A Fashion Flea-esta


By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist


In September 2021, the Museum initiated its first “Specimen Showdown” on Twitter and Instagram, where followers could vote on their favourite specimens from our collections. Over the course of the month, followers narrowed down their favourite among 32 specimens from four collections: The Library Legends, The Bygone Beasts, The Rock Stars, and The Birds and The Beetles. The final showdown was between the Connemara Column (found in the Main Court of the Museum) and the Pulgas Vestidas from the Library and Archives. In a nail-biting race, the Pulgas Vestidas narrowly beat the column with 53.9% of the vote.

But what are Pulgas Vestidas? And why are they so popular?

Dressed fleas, you say?

The delicate art of dressing fleas in tiny costumes, known as ‘Pulgas Vestidas’ in Spanish, flourished in Mexico for over two centuries. It is believed that the craft began in Mexican convents where nuns would fashion tiny pieces of clothing onto dead fleas. An important point to note is that the fleas themselves were not actually dressed — instead, they formed the heads of the figures. The individual fleas were set in matchboxes and decorated with elaborate human costumes, hats, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes the fleas were set in whole scenes, often as married couples in miniature dioramas of everyday life. The bride and groom sets were the most popular, with the bride sporting a long veil and the groom in his best suit. The nuns would then sell the fleas for a small amount of money to passing tourists. The trade was later picked up by the local villagers and Pulgas Vestidas were widely sold to tourists visiting Mexico in the early twentieth century.

Dressed fleas were popular with tourists until the 1930s when the art declined in popularity. An increasing awareness of hygiene meant that fleas were rapidly regarded as unhealthy. Many dressed fleas were consigned to the bin, and Pulgas Vestidas became a lost art as tourists’ tastes for memorabilia changed. Examples of these tiny curiosities are now rare collectors’ items.

Pulgas Vestidas at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Museum’s dressed fleas were collected in 1911 by American archaeologist and anthropologist Zeila M. M. Nuttall who specialised in Mexican history and culture. She sent the dressed fleas to her brother, bacteriologist George H.F. Nuttall. George formally donated a collection of 50 Ixodidae (ticks) to the Museum, and it is likely he also gifted the dressed fleas at the same time. The dressed fleas would have been considered more of a Victorian novelty, and so were not formally recorded or accessioned into our collections.

Although most of OUMNH’s dressed fleas reside behind-the-scenes, one example is on public display in the Upper Gallery of the Main Court. Sporting tiny clothes and a backpack, the flea is just visible with the help of a magnifying glass. Clearly, this one was born to flea wild.

OUMNH’s Pulgas Vestidas are definitely among the more unusual items in the Museum’s collections, and they were clearly head and shoulders above other specimens in the September Specimen Showdown competition, despite being no more than 5mm tall! Pulgas Vestidas may be small, but they certainly are mighty.

I’ll Flea There

The dressed fleas will be on display, with a flea-tastic craft, for the Museum’s free evening event Late Night: A Buzz in the Air‘ on 27 May from 7-10pm.

Reading Archival Silences

MAUD HEALEY AND HER GEOLOGICAL LEGACY


By Chloe Williams, History Finalist at Oxford University and Museum Volunteer

Email: chloegrace1000@gmail.com


“The professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is hoped that her retirement may be only temporary.” So ends the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s 1906 Annual Report, marking the near-complete departure of Maud Healey from the archival record.

Despite how little of her history has been preserved, it is clear that Maud Healey made significant contributions to the field of geology. After studying Natural Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall in 1900, Healey worked at the Museum as an assistant to Professor William Sollas from 1902–1906. Here, she catalogued thousands of specimens and produced three publications. These publications were at the centre of debates about standardising the geological nomenclature, and turning geology into a practical academic discipline that could sustain links across continents. However, Healey was continually marginalized on the basis of her gender. Closing the Geological Society of London’s discussion of one of her papers, “Prof. Sollas remarked that he had listened with great pleasure to the complimentary remarks on the work of the Authoress, and regretted that she was not present to defend before the Society her own position in the disputed matter of nomenclature.”[1] Predating the Society’s 1904 decision to admit women to meetings if introduced by fellows, Healey had been unable to attend the reading of her own paper.

Photo of the Geological Society of London centenary dinner in 1907, at which Maud Healey was present. Healey can be seen seated in the fourth row from the front, three chairs to the left. Of the 263 guests, 34 were women, 20 of whom were the wives or daughters of academics, and only 9, including Healey, were present ‘in their own right’. [2] Source: Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

Healey later worked with specimens collected by Henry Digges La Touche in colonial Burma (now Myanmar). While Healey worked with the identification of species, acknowledged by La Touche himself as ‘a more difficult lot to work at’ than similar specimens assigned to her male contemporaries, the physical collection and therefore its name and record is attributed to a male geologist. [3] She continued her work identifying La Touche’s collection of Burmese fossils after retiring from the Museum in 1906 and published a report about them in 1908. What happened to her afterwards is unclear. Tantalizing snippets like a 1910 marriage record might suggest that she turned to a life of domesticity, but whether Healey continued to engage with geology as a hobby remains uncertain.

It is almost unbelievable that a professional of Healey’s calibre could abandon the work in which she excelled. However, Healey lacked any familial connections to geology, and apparently did not marry into money, which would have made it difficult for her to retain access to organizations like the Geological Society of London. The diagnosis of ‘overwork’ mentioned in the Annual Report makes it possible that a medical professional could have discouraged her from engaging further in academia. Unfortunately, any diaries or letters which might have provided us with further clues were not deemed worthy of preservation.

Maud Healey on a dig site (location unknown). Image from the Archives at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Maud Healey’s history to 1910, it might seem as though we hit a depressing dead end. Healey is one of many nineteenth-century female geologists who participated in an international community in a range of roles including collecting, preserving samples, and actively producing knowledge. However, like many of her colleagues, her contributions are largely absent from the historical record. My research doesn’t aim to simply ‘rediscover’ these exemplary women after previously being ‘hidden’ from history, but instead considers how history itself is constructed from a material archive created along lines of gender and class. A subjectivity which surfaces only rarely in appended discussions to academic papers, and in spidery cursive on ancient fossils, Maud Healey ultimately suggests the need for women’s history to read archival silences as their own stories.


Works cited

[1] Healey, M. ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites, with Special Reference to Specimens in the University Museum, Oxford: No. I’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 60, (1904), p.1-4.

[2] Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

[3] La Touche, H.D. Letter to Anna La Touche, 1 August 1907. La Touche Collection. MSS.Eur.C.258/77. Asian and African Studies Archive, The British Library, London, UK.


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Earworms and Hummingbirds

Music and film from the Museum Library


As a part of her Master’s in Wildlife Filmmaking, Alicia Hayden recently visited OUMNH to produce the short film “A Song for Maria”. Featuring the music of Will Pearce, “A Song for Maria” takes its inspiration from the eighteenth-century naturalist Maria Sibylla Merian.

In 1699, aged 52, Maria Sibylla Merian made a trip to Suriname with her daughter to document the metamorphosis of insects, where she spent 2 years illustrating unique species and behaviours. Many of these illustrations are featured in Merian’s incredible publication Metamorphosis Insectorum Surinamensium (1705), or Insects of Suriname.

Over three hundred years later, Will and Alicia visited the OUMNH library to view our copies of Insects of Suriname. Here, the pair discuss film-making, songwriting and the impact of Maria’s legacy.


Alicia: Hi Will! You’re a physics student and amateur entomologist at Oxford University. Why were you so keen to visit OUMNH’s copies of Insects of Suriname and what did you think of Maria’s gorgeous illustrations?

Will: I first found out about Maria from a postcard, which was part of a series on influential female scientists. When I got to see OUMNH’s copies of Maria’s work, they did not disappoint. Maria reared all of the insects that she illustrated, allowing her to observe their life cycles in incredible detail.

Alicia shooting for “A Song for Maria” in the Library at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

What about you, Alicia? Can you tell me a little bit about why you decided to make a film inspired by Insects of Suriname for your Master’s film project?

Alicia: In addition to studying film-making, I also do a lot of art and poetry, and I was really keen to try and incorporate my love for wildlife-art and creativity into my Master’s film project. After chatting with you about your music, I thought it would be so exciting to merge our mutual love for art and insects into the film!

Like you, I first found out about Maria through a set of women in science postcards, and since then she’s been a big inspiration in my own work, so it was also really special to see her art in person!

I know that you have recently been working on a series of songs about beetles, Will. Why do you choose to sing about nature, and how did Insects of Suriname influence your latest song, “Watercolour Caterpillar”?

Will: During lockdown, the things which kept me going were music and the pond that I built with my dad. For the first time, I started paying attention to nature, and it quickly became as big a part of my life as music. After that it just made sense to combine the two interests! I am constantly looking for inspiration, and almost always find it in either the natural world or others’ art. The life and work of Maria Sibylla Merian seemed like the perfect topic to make a song about.

What were your first impressions when you saw Maria’s books, Alicia? You work in watercolour yourself — did any piece in particular catch your eye?

Alicia: I already knew about Maria’s work, and the intricacies of her drawings, before we saw them. But her illustrations are just phenomenal! She was an exceptional scientific illustrator. The drawing which stays with me the most is of the tarantula eating the hummingbird. The detail of the hairs and feathers is just exquisite, and I’m really pleased you can see some of this in the film.

When we were filming “A Song for Maria” together at the Museum, you decided that you not only wanted to write about the invertebrates Maria drew but also her life. How did this impact the final song?

Will: Well, originally the song was going to be about beetles (I’m a bit obsessed with them), but Maria documented a range of incredible species during her time in Suriname. So it seemed only right to diversify. The wafer-thin Surinamese Toad and handsome Hawk-moths were hard to deny! Her life was a real mixed bag, but her determination and her love for the natural world shine through.

Alicia: I had so much fun filming with you in the Museum’s Library, and I could see how much you loved looking at Maria’s work! I was wondering if you had a favourite illustration?

Will: There was one page in particular which I kept flipping back to — in fact you’ve already mentioned it! It shows leaf-cutter ants bridging between twigs using their own bodies, as well as a tarantula tackling a hummingbird! Many of Maria’s illustrations were called into question when the book was published, as they described behaviours not seen before by Europeans and they seemed all too fantastical to be real!

Hopefully, we were able to capture some of the magic of the illustrations in our film. What do you want people who watch the film to take away about Maria?

Alicia: Like you, I really want more people to know about Maria Sibylla Merian and the fantastic contributions she made to entomology. I hope that by watching “A Song for Maria”, people will realise the importance of Maria and her work, and she starts getting as much recognition as her male counterparts of the same era.


A Song for Maria” is available to watch on Alicia’s YouTube channel. You can find out more via Alicia’s website, Alicia’s instagram, and Alicia’s facebook.

Will’s song about Maria “Watercolour Caterpillar” is available to listen to on YouTube. You can find out more via Will’s website and Will’s instagram.

Iconotypes: A Compendium of Butterflies and Moths

By Danielle Czerkaszyn and Kate Diston

Today, the Museum is celebrating the publication of Iconotypes: A Compendium of Butterflies and Moths based on William Jones’ unpublished, six volume manuscript. Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist, tells us more about the importance of Jones’ work…

Since the 1920s the Museum has had in its care an original, unpublished manuscript containing 1,292 beautifully detailed and colourful paintings of butterflies and moths. Known as Jones’ Icones, this one-of-a-kind work was created in the late 18th century by retired London wine merchant, natural historian and Lepidopterist, William Jones (1745-1818).

In six volumes Icones depicts over 760 butterflies and moths from the collections of some of the most eminent naturalists in London at that time, including entomologist Dru Drury, explorer Sir Joseph Banks, the founder of the Linnean Society, Sir James E. Smith, and Jones’s own collection. A labour of love, Jones spent 30 years of his life – from 1780-1810 – using the finest materials to ensure Icones was both accurate and beautiful.  

In addition to being a stunning work of art, Jones’ Icones is an extraordinarily important document in the history of entomology and insect collecting in Britain. At the time Jones was making these paintings, the British Empire was rapidly expanding. This was an exciting time to be an entomologist, and species from as far away as Africa, India and Australia were being described for the first time. Over such a long period of time, some of the butterfly specimens illustrated by Jones have been destroyed, lost or divided among private collectors, so Jones’s work represents a singular historical document of these early collections. 

Jones’ Icones was even consulted by a student of Linnaeus, Johann Christian Fabricius – the man credited as the first to describe over 10,000 insects. Fabricius named 231 new species from the images in the Icones, citing Jones’ work in his publication Entomologica Systematica in 1791. The images from which new species are described are known as iconotypes. As the six volumes hold 231 iconotypes, Icones constitutes part of the foundations of butterfly taxonomy and systematics making it one of the most scientifically important items in the Museum’s archive. 

Icones also provides early documentation of global butterfly fauna in a pre-industrial world which carries important messages for today’s conservation biologists. Studies show that global insect abundance has declined by as much as 45% in half a century and several of species illustrated in the manuscript are now in decline or locally extinct.

In spite of Jones Icones huge importance to the history of entomology in Britain, the manuscript was not made available beyond the reading room of the Museum’s archive until recently. Several attempts to publish Icones for a wider audience failed or were abandoned. However, as a part of a 2013-14 National Heritage Lottery Fund project, Flying Icons, all 6 volumes were digitised and keen amateurs and specialist entomologists were invited to identify all the species represented in Jones’s Icones

Expanding on this momentum, Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s newest publication, Iconotypes: A compendium of butterflies and moths, publishes Jones’s seminal work for the very first time. This enhanced facsimile is accompanied by expert commentary, contextual essays and annotated maps with modern taxonomic names and historical references clarified. Moreover, with over 1,600 colour illustrations, Iconotypes is visually stunning. This book represents an exciting step in the long history of trying to make William Jones’s masterpiece more accessible and we could not be more excited to share it with you all.

A golden sphere sitting on a stone balcony between stone columns and carvings

Solving a celestial mystery: the Sun, Earth and Moon model

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

We like to think we know a lot about our collections, but with millions of items to care for some inevitably remain mysterious, with little record of their history. Luckily, every now and then someone gets in touch with a story about an object or specimen we know very little about. We were delighted when this happened recently for one of the most overlooked items on display: a delicate scale model of the Sun, Earth and Moon.

The model is a long-standing feature of the upper gallery: an astronomical moment hidden amongst the zoological and the geological. Yet we knew very little about it. Who made it, when was it installed, and what was its intention?

Meet the maker: Ted Bowen (1898-1980)

The Earth and Moon at a scale of 1:4,000,000,000 are tiny spherical models.
Edmund ‘Ted’ John Bowen. Image courtesy of Dr Will Bowen.

Thanks to a chance remark by Dr Will Bowen we can reveal that the model was created by his grandfather, Edmund ‘Ted’ John Bowen, lifelong fellow in Chemistry at University College. Ted Bowen was passionate about communicating science effectively, and the model was intended as a simple yet powerful representation of the true scale of our Solar System.

Born in Worcester in 1898, Ted Bowen won the Brackenbury Scholarship in 1915 to the University of Oxford, where he studied chemistry in the Balliol/Trinity labs. It was here that, from necessity, he started to create his own scientific apparatus and models, all made from whatever was to hand.

In 1935, Bowen was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his research into fluorescence and in 1963 was awarded the society’s Davy Medal in recognition of his distinguished work explaining photochemical reactions. While Bowen devoted his working life to the field of chemistry, he had many other scientific interests, especially palaeontology, but also our planetary system.

Creation of the Sun, Earth, Moon model

The Earth model is no larger than a pea, but still beautifully detailed.

Although we don’t know for sure, it is likely that the model was made between 1965 and 1971, and donated while Bowen was a member (and later chairman) of the Committee for the Scientific Collections in the University Museum, as the Museum was then known.

The distance across the Museum’s main court, around 37 metres, represents the distance between the Earth and the Sun – one Astronomical Unit, or 150 million kilometres. This makes the model scale to roughly 1:4,000,000,000!

The Sun itself is the size of a small beach ball, while the Earth and the Moon become tiny objects: the Earth the size of a small pea, and the Moon little more than a dot. Yet Bowen’s attention to detail is striking: the Earth is decorated with continents and even the miniscule Moon has texture to its surface.

If you haven’t seen it before, be sure to look out for the model on the upper gallery of the Museum: the Earth and Moon are on one side, where the Museum Café is currently located, and the Sun glistens on the far side, nestled in our temporary exhibition gallery.

Many thanks to Dr Will Bowen for his reminiscences, which have illuminated an object that was hidden in plain sight.

Black and white photograph of borders, paths, and trees with spired tower in background

Celebrating 400 years of botany at Oxford University

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist

John Phillips, Professor of Geology (1856-1874)

As a natural history museum, we are perhaps slightly unusual: aside from some fossilised plants, there are no botanic specimens in our collections. The reason for this is that when the Museum opened its doors in June 1860, Oxford Botanic Garden had already been around for a considerable 239 years, and it was considered unnecessary to move it.

Today, the Botanic Garden celebrates 400 years since its founding as the Oxford Physic Garden on 25 July 1621. To mark this anniversary we’ve explored our archive to highlight some connections between the Museum and Botanic Garden, in a relationship that continues to this day.

With its Pre-Raphaelite influence, the design of the Museum was conceived as an object lesson in art; both beautiful and instructive, it should teach students and visitors alike about the natural world. One of the most noticeable decorative teaching tools are the columns, capitals and corbels that surround the main court of the museum. Following Pre-Raphaelite principles, these were designed by Professor of Geology and the first Keeper of the Museum, John Phillips, who sketched most of the designs and outlined the order they would go in.

The plans called for 126 columns, 64 piers and 192 capitals and corbels. Each column was made from a different decorative stone from around Britain and Ireland, topped with a carved capital and flanked by a pair of corbels carved into plants representing the different botanical orders. As it was decided early in the design process for the Museum that the Oxford Botanic Garden would not move from the High Street, these carved plants were meant to ‘satisfy the botanist.’ Each column was supposed to be labelled with the name of the stone, its source, and the botanical name of the plant, but unfortunately only the geological inscriptions were completed.

James O’Shea carving the Cat window found on the front façade of the Museum, c. 1860

The carvings were created by ‘Nature’s own Pre-Raphaelites’ the O’Shea brothers, James and John, and their nephew, Edward Whelan. Working in collaboration with Charles Daubeny, Professor of Botany and head of the Oxford Botanic Garden, Phillips supplied the O’Sheas with specimens of the plants he had chosen, and so the carvings were made from life. Each capital is different and unique based on the plants they were representing. Some are simple and elegant while others are more intricate and hide small birds, animals and insects.

Phillips also worked with another curator at the Botanic Garden, William H. Baxter, who advised on suitable trees and shrubs to adorn the grounds surrounding the Museum. Over the years, as landscaping has changed and additional science buildings have been added around the Museum, only one of the trees chosen by Phillips and Baxter has survived. It is the imposing Giant Sequoia on the front lawn, which was planted in the early 1860s and is believed to be one of the oldest specimens in the United Kingdom.

Our connection to Oxford Botanic Garden continues to the present day. As the Museum embarks on the first major redisplay of its permanent exhibits in almost 20 years, staff are collaborating with the Garden to reference plants for displays showing the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

We are very pleased to be strengthening the Museum’s long relationship with the Botanic Garden, and would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone there a very happy 400th birthday!

Oxford Botanic Garden today
Top image: Oxford Botanic Garden in 1880