Air bubble gems

Amethyst 3Beautiful gemstones are always popular with the public when they’re brought out for Spotlight Specimens. Monica Price talks about some she’s been showing off recently at our daily drop-in sessions.


Blog brandingNow here’s a mineral that most people recognise straight away when I bring it out for Spotlight specimens. It is amethyst, and it is the most popular of all purple gem minerals. By a happy coincidence it is very common too, so jewellery made with amethyst need not be very expensive.

But that wasn’t always the case. In the past, fine, large, transparent crystals of amethyst could only be found in Germany, Russia and a few other places in the world. In Europe, the colour purple is traditionally associated with royalty and wealth, and so rare amethyst gems would feature in crowns and jewellery worn by heads of state and religious leaders.

Amethyst 1

Amethyst is actually a variety of one of the Earth’s most common minerals, quartz.  Quartz is composed of silicon dioxide and helps form many different kinds of rock…. it even makes up most beach sands! Amethyst is the kind of quartz that contains a little bit of iron to turn it purple.

Amethyst 2So how did amethyst suddenly become so common? During the 18th century, huge flows of volcanic lava were found by explorers in Brazil and Uruguay. Some had air bubbles which were lined with superb purple crystals of amethyst. Soon, these crystal-filled cavities were being sent to Europe, and today, they are sold all over the world.  The biggest bubbles were a metre or more in size – huge! Nowadays, nearly all the amethyst you see for sale comes from those 135 million year-old South American lava flows.

My spotlight specimens include an amethyst gemstone and some lovely examples of those gas bubble cavities lined with crystals. One rather curious thing is that the crystals are rarely purple all the way through. The colour typically concentrates towards the tips of the six-sided crystals.  If you come when I next show my ‘gas bubble gems’, you will see exactly what I mean!

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections

Little and large

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Amo Spooner from the Museum’s Life Collections has been out in the Museum sharing some of her favourite objects. Here’s the latest in our Spotlight Specimens series…



Big impressive beetles or small shiny ones? That is the question. For me it’s all about the small ones, but here I am getting people’s (and the T. rex’s) attention with the big ones. It’s my tactic for engaging their interest before I try to convince them that the small ones are so much cooler!

Monday – Thursday at 2.30pm a member of the Museum’s collections staff can be found out in the Museum talking about something interesting. For my latest session of Spotlight Specimens I chose to show off drawers of my favourite beetles.

P1020715The big ones are from a family of beetles called Cerambycidae or Longhorn Beetles. This family is found all over the world and varies greatly in size and colour. These ones are particularly interesting to me because of the historic collection they are from. The vast Baden-Sommer collection, containing many different beetle families, came to the museum via a dealer in 1910 and unusually it is still in its original layout. The labels you can see in the drawer were written by the two entomologists that collected the specimens, J. Baden and M. Sommer.

The one you see in my hand (above) is in the subfamily Lamiinae – also charmingly known as Flat Faced Longhorns.

Part of my job is to re-curate and move historic specimens into pest-proof housing –  I am currently writing a blog post explaining this, so watch this space! In a nutshell, the Baden-Sommer Longhorns are a good example of drawers in need of some TLC. This leads me nicely on to my second choice of drawer, the Histeridae.

P1020717These are my first love when it comes to beetles. The Histeridae, or Clown Beetles, vary a lot in size; the one in my hand (below) is about as big as they get, but they can be as small as 1 mm in length.

P1020709I have re-curated all of the Museum’s historic Histeridae specimens and mounted up many modern ones, like you can see above. This modern system of trays and pest proof drawers ensures the longevity of specimens, as well as making them easier to access.

So what makes the little ones so special? During the afternoon I met visitors from home and abroad, young and old. I convinced them to to look a little closer, admiring their shiny black armour and fascinating adaptations. I think they finally agreed that big isn’t always best.

Amo Spooner, Collections assistant (Life)

Museum à la mode

Credit- Julia Cleaver
Image: © Julia Cleaver 2015

I’ve just received some fabulous pictures from a photo shoot here in the Museum. The building and its specimens are shown at their very best and the model’s striking looks add a sheen of glamour to each photo. But what makes these images really special is that the model is one of our own; Aisling Serrant is better known to Museum staff as a trainee education officer on the HLF Skills for the Future programme.

Oxford University Museum of Natural History,
Image: © Julia Cleaver 2015

Aisling spent four months in the Public Engagement team in 2014, largely working with school groups and families. Not always the most glamorous job. In November 2014 we had the opportunity to see her in a completely new light. Oxford Fashion Week was coming to the Museum and they were running open casting sessions for models. Aisling remembers how she got involved:


When the initial meetings started taking place between the Fashion Week organisers and the Museum staff, my ears pricked up. Alongside studying or working I have modelled for years. My degree is in archaeology, so people have always found the combination with fashion modelling quite funny – perhaps imagining me standing knee-deep in a muddy trench in stilettos! It seemed too good to be true – could there really be a chance for me to bring my two contrasting types of work together?

Aisling in the Oxford Fashion Week shows
Aisling in the Oxford Fashion Week shows. Credit: Mark Hemsworth

I was delighted when I was asked to model in all three shows that were to be held at the Museum. They took place on Friday 7 and Thursday 8 November.

Friday night was a busy one with two shows in one night. I felt right at home, with the familiar faces of old friends like the T.rex and Iguanodon (oh and some of the staff members too!).  However it did all feel a bit surreal.

Getting ready backstage
Getting ready backstage

The Museum Annexe had been transformed into the backstage area, but the last time I had spent so much time there I’d been running an archaeological dig activity with year 6 children in the Making Museums project. Now the place couldn’t have looked more different with rails upon rails of clothes, photographers’ flashes and the distinct smell of hairspray in the air.

Saturday night was the big finale to the week – the Birds of Paradise show in the Museum central court. The skeleton parade was parted so we could walk down the middle and the Triceratops skull was moved to become the backdrop for the first part of our walk. The museum was transformed into another world for the evening.

On the runway at the Birds of Paradise show.
On the runway at the Birds of Paradise show. Credit: Mark Hemsworth

The addition of atmospheric music and such stunning outfits was truly breathtaking – enchanting at times, slightly eerie at others – but always fantastically dramatic. The nature-inspired outfits, some smothered in black feathers, others twinkling with jewel beetle shells, served as a reminder of how extraordinarily beautiful the natural world is.


Credit- Julia Cleaver
Image: © Julia Cleaver 2015

Photographer Julia Cleaver was here for the shows and was so inspired by the venue and so enjoyed working with Aisling that she returned recently to do an extra photo shoot. These photos are the stunning outcome of that session. Many thanks to Julia for letting us share them here.

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

A glimpse of paradise

Copyright Ben Robinson, Oxford Fashion Week
Copyright Ben Robinson, Oxford Fashion Week

We host hundreds of events a year at the Museum; everything from specialist lectures to family friendly activities. But coming up in November we’ve got a real first – a fashion show right here in the middle of the Museum. Oxford Fashion Week will be hosting their headline event here on Saturday 8 November. Birds of Paradise will be the climax to the week of shows and has been inspired by the spectacular Birds of Paradise in the Museum’s collection.

Hannah Zainnudin
Hannah Zainnudin

Earlier this year, Oxford University student Hannah Zainuddin approached the Oxford Fashion Week team with her exciting proposal. As a Biology student, evolution is at the heart of her studies and she’s particularly interested in the behaviour of Birds of Paradise, as an example of sexual selection at its most flamboyant. But Hannah’s interest isn’t purely biological. She is excited by the overlap between art and science and wants to use fashion as opportunity to blend the creative and academic elements of Oxford.

I hope people will realise that fashion isn’t just superficial.

Hannah is currently a finalist at St Catherine’s College, Oxford and will be juggling her studies with the role of Creative Director for the Birds of Paradise show.

CraspedophoraKeulemans cropShe’s sourced exciting, original looks by cutting edge professional designers. Watch out for explorations of iridescence, dramatic colour combinations and textures that mirror the display techniques used by the flamboyant birds. Changes in the volume of models’ outfits will also reflect the impressive puffed up feathers that male birds use in their dances.

To set the scene and whet the appetite for the show, the Fashion Week team came in to capture some publicity shots. The results give us a glimpse of the dramatic impact we’ll see on the night with striking models, breathtaking outfits and a unique setting.

Copyright Ben Robinson, OFW
Copyright Ben Robinson, OFW
Copyright Julia Cleaver, OFW
Copyright Julia Cleaver, OFW

The model in all these fabulous shots is Tiffany Saunders who, as well as being a professional model, is the Assistant Director of Oxford Fashion Week.

Her enthusiasm for the museum as a set for the shoot and as a venue for the show was obvious as we scouted out the perfect locations in the galleries. Although she’s been modelling since she was four years old and has worked in countless interesting venues, she says that using the Museum as her framework was a very different experience;

I felt in awe of my surroundings in a way that I’m not used to. Every angle, every shot, every corner of the Museum presented an image of wonder and uniqueness. It was an honour to have been amongst such outstanding surroundings.

Tiffany also explained why she and Oxford Fashion Week director Carl Anglim are so excited about the show:

We have wanted to do an event at the museum for a while because it is so unique and iconic. Part of what sets Oxford Fashion Week apart from other fashion weeks is the cultural heritage the city has to offer, so we always like to use venues that display this supreme asset. Headlining at the museum is something the whole team are particularly excited about. It is a world class venue and will be an incredible highlight of Oxford Fashion Week.

Copyright Julia Cleaver, OFW
Copyright Julia Cleaver, OFW

In another first for the team, they will also be holding a double-bill at the Museum on Friday 7 November. Independent Collections will kick off the evening at 6pm, followed by Couture at 7.30pm. Three brilliant shows in 24 hours.

If you’d like to join us for either of these nights, tickets are available through the Oxford Fashion Week website.

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

Heads up… what’s on


CraspedophoraKeulemans crop

We try hard not to use this blog simply as a promotional tool for the Museum’s events, but thought that when a new quarterly programme is published you might like to know so you can have a look and pick out anything you fancy.

Oct-Dec prog coverSo this is just a short post to let you know that the October-December programme is now out. Highlights include a headline runway show for Oxford Fashion Week, on Saturday 8 November, with designs inspired by the beauty and variety of Birds of Paradise.

We have some Arctic-themed activity later in November, with the Northern Lights late night event for Christmas Light Festival on Friday 21 November, and a special talk by Museum director Professor Paul Smith, The Arctic – A Natural History, on Tuesday 18 November. Free tickets are available now.

Attachment-1Finally, there was a late arrival that didn’t quite make it into the programme leaflet, but is not to be missed: Dave Goulson, founder of the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, will talk about his latest work, A Buzz in the Meadow, on Thursday 9 October. Tickets can be booked here, and a limited number of early bird tickets include a behind-the-scenes tour in our entomology department.

With plenty of family events too, hopefully there’s something for everyone in the programme. If you’d like to be added to our general mailing list just drop me a line at and I’ll add your email address.

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer