Tales from the Jurassic Coast


Britain’s Jurassic Coast is a famous location for fossil hunters. Dorset’s Lyme Regis in particular was a collecting ground for two very important Victorian palaeontologists – Elizabeth Philpot (1780-1857) and Mary Anning (1799-1847) – and the site yielded some of the earliest specimens of Ichthyosaurs and Plesiosaurs.

Last weekend Channel 4’s Walking Through Time series focused on the Jurassic Coast and featured two members of staff from the Museum, Eliza Howlett and Hilary Ketchum from our Earth Collections. To coincide with the programme, Eliza here delves into the Museum’s Philpot archive to paint a picture of the relationship between Elizabeth Philpot, Mary Anning, and Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology, William Buckland.


Elizabeth Philpot moved to Lyme Regis around 1805 with two of her three sisters, Mary and Margaret, where they soon became involved in fossil collecting and where they remained for life. At this time Lyme-born Mary Anning was still a young girl, but so began an affectionate relationship with the Philpot sisters which transcended any barriers of age, social origins or educational background.

A letter from Elizabeth Philpot to Mary Buckland dated 9 December 1833.

As the Philpots’ fossil collection grew it became known in the geological community. One familiar visitor was William Buckland, whose earliest published reference to the ‘Miss Philpots’ is in his 1829 paper on the pterosaur found at Lyme by Mary Anning.

In one letter to Buckland’s wife, Mary, dated 9 December 1833, Elizabeth Philpot enclosed a sketch of an ichthyosaur head that she had painted using ink from a fossil squid of the same age as the ichthyosaur, 200 million years old; this is pictured at the top of the article. The letter also contained a colourful description of Mary Anning’s escapades:

Yesterday [Mary Anning] had one of her miraculous escapes in going to the beach before sun rise and was nearly killed in passing over the bridge by the wheel of a cart which threw her down and crushed her against the wall. Fortunately the cart was stopped in time to allow of her being extricated from her most perilous situation and happily she is not prevented from pursuing her daily employment.

Next, it sends a reminder to William Buckland, a man well-known for forgetting things:

May I beg you to remind Dr. Buckland that he has borrowed from me some Plesiosaurus vertebre. As it is some time since I will mention that it is a section of a vertebre, one with the process, ten others, and a chain set in a box.

These letters from Elizabeth Philpot are now held by the Museum, along with the Philpot collection of around 400 fossils. Mostly from Lyme Regis, this collection includes more than 40 type specimens, the reference specimen for a new species, which is a remarkable total for any collector. A brief list of people known to have examined the collection is practically a roll call of the key figures in 19th-century palaeontology: William Buckland, William Conybeare, John Lindley and William Hutton, Richard Owen, James Sowerby, and (from Switzerland) Louis Agassiz.

But the collection was also made available to the ordinary people of Lyme, and the handwritten labels by Elizabeth Philpot sometimes included detailed explanations of what these extinct animals would have looked like. Both the letters and the specimens remain deeply evocative today, conjuring up visions of what it must have been like to call on these three remarkable sisters.

Because of the risk of light damage the material is not normally on display, but it can be viewed by appointment. Email library@oum.ox.ac.uk or earth@oum.ox.ac.uk for more information.

Making Microsculpture


Today we are excited to be opening our new special exhibition, Microsculpture: The Insect Photography of Levon Biss. You may well have already heard about Microsculpture, and have perhaps watched the video showing how Levon Biss made these incredible portraits of insects from the Museum’s collection.

As we open the show in the Museum’s main court we wanted to give a little more insight into the process that Dr James Hogan, an entomologist in our Life Collections, went through to select and describe the specimens for the project. So I put a few questions to James to explain the making of Microsculpture from his point of view.

James Hogan (right) selecting specimens with Levon Biss
James Hogan (right) selecting specimens with Levon Biss

There are 23 specimens on show in the exhibition: how did you choose these particular ones?
We wanted a wide variety of specimens that would all show some interesting surface detail. Some were also chosen for their spectacular colours, interesting shapes or strange appearance.

Splendid-necked Dung Beetle (Helictopleurus splendidicollis). From Madagascar. Length: 10 mm
Splendid-necked Dung Beetle (Helictopleurus splendidicollis) from
Madagascar. Length: 10 mm

But perhaps 95 per cent of the specimens we initially considered were rejected because we had some pretty strict criteria; very hairy specimens, which includes most bees, were out as the image processing was too difficult; the specimens had to be intact, so no broken antennae or legs.

Probably the biggest problem was finding specimens which were clean enough. Because Levon’s technique reveals so much detail, any dirt on the specimen is glaringly obvious. And the whole idea was to look at the surface structures, which are obviously very small and easily obscured by any dirt.

How did you prepare them for their close-ups?
All the specimens needed a bit of preparation work before being ready for Levon’s photography. First they needed to be remounted on the end of long pins to allow more clearance space for the lighting setup. Some of the specimens are very small and fragile and this is the stage where damage is most likely to occur.

After remounting, all the insects needed at least some degree of cleaning under the microscope. For this I used a range of fine paintbrushes; we also make our own tools from micro-pins bent into different points and hooks. Again, I had to be careful to not damage the specimens – easily done by over-enthusiastic cleaning!

Where do the specimens come from?
The specimens in the exhibition are from the Museum’s very large insect collection, stored behind the scenes in many different rooms. The insects in the show are from all over the world, from a back garden in England to a remote island near Antarctica. Some were collected over 150 years ago while others were collected very recently by Museum staff.

Of particular historical significance is the Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa) which was collected by the Victorian naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace, co-publisher of the theory of evolution with Charles Darwin in 1858.

Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa), collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in Seram Island, Indonesia. Length: 25 mm
Tricolored Jewel Beetle (Belionota sumptuosa), collected by Alfred Russel Wallace in Seram Island, Indonesia. Length: 25 mm

How big are the actual specimens in comparison with the photos?
The actual specimens are mostly pretty small, ranging from 6 mm to about 30 mm. Some of the larger printed photographs will be about a thousand times larger than the specimen!

Orchid Cuckoo Bee (Exaerete frontalis) from Brazil. Length: 26 mm
Orchid Cuckoo Bee (Exaerete frontalis) from Brazil. Length: 26 mm

What do you hope people will get out of the pictures in the exhibition?
To me insects are beautiful creatures and Levon has done an outstanding job of revealing this. I hope the photographs will spark people’s interest in insects and inspire more people to study them.

The photographs certainly pose some interesting questions, and reveal that there is so much we don’t know, particularly about the functions of all their strange and varied adaptations.

Is it valuable to showcase specimens from the collections in this way?
One of the most exciting parts of this exhibition for me was the opportunity to show part of the Museum’s collection which visitors don’t normally see.

The collection is used all the time by scientists, artists and educators, but unfortunately most of it is unsuitable for display because the specimens are so small. Levon’s ultra-high resolution photography has in a way solved this problem, allowing us to showcase some of these spectacular, but tiny and fragile creatures in all their beauty.

So long, 2015…


As you can tell from the adornment of our Red Deer, Christmas is upon us, so it’s nearly time to bid farewell to another year. It’s been another remarkable twelve months here at the Museum so here’s a little round up a few highlights from 2015…

As winter gave forth to spring
News emerged of a heartwarming thing
The Art Fund whispered in our ear
We were nominees for Museum of the Year!

Although eventual winners we were not
It mattered really not one jot
For in celebration we embarked
On the Dodo Roadshow – a tremendous lark

Back in April we’re pleased to say
Another award came our way
Goes to Town gave creatures free reign
And grabbed a gong for Marketing Campaign

But we weren’t always on the road
In our exhibitions many stories were told
Of evolution, geology and sensory powers
Science and research passed the visitors’ hours

Our doors were open without interruption
While out on the lawn was a volcanic eruption
University scientists had plenty to say
On a really Super Science Saturday

So to our schools, and families, and adults and more
Thank you, cheers, and thank you some more

Here’s our programme for January to April. See you in 2016…

Shooting with Martin Parr


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!

MOTY15_Digital Assets_Oxford Natural History_All sizes-01

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