Oxford University Museum 1860

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.

The Life, As We Know It redisplay project is supported by a generous gift from FCC Communities Environment.

The most insulting letter I ever had!

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, and Kiah Conroy, placement student from Oxford Brookes University

James Charles Dale (1791-1872) was a pioneering English naturalist who devoted most of his life to entomology. Dale’s specimen collection and archive represent a unique historical record of the insect fauna of Great Britain and everyday life in the 19th century. Originally housed in more than 30 cabinets in the Museum’s entomology department, the Dale collection contains many notable specimens, including the world’s oldest pinned insect and several species now extinct in Britain.

Dale was also a prolific writer and the Museum archive holds his notebooks, manuscripts and around 5,000 letters from over 250 correspondents. They form one of the most important historical legacies left by any British entomologist. The individual letters were numbered by Dale and tied into bundles relating to the correspondents. While the bundles were great from an organisational point of view; in terms of long term preservation and accessibility this wasn’t exactly ideal. We were lucky enough to have a placement student from Oxford Brookes University who helped facilitate the first stage of reorganising the letters and rehousing them to ensure their longevity. Kiah shares her experience of working in the archives:

During my placement at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I was working in the Library and Archives department. The work I did whilst I was there consisted of helping sort through the letters of entomologist James Charles Dale. This was a huge opportunity for me because I had never worked with archival materials before and it was something I was hugely interested in. Some might say archiving letters can be boring, but sometimes you stumble across really interesting finds. For example, when I was working on the letters I found one that Dale had addressed as ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ This is fascinating because his letters gave an insight into the relationships he had with fellow entomologists.

James Charles Dale (1791-1872)

The letter Kiah describes was from Reverend Henry Burney, an amateur entomologist who corresponded with Dale between 1837 and 1847. Although the correspondence is one-sided since we only have Burney’s letters to Dale, it is clear the two had a falling out over money which Burney owed to Dale. As Kiah was rehousing the letters she noticed that the correspondence between Dale and Burney became increasingly tense.

Dale had a habit of annotating many of the letters he received and his annotations on Burney’s letters are curt and cold- he was clearly unimpressed that Burney took so long to pay him back- culminating in his final comment that this was ‘the most insulting letter I have ever received.’ Oh, the drama of the 19th century!

Along with archiving the letters, I also learnt how to catalogue archive material to a high standard as well as learning how to put the James Charles Dale Letters into the museum’s collection management database Emu. This was the most challenging aspect for me, because I had no idea how intricate museum databases could be. Luckily, the whole Library and Archive team were very supportive and showed me the steps. Overall, I really enjoyed my time at the Natural History Museum and I am very grateful I was given the chance to work there.

Happy 250th William Smith

Today is the 250th birthday of the remarkable English geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of England and Wales – ‘the map that changed the world’. Here Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant, tells us more about Smith’s achievements and his relationship to the Museum.

William Smith (1769-1839)

William Smith (1769-1839) began his career as a land surveyor’s assistant in his home village of Churchill, Oxfordshire. He soon travelled the country working on mining, canal and irrigation projects. This gave him the opportunity to observe the patterns in layers of rock, known as strata, and to recognise that they could be identified by the fossils they contained. This would earn him the name ‘Strata Smith.’

Smith’s observations of strata over hundreds of miles led to the ground-breaking 1815 publication of his map A delineation of strata of England and Wales (pictured top) that ultimately bankrupted him.

Smith’s map set the style for modern geological maps and many of the names and colours he applied to the strata are still used today. While Smith’s accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, he was only officially recognised for his discoveries late in life. His lack of formal education and his family’s working class background made him an outcast to most of higher society at the time.

Geological Map of Bath, 1799. This map is considered to be one the earliest geological maps ever created. It demonstrates an early use of Smith’s ‘fading’ colouring technique which emphasised the outcrops of each stratum. The yellow tint represents the Bath Oolite, the blue marks the base of the Lias, and the red the base of the Trias.

It wasn’t until a few years before he passed away that Smith received any recognition for his contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal from the Geological Society of London in 1831, and an honorary degree from Trinity College Dublin in 1835.

A bust of William Smith is on display in the Museum’s court

His legacy lived on with his nephew John Phillips, one of our Museum’s founders and Professor of Geology at Oxford. Recognising its importance, Phillips left Smith’s archive to the Museum on his death in 1874. Thanks to generous funding from Arts Council England a few years ago, the Smith collection has been catalogued, digitised and is available online to the public.

Few men in the history of science contributed as much, but are as little known, as William Smith. He was a hardworking and determined man who dedicated his life to understanding the world beneath us. So here’s a big Happy 250th birthday to William Smith – the ‘Father of English Geology.’

A small display, Presenting… William Smith: ‘The Father of English Geology’ 250 years on, is running in the Museum until 2 May 2019.

Digging in the archives

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archive and Library Assistant

Working day in, day out in the Museum of Natural History’s archive, we like to think we know a lot about our collections. The truth is, with the sheer number of items in our archive and the many nooks and crannies which exist in a historical building, we sometimes need some help rediscovering items in our collections. One such item is the engraved trowel used to set the Museum’s foundation stone.

The Earl of Derby lays the foundation stone at the 1855 ceremony. Engraving from Illustrated London News.

The story began when we received an enquiry from a museum enthusiast in America. He had read an article from an 1855 edition of the Illustrated London News, about the foundation stone ceremony. This was the moment that construction began on the Oxford University Museum, as it was then known. It seems that a small trowel was used as part of this ceremony. The article describes the trowel as follows:

The trowel, which is of silver and bronze, is highly finished, and novel in form. It is enriched by an engraved Gothic pattern on the upper, or silver, side. It was made by Skidmore, of Coventry, who has contracted for the foliated wrought-iron work which will decorate the quadrangle of the building. The trowel bears the following inscription-

Oxford University Museum. Chief Stone laid 20th June, 1855, by the Right Hon. Edward Geoffrey Earl of Derby, Chancellor; Thomas Deane, Knt; Thomas N. Deane, and Benjamin Woodward, Architects.

Look carefully at the engraving from Ilustrated London News and you’ll see that children were also involved in the ceremony. They were likely to be Sarah and William Acland, the two eldest children of Dr. Henry Acland, who was instrumental in the founding of the Museum:

The trowel, borne on a cushion by two interesting children (the son and daughter of Dr. Acland), was then handed to the Earl.

The article does not say what happened to the trowel so our enquirer wanted to know; did the trowel end up in our archival collection or does it sit in the void under the stone?

Details from the Museum’s wrought iron roof decoration. Both the metalwork and the trowel were designed by Francis Skidmore.

As far as any of the Museum staff were aware, there was no trowel in our collections. With little to go on, we momentarily put the enquiry to one side and hoped for some good luck. The rediscovery came by accident just one week later, as we were rearranging boxes in the archive to make additional room for art storage. The trowel was spotted at the top of a box of items that had yet to be sorted and catalogued. With the recent enquiry on our minds, we recognised the trowel from its description and instantly knew what a special find this was.

Danielle Czerkaszyn holds the newly-discovered trowel. Her next challenge is to track down the missing silver handle.

Our enquirer was pleased to hear of the trowel’s rediscovery and thrilled to know the part that his enquiry played. Without his curious question, we might not have recognised the trowel for what it was. The trowel is now undergoing conservation treatment and cataloguing, and as an important part in the history of the Museum, it will hopefully be on display in the near future.

The Museum archive and library is open by appointment to anyone who would like to visit, and we welcome enquiries at library@oum.ox.ac.uk.

The ‘birth’ of dinosaurs

by Hilary Ketchum, Earth Collections manager

In April 1842, 175 years ago this year, the dinosaurs were created – in a taxonomic sense at least. In a landmark paper in the Report for the British Association for the Advancement of ScienceRichard Owen, one of the world’s best comparative anatomists, introduced the term ‘Dinosauria’ for the very first time.

Owen coined the term using a combination of the Greek words Deinos, meaning ‘fearfully great’, and Sauros, meaning ‘lizard’, in order to describe a new and distinct group of giant terrestrial reptiles discovered in the fossil record. He based this new grouping – called a clade in taxonomic terms – on just three generaMegalosaurusIguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.

In the Museum’s collections are some specimens of those three original dinosaurs, collected and described during this exciting early period of palaeontology. These discoveries, amongst others, helped to revolutionise our understanding of extinction, deep time, and the history of life on earth, and paved the way for the theory of evolution by natural selection.

Megalosaurus

The right lower jaw of Megalosaurus bucklandii from the Taynton Limestone Formation, Middle Jurassic, Oxfordshire, UK. OUMNH J.13505.

A nine metre long, 1.4 tonne carnivore that roamed England during the Middle Jurassic, about 167 million years ago, Megalosaurus has the accolade of being the world’s first named dinosaur. It was described by William Buckland, the University of Oxford’s first Reader in Geology, in 1824, and was discovered in a small village called Stonesfield, about 10 miles north of Oxford. The toothy jawbone of Megalosaurus is on display in the Museum.

The sacrum of Megalosaurus. One of the characteristics that made Richard Owen realise dinosaurs were a distinct group was the presence of a sacrum with five fused vertebrae, visible here in the specimen on display at the Museum.

Iguanodon
Iguanodon was a plant-eating reptile with a spike on the end of its thumbs, and teeth that look like those of an iguana, only 10 times bigger! Iguanodon lived in the Lower Cretaceous, around 130 million years ago and was named by Gideon Mantell in 1825.

When first discovered, Iguanodon’s spike was thought to go on its nose, like a rhinoceros or a rhinoceros iguana, rather than on its thumb, which is rather unique. In fact, we still don’t know why Iguanodon had such prominent thumb spikes.

Tooth of Iguanodon from the Wealden Group, Lower Cretaceous, Cuckfield, Sussex, UK. Gideon Mantell Collection. OUMNH K.59828.
The Iguanodon’s spike was first thought to go on its nose, rather than on its thumb. A paper label attached to the specimen reads, “Cast of the Horn of the Iguanodon, from Tilgate Forest; in the possession of G. Mantell, Castle Place, Lewes.”

Hylaeosaurus
A squat, armoured, plant-eating dinosaur with long spines on its neck and shoulders. It is the least well known and smallest of the three dinosaurs originally described, but arguably the cutest. Hylaeosaurus was also named by Gideon Mantell, in 1833.

A dorsal spine, probably from the holotype of Hylaeosaurus armatus from the Wealden Group, Lower Cretaceous, Sussex, UK. OUMNH K.59799. Accompanying label in Gideon Mantell’s handwriting.

The exact specimen used by Mantell to describe Hylaeosaurus armatus is in a big block of rock in the Natural History Museum in London. But recently I spotted a specimen in our collections that Mantell had sent to William Buckland in 1834. It has the following label with it, written by Mantell himself:

Extremity of a  dorsal spine of the Hylaeosaurus from my large  block –

Perhaps Mantell just snapped a bit off to send to his friend. Or perhaps more likely, it was one of the broken fragments Mantell said were lying near the main block when it was dug out of the ground.

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From just three genera included in Dinosauria in 1842, we now have around 1,200 species nominally in the group. The study of dinosaurs has come a long way since those early days; new finds, new technologies, such as micro CT scanning and synchrotron scanning, and new statistical techniques are helping us to better understand these iconic animals and re-evaluate older specimen collections.

The Museum’s dinosaur specimens are exceptionally historically important, but are still used heavily by scientists from across the world for their contemporary research. This is something that I think William Buckland, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen would be very pleased about.

Cetiosaurus fossil bones on display in the Museum

The one that got away…
Although Owen didn’t know it, other dinosaurs were known in 1842, including Cetiosaurus, the ‘whale lizard’. When Owen named it in 1841, he thought it was a giant marine reptile that ate plesiosaurs and crocodiles. By the following year, he suggested it was actually a crocodile that had webbed feet and used its tail for propulsion through the water.

It wasn’t until 1875, after more substantial remains had been found that Owen recognised Cetiosaurus as a land-living sauropod dinosaur. Interestingly, however, research published last month presented a new hypothesis for dinosaur relationships which, if the previous definition of Dinosauria had been adhered to, would have placed all sauropods outside of the group. So perhaps Owen’s earlier omission wasn’t so wrong after all.

A moving story

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For the past nine months there has been a lot of moving going on around here. Imagine moving house endlessly for weeks on end, but where your house is full of bones, insects, fossils, rocks, and weird and wonderful taxidermy. And the location of everything has to be precisely recorded. The museum move project was a bit like that.

Project assistant Hannah Allum explains…

The museums are migrating, we declared in May 2016. And so they have. The first major stage of the stores project has been completed. After we had created inventories for the largely unknown collections held in two offsite stores, the next stage was to pack them safely and transport them to a new home nearer the museum, a job which demanded almost 70 individual van trips! We now have over 15,000 specimens sitting in vastly improved storage conditions in a new facility.

A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells
A miscellany of boxes for a collection of shells

Let’s revel in some numbers. All in all there were over 1,000 boxes of archive material, mostly reprints of earth sciences and entomological research papers; over 1,300 specimens of mammal osteology (bones); and more than 1,000 boxes and 650 drawers of petrological and palaeontological material (rocks and fossils).

Some of the more memorable specimens include old tobacco tins and chocolate boxes filled with fossils and shells; a beautifully illustrated copy of the ‘Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa’ from the HMS Challenger by German naturalist Ernst Haeckel; and the skull of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), complete with armour-plated scute carapace.

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The skull and carapace of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus)

There were also a few objects that have moved on to more unusual homes. A 4.5 m long cast of Attenborosaurus conybeari (yep, named after Sir David) was too large to fit in our new store and so made its way to another facility along with a cornucopia of old museum furniture. A set of dinosaur footprint casts, identical to those on the Museum’s lawn, have been gifted to the Botanical Gardens for use at the Harcourt Arboretum in Oxford.

And last but not least, a model of a Utahraptor received a whopping 200 applications from prospective owners in our bid to find it a suitable home. After a difficult shortlisting process it was offered to the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital and following a quarantine period should soon be on display in their West Wing.

Footprint casts, attributed to Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Credit: Hannah Allum
Casts of footprints by made Megalosaurus, queuing for a lift to Harcourt Arboretum. Image: Hannah Allum

Fittingly, the final specimen I placed on the shelf in the new store was the very same one that had been part of my interview for this job: The skeleton of a female leopard with a sad story. It apparently belonged to William Batty’s circus and died of birthing complications whilst in labour to a litter of lion-leopard hybrids before ending up in the Museum’s collections in 1860.

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The sad story of a performing leopard

Though the moving part of this project is now complete there is still plenty of work to do. We are now updating and improving a lot of the documentation held in our databases, and conservation work is ongoing. The new store will also become a shared space – the first joint collections store for the University Museums, complete by April 2018.

To see more, follow the hashtag #storiesfromthestores on Twitter @morethanadodo and see what the team at Pitt Rivers Museum are up to by following @Pitt_Stores.