It goes without saying that 2020 has been a very unusual and troubled year, but it is also the 160th anniversary of the founding of the Museum, so we wanted to snatch a little breather from the difficulties of the pandemic, if possible, to take a positive look at the past and future of the Museum.
We have made a few special productions to mark this. Our new temporary exhibition – Truth to Nature – opens in the centre court on 18 October, and is accompanied by this online version for those who can’t make it to the Museum. The displays chart the philosophies and artistry underpinning the creation of the Museum in the mid-19th century and reflect on the role of natural history museums today, including the need for greater equity in science.
Taking a look at the unique and treasured building itself, this short film reveals some of the hidden secrets of the Museum’s architecture:
And finally, this week we have released a new five-part video podcast series looking in greater detail at the history of the Museum’s art and architecture, written and presented by John Holmes, Professor of Victorian Literature and Culture at Birmingham University, who is also an Honorary Associate of the Museum.
We’ll be sharing an episode a week here and on our social media channels, but you can dive into the series here or watch Episode 1, Oxford’s Pre-Raphaelite Natural History Museum, below.
With our Life, As We Know It redisplay project now underway, our Senior Archives and Library Assistant Danielle Czerkaszyn takes a behind-the-scenes look at how we captured the contents of the current displays for the Museum’s archive.
The archive here holds a unique collection of natural history books, journals and documents covering a wide range of subjects related to the Museum’s collections and research. It also contains papers and objects on the history of the building, providing an institutional memory of Oxford’s ‘University Museum’ since its foundation in 1860.
From an archive perspective it was really important to document the current layout of the cases, their specimens and text before they were removed from the court to make way for the new showcases in the first phase of our redisplay work.
The displays as we know them – with exhibitions on the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, Alice in Wonderland, the Oxford Dodo, and more – were last changed in 2000. For the last 20 years visitors to the Museum would remember their first time being wowed by the Megalosaurus jaw – the world’s first scientifically-described dinosaur – or charmed by the Dodo made famous in Lewis Carroll’s Alice Adventures in Wonderland.
Although after 20 years it is time for a change, the stories and information in the displays are too good to be forgotten. So before anything was removed we began to build the archive for the future.
The best way to capture all the information of the displays was through high resolution photography, but this was not as straightforward as we hoped.
The first two obstacles to good photographs are pretty obvious to anyone looking at the cases: glass causes huge amounts of glare; and each case has a big dividing line down the centre where the two sliding glass doors meet, cutting what should be a lovely seamless image into two halves.
To avoid glare and the solve the problem of the dividing line, our photographer Scott opened each individual side of the case, photographed two or three images of the display, and then stitched the separate photos together using Photoshop.
Another obstacle to taking good photographs of the displays came from the Museum itself. Some of our larger display furniture, such as the glass case for the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna or the huge T. rex plinth – got in the way of a nice straight shot. Because these items are so large and heavy they were impossible to move, so we had to improvise and do our best.
Thankfully, we managed to get shots of all 24 displays before they were removed and so a record of each case now rests with the Museum’s archive. If anyone wants to know what the display cases in the court looked like from 2000 to 2020, they will now be able to look back at the images in the archive and recall the magic of the Oxford Dodo exhibit that perhaps first made them fall in love with the Museum.
Our new displays are now in development, and will include some beautiful presentations of the diversity of life, looking at the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment. These new exhibits will show 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.
We look forward to telling you more about that here as the project progresses.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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) 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.
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.
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.’
By Eileen Westwig, Collections Manager in the Museum’s Life Collections.
About 320 km south of Java in the Indian Ocean lies Christmas Island. Although discovered and named on Christmas Day in 1643, the island remained unexplored until its first settlement in 1888, a development which had dire consequences for some of its native species.
Christmas Island is home to a variety of endemic animals such as rats, land crabs, butterflies and many birds. The accumulation of bird droppings over thousands of years made the island rich in phosphate, and the commercial potential of these deposits brought many expeditions to the island. With the ships’ cargo came black rats.
Two species of endemic rats, Maclear’s Rat (Rattus macleari) and the Bulldog Rat (Rattus nativitatis) went extinct within 20 years of settlement, despite having been previously very numerous on the island.
Maclear’s Rat, seen at the top of the page in an illustration from an 1887 publication, was described as chestnut brown above, with a partly white, long tail. It was once the most numerous mammal on the island ‘occurring in swarms’. The Bulldog Rat had a much shorter tail and a layer of subcutaneous fat up to 2 centimetres thick, the function of which is unknown to this day.
The likely cause of their extinction was the introduction of diseases by the ship rats, to which the Christmas Island rodents had no immunity. The disappearance of the native rats also had a knock-on effect: the parasitic Christmas Island Flea (Xenopsylla nesiotes) depended on the rats as hosts, and so the fleas became extinct with the rats’ demise.
In 1901 Dr. Herbert E. Durham, a British parasitologist investigating the origins of beriberi disease, led an expedition to Christmas Island. During his visit he collected several specimens of Maclear’s Rat, but was unable to find any Bulldog Rats, despite a lengthy search and the offer of a reward. Two of the nine Maclear’s Rats Durham obtained showed abundant parasites, trypanosomes, in their blood.
Christmas Island possesses quite a number of peculiar species in its fauna, and it is regrettable that observations were not made before animals had been imported to this isolated station, as well as that my own notes are so incomplete.
Dr. Herbert E. Durham
Durham also found blood parasites in the native fruit bats (Pteropus melanotus) but noted that these were unlikely to have been introduced, instead were “an old standing native occurrence.” These bats still inhabit various islands in the Indian Ocean, including Christmas Island, where they are critically endangered.
The Museum holds a range of material from Christmas Island, including six skins and three skulls of Rattus macleari, which were collected by H. E. Durham in 1901-02, and donated in 1938.
In the latest display in our Presenting… series, collections manager Amoret Spooner takes a look at the wonderful and sometimes strange world of the praying mantis.
Praying mantis is the common name given to an order of insects called Mantodea, a word which derives from mantis meaning prophet, and eidos meaning form or type. The more familiar ‘praying mantis’ refers to the striking way that they hold their large forelimbs, in a ‘praying’ posture.
There are over 2,400 species of mantis worldwide, split into 21 different families. The image above shows their incredible diversity of colour, shape and size. But while they may differ in appearance, their biology and many behavioural traits are the same.
Mantis are predators of insects, including other mantis, but larger species will eat small lizards and birds. But they are perhaps best known for being cannibalistic. This behaviour is most commonly seen in nymphs straight out of the egg case, or ootheca, but it can also occur when the female eats the male after mating. However, cannibalism is not required to mate, so when it happens it’s usually because the female is hungry!
Praying mantis are ambush hunters, either camouflaging themselves while waiting for their prey to approach, or actively stalking prey. Their compound eyes are specialised in perceiving motion, and are widely spaced giving them a wide field of vision. Along with powerful front legs and an ability to move the head up to 180°, this makes them successful predators.
The Museum’s archive contains original drawings and annotations by John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893), the first Hope Professor of Zoology. As a renowned scientist Westwood described many new mantis species, and he was also a talented artist.
The Presenting… Marvellous Mantodea case is on display at the Museum until 1 November 2018.