Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

Petri dish to puppetry

Spheres, spirals, rods, corkscrews… bacteria come in strange and beautiful shapes. Our Bacterial World exhibition (19 October 2018 – 28 May 2019) tells the untold story of life on a microscopic scale, and a recent Museum project brought together a research scientist, a group of school students and an artist to explore the patterns, textures and forms of beautiful bacteria. This science and art collaboration led to the creation of three fabulous bacteria-inspired puppets.

Volunteers and puppets in the museum
The puppets let loose in the Museum. Volunteers Tayo, Chantelle and Humaira (hidden behind the blue puppet!), with Carly from the Museum’s public engagement team.

Our Public Engagement team worked with Iffley Academy, a school for students with special educational needs and disabilities in Oxford. The pupils were from the brilliantly-named ‘Jackson Pollock’ class and they fully embraced the bacteria theme, through museum visits, workshops and classroom activities.

As well as visiting Bacterial World, the students had a workshop with Dr Frances Colles, a microbiology researcher from the University of Oxford, where they learnt about the importance of bacteria in their lives. As well as working with the students to create their own bacteria superheroes, Fran talked about her own work and took part in a Q&A, where the students made the most of quizzing a real, live scientist.

One of the character boards that Georgina created with the students

Next, the students spent two days with artist and puppet-maker Georgina Davy, who gave them the chance to experiment with a variety of textiles and techniques, including Japanese shibori dyeing, fringing, plaiting and knotting. The children even created latex faces to ‘personalise’ the bacteria. The pupils worked with Georgina to gather ideas and create mood boards and ‘characters’ for each puppet. She then used these individual pieces to build three giant, bacteria-inspired puppets.

Georgina Davy in her studio, working on the bacteria puppets

Just like the real bacteria that inspired them, the final puppets all have distinctive appearances and styles of movement. One is tall, green and plodding, another is pink, bobbing and quivering. The long, winding Chinese dragon-style puppet is slinky and searching. An artistic interpretation of bacteria, in motion.

Georgina Davy got a lot out of the collaboration and says:

This project has been the most unusual and marvellous project that a puppet maker could work on. Drawing upon scientific information from museum and academic staff that is enhanced and brought to life by students’ imaginations.

This project is unique in that the physical 3D puppet outcomes come from an almost entirely invisible world. Bacteria operate on an unfathomable microscopic scale. I am still finding it remarkable trying to envision this microscopic galaxy of bacteria taking place around us everyday in riots of colour, shape and movement. We cannot see the surreal bacteria forms that wriggle, bounce and swell around us, but they are there, some even tumbling around in forms like Chinese calligraphy. Their secret world is only unlocked by the microscope.

Once the puppets had been revealed to (and played with by) the students, they were transported to the Museum for the finale of the project – a public performance. On Saturday 11 May, three brilliant volunteers, Humaira, Tayo and Chantelle, showed off the work of Georgina Davy and the Jackson Pollock class to Museum visitors. The puppets twisted, shook and wiggled through the aisles, accompanied by percussion – drums and shakers courtesy of volunteers and visitors joining in with the performance.

If you’d like to see more about the Beautiful Bacteria project, we’ve put together a display in the Museum’s Community Case, where you can see original works by the Iffley Academy students. Until 6 August 2019.

The Beautiful Bacteria project was funded by BBSRC.

 

Ruskin 200 Art Competition

By Michelle Alcock, Front of House Deputy Manager

To celebrate the Museum of Natural History and the creativity it inspires, we have launched the Ruskin 200 Art Competition. It opened on Friday 8 February 2019 coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin; an artist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, Ruskin’s views advocating for drawing from direct observation, both in his studies of Gothic architecture, and in his use of a detailed descriptive approach to depict nature in art, heavily influenced the design of the Museum.

WA2013.67 John Everett Millais, ‘John Ruskin’
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

His encouragement led to artists, architects, craftsmen and scientists working together to design the Museum. As a result, they created the neo-Gothic building that stands today as a work of art and a vision of nature in its own right. The Museum’s architecture, decorative details, and collections have served as a source of inspiration for many since it opened in 1860.

Details in the Museum’s architecture, such as this carved capital, were inspired by nature and today provide further inspiration for visiting artists

This year marks the perfect opportunity to showcase the artwork of our visitors. Personally, working on the Front of House team here, I see what an inspiration the building is to our visitors. Every day we spot people of all ages setting up stools, with pencil and sketchbook at the ready, drawing in the Museum. There is so much potential inspiration; beetles carved in stone, vibrant birds’ feathers, glittering gemstones and the intricate decorative ironwork of the building, to name a few.

It is always exciting to see so many of our visitors engaging with the Museum in a creative way, but we rarely see the finished product. I’ve always wanted to know what artwork is created from this point of inspiration. Is it the starting point of a vibrant painting, an intricate pastel drawing or a graphic mixed media collage? The list of possibilities is endless.

A visitor captures the Allosaurus skull on one of our Sensing Evolution tables

Whatever your choice of creative expression, we want to see your interpretation of the Museum and what inspired you, whether it’s the architecture or the collections on display. If you are an amateur or professional artist, and over the age of sixteen, we would like you to submit your artwork to the Ruskin 200 Art Competition.

The competition is open for four months. Do send us images of your final artwork before the closing date of 19 May 2019. Selected artworks from each of the four entry categories will go on display in the Museum during the busy summer holidays.

A visitor taking part in creative activities during our special drawing weekend

Throughout 2019, we’re also running a programme of drawing activities to celebrate Ruskin’s bicentenary. It began with the Ruskin Drawing Weekend on 9 and 10 February, which included lots of different activities to begin the creative process. Look out for our Ready, Steady, Draw! workshops for younger artists coming in May too.

The full competition guidelines, along with further information on the Ruskin-related events we’re running this year, can be found on our website.

Top banner image: WA1931.47 John Ruskin, Design for a Window in the University Museum, Oxford. Image copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?


These are some of the big questions asked in our current special exhibition, Settlers. It’s also the title of a new artwork by Ian Kirkpatrick that has just been commissioned by the Museum.

You may remember, back in July we put out a call for artists to respond to the main themes of the upcoming Settlers exhibition. We received an incredible response, with almost 100 proposals, so needless to say we were spoilt for choice! After several rounds of shortlisting, discussion and deliberation, we chose Ian Kirkpatrick, a Canadian artist now based in York.

Lit up for the Settlers exhibition launch.
Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

We were excited by Ian’s bold iconography and references to the history of art and design, while using shapes and colours usually seen on contemporary street signage. His approach to the themes and issues around migration, genetics and settlement were innovative and brave. We also couldn’t wait to see how his work would look in our Victorian neo-Gothic building.

Ian working in his studio. Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

Over a period of four months, Ian researched, planned and created his spectacular final piece Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? Here he explains a little about his artistic process:

 

Most of my projects begin with a period of research – often looking at historical events or interesting facts related to the brief. I often sketch out a very rough layout of the design in my notebook, then create the actual artwork directly onto the iPad or computer. Because I use vector-based software, I can easily rearrange or modify graphics – so the design is constantly shifting until the artwork is finished.

Ian Kirkpatrick’s final design. The two smaller panels (L and R) can be seen on display in the Settlers exhibition gallery.

Ian created a series of six panels that explores the social and natural causes behind human migration, both in ancient times and in the present day. It presents historical and modern peoples moving across a landscape in response to conflict, climate change and urbanisation, and remixes imagery from classical paintings alongside iconography from Great War postcards, Roman coins and the Bayeux Tapestry.

Ian, Peter Johnson and Adam Fisk installing the main panels of the artwork.

Of course, in a building like ours, the installation of such a large, bold piece of work would never be easy. Peter Johnson, the Museum’s Building Manager, came up with an ingenious solution to hold the panels into the arches, without damaging the masonry by drilling or glueing.

Pieces prepared in the workshop, to sit on the capitals and support the artwork

Hand-cut pieces of plywood were made to snugly fit round the capitals, so that the Dibond aluminium sheets don’t rest on the stone.

Credit: Ian Kirkpatrick

So, standing back and looking at the finished piece, looking resplendent in the winter sunshine and attracting the attention of hundreds of museum visitors, how does Ian feel?

The project was a lot of work – but it’s also been very satisfying to see it finally installed. Although the piece initially started as a comment on contemporary British settlement, it evolved into something that explored global migration throughout all of history.  Trying to find a way to tackle a theme that big, while still remaining visually coherent, is quite tricky!  But I was really pleased with the results and love seeing the finished piece housed within the magnificent neo-Gothic architecture of the Museum!

 

The crucial cortex

Lance Millar_Developmental Anatomy_14Oct2017.jpg-large

University of Oxford PhD student Lance Millar recently ran one of our Brain Spotlight events as part of the Brain Diaries exhibition programme. Here, Lance explains his research into neurodevelopmental disorders and possible treatments.

The brain has always been a fascinating organ for me. It is the site of our intelligence, our problem-solving and social skills, and it allows us to connect our senses to the world around us.

The large, folded outer part of the human brain is called the cortex, and is responsible for decision-making, language, face recognition, and a lot of the other things that I like to think are what make us human. The word cortex comes from the Greek for husk or outer shell, which underestimates the importance of what the cortex does.

Humans can survive with damage to the cortex, but depending on the part of the cortex that is damaged, a range of disabilities can result. People who have had a stroke can lose part of their cortex, leading to limb paralysis, loss of speech, or loss of memory, depending on the site of the damage.

B0009564 Human brain, coronal section, LM
Cerebral cortex – Professor Michael R Peres – Wellcome Images

Some people are also born with a developmental problem in the cortex, and are said to have a neurodevelopmental disorder. Such conditions are thought to include autism, schizophrenia, ADHD, and even dyslexia – all fairly common conditions. The damage to the cortex is subtle and complex in these conditions, and scientists are still working out exactly what happens to the brain during its prenatal development.

I am studying one particular neurodevelopmental disorder caused by lack of oxygen at birth. It is known to medical specialists as neonatal hypoxia ischaemia. The image on the right shows a cross-section MRI scan of a normal newborn human brain, alongside some babies who have been damaged by oxygen deprivation. You can see that the brains are smaller, the cortex is less folded and it takes up less space inside the skull.

Woodward
MRI scans of normal newborn brains alongside those of babies who have been damaged by oxygen deprivation. Image: Woodward et al., New England Journal of Medicine, 2006

Scientists still don’t know how to protect the newborn brain from these injuries. Some are caused by inflammation which is a normal response to illness, but can wreak havoc in the confined space of the skull. Some is caused by the presence of free radicals, which are thought to contribute to ageing and organ failure, as the newborn brain doesn’t have many antioxidants to fight these chemicals. It’s also possible that the electrical signals that neurons within the brain send to each other contribute to the damage when there isn’t enough oxygen to feed them.

So what can we do to treat oxygen deprivation at birth? One breakthrough treatment currently available is known known as hypothermia. In this technique, the baby is cooled to 33℃ which slows down the brain-damaging chemical reactions which in turn protects the brain. This is currently the only treatment available, but I am involved in the study of possible alternatives.

We don’t want to introduce any drugs to the baby’s system as they might be harmful to normal development. So scientists are currently working on treatments which help the baby’s natural body proteins to protect the brain. I do this by looking at neurons under the microscope, and identifying proteins expressed by these neurons using fluorescent probes known as antibodies.

Neurons under the microscope
An example of neurons under the microscope. Image: Lancelot Millar

These neurons are expressing neuroserpin, a natural brain protein which decreases inflammation and cell death. I’m looking at exactly where neuroserpin is expressed in the brain, how it can be upregulated in response to oxygen deprivation, and how its chemical reactions could be used to protect the brain.

Another way to help people with neurodevelopmental disorders is to better understand how the cortex connects to other parts of the brain and how it can carry out complicated decisions. There is still so much to understand about the complexity of the human brain, and what seems like fundamental research could generate the springboard for new ideas for neurodevelopmental disorder treatments.

To explore the structure of the human brain and compare it to that of other animals see the Brain Diaries Brain Explorer below.

 

Rehoming a dinosaur

Last summer we ran an unusual competition: finding a new residence for our four metre-long model of Utahraptor ostrommaysorum. It had been hibernating in one of our off-site stores for a while, but following a reorganisation of collections we needed to find a new place for it to live. The competition to rehome the dinosaur was fierce, with 200 venues across the world vying to become the Utahraptor‘s new keeper…

It’s taken some time, thanks to logistics and admin, but one year later we are really delighted to reveal that the Utahraptor has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford.

The bid to take in the Cretaceous creature came from Sarah Fletcher, who now works at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford. Sarah nominated the Children’s Hospital so that the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients.

The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun. Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors. But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!
– Sarah Fletcher

The Children’s Hospital team celebrate the arrival of their new ‘pet’

The model has been installed in the main entrance of the hospital, complete with new shadow-casting lighting, thanks to support from Oxford Radcliffe Hospitals Charitable Funds.

The team are now looking to develop new arts projects for young patients, themed around the dinosaur, including an all-important naming competition. We all hope it will bring pleasure to patients, provide a welcome distraction, and make their hospital visit a little more fun.

Patients, staff and visitors can peer at the dino on the way to the wards