It’s the Dodo Roadshow!

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We are definitely more than just a Dodo, but sometimes we do like to celebrate our famous specimen. This month we’ll be doing that in two exciting ways: putting the real Dodo remains on display, and taking Dodo bits and pieces on an epic tour – the Dodo Roadshow.

The Oxford Dodo display in the centre court of the Museum tells the story of the famous specimen that’s been under the care of Oxford University since the 17th century. But it doesn’t contain the real head and foot remains of the original animal: this uniquely precious specimen has to be kept behind the scenes, so it’s rare to get even a glimpse… until now!

On show until 19 July, you have a one-off opportunity to see the real deal on display in the climate-controlled Presenting case near the Welcome Desk. You can find out more about the display on the Museum website too.

Gently placing the Oxford Dodo into the Presenting case
Gently placing the Oxford Dodo into the Presenting case

As you’ll probably know by now, we’ve been shortlisted for the Art Fund Prize Museum of the Year 2015. To mark this, we’re embarking on a unique and ambitious tour of the country. Beginning at Land’s End on 8 June, the Dodo Roadshow will travel the full length of Britain in the colourful Museum van. Staff will journey all the way to John O’Groats in just one week, visiting over 20 museums and galleries along the way.

Oh, and we’ll be taking a Dodo with us too. While the original head is on display in the Museum, we’ll get the striking Dodo model out on the road, and we’ll also take along real Dodo foot and limb bones, from the same original animal as the head. These will be used as part of a ‘show and tell’ with visitors at each stop.

The Dodo model (right) which will be joining us for the adventure
The Dodo model (right) which will be joining us for the adventure

But it’s not just about the Dodo. In a bid to celebrate the rich diversity of museum collections in the UK, the Dodo will meet with star objects from every museum and gallery on the tour too. And in a small expression of cultural heritage exchange, the Dodo will ‘interview’ these star objects for a series of Q&A articles, which you’ll be able to read about right here on the blog.

We wanted to do something special to celebrate our nomination for the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015. Getting out on the road to visit museums and galleries far and wide seemed like a great way to talk about the huge breadth of collections that we have in the UK, both in natural history and well beyond.

The Dodo Roadshow is a chance for some people to meet the iconic Oxford Dodo, and for the Dodo – and us – to meet equally important objects in other museum collections.

– Professor Paul Smith, Museum director

Here’s the full breakdown of where we’re going:

Monday 8 JuneLAND’S END Visitor Centre; National Maritime Museum Cornwall; Royal Cornwall Museum; Eden Project; Plymouth City Museum and Art Gallery
Tuesday 9 JuneRAMM; Bristol Museum and Art Gallery
Wednesday 10 JuneNational Museum Wales; Black Country Living Museum; Compton Verney
Thursday 11 JuneDerby Museum and Art Gallery
Friday 12 JuneYorkshire Sculpture Park; The WhitworthDove Cottage
Saturday 13 JuneTullie House Museum & Art Gallery; Robert Burns Birthplace Museum; Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum
Sunday 14 JuneThe Hunterian, Glasgow; Perth Museum & Art Gallery; RSPB Loch Garten
Monday 15 JuneUllapool Museum & Visitor Centre; Information Centre, JOHN O’GROATS

Look out for travel snaps, postcards and drawings from the Dodo here on the blog and @morethanadodo on Twitter – #dodoroadshow.

Right, I’m off to pack – squawk!

Spot the staff wearing these t shirts out on the road
Spot the staff wearing these t shirts out on the road

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

Shooting with Martin Parr

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As you may have seen, the Museum was recently shortlisted as a finalist in this year’s Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year – very exciting news for us. To add to the honour we hosted renowned Magnum Photos photographer Martin Parr, who spent a good few hours photographing the Museum, in the court and behind the scenes, as part of the Museum of the Year campaign.

The photograph above was captured by Martin during one of our primary school sessions on dinosaurs: the children have their mitts on a fossilised dinosaur egg – just one of the real specimens used during the session.

Martin Parr photographing some Darwin specimens in our collections
Martin Parr photographing some Darwin specimens in our collections

Having a Magnum photographer visit the Museum for a photoshoot isn’t something that happens every day, so it was a real privilege to take Martin Parr around the building and watch the types of things that caught his eye.

I am a keen photographer myself, with an interest in the history of photography as a technical process and as an art form, so it was especially exciting to not only meet Martin and watch him work, but also to photograph the process myself too. You can see a few of those shots here.

Martin Parr scrutinising our vertebrate spirit collections
Martin Parr scrutinising our vertebrate spirit collections

Photo competition

Now it’s your chance. We’re inviting you to take photographs of the Museum and submit them to the Museum of the Year Photo Competition, with a chance to win a photography holiday in Berlin, photo gear and other prizes. Martin Parr will shortlist six photos, one for each of the six finalist museums, and the ultimate winner will be selected by a public vote.

So get snapping – with a posh camera or your phone; it doesn’t matter. Then either upload your pictures via the Art Fund website, or tweet or Instagram them using the #motyphoto hashtag and don’t forget to tag us in @morethanadodo.

Good luck!

Martin Parr photographing a primary school group for Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year
Martin Parr photographing a primary school group for Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year
Martin Parr, an Iguanodon and young visitors
Martin Parr, an Iguanodon and young visitors

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer

 

One for the mantelpiece

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If you live in Oxford or have been reading our blog for a while you may remember a project we created called Goes to Town: twelve specimens escaped from the Museum, set themselves up in locations around Oxford city and provided a treasure-hunt style trail around town. They then returned in time for our reopening party in 2014.

It was a fun project with many elements so we are very pleased indeed to say that it picked up the winning trophy in last night’s Museum + Heritage Awards show, in the marketing campaign category. Here’s the first video we made to promote Goes to Town:

We are a finalist!

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This is very exciting. We’ve been waiting to tell everybody for some weeks that we have been selected as one of six finalists in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015. It’s the top prize for a museum or gallery in the UK and we are delighted that the Museum’s work over 2014 has been recognised to this extent.

The other finalists are Dunham Massey, IWM London, The MAC, HM Tower of London, and The Whitworth. The winner will be announced on 1 July at a ceremony at Tate Modern and will receive £100,000. To drum up the excitement we made a short film with Art Fund as part of the award campaign:

As regular readers of this blog and our previous Darked not dormant blog will know, the Museum undertook a major roof restoration and lighting project during 2014. And while we were closed we spent some time thinking about how we communicate with our visitors and the world beyond, trying out some fun forms of public engagement such as the Goes to Town project (shortlisted for a Museums + Heritage Award).

Photographer Martin Parr's lead image from a shoot at the Museum
Photographer Martin Parr’s lead image from a shoot at the Museum

At the same time our whale skeletons underwent a major conservation and redisplay, documented at Once in a Whale. In other words, 2013 and 2014 were big years for the Museum and it’s wonderful to be celebrating them as Finalists in the Art Fund Prize competition. As our director Paul Smith says:

Our public programme encourages visitors of all ages to understand and engage with the natural environment, and sits alongside our world-class research and teaching.

The museum’s small team and our volunteers are delighted that this transformation has led to being named as a finalist in the prestigious Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015.

Keep an eye on the blog next week and you’ll see more about Martin Parr‘s photography of the Museum, as well as a photography competition that you can enter yourself, judged by Martin and the public. In the meantime, here’s a sneak preview of Martin Parr at work here, capturing the image you can see above.

Martin Parr captures the lead image in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 campaign
Martin Parr captures the lead image in the Art Fund Prize for Museum of the Year 2015 campaign

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer

‘Welcome to My Museum’

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I’ve been to see the dinosaurs at the Pitt Rivers Museum!

It’s a common exclamation, but alas, there are no dinos in the Pitt Rivers, nor totem poles in the Museum of Natural History. Rather, there are two museums with a shared front door, and a fair amount of confusion.

To address this perpetual museum muddle we present a short play, Welcome to My Museum, where the Victorian founders of each institution come to life to discuss ‘two marvellous museums under one roof’.

A small grant from the Oxford University Museums Partnership allowed a collaboration between us, the Pitt Rivers Museum, Pegasus Theatre, and Film Oxford to produce two versions of the play – one for public performance and another for a film adaptation, which is the one you can watch below.

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Ciaran Murtagh (left) as General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers and Andrew Jones as Henry Acland

Working with Pegasus Theatre, Rachel Barnett scripted an imagined conversation between the founders of the two museums, Henry Acland and General Augustus Henry Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers. Pegasus helped to source actors and costumes and even a prop-maker for Pitt Rivers’s fine pufferfish helmet.

Film Oxford spent several late nights with a very patient rent-a-crowd, immortalising their adaptation of the play on film. The public performance was well attended, with over 250 visitors dropping in to watch General Pitt Rivers rudely interrupt Henry Acland’s speech welcoming visitors to his museum. Pitt Rivers rightly points out that there must be two museums as the building has two gift shops and even two differently-branded pencil sharpeners for sale in them – ‘scientifically incontrovertible’ proof!

So if you think that you have ever been to the Pitt Rivers Museum to see the dinosaurs, or the Museum of Natural History to look at the totem-pole, watch the film below and you will discover that our building is actually ‘two sublime museums under one roof’.

Chris Jarvis – Education officer

‘A thoroughly unhousewifely skill’

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For International Women’s Day, the Museum of Natural History celebrates the life and career of Dorothy Hodgkin, one of its most eminent researchers. Hodgkin was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964, and is still the only UK woman to have been awarded one of the science Nobels.

When the Museum of Natural History was designed in the 1850s, the building was intended not just to house a museum but also the burgeoning science departments of the University. The lettering above the doors facing the court continues to record these early affiliations: ‘Department of Medicine’, ‘Professor of Experimental Philosophy’, and so on.

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Dorothy Mary Hodgkin (1910–1994) Image: Nobel Prize

As individual departments grew they moved into their own buildings across the science campus. One of the last research groups left in the Museum was the Department of Mineralogy & Crystallography, which, from the 1930s onwards, was the research home of the outstanding X-ray crystallographer Dorothy Hodgkin (1910-1994), winner of the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1964.

The Daily Mail famously celebrated her success with the headline ‘Oxford housewife wins Nobel’, but The Observer was no more enlightened, commenting that Hodgkin was ‘an affable looking housewife’ who had been awarded the Nobel Prize for ‘a thoroughly unhousewifely skill’.  That socially disruptive ability was an unparalleled proficiency with X-ray analysis, particularly in the elucidation of the structure of biological molecules.

Hodgkin undertook her first degree at Oxford from 1928 to 1932, initially combining chemistry and archaeology but later focusing on the emerging technique of X-ray crystallography. Her undergraduate research project was carried out using this technique in a Museum laboratory within what is now the Huxley Room, the scene of the 1860 Great Debate on evolution between Bishop Wilberforce and T. H. Huxley. She then journeyed across to Cambridge for her PhD before returning to Oxford in 1934 and resuming her association with the Museum.

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Model of the Structure of Penicillin, by Dorothy Hodgkin, Oxford, c.1945, in the Museum of the History of Science

Back in Oxford, Hodgkin started fundraising for X-ray apparatus to explore the molecular structure of biologically interesting molecules. One of the first to attract her attention was insulin, the structure of which took over 30 years to resolve – a project timescale unlikely to appeal to modern research funders. Other molecules proved more tractable, including the newly discovered penicillin, which Hodgkin began to work on during the Second World War, and vitamin B12.  It was for the determination of these structures that she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

Dorothy Hodgkin’s new X-ray laboratory was set up in a semi-basement room in the north-west corner of the Museum.  The room is now a vertebrate store but was once also the research home of Prince Fumihito of Japan, when he was based in the Museum for his ichthyological research (and It is still the only room in the Museum with bulletproof windows).

Initially, Hodgkin’s only office space consisted of a table in this room and a small mezzanine gallery above, which housed her microscopes for specimen preparation. Once prepared, she then had to descend a steep, rail-less ladder holding the delicate sample to the X-ray equipment below. Later, Hodgkin had a desk in the ‘calculating room’ (now housing the public engagement team) where three researchers and all of their students sat and undertook by hand the complex mathematics necessary after each analysis to determine the crystal structures of organic molecules.

Paul Smith – Director

If you would like to learn more about Dorothy Hodgkin and her work, then read Georgina Ferry’s excellent biography ‘Dorothy Hodgkin: A Life’ which has just been re-issued as an e-book and new, print-on-demand paperback by Bloomsbury Reader.

 This year’s Dorothy Hodgkin Memorial Lecture will be held in the Museum at 5 pm on Thursday 12 March, and is open to all. The lecture will be given by Dr Petra Fromme (Arizona State University) who is an international authority on the structure of membrane proteins.