Celebrating 160 years of the Museum

Temple of Science banner showing painted, decorative arched window

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.

 

Drawn to life

A set of illustrated cartoons of the heads of eleven people with their names handwritten underneath

By Rachel Simpson

Worms, fish and … Greenland? Hugely different topics which all have one thing in common – the Museum’s First Animals exhibition online lecture series. Running every other Wednesday from May until September 2020, this series provided a fantastic insight into a wide range of topics about how the first animals lived, died, and are studied. And illustrator Rachel Simpson tells us how she drew her way through them all…

I came across this lecture series just before the first talk and I knew I had to sign up. Drawing along to lectures is a hobby I seem to have developed in the past few months as we went into lockdown and didn’t have much to do. It’s the perfect combination for me – an opportunity to listen to interesting topics and brush up on my live drawing skills at the same time. There’s no pause button, there’s no asking the webinar speaker to just go back a few slides and hold on a minute whilst I draw; it’s fast paced, it’s inspiring and it’s a great way to just create art.

Barma Booties used on the rocks at Mistaken Point, and my first drawing of the series.

I’ve done some illustration work with the Museum before so I knew that it was going to be fun. In 2018, I worked with Dr Jack Matthews illustrating Ediacaran Fossils as part of a collaborative university project between the University of Plymouth and the Museum. I was also lucky enough to be able to go to Newfoundland and see some of the fossils myself, again with Jack. This was such an incredible opportunity and opened up a whole new world of science/art collaborative work which I didn’t know about before.

The First Animals series kicked off with Jack’s talk titled Don’t walk on the rocks! – an interesting insight into how protective “Barma Booties” (some rather funky socks worn to protect fossil sites such as Mistaken Point, Newfoundland) might actually be damaging to the fossils they’re meant to be protecting. Having been to Mistaken Point myself and worn these socks, it was interesting to hear about their possible impact and to learn about the experiments conducted to prove this fact.

Of course, at the same time as Jack was talking, I was scribbling away in my sketchbook trying to form some sort of visual response to the talk. At the end of the hour I’d managed a portrait of Jack and a family of Barma-Booted tourists trampling on the fossil site. It was a start. The beginning of my lecture drawings and a point at which I can retrospectively say started a new hobby.

Annelid worms drawn with Tombow brush pens.

Over the following weeks we heard about worms from Dr Luke Parry; 3D reconstruction from Dr Imran Rahman; The Chronicles of Charnia by Dr Frankie Dunn; and the first animal skeletons from Dr Duncan Murdock. Luckily for me, all the speakers kindly included photos and descriptions of the topics they were discussing which meant that I was never short of visual inspiration for my drawings. After all, it’s hard to try and draw an annelid worm if you’ve never seen one before.

I love to look at the fossils being discussed and then try to draw a little character or creature inspired by them. They’re not scientifically accurate, nor are they always anatomically correct, but they have character and begin to bring to life the essence of something that’s been dead for many millennia. The fossils are obviously stone-coloured so I take as many liberties as possible when it comes to colour. I like to make them as vibrant and colourful as I can, so although they probably didn’t look like that, that’s how I like to think they looked.

Within my wider practice I like to use stamps as the basis of my illustrations. These however, are time consuming to make and therefore not very suitable for when I’m drawing along to lectures. As a result I’ve found myself using brush pens and pencils to make my lecture illustrations. If you’re interested in art, or thinking about getting into art, brush pens will be your best purchase. They create a wonderful quality of line and are quick and easy to use. Whereas a ballpoint pen will give you one line of a certain weight and thickness, brush pens are versatile and depending on the pressure applied, the line quality will change.

For the first few lectures I only used brush pens, but later on I decided to use coloured pencils as well, to add depth to the drawings. As I got more used to drawing in lectures I found that I was making more illustrations per talk. Early on, I managed to finish maybe a double page in my sketchbook but towards the end of the series I was filling four double pages! It’s amazing what a little bit of practice can do.

As the weeks went by the talks continued and we heard about the evolutionary origin of animals from Museum director Professor Paul Smith; an introduction to taphonomy, the study of fossilisation, by Professor Sarah Gabbott; and how the first animals moved by Professor Shuhai Xiao.

During this time I became a lot more confident drawing the specimens; looking back I can see that this was the period in which my work developed the most. My drawings began to have more character and life. The landscape drawings were slowly becoming more realistic and detailed. This was great news for me as this whole endeavour began as a way to practice my drawing skills in a timed environment.

Paul Smith’s lecture has to be my favourite of them all. He gave a wonderful talk all about the Evolutionary Origin of Animals and talked us through his fieldwork expedition to Greenland. How I would have loved to have been on that trip!

It was during Paul’s talk that I made one of my favourite drawings from the series – the plane – and coincidentally it was also at this point that I bought myself some new polychromo pencils. I started using these pencils in my illustrations on top of the Tombow brush pens. The pencils added a softer layer on top of the solid base colour from the brush pens and meant that I could add more details, shading and most importantly, the characterful eyes I love to add to my drawings.

Buoyed by this development in my drawings, and some lovely responses to my work on Instagram and Twitter, I raced through the next few weeks of talks and made twelve pages of drawings over the next four talks. Professor Derek Briggs told us all about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils; Professor Gabriela Mángano told us about the trace fossil record; and Professor Rachel Wood gave us her thoughts about what triggered the Cambrian Explosion.

Another of my favourite drawings from the series was from Derek Briggs talk about extraordinary soft-bodied fossils. Here, I made a small series of drawings based on some of the animals mentioned in the talk and as soon as I’d finished drawing them I wished that they were real and that I could pop them in a fish tank and keep them as pets. These drawings got the best response on social media too and it’s wonderful now to look back and compare these drawings to the work I was creating at the beginning of the series.

Two images of coloured drawings of extinct marine creatures side by side
Comparison between week 2, Luke Parry’s talk (left), and Week 9, Derek Briggs’ talk (right): What a difference 16 weeks of drawing practice makes!

The First Animals series may be over but keep your Wednesday evenings free because there are more talks to come! The next series, “Visions of Nature”, starts on 8 October so make sure you join us then! A huge thank you to all the speakers, to Jack for hosting and to the Museum for running the events.

To see more of Rachel’s illustrations visit www.rachelerinillustration.co.uk.

Abigail Harris - artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life

Cambrian creation

Abigail Harris - artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life

by Abigail Harris

Over the past few months our researchers have been working with University of Plymouth illustration student Abigail Harris, who has delved into the weird and wonderful world of some of the earliest animals. Here, Abigail tells us about the process that led to the creation of her Cambrian artwork, inspired by our First Animals exhibition.

I first visited the Museum in April this year when I was given the opportunity to collaborate with scientists as part of a module in my BA in at the University of Plymouth. Things kicked off with a short talk about the Ediacaran and Cambrian geological periods, when Earth’s first animal life started to appear.

I quickly narrowed my interest down to fossils from the Cambrian period which are more complex life forms, more similar to life today. A collection of small fossils from the Chengjiang fossil site in Yunnan province, China was the inspiration for some initial observational drawings.

Abigail Harris - sketches for artwork showing reconstruction of Cambrian ocean animal life
A sketchbook page showing initial sketches and observations of Onychodictyon
Final illustration of Cotyledion

After returning to Plymouth University, I began to develop these initial sketches and observations, continuing to research the Chengjiang material and learning more about the characteristics of some of the creatures preserved as fossils.

I wanted to create an under-the-sea ecology reconstruction showing a diversity of life forms, focusing on Onychodictyon, Cotyledion, Cricocosmia, Luolishania, and Paradiagoniella.

A five-step process was used for each reconstruction. Initially, I would sketch the fossil as I saw it, then I would research the characteristics and features of that animal, making a list of things to include in my drawing. A second drawing would then include all of these characteristics, not just what was initially visible in the fossil.

These rough sketches were then sent to the scientists for feedback, helping me to redraw and paint the illustrations with watercolour, before scanning and digitally editing each painting. Lastly, I created a background and added my illustrations.

Initial under under the sea ecology reconstruction.

Although the reconstructions were not completely finished by the time of my project deadline, I returned to the Museum in July and was given a tour of the First Animals exhibition by Deputy Head of Research Imran Rahman, as well as the opportunity to discuss how to improve my artworks for accuracy.

Another round of sketching and painting led to the final piece, shown at the start of this article, complete with an added digital background of the seafloor, and darkened to reflect the murky world of a Cambrian ocean, 50 metres below the surface.

Digital reconstruction of a Cambrian ocean

Meet the First Animals

The latest exhibition in our Contemporary Science and Society series, First Animals, tells the tale of Earth’s mysterious early animals, which evolved in the sea over half a billion years ago. Here, Dr Imran Rahman, Deputy Head of Research at the Museum, introduces some of the fossils that form a key part of this story.

From sponges to sea slugs and hagfish to humans, all animals alive today trace their roots back to a common ancestor that lived in the ocean more than 600 million years ago. We have no direct evidence of this first animal, but the fossil record reveals some of its earliest descendants. Our First Animals exhibition explores the evidence for Earth’s earliest animal life, attempting to answer the ‘what’, ‘when’, ‘how’ and ‘why’ of the origin of animals.

Yunnanozoon lividum from the Chengjiang fossil site had a long body with several filament-covered arches at the front and a fin-shaped structure towards the back. It cannot be confidently assigned to any known animal group.

First Animals features the oldest animals yet recovered from the fossil record, including specimens from 571-million-year-old rocks in Newfoundland, Canada. These represent the remains of originally entirely soft-bodied organisms, which have proven difficult to classify because they look so different to living species. However, new research on their anatomy and how they grew, including work by Museum researcher Dr Frankie Dunn, suggests they were early animals.

Charnia masoni consisted of alternating branches arranged along a frond. It is thought to be one of the oldest animal fossils yet found.

Microscopic fossils record the first animal skeletons, which first appeared about 550 million years ago. These include the remains of complete animals, as well as fragments such as spines and scales. Work by Museum researcher Dr Duncan Murdock using a particle accelerator to generate X-ray images of these tiny fossils has allowed us to reconstruct how the skeletons changed as they grew. This helps to establish the modern groups to which these ancient animals belonged, and unravels the mystery of why animals evolved hard skeletons when they did.

Virtual cross-sections through small shelly fossils created using X-ray imaging.

The most complete evidence for the early evolution of animals comes from sites of exceptionally-preserved fossils, or Lagerstätten, which retain impressions of soft tissue as well as hard parts, and include rare soft-bodied animals like worms and jellyfish.

First Animals brings together extraordinary specimens from three key fossil sites: Sirius Passet in northern Greenland (518 million years old), Chengjiang in Yunnan province, China (518 million years old) and Burgess Shale in British Columbia, Canada (508 million years old). This includes 55 unique fossils loaned by Yunnan University in China, as well as specimens from the University of Bristol and the Royal Ontario Museum.

The mollusc Halkieria evangelista from the Sirius Passet fossil site had a long body covered in hundreds of overlapping hard plates, with a large shell plate at either end.
The arthropod Haikoucaris ercaiensis from the Chengjiang fossil site had a semicircular head shield with a pair of large grasping appendages, a segmented body and a short tail.
The worm Ottoia prolifica from the Burgess Shale fossil site had a spiny proboscis and a long trunk that was divided into a series of fine rings.

These exceptionally-preserved fossils reveal the evolutionary diversification of life during the so-called ‘Cambrian explosion’. Through careful study of the fossils, scientists have begun to reconstruct the very first animal ecosystems, which are brought to life in the exhibition through a series of stunning digital reconstructions and the Cambrian Diver interactive installation. This allows visitors to explore a 360-degree oceanic environment in a virtual submersible craft, coming face-to-face with some of the first animals on Earth!

Digital reconstruction of the sea floor 518 million years ago, based on specimens from the Chengjiang fossil site, Yunnan province, China.
Video by Mighty Fossils.

 

First Animals is open until 24 February 2020. Entry is free, no booking required. www.oum.ox.ac.uk/firstanimals.

Ruskin 200 Art Competition

By Michelle Alcock, Front of House Deputy Manager

To celebrate the Museum of Natural History and the creativity it inspires, we have launched the Ruskin 200 Art Competition. It opened on Friday 8 February 2019 coinciding with the bicentenary of the birth of John Ruskin; an artist, social thinker, philanthropist and art critic of the 19th century. During the Victorian era, Ruskin’s views advocating for drawing from direct observation, both in his studies of Gothic architecture, and in his use of a detailed descriptive approach to depict nature in art, heavily influenced the design of the Museum.

WA2013.67 John Everett Millais, ‘John Ruskin’
Image © Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford.

His encouragement led to artists, architects, craftsmen and scientists working together to design the Museum. As a result, they created the neo-Gothic building that stands today as a work of art and a vision of nature in its own right. The Museum’s architecture, decorative details, and collections have served as a source of inspiration for many since it opened in 1860.

Details in the Museum’s architecture, such as this carved capital, were inspired by nature and today provide further inspiration for visiting artists

This year marks the perfect opportunity to showcase the artwork of our visitors. Personally, working on the Front of House team here, I see what an inspiration the building is to our visitors. Every day we spot people of all ages setting up stools, with pencil and sketchbook at the ready, drawing in the Museum. There is so much potential inspiration; beetles carved in stone, vibrant birds’ feathers, glittering gemstones and the intricate decorative ironwork of the building, to name a few.

It is always exciting to see so many of our visitors engaging with the Museum in a creative way, but we rarely see the finished product. I’ve always wanted to know what artwork is created from this point of inspiration. Is it the starting point of a vibrant painting, an intricate pastel drawing or a graphic mixed media collage? The list of possibilities is endless.

A visitor captures the Allosaurus skull on one of our Sensing Evolution tables

Whatever your choice of creative expression, we want to see your interpretation of the Museum and what inspired you, whether it’s the architecture or the collections on display. If you are an amateur or professional artist, and over the age of sixteen, we would like you to submit your artwork to the Ruskin 200 Art Competition.

The competition is open for four months. Do send us images of your final artwork before the closing date of 19 May 2019. Selected artworks from each of the four entry categories will go on display in the Museum during the busy summer holidays.

A visitor taking part in creative activities during our special drawing weekend

Throughout 2019, we’re also running a programme of drawing activities to celebrate Ruskin’s bicentenary. It began with the Ruskin Drawing Weekend on 9 and 10 February, which included lots of different activities to begin the creative process. Look out for our Ready, Steady, Draw! workshops for younger artists coming in May too.

The full competition guidelines, along with further information on the Ruskin-related events we’re running this year, can be found on our website.

Top banner image: WA1931.47 John Ruskin, Design for a Window in the University Museum, Oxford. Image copyright Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford

 

Writing from experience

The Museum’s building and collections provide inspiration for scientists and artists alike, often acting as a springboard for the creation of new work. Following a year here as one of three poets-in-residence, Kelley Swain returned to lead a session with Oxford Scholastica students, showing how museum objects can inspire creative writing.

by Kelley Swain

The experience of looking at the taxidermy Little Owl (Athene noctua) provided inspiration for Tallulah’s poem

Delving into the archives and behind-the-scenes stores, meeting researchers and conservators, and finding inspiration in the architecture, history, and collections were all part of my residency at the Museum during 2016. I’ve always written poetry inspired by the history of science and its fascinating objects, and I have come to appreciate museum objects not only as inspiration for my own poetry, but as teaching tools, or “object lessons” to inspire others.

It was lovely to be asked to lead a new series of these “object lessons” for a group of summer school students at Oxford Scholastica. Some of them had never encountered taxidermy, let alone a room full of articulated, stuffed, and preserved specimens. Awe abounded – both its wonder and, for some, its horror. It was a great opportunity to teach the students not only poetry, and why writing poetry inspired by museum objects can be moving, thoughtful, and important, but also to teach them about conservation and preservation.

Here we share the work of 13 year old Tallulah Xenopoulos, who created this poem following an encounter with a taxidermy owl during the workshop:

Stupid dead owl.
The wooden door opens slowly, and, although there’s a green stone with bumpy edges and
shiny sides, a jar filled with silky insects and a board with beautifully painted butterflies.
Both your eyes land on the owl.
His feathers brush down his back and he stares down at his lightly spotted blanket where his
delicate legs connect and hatch onto the bumpy branch.
His eyes
And his beak
And legs
And nails
He stares at you almost like he knows what you’re thinking – which is dumb because he’s
dead – but he scares you and fascinates you at the same time.
A piece of dust has fallen beneath his eye and I bet he’d love to just brush it away, cause
he’s like that.
But also.
He’s an owl.
A stupid.
Dead owl.
With nothing but stuffed insides and scrawny legs.
And a heart. A dead heart which they slipped out and replaced with stuff.
-”do you think they stuffed him alive?”
The boy next to you whispers. You don’t reply. But the thought of death. And of his feathers
falling the second he felt the blood rushing through him go cold and dusty, travels across
your mind.
“Do you think he knew he was about to be?” you answer
Because the poor clueless animal looks as if he knew nothing.
knows nothing.

Kelley Swain’s own poetry from the Museum residency is featured in Guests of Time, a beautiful hardback volume edited by Prof John Holmes which features new work by John Barnie and Steven Matthews, alongside 19th-century poetry from writers linked with the early days of the Museum. Together, the poems in this anthology are a tribute to the Pre-Raphaelite origins of the Museum and a rejuvenation of its artistic legacy.