The Prince and the Plinths

By Hayleigh Jutson, HOPE Community Engagement Officer & GLAM Community Engagement Assistant and Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist


With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in the air, Hayleigh and Danielle reveal the royal connections that are integrated into the very fabric of the Museum, and reveal the surprising story behind our empty plinths.


Visitors walking around the Main Court of Oxford University Museum of Natural History will find themselves circled by the stony gazes of 19 life-sized stone statues. These sculptures of eminent scientists, philosophers, and engineers include likenesses of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Linnaeus, and Isaac Newton. Alongside these men of science stands a statue of Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria. Although now slightly hidden behind the T-rex, Prince Albert’s statue was given pride of place in the main court, a lasting reminder of the Royal family’s contribution to the establishment of the Museum.

Constructed between 1855-1860, the main structure of the Museum of Natural History was built using funds from Oxford University. However, the University only provided enough money to construct the shell of the building. All additional decorations – the stone carvings, pillars, and statues both outside and in – were to be funded by public donations and private subscriptions. To decorate the new building, Oxford’s scientists, along with the architects Deane and Woodward, invited Pre-Raphaelite artists to come up with designs that would represent nature in the fabric of the building.

A key element of the Museum’s decoration involved the commissioning of a series of portrait statues of ‘the great Founders and Improvers of Natural Knowledge.’ These effigies were meant to represent a range of scientific fields of study, and act as inspiration to researchers, students, and other visitors to the Museum. The University came up with a list of six ancient Greek mathematicians and natural philosophers and eleven modern scientists to be included in the Gallery. Funded by private subscription, donors could provide a statue of one of these ‘Founders and Improvers’ for £70 (equivalent to ~£8000 in today’s money).

Prince Albert, a great supporter of the arts and sciences, convinced Queen Victoria to fund the first five statues of modern scientists, costing £350 in total. The first statue that Queen Victoria commissioned and paid for was of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon — remembered as one of the fathers of the ‘scientific method’. His statue was carved by Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. The remaining four statues that Queen Victoria paid for – of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and Hans Christian Ørsted – were to be sculpted by Alexander Munro. However, Munro was only able to complete three of these. After the University of Oxford repeatedly failed to fulfil Munro’s request for a likeness of Ørsted, the statue of the Danish physicist went unfinished. Not wanting to waste the money that had been gifted by Queen Victoria, the Museum decided to arrange for a plaster cast to be made of a pre-existing statue of Ørsted, which was sent over from Denmark in 1855.

It was hoped that Queen Victoria’s generous donation would encourage other wealthy individuals to fund the remaining statues. Initially, the plan worked. However, as time went on, donors began to favour British men of science rather than the University’s original list of international candidates. As a result, funding for many of the statues on the University’s list never materialised, and those plinths remain vacant to this day.

Even if the commissioning of the Museum’s sculptures didn’t go entirely to plan, there is no doubt that Prince Albert made an important contribution to the construction of the Museum. Fittingly, he is also commemorated amongst the Museum’s sculptures. Carved by Thomas Woolner, Albert’s statue sits behind the tail of the T-rex skeleton in the Main Court. It was presented to the Museum by the citizens of Oxford in April 1864, and remains a tribute to a champion of the arts and sciences, and one of the Museum’s earliest and most influential supporters.

Statue of Prince Albert in the Main Court of the Museum

A Fashion Flea-esta


By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist


In September 2021, the Museum initiated its first “Specimen Showdown” on Twitter and Instagram, where followers could vote on their favourite specimens from our collections. Over the course of the month, followers narrowed down their favourite among 32 specimens from four collections: The Library Legends, The Bygone Beasts, The Rock Stars, and The Birds and The Beetles. The final showdown was between the Connemara Column (found in the Main Court of the Museum) and the Pulgas Vestidas from the Library and Archives. In a nail-biting race, the Pulgas Vestidas narrowly beat the column with 53.9% of the vote.

But what are Pulgas Vestidas? And why are they so popular?

Dressed fleas, you say?

The delicate art of dressing fleas in tiny costumes, known as ‘Pulgas Vestidas’ in Spanish, flourished in Mexico for over two centuries. It is believed that the craft began in Mexican convents where nuns would fashion tiny pieces of clothing onto dead fleas. An important point to note is that the fleas themselves were not actually dressed — instead, they formed the heads of the figures. The individual fleas were set in matchboxes and decorated with elaborate human costumes, hats, shoes, and accessories. Sometimes the fleas were set in whole scenes, often as married couples in miniature dioramas of everyday life. The bride and groom sets were the most popular, with the bride sporting a long veil and the groom in his best suit. The nuns would then sell the fleas for a small amount of money to passing tourists. The trade was later picked up by the local villagers and Pulgas Vestidas were widely sold to tourists visiting Mexico in the early twentieth century.

Dressed fleas were popular with tourists until the 1930s when the art declined in popularity. An increasing awareness of hygiene meant that fleas were rapidly regarded as unhealthy. Many dressed fleas were consigned to the bin, and Pulgas Vestidas became a lost art as tourists’ tastes for memorabilia changed. Examples of these tiny curiosities are now rare collectors’ items.

Pulgas Vestidas at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The Museum’s dressed fleas were collected in 1911 by American archaeologist and anthropologist Zeila M. M. Nuttall who specialised in Mexican history and culture. She sent the dressed fleas to her brother, bacteriologist George H.F. Nuttall. George formally donated a collection of 50 Ixodidae (ticks) to the Museum, and it is likely he also gifted the dressed fleas at the same time. The dressed fleas would have been considered more of a Victorian novelty, and so were not formally recorded or accessioned into our collections.

Although most of OUMNH’s dressed fleas reside behind-the-scenes, one example is on public display in the Upper Gallery of the Main Court. Sporting tiny clothes and a backpack, the flea is just visible with the help of a magnifying glass. Clearly, this one was born to flea wild.

OUMNH’s Pulgas Vestidas are definitely among the more unusual items in the Museum’s collections, and they were clearly head and shoulders above other specimens in the September Specimen Showdown competition, despite being no more than 5mm tall! Pulgas Vestidas may be small, but they certainly are mighty.

I’ll Flea There

The dressed fleas will be on display, with a flea-tastic craft, for the Museum’s free evening event Late Night: A Buzz in the Air‘ on 27 May from 7-10pm.

Community science: what’s the value?

ONE SCIENTIST OFFERS HER PERSPECTIVE


By Sotiria Boutsi, Intern

I am PhD student at Harper Adams University with MSc in Conservation Biology, currently doing a professional internship at the Museum of Natural History in the Public Engagement office. My PhD uses genomic data to study speciation in figs and fig wasps.


For most of our history, humans have been observational creatures. Studying the natural world has been an essential tool for survival, a form of entertainment, and has provided the backbone for various legends and myths. Yet modern humans are rapidly losing practice when it comes to environmental observation. As more and more of us relocate to busy urban environments, we find ourselves with little to no time to spend outdoors. Knowledge of the natural world is rapidly becoming the purview of professionals — but it doesn’t have to be this way…

Community science is a term that describes scientific research activities conducted by amateurs, often involving observation or simple computational tasks. Many citizen science projects target schools or families, but everyone is a welcome participant. The purpose of such projects, which run all around the world, is to encourage non-professionals to get involved in science in a fun, voluntary manner, while also collecting data that are valuable for scientific research.

One of the most common forms of community science is biodiversity monitoring. Biodiversity monitoring projects invite people with various levels of expertise to record observations of different species in their local area, and upload evidence like photographs and sound recordings to a user-friendly database. In doing so, they also provide important monitoring data to scientists, like information about the date and location of wildlife sightings.

The Asian Ladybeetle (Harmonia axyridis) was first spotted in the UK in 2004 and since then it has become very common. It is considered one of the most widespread invasive species in the world, with introductions throughout Europe, North and South America, as well as South Africa. Reported observations through the UK Ladybird Survey (Enter ladybird records | iRecord) can help us monitor the spread of this insect and see how other, native species respond to its presence.

There are a variety of mobile apps and online platforms for reporting observations, with some specialising in particular groups of organisms like plants or birds. From the raw data that is uploaded to these platforms, species can be identified through a range of different methods:

  1. Automatic identification from uploaded evidence – often using techniques like image/sound analysis or machine learning
  2. Community feedback – multiple users can view uploaded evidence and make suggestions about which species have been recorded
  3. Direct use of users’ own suggestions – for users who are more experienced with species identification

But are these data actually used by scientists? Although individual contributions to community science projects may seem to be of minor importance, when considered collectively they act as extremely valuable records. Having distribution data for species can help us understand their habitat preferences, and also enable us to monitor invasive organisms. Moreover, long-term data can inform us about species’ responses to changes in their environments, whether that is habitat alteration or climate change. Science is driven by the accumulation of data, and citizen science projects can provide just that.

Biodiversity monitoring through citizen science projects encourage us to notice the tiny beings around us, like this beautifully coloured shiny Green Dock Beetle (Gastrophysa viridula). Moreover, recording common species like the European Honeybee (Apis mellifera) over different years can reveal temporal patterns, like early arrival of spring.

In addition to the benefits to the scientific field, community science projects can also be of huge value to their participants. Firstly, engaging in such activities can help us re-establish our relationship with the wildlife in our immediate environment — we might finally learn to identify common species in our local area, or discover new species that we never realised were so close by. It is surprising how many species we can even find in our own gardens! Moreover, community science events, like biodiversity-monitoring “BioBlitzes”, encourage people from different backgrounds to work together, strengthening local communities and encouraging environmental protection.

Oxford University is currently running the community science project “Oxford Plan Bee“, focusing on solitary bees. The project is creating a network of bee hotels: small boxes with branches and wooden cavities where harmless, solitary bees can rest. The hotels are spread throughout the city, and locals are invited to observe the bee hotels, take photos, and send in their findings.

Overall, community science is as much about being an active participant in the community as it is about doing science. These projects are a celebration of both collective contributions and individual growth. More than anything, they are a chance to pause and notice the little things that keep our planet running.


Want to get involved? Here is a selection of my favourite citizen science projects…

Recording species observations – global:

Recording species observations – UK-based:

Bioblitz events:

Read more:

How a Citizen Science project helped solve a mystery of UK butterflies: Painted Lady migration secrets unveiled – News and events, University of York

Citizen Science Hub – British Ecological Society

Citizen Science Platforms | SpringerLink

Citizen Science in the Natural Sciences | SpringerLink

Disappearing Butterflies

HOW TO SOLVE A BIOLOGICAL MYSTERY USING MUSEUM COLLECTIONS AND DNA TECHNOLOGY


By Rebecca Whitla, PhD student at Oxford Brookes University


The Black-veined white butterfly (Aporia crataegi) was a large, charismatic butterfly with distinctive black venation on its wings. Once commonly found in the UK, the species unfortunately went extinct here in around 1925, with the last British specimens collected from Herne Bay in Kent. It isn’t fully understood why the species disappeared from the UK, but climate change, predation, parasites, and disease have all been suggested to have caused its disappearance — perhaps with several of these factors contributing to its decline. Central to solving the mystery of the disappearance of the Black-veined white will be the collections of butterflies that are stored in museums like OUMNH.

Butterflies tend to be well-represented in museum collections, and the Black-veined white is no exception. While the species has now been extinct in the UK for around 100 years, Lepidoptera enthusiasts from previous centuries often captured wild Black-veined white specimens for their personal collections. The abundance of Black-veined white butterflies in museum collections, like the collections at OUMNH, serve as a valuable repository for scientific research — including my own!

Black-veined white butterflies in the collections at OUMNH

Between June and December 2021, I undertook a research project using OUMNH’s Black-veined white butterflies. My task was to extract enough DNA from the butterflies to use for ‘whole genome sequencing’ — in other words, I was attempting to extract DNA from butterfly specimens to decode their complete DNA sequence. Getting DNA sequences from the historical specimens that are kept in Museums is no easy task, as DNA degrades over time. Nonetheless, animal specimens from natural history museums have successfully been used for whole genome sequencing and genetic analysis in the past, including species as diverse as longhorn beetles and least Weasels.

In order to work out how to extract DNA from the specimens, I had to try a variety of methods. This included experimenting to find out whether butterfly legs or abdomen fragments yielded more DNA, and whether non-destructive methods of DNA extraction were as effective as destructive methods. An example of a non-destructive method of DNA extraction would be a process like soaking a sample overnight and using the leftover liquid for DNA extraction, whereas a destructive method might involve mashing a whole leg or abdomen segment to use as a DNA source.

Preparing a DNA sample

Overall, I found that destructively sampling the legs of the butterflies gave the most reliable results, and also had the added benefit of not destroying the wings or abdomen of the specimens. Keeping the wings and abdomens of the butterflies intact will likely prove useful for conducting morphological studies in future.

Now that I have a reliable DNA extraction method, the next step in my research will be to analyse more Black-veined white specimens from a span of different time periods leading up to the species’ disappearance. I will then compare samples collected from each time period to calculate the genetic diversity of the species at each point in time, leading up to its disappearance. If I find a steady decline in the species’ genetic diversity over time, this may indicate a gradual extinction of the species. This is because we expect that, as numbers of a species decrease, inbreeding will become common, resulting in less diversity in the species’ DNA. However, if the populations of Black-veined white butterflies went extinct very suddenly, the decline in genetic diversity will probably be less pronounced. Learning more about the fate of the Black-veined White could not only help us unlock the historical mystery of the species’ decline in Britain, but will also help us understand more about the species’ decline in other parts of the world.


British Insect Collections: HOPE for the Future is an ambitious project to protect and share the Museum of Natural History’s unique and irreplaceable British insect collection. Containing over one million specimens – including dozens of iconic species now considered extinct in the UK – it offers us an extraordinary window into the natural world and the ways it has changed over the last 200 years. The HOPE for the Future project is funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, thanks to National Lottery players.

Re-Collections: Jane Willis Kirkaldy

By Evie Granat, Project Officer Trainee with the Freshwater Habitats Trust and Museum volunteer


The Museum is lucky enough to house several specimens presented by Jane Willis Kirkaldy (1867/9 – 1932). They serve as a reminder of a passionate and dedicated tutor, and of a key figure behind the development of women’s education at Oxford University.


Jane Willis Kirkaldy was born somewhere between 1867 and 1869, and spent her youth in London with her parents and five siblings. After completing her secondary education at Wimbledon High School, Kirkaldy gained entry to Somerville College (Oxford) on an exhibition scholarship in 1887. She finished her degree in 1891, becoming one of the first women to achieve a First Class Hons in Natural Sciences (Zoology). However, since the University didn’t award women degrees in the nineteenth century, it wasn’t until 1920 that Kirkaldy received her MA.

Upon completing her undergraduate studies, Kirkaldy worked for a short period as a private tutor in Castle Howard before returning to Oxford in 1894. Whilst researching at the University, she produced two papers for the Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science, including an article entitled “On the Head Kidney of Myxine”. This study of the renal systems of hagfish was written with the aid of experimental work carried out by renowned zoologist Walter Weldon at his UCL laboratory. She also studied lancelets under the Oxford Linacre Professor of Zoology, publishing “A Revision of the Genera and Species of Branchiostomdae” in 1895.

Kirkaldy’s achievements are especially noteworthy given how few women studied Natural Sciences at Oxford during the nineteenth century. In addition to her contributions to the scientific field, she also helped advance women’s education at Oxford University. In 1894, The Association of the Education of Women named Kirkaldy a tutor to female students in the School of Natural Sciences. The following year she ceased all research to concentrate fully on teaching, co-authoring ‘Text Book of Zoology’ with Miss E.C. Pollard in 1896, and Introduction to the Study of Biology with I. M. Drummond in 1907. She eventually became a tutor or lecturer at all of Oxford’s Women’s Societies, and a Director of Studies at all five of the women’s colleges. Amongst the many female scientists that came under her care was the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin.

Left: Page from one of our donations books listing Jane Willis Kirkaldy as the donor of a series of Middle Devonian fossils (from the Eifel) to the Museum in October 1901. Right: Chromite from East Africa, also donated to the Museum by Kirkaldy.

Beyond the Department of Natural Sciences, Kirkaldy was an important figure at Oxford — she served as a member of the Council of St. Hugh’s College for 14 years, and was made an honorary fellow of Somerville College in 1929. At the Museum of Natural History, she presented beetles from New Guinea (1890), Devonian Fossils from the Eiffel (1901), and Chromite from near Beira, Mozambique (1924).

Kirkaldy retired from the University in 1930 due to ill health, before passing away in a London care home in 1932. Oxford University subsequently dedicated the junior and senior ‘Jane Willis Kirkakdy Prizes’ in her memory, which still exist to this day.


References

https://www.firstwomenatoxford.ox.ac.uk/article/principals-and-tutors

https://archive.org/details/internationalwom00hain/page/160/mode/2up

https://www.ias.ac.in/article/fulltext/reso/022/06/0517-0524

http://wimbledonhighschool.daisy.websds.net/Filename.ashx?tableName=ta_publications&columnName=filename&recordId=72

http://wimbledonhighschool.daisy.websds.net/Filename.ashx?tableName=ta_publications&columnName=filename&recordId=71

https://archive.org/details/internationalwom00hain/page/160/mode/2up

Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin: Patterns, Proteins and Peace: A Life in Science, by Georgina Ferry

Quarterly Journal of Microscopical Science

Reindeer are not just for Christmas

WHAT WE CAN LEARN FROM BRITAIN’S ICE AGE RANGIFER


By Emily Wiesendanger, Volunteer


If you’ve ever visited the Skeleton Parade in the Main Court of the Museum, you may have noticed that nestled between the Malayan tapir and the rhinoceros is the skeleton of a reindeer, or caribou if you are from North America.

Today, reindeer are found throughout the Arctic and Subarctic in places like Canada, Alaska, Russia, and Lapland (Norway, Sweden, and Finland). However, their range was not always so limited. During the Late Pleistocene – around 126,000 to 11,700 years ago – it would not have been unusual to see herds of reindeer roaming freely across most of Britain and western Europe. In fact, reindeer sub-fossils in the form of bones, teeth, and antlers have been found at a number of Oxfordshire sites including the excavations at Cassington and Sutton Courtenay, which are kept behind the scenes in the Museum’s extensive Paleontological Collections.

Studying these Ice Age reindeer can teach us as much about the future as they can about the past. Pleistocene reindeer were likely similar to their modern counterparts, which undertake large, bi-annual migrations between summer and winter grazing pastures. Looking at the movements of Ice Age populations of reindeer can therefore help us to understand how modern reindeer may respond to climactic and environmental changes in the future. This is possible because reindeer only come together in large herds at certain times of the year. During these seasonal aggregations, the herd is characterised by different combinations of ages and sexes. Therefore, by looking at the age and sex of the remains of reindeer present at a site, we can tell the time of year that they were left there — in particular, we can infer the sex of reindeer from their bones, their age from their teeth, and their age and sex from their antlers.

Modern reindeer are highly adapted to cold environments (-45 to +15°C) with two layers of fur (the tips of which turn white in the winter), short and furry ears and tails, and large feet to make walking on snow and digging for food much easier. Reindeer even make a clicking noise with their feet, produced by a tendon slipping over a bone, to help keep track of each other in blizzards or fog.

Unfortunately, it is extremely rare to find anything so complete as the reindeer in the skeleton parade. Instead, you are much more likely to find remains like the antler below, which was excavated from Sutton Courtenay. Despite being only a fragment, it is exactly this kind of sub-fossil that can help us to understand more about the movements of reindeer during the Late Pleistocene.

This left antler base and skull from a male reindeer found at Sutton Courtenay can be used to determine which season reindeer were present at the site.

Reindeer grow and shed a new pair of antlers every year, and this happens at different times of the year for males and females. If you can identify whether an antler is male or female, shed or unshed, you can also tell the season of death. The Sutton Courtenay antler featured above would have belonged to a male reindeer. At its base, we can see it is still clearly attached to some skull bone, and so is unshed. Because males only have their fully grown antlers between September and November, this particular reindeer must have been in the area around Sutton Courtenay during the autumn. It is by using similar deductions that we can also tell that Rudolph and his antlered friends would have actually all been females — by the 24th December, males have already shed their antlers, but females will keep them until the spring!

After studying thousands of these kinds of remains from all over Britain, we can start to build a picture of where reindeer were at different times of the year. It’s amazing to think that we can learn so much from simple skeletons. So, the next time you visit the skeleton parade, take a moment to think about the secrets they may be hiding.