Ento Kids R Us


As we head towards the end of National Insect Week this year it seems like a very good time to introduce you to one of the hardest-working people in bugworld – Sally-Ann Spence of Minibeast Mayhem. If you’ve ever visited the Museum on one of our bug-handling days you may well have met Sally already, quite probably holding a stick insect.

Through Minibeast Mayhem, Sally does a lot of work to support the budding entomologists of tomorrow, running invertebrate-based educational workshops for schools and public outreach events around Oxfordshire. Sally is also a committee member of the Amateur Entomologists Society’s Bug Club, an entomological club for children.

We asked Sally to tell us a bit more about her work and her desire to encourage bug-loving kids. Here’s what she has to say:

Sally-Ann Spence and her Minibeast Mayhem Bug Science kit
Sally-Ann Spence and her Minibeast Mayhem Bug Science kit

“When I meet a child with a passion for bugs I always suggest to their family that they should join a society such as the AES Bug Club where they can take part in many events and their interest can be nurtured. Sometimes it becomes apparent that a child has more than just a passing interest in bugs; in fact they have a true passion that could extend well beyond childhood. Unfortunately the UK has no BSc in Entomology so the subject is often missed in our schools careers advice. This can leave some children and their families at a loss for how to pursue their interest.

So I decided to set up a voluntary mentoring scheme – the Ento Kids – not only for enthusiastic children but also to support their families. The scheme has been successful, thanks to the incredible support I have received from expert individuals, landowners, universities, entomology-related companies and museums and their staff.

The aim of the Ento Kids is to support children through a CREST Award and a two week work experience placement. We offer advice on GCSE and A level choices and suitable university courses, as well as provide access to sites for research projects (and potential future employers).

Ento Kids hard at work in the Museum
Ento Kids hard at work in the Museum

Ento Kids take part in active fieldwork on research experiments to learn practical skills and are introduced to a network of professional entomologists who share their expertise from previous experience.

Theory is also fundamentally important and this is where museums such as the Museum of Natural History in Oxford are vital. Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections, and his team in the Entomology Department encourage the Ento Kids unreservedly. The children are taught about fieldwork in various habitats around the world and about the processes involved for collected specimens. They are taught about active scientific research, the importance of the collections and how to conserve them. Best of all, they learn all of this in a hands-on way with the staff in the Museum itself.

We need our entomologists, both from the past and today, and National Insect Week is a celebration of insects that everyone can take part in.”

Sally-Ann Spence – Minibeast Mayhem

Taxidermy for all


Taxidermy has enjoyed a bit of a surge in popularity in the last few years, as surveyed by Alexis Turner in his 2013 book Taxidermy. In the Museum, the touchable taxidermy animals are always popular, especially Mandy the much-stroked pony, the removal of which we fear might cause a public outcry.

Derek Frampton, centre, leads the workshop

Of course it’s all very well stroking cute, furry taxidermy animals, but have you got the, well, guts to have a go at it yourself? We suspected that plenty of people not only have the guts but also the desire so we set up a workshop with professional taxidermist Derek Frampton, whose work is regularly on display in the Museum. It’s the first time we have offered a taxidermy workshop, but despite the £175 cost for the specimen, materials and tuition, the day was easily oversubscribed.

And what a great session it was. Five excited and enthusiastic members of the public (and one equally excited education officer) were given expert tuition in a step by step guide to create their very own taxidermy jackdaw.

Blow dry in the lab

It wasn’t for the squeamish either because the birds were not pre-skinned, so there was some down and dirty hands-on work to be done before the pretty stuff could begin. The whole process took from 10am until 6.30pm with barely a break. Nonetheless, one participant said that the time flew by (no pun intended, we assume) and another said:

I don’t believe it, I thought we were just going to get a pre-prepared skin, not do the whole thing in a day! That was excellent!

The bird you can see at the top of the post is the creation of the over-excited education officer, Chris Jarvis. He’s named it Scratch because it was made entirely from – yep – scratch. Being a remarkably clever corvid, he (she?) now perches loftily above the rest of the Education team, squawking edicts from time to time.

Given the success of the workshop we may well run another in the future, so keep your eye on our quarterly programme for that. And if you’d like to join our mailing list, email communications@oum.ox.ac.uk and I’ll add your address.

Scott Billings – Communications officer




Viva Volunteers!

Alice facepaintingThey sort, they scan, they stick, they smile: who are they? Our team of brilliant Collections and Public Engagement Volunteers of course! This week has been the 30th anniversary of Volunteers’ Week, so we wanted to put the spotlight on them…

The majority of our volunteers help with public events, particularly those for our family audience. In 2014 alone, our awesome team of volunteers have given the Museum over 1500 hours of their time to help with public engagement events. This includes painting children’s faces, like the wonderful Alice Wilby (above), leading tours of the Museum’s architecture and running a pub quiz at one of our late night events. IMG_1322

On top of that, we have a team working away behind the scenes supporting our collections staff. Here’s just a sample of the projects they’ve been working on this week…

Laura Cotton in the Earth Collections.
Laura Cotton in the Earth Collections.

– 5 volunteers identifying butterflies from painted images in our Archival Collections.
– 1 volunteer working in the Life Collections sorting and cataloguing bones.
– 4 volunteers tucked away in the Earth Collections cleaning ancient horse fossils or sorting Jurassic fish teeth.

Simone Dogherty is the Museum’s Education Assistant and co-ordinator of Science Saturdays – a weekly family event aimed at older children and led entirely by volunteer scientists. So why does she think volunteers are so valuable?

We’re very lucky here to have such a large quantity and high quality of volunteers. They help us with a huge range of activities and with the increase in visitor numbers that the Museum has been experiencing since re-opening in February, I just don’t know how we’d cope without them.
For Science Saturdays we use volunteers with a specific expertise. This gives children access to enthusiastic and inspiring individuals that they can look up to. And, in return, the volunteers gain valuable science communication skills.

Fancy joining our merry band of volunteers? Whether you’re into making masks or dusting off molluscs, we need you! You can simply sign up to help out on our Volunteers website.

But what’s in it for you? Aside from the glow of knowing you’ve simply helped us do more, you can develop your confidence when working with the public, learn a new skill or get up close with the treasures stashed away behind the scenes. But that’s forgetting the most important part – you’d be joining a fantastic team of people who, like you, think this museum is a pretty exciting place to be!

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

Get on your soapbox


Mary Kingsley (l) and Mary Anning (r) prepare for their appearance in Soapbox City
Mary Kingsley and Mary Anning prepare for their appearance in Soapbox City

As April draws to a close, Oxford prepares for the traditional May Morning celebrations. Alongside the choir singing on Magdalen Tower, the reckless students leaping from the bridge and morris dancing in the medieval streets, you will find staff from Oxford University Museums joining in with the revelries.

An early-morning dung beetle will be taking to the soapbox
An early-morning dung beetle will be taking to the soapbox

The Museums have taken charge of a one hour slot, from 8-9am, with staff from the Museum of the History of Science, Pitt Rivers Museum and, of course, the Museum of Natural History taking to the stage during the hour. If you’re willing to get up bright and early, you’ll be able to see a giant dung beetle arguing the value of his species, a T rex in a rap battle with a dodo, and two dignified ladies visiting from the past to remind everyone just how significant they really were.

Ellena Smith, ASPIRE Assistant across the Museums, is co-ordinating the Museums’ slot. She says;

Soapbox City is a fantastic opportunity to share knowledge and insight from Oxford University Museum staff in a fun and exciting way, and a great chance for the Oxford University Museums to reach out to a new audience.

Here’s the full timetable for the Museums’ shift:

08:00 Shooting Holes in Pitt Rivers Myths, Helen Adams (Pitt Rivers Museum)

08:05 Music in the Museum, Kelly Smith (HLF Trainee)

08:10 Conservation Station, Bethany Palumbo (Museum of Natural History)

08:15 Cockroaches: Pets or Pests, Darren Mann (Museum of Natural History)

08:20 Why the World needs Dung Beetles, Chris Jarvis (Museum of Natural History)

08:25 Natural History Stand-up, David Legg (Museum of Natural History)

08:30 T rex Vs the Dodo Rap Battle, Steven Williams (Museum of Natural History)

08:35 A Tale of Two Marys, Caroline Cheeseman and Rachel Parle (Museum of Natural History and Joint Museums Volunteer Service)

08:40 Why older people are radical, Helen Fountain (Museum of Oxford)

08:45 Geek is Good, Scott Billings (Museum of the History of Science)

08:50 When History Goes Wrong, Stephen Johnston (Museum of the History of Science)

08:55 You think you are smart?! Silke Ackermann (Museum of the History of Science)

If you’re up early for the festivities (or still awake from the night before!), do join us on Broad Street for a little May Morning museum madness.

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer


He’s behind you…

Dino Zoo

Last weekend the dinosaurs rumbled into town; a whole menagerie of them. Indeed, it was a veritable Dinosaur Zoo. They’d come a long way too – all the way from Australia – and so their names were not so familiar to us: the Australovenator, the Titanosuar (above), the Dryosaur, and the cutely-named Leaellynasaura, so-called after the discoverer’s daughter Leaellyn (Leaellyn’s lizard, see?).

If you didn’t catch it, these creatures were all part of a show at Oxford’s New Theatre. There was a sneak preview of this in the Museum earlier in the year. Produced by Australian company Erth Visual and Physical, the Dinosaur Zoo Live production mixes the thrill of brilliant puppetry with facts and explanations about the adaptations, environments and possible behaviours of these long-lost Australian lizards.

This wasn’t an opportunity to be missed, so we teamed up with the New Theatre and the show’s production team to bring some of our own fossil specimens to the event. With a handling table set up in the theatre’s bar area, families spent up to an hour before the show examining our selection of theropod and sauropod material, getting up close to teeth, eggs, jaws, and more.

We had the lower jaw and fossilised tooth from Oxfordshire’s very own Megalosaurus, famous for being the first dinosaur to be scientifically described, by William Buckland in 1824 (actually the term Dinosauria came later, coined by Richard Owen in 1842). As it was Easter we had some ancient eggs too, including the fossil of an egg laid, probably, by a sauropod dinosaur, cracks in the shell still clearly visible.

A family enjoy pre-show ice creams while learning about the Megalosaurus
A family enjoy pre-show ice creams while learning about the Megalosaurus

To represent the the Cretaceous period, which is when the Australian beasts in the show were around, we brought the teeth and a hefty vertebra of an Iguanodon. Unlike the still-serrated Megalosaurus tooth fossil, the flat Iguanodon teeth show that this dinosaur was a herbivore. There’s a nice story, possibly apocryphal, that these teeth were actually spotted not by Gideon Mantell, the geologist who described Iguanodon in 1825, but by his wife Mary Ann as she waited in their carriage for her husband to visit a patient in Sussex.

Meeting the stars after the show with brilliant host Lindsay Chaplin
Meeting the stars after the show with brilliant host and zoo-keeper Lindsey Chaplin

We threw in a couple of tricksy things too. On the handling table there were two non-dinosaur specimens – could people work out which they were? In many cases, yes they could: if there’s one thing we learnt it’s that young kids know a heck of a lot about dinosaurs. The two red herrings were an ichthyosaur skull, because ichthyosaurs were marine reptiles rather than dinosaurs; and the fossil imprint of a leathery egg, probably laid by a prehistoric crocodile or turtle.

All in all, everyone had a great big dinosaur overdose. Still, better that than chocolate eggs.

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

A Sad Tail


Last week we celebrated the return of our beloved Nile crocodile skeleton. It’s been out on loan to the Oxford University Zoology Department during our closure year, but is now back in position in the Museum gallery for all to see.

Nicola working on the crocodile
Nicola working on the crocodile in the Museum

To mark the occasion, the conservation team decided to give the crocodile some much needed care. Originally this piece was displayed on carpet tiles, which can be potentially harmful to the specimen as they deteriorate… as well as looking pretty ugly! My first step was to remove these from the base of the specimen. I was then able to assess the skeleton for priority areas.

The crocodile's foot showing signs of damage from corroded wire
The crocodile’s foot showing signs of damage from corroded wire

Originally the specimen was articulated (held together) using a combination of iron and copper wire. This skeleton is over 150 years old and, during its time on display, these wires have corroded and stained the bone; this was particularly prominent in areas of existing cartilage, such as around its ribs. So I removed the old wire and replaced it with stainless steel, which has a longer life span.

The existing articulation had also failed in some areas; this was most obvious on the tail, which had lost its natural curve and gained a limp collapse – lovingly referred to by visitors as a ‘sad tail’. A ‘happier tail’ was obtained by threading a stainless steel wire through the vertebral column, meaning no new holes would need to be drilled.

The crocodile's tail before Nicola worked her magic
The crocodile’s tail before Nicola worked her magic

The alignment of the rear of the skull and the atlas and axis bones at the top of the spine were not correct. To treat this, I removed the skull, allowing access for wire replacement. The skull was returned to its original supporting armature, now with conservation grade cushioning to relieve any unnecessary pressure on the bone. I guided the skull into its new position and fastened it in place.

The crocodile skeleton complete with 'happier tail'
The crocodile skeleton complete with ‘happier tail’

IMG_5785Once complete, I coated the base of the specimen with sand (a more natural environment for a crocodile than carpet!) and called in some strong helpers to replace the heavy glass lid.

This project was particularly exciting to work on as it offered an opportunity to discuss the work of the conservation department with the passing museum visitors. I was able to make a few school trips a little more exciting with the phrase “Would you like to hold a croc skull?”.

Nicola Crompton, Conservation Intern