wright - Raven
Mark Wright – Raven