Digging in the archives

by Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archive and Library Assistant

Working day in, day out in the Museum of Natural History’s archive, we like to think we know a lot about our collections. The truth is, with the sheer number of items in our archive and the many nooks and crannies which exist in a historical building, we sometimes need some help rediscovering items in our collections. One such item is the engraved trowel used to set the Museum’s foundation stone.

The Earl of Derby lays the foundation stone at the 1855 ceremony. Engraving from Illustrated London News.

The story began when we received an enquiry from a museum enthusiast in America. He had read an article from an 1855 edition of the Illustrated London News, about the foundation stone ceremony. This was the moment that construction began on the Oxford University Museum, as it was then known. It seems that a small trowel was used as part of this ceremony. The article describes the trowel as follows:

The trowel, which is of silver and bronze, is highly finished, and novel in form. It is enriched by an engraved Gothic pattern on the upper, or silver, side. It was made by Skidmore, of Coventry, who has contracted for the foliated wrought-iron work which will decorate the quadrangle of the building. The trowel bears the following inscription-

Oxford University Museum. Chief Stone laid 20th June, 1855, by the Right Hon. Edward Geoffrey Earl of Derby, Chancellor; Thomas Deane, Knt; Thomas N. Deane, and Benjamin Woodward, Architects.

Look carefully at the engraving from Ilustrated London News and you’ll see that children were also involved in the ceremony. They were likely to be Sarah and William Acland, the two eldest children of Dr. Henry Acland, who was instrumental in the founding of the Museum:

The trowel, borne on a cushion by two interesting children (the son and daughter of Dr. Acland), was then handed to the Earl.

The article does not say what happened to the trowel so our enquirer wanted to know; did the trowel end up in our archival collection or does it sit in the void under the stone?

Details from the Museum’s wrought iron roof decoration. Both the metalwork and the trowel were designed by Francis Skidmore.

As far as any of the Museum staff were aware, there was no trowel in our collections. With little to go on, we momentarily put the enquiry to one side and hoped for some good luck. The rediscovery came by accident just one week later, as we were rearranging boxes in the archive to make additional room for art storage. The trowel was spotted at the top of a box of items that had yet to be sorted and catalogued. With the recent enquiry on our minds, we recognised the trowel from its description and instantly knew what a special find this was.

Danielle Czerkaszyn holds the newly-discovered trowel. Her next challenge is to track down the missing silver handle.

Our enquirer was pleased to hear of the trowel’s rediscovery and thrilled to know the part that his enquiry played. Without his curious question, we might not have recognised the trowel for what it was. The trowel is now undergoing conservation treatment and cataloguing, and as an important part in the history of the Museum, it will hopefully be on display in the near future.

The Museum archive and library is open by appointment to anyone who would like to visit, and we welcome enquiries at library@oum.ox.ac.uk.

Looking up

Blue sky

There can be many reasons for a museum’s decision to install a temporary exhibition, but the most powerful is that its visitors have asked for it. While working in the Museum’s shop, Magdalena Molina is often quizzed about the building’s iconic roof, which can be admired as they browse. “What’s it made from? Who designed it? How does it get cleaned?” The most popular question of all is, “Where can I find out more?”.

A detail from the roof's rafters
A detail from the roof’s rafters. Credit: Mike Peckett.

Magdalena is an experienced designer, who has worked on various exhibitions, so she approached the Museum with her ideas for a creative, artistic display all about the roof. An exhibition to satisfy the interests of curious visitors.

As a designer I feel inspired by the exquisite design and architecture of the roof of the Museum. Assisting in the shop, I have received a lot of comments from visitors who are fascinated by the building.

Visitor exploring the exhibition
Visitor exploring the exhibition

The exhibition, Lives at the Top: celebrating the museum roof, has just opened. It allows visitors to discover the people behind its creation, secrets of its beautiful design and find out how it has been maintained for generations to come.

It begins with the origins of the Museum building, with an architectural competition won by Woodward and Deane, soon followed by the architect’s tragic early death.

Magdalena with one of the Curiosity Boxes
Magdalena with one of the Curiosity Boxes

The story continues with the 2013 roof renovation project and moves on to current museum concerns such as pests living up in the rafters. There are also 6 ‘Curiosity Boxes’ to explore, which use mirrors and magnifiers to look at the roof in a new, imaginative way.

Magdalena hopes that visitors will:

Follow the story which celebrates the people involved in the life of this astonishing roof,  and playfully engage with the interactive designed boxes to help them explore different perspectives of the roof.

Magdalena is encouraging visitors to join the celebration of beautiful roofs, ceilings and architectural details, by sharing their photos with us… and the world! Inspired by the Lives at the Top exhibition, we’ve put together a special board on the Museum’s Pinterest account. If you would like to appear on the board, simply share your photo on Twitter or Instagram and tag with #lookingupMNH.

Lives at the Top is open until 13th November 2016.

A scene from the 2013 renovation. Credit: Mike Peckett
A scene from the 2013 renovation. Credit: Mike Peckett

One for the mantelpiece

Museum_Heritage_Awards_2015_MNH small

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:

Whale tale

Bottle-nosed Dolphin (Tursiops truncatus)

One of the most uplifting projects here over the past year or so (literally, as you’ll see) has been the conservation work on the five whale skeletons suspended in the court. The skeletons are beautiful, the process was intricate, and the whole thing was rigorously documented on our accompanying Once in a Whale blog.

The work inspired filmmaker Robert Rapoport to record some eerily captivating footage of our conservators at work, and the project itself was Highly Commended in the Museums + Heritage Awards.

Northern Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)
Northern Bottle-nosed Whale (Hyperoodon ampullatus)

At completion, the whales were raised once again into the vaulted space, but this time rearranged in size order and staggered in their distance from the ground. Each has its own spotlight, creating an impressive display, especially once darkness falls outside.

But there was a final element to the displays that has just been installed: information panels containing details about each of the species suspended above, along with drawings and paintings created for us by artists Nicola Fielding and Claire Duffy.

Claire’s paintings of the whales have been used in a scaled schematic of the display, each ‘fleshed out’ to give an impression of the whale in its full form; and Nicola’s accurate recreations of the skeletons are featured in a second panel which gives details of the conservation project itself.

A schematic drawing of the whales suspended in the court, along with further information about each species
A schematic drawing of the whales suspended in the court, along with further information about each species

Nicola is something of an old hand when it comes to making drawings for the Museum – her work is featured on lots of our family trails already. But the whale project seems to hold a special place in her heart:

I could write a short essay about how much being involved in the whale project meant to me. I’ve always been mesmerised by cetaceans and by the mythical status they can have. In a museum, hanging alongside dinosaur skeletons, they can seem like something we only know from pictures and imaginings. But cetaceans are of course still living, breathing and can be found in all corners of the worlds oceans. Even around the UK there are so many species to be found.

So I was really excited to be involved in a project that would allow the Museum to make the most of its incredible skeletons, and to make sure all the knowledge we do have about them is shared.

Whale aisle interp v32
One of the panels in the whale aisle gives details of the conservation project

We hope the new information panels at each end of the whale aisle will encourage visitors to look up and perhaps share in Nicola’s wonder for these amazing creatures, many of which were almost hunted to extinction during the periods of intense industrial whaling.

Finally, if if you like the look of these paintings, there’s a last chance to see some of Claire Duffy’s other work in her Avifauna show at the Old Fire Station in Oxford, which runs until Saturday 8 November.

Scott Billings – Public engagement officer

A little piece of history

Glass tiles

Regular readers of our closure blog, Darkened not Dormant, will know all about our Goes to Town project, where twelve plucky specimens escaped from the Museum for an eight month holiday in venues all around Oxford city centre. Like any good treasure hunt, the Goes to Town trail presented a competition which promised a valuable prize…

The framed fragment of roof tile, presented to the Goes to Town competition winners
The framed fragment of roof tile, presented to the Goes to Town competition winners

Each of the twelve specimens carried two ratings, one for Danger and one for Rarity. To enter the competition, trail hunters needed to find all the displays and then tell us which specimen was rated most dangerous and which most rare. The most dangerous was the Snowy Owl, the sharpest living predator on the trail; and the rarest were the animals from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland which are, of course, completely fictional. If you entered without checking all the specimens and guessed that the Dodo would be the rarest then we caught you out – sorry!

Winners also got a cuddly dinosaur.
Which is best – piece of glass, or cuddly dino?

Around 80 people entered the competition and three winners were chosen at random. We held a little award ceremony on our reopening day on Saturday 15 February, where all three winners attended to receive their prizes. And the prizes were quite special. One was a cuddly dinosaur toy (always special, right?) and the other was a small framed, cut fragment of one of the glass tiles from the Museum’s roof.

The whole reason for our closure last year was to have the original Victorian roof repaired, so we felt that it was a fitting prize to present a little piece of the fabric of the roof – a little piece of history – to the winners. Congratulations again to the three winners and we hope those small fragments of the Museum are now hanging proudly on three walls somewhere in Oxford.

Adults get the cuddly dino too, of course.
Museum directo Professor Paul Smith presents the prizes
Museum director Professor Paul Smith presents the prizes.