Imagining lost worlds

Earlier this year University of Plymouth illustration student Rachel Simpson teamed up with our research fellow Jack Matthews to ‘bring the oldest multi-cellular organisms back to life’. Rachel tells us about the process of working with some of the most ancient fossil material and reveals the results of her illustrations and modelling.

Illustration by Rachel Simpson, created in collaboration with the Museum

In August 2018 I was lucky enough to travel to Newfoundland, Canada with Dr Jack Matthews to learn about and illustrate some of the extraordinary fossils found there. A highlight of the trip was going down onto the fossil surface – known as the MUN surface – to look at examples of organisms such as Beothukis, Charnia and Primocandelabrum, all of which date from the Ediacaran period, over 550 million years ago.

The MUN surface is the location of the fossils that I had worked on for my university project. I had spent the previous months sketching, drawing and bringing these organisms back to life from silicon casts, so it was amazing to be able to see the real specimens in situ and to sketch from the fossil surface.

Sketching directly from the fossils also provided a new challenge as I was unable to control factors such as the lighting, which is crucial to seeing the fossils clearly. Nonetheless, I learnt a lot about drawing on location.

Sketching at the fossil surface

While visiting Port Union I was able to use some of the old printing presses held by the Sir William F. Coaker Heritage Foundation to create work inspired by the fossils I had seen in the surrounding area. I love using printmaking in my own illustrative practice so it was a great experience to get to use these old presses (image at top of article).

We also had the chance to give a radio interview and talk to the Port Union community about the work that Jack and I had done, showing how science and art can work together.

On my last day in Port Union I was invited by a local potter to make some ceramic representations of the fossils I had been drawing there. I created models of Fractofusus and Aspidella, and discovered that re-imagining something in three dimensions is a very different process to recreating it as a drawing.

Rachel created ceramic representations of some of the Ediacaran organisms

For the final three days of the trip we relocated from Port Union to Trepassey to visit the Mistaken Point UNESCO World Heritage Site. Here, I saw the highly preserved Fractofusus specimens and made some more sketches. Using a small hand lens I was able to draw all the details that are invisible to the naked eye.

Using a hand lens allowed Rachel to pick out details in the Fractofusus fossil

Drawing on location in Canada provided a better idea of the organisms in relation to other surrounding organisms, something that is more obscure when working from museum specimens. This definitely informed my practice and meant that artwork created after the trip was more representative of the science.

When I returned to England, I created some new prints inspired by my time in Newfoundland, the fossils that I saw, and the printing process I was able to use in Port Union.

A set of prints made by Rachel based on her work in Newfoundland

Bee beautiful

Our conservator Bethany Palumbo tells us how she restored a beautiful 19th-century papier-mâché model of a honeybee hive, created by master model-maker and anatomist Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Louis Thomas Jérôme Auzoux

Although the Museum’s collections are mostly of organic specimens, we also hold a fascinating collection of scientific models made to represent the natural world, made from all types of materials, from wax and cardboard to plaster and paint.

We are lucky enough to own a model made by esteemed French anatomist Louis Auzoux (1797-1880), who in the late 19th century developed a method of building strong yet light papier-mâché models that could be taken apart and rebuilt, allowing internal elements such as tissues and organs to be studied in detail.

Model of a honeybee hive in box with six bees, by Louis Auzoux

While Auzoux made many models demonstrating human anatomy, he later expanded his business to include magnified models of plants and insects. The model we have is of a honeybee hive, containing six beautiful bees.

The hive, painted with a protein-based paint and varnished with gelatine, is large enough to allow the viewer to see the fine details of the hive, including individual chambers containing tiny larvae.

As you can see in the image at the top of the article, the bees themselves are also intricately painted, with rabbit hair used to simulate their natural fuzz, and delicate wings constructed from metal wire.

While there was much to admire about this model, it was in received in poor condition. Previous restoration attempts had introduced many materials that were now failing. There were fills, constructed of paper, applied to areas in an attempt to hide cracks in the original model. These were covered in oil paint, which was dripping over the original paintwork and had become brittle and discoloured.

Oil paint layers were peeling from the model

The whole hive was coated in a layer of cellulose nitrate film, a popular coating in the mid-20th century which was used as protection and to create a gloss finish. This coating doesn’t age well, resulting in peeling. It had also been applied to the bees themselves, clumping together the bee ‘fuzz’ and disguising the paintwork underneath.

The priority for treatment was to return the model to its original form while stabilising it for the future.

I undertook treatment in several stages over the course of six months. First, the cellulose nitrate film was removed from all areas using acetone, which could be applied with a cotton bud and fortunately didn’t affect the paint layer beneath.

Fill material used to cover previous damage had become discoloured

The next stage was to remove the discoloured oil paint from the hive. This was done manually using metal and wooden tools lubricated with white spirit, which were used to gently scrape the surface under magnification. This revealed old fills on the hive, made from a combination of plastic tape, paper and old adhesives which also needed to be removed. They were easily softened with water and gently peeled away.

Once all unstable introduced materials were removed, work began to stabilise the original model. The bees were suffering from paint cracking and peeling, as seen in the magnified photograph below.

Peeling paint at 6x magnification

We decided to consolidate this using gelatine as it would be in keeping with the original construction and could easily be reversed if necessary. Gelatine was mixed in water and warmed to make it a thin consistency, and then applied with a paintbrush. Once the paint flakes had softened they could be gently pressed down. Gelatine was also used with acid-free tissue to stabilise the cracks and areas of surface loss on the hive.

With the hive and bees now clean and stable, the quality of this piece and its incredible paintwork can really be admired. We hope to put it on display soon for all our visitors to enjoy!

From pin to paper

Katherine Child, image technician in the Museum’s Life collections, doesn’t just use photography to capture the beauty of specimens. She is also an artist and has been trying out innovative techniques for her paintings. You may remember her amazing moth illustrations created with deposits of verdigris on pinned insects and she’s now using that technique to explore Museum staff’s favourite insect specimens.

Verdigris is a green corrosion often found on old pins within entomology collections (as well as elsewhere, on things like statues and copper pipes). Last year, after learning that the substance was once used as a pigment, I decided to try and make my own paint.

A clearwing moth before conservation, showing verdigris spreading where metal reacts with insect fats, or lipids.

Verdigris forms when copper or a copper alloy reacts with water, oxygen, carbon dioxide or sulphur. While a beautiful shade of green, the substance is damaging in natural history collections, where it can actually develop inside specimens and if left, split them irreversibly. So as part of the conservation of the Hope Entomological Collections, verdigris is removed.

I started to collect up the substance as it was cleaned from specimens and after about three years (you only get a little bit per pin) I was ready to make my paint! After my first moth project, the only question was, what to paint next…?

Byctiscus populi or ‘The Attelabid that changed my life’, chosen by Zoë (collections manager) who said ‘I saw a pink version of this species in the Natural History Museum in London and that’s when I decided I wanted to study entomology’.

With an estimated 6 million insects and arachnids in the entomology collections, it’s very easy to feel overwhelmed. You can pull open any one of thousands of draws and find astonishing specimens. While I have favourites, my first inclinations as to what to paint still felt a little arbitrary. After mulling over various possibilities, I decided to get help!

Chosen by DPhil student Leonidas, Agalmatium bilobum is a little bug which lays its eggs on tree bark, then covers them with mud to protect them.

I asked my co-workers what their favourite insects were, then opened the question out to regular volunteers and visitors of the Life collections. I loved finding out why people chose the things they did. Answers varied from ‘It was the first spider I ever looked at under a microscope aged 12’ to ‘Because they’re cool’ to ‘Because they have an ingenious way of manipulating spiders!’

One of arachnologist Russell’s favourite spiders: Nuctenea umbratica. Though common in the UK, umbratica is Latin for “living in the shadows”, and it often hides away during the day. The slight transparency of the paint lends itself to a spider’s glittering eyes.


Painting this live African Mantis Sphodromantis lineola (chosen by conservator Jackie) was made slightly more challenging by the fact that the subject thought Katherine’s pencil might be tasty.

Most of the subjects I painted were based on specimens from the Museum’s collections or specimens individuals had brought in from their own collections, but one favourite was a live African Mantis, housed in the department to help with education and outreach. When I began to draw her she was intrigued by the movement of my pencil and came to the front of the tank, to follow every mark I made with her intimidating gaze.

A detail from the final painting
Attelabid that...
Katherine’s fabulous finished painting, which will be framed and displayed in the Life collections department.

Though time consuming, the painting was loads of fun to research and do. It’s fantastic to be surrounded not only by extremely knowledgeable people, but also by people with a genuine passion for what they do and a love for the insects (and spiders) they study.

Cathedral to nature

To mark National Poetry Day 2017, former Museum poet-in-residence Kelley Swain writes about her residency, getting to know the Museum, and the Guests of Time anthology.  

Throughout 2016, I was one of three fortunate writers to be invited into the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s first poetry residency. It was our task to engage how we wished with the collections, curators, history and architecture of the Museum, and produce seven new poems each in the first third of the year. The next two-thirds comprised editing and publishing the residency anthology, Guests of Time, and running poetry engagement events.

Kelley Swain - Guests of Time launch blog
Kelley Swain reading from the Guests of Time anthology at the launch event  – December 2016

But this wasn’t the first time poets were inspired by the Museum. The building opened in 1860, an exemplary Victorian ‘cathedral to nature,’ heavily influenced by art critic John Ruskin who involved Pre-Raphaelite artists in its design and decoration.

Guests of Time
Guests of Time anthology

Guests of Time includes new work from the resident poets (myself, John Barnie, and Steven Matthews,) as well as contemporary Victorian poetry related to the Museum. This includes ‘The Lay of the Trilobite’ by May Kendall, a student at Somerville College, Oxford, and ‘A Year and a Day’ by Lizzie Siddal, who was invited to contribute designs for decorative carvings in the building (though, ultimately, decorative work was cut short due to lack of funds).


Continuing to spend time getting to know the building and its contents, I’ve been able to more fully appreciate the astonishing attention to detail throughout, and the sometimes seemingly ‘superfluous’ garnishes in which the architects indulged, such as this decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers.

IMG_1654 (2)
Decorative ironwork on one of the Museum towers

It is not a weathervane; it is not, of course, any kind of antennae. It is beautiful, seemingly unnecessary, yet somehow integral. It was the Victorians (Darwin, always, is a good example,) who began to understand that many things in nature considered ‘superfluous,’ (such as the blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower,)  had in fact evolved through mate preference (sexual selection) or another competitive advantage (camouflage, fitness).

Blue decoration of a male bowerbird’s bower

Oxford University held an architecture competition to choose a design for the building. The winning team included architect Benjamin Woodward, iron-master Francis Skidmore, and sculptors James and John O’Shea. The Victorians were striving, in Ruskin’s words, towards ‘truth to nature’. They were selecting for what Darwin called ‘grandeur in this view of life’. We do well to remember that no attention to detail, however small, is superfluous: in nature, in architecture, in poetry. On a grander scale, the arts are as essential to humankind as is blue to a bowerbird.



The beautiful spiral

By Mark Carnall

At this year’s Oxford Festival of Nature I ran a spotlight session on cephalopods, the group of molluscs that includes squids, octopuses, cuttlefish, nautiluses and ammonites. While many visitors recognised the distinctive shells of nautiluses, they often weren’t too sure about the animals that made them.

Top: Chambered nautilus (Image: Manuae) Middle: Glassy nautilus (Image: Johan Jacob Tesch) Bottom: Paper nautilus, or argonaut (Image: Comingio Merculiano)

This is not surprising because, confusingly, there are three different animals often referred to as ‘nautiluses’ and which all create strikingly similar shells or shell-like structures. This is deeply mysterious because there is no direct biological relationship between either the animals or the structures they make…

To helpful clarify just what’s going, here’s a quick guide to glassy nautiluses, chambered nautiluses and paper nautiluses, and the beautiful spiral structures they create.

Glassy nautilus

Shell of a ‘glassy nautilus’ Carinaria lamarckii.

The glassy nautilus is the outsider of the ‘nautiluses’. It is actually a free-swimming gastropod – the group of molluscs that includes snails, slugs and limpets. The glassy nautilus creates extremely fragile transparent, glass-like shells, but unlike many other shelled gastropods, it can’t retract into its shell, which only covers a small portion of the body.

These fragile shells are understandably quite rare and are said to be worth their weight in gold; unfortunately that wouldn’t be very much as they are extremely light.

Chambered nautilus

Bisected young Nautilus shell showing the internal chambers. The small tubes along the middle of the chamber walls is where the siphuncle runs, a structure that moves fluid and gas in the chambers.
Bisected young Nautilus shell showing the internal chambers. The small tubes along the middle of the chamber walls are where a structure called the siphuncle runs; this moves fluid and gas in the chambers.

Perhaps the most familiar of the three creatures here are the chambered nautilus,  cephalopods belonging to a very old group that first appeared nearly 500 million years ago. Despite being known and collected for a long time – examples of polished Nautilus shells mounted in gold and silver from the 16th century can be seen at the Ashmolean Museum – the living animals weren’t actually scientifically described until the 19th century.

‘Chambered’ refers to the internal walls of the shell which form chambers as the animals grow. The living nautilus occupies the most recently grown and largest chamber. A structure called a siphuncle runs throughout the chambers, adjusting the gas and fluid in each to aid in buoyancy.

A nautilus shell cut in half, or sectioned, is often used as a symbol to demonstrate the mathematical beauty of nature, and you’ll see it in logos worldwide. Unfortunately, as with most biology, these chambers aren’t formed with mathematical regularity; growth rates are affected by environment and diet.

It was thought that measuring the chambers in fossil nautiloids, if they were laid down regularly, could tell us how far the moon has been from Earth in the past. Disappointingly, this is not the case.

Argonauta, or paper nautilus

The fragile ‘paper nautilus’ the egg case and brooding chamber of an argonaut, Argonauta.
The fragile ‘paper nautilus’: the egg case and brooding chamber of an argonaut, Argonauta.

The last of our ‘nautiluses’ is the argonaut, or paper nautilus, which is a type of octopus. The structure it creates looks superficially similar to the shells of the chambered nautilus and glassy nautilus, and not surprisingly it was thought to be a paper thin shell with some affinity to the chambered nautiluses. In fact, paper nautiluses ‘shells’ are not true shells at all, but are structures secreted by female argonauts as a brood chamber for eggs.

Preparation showing series of argonaut egg cases of varying sizes.
Preparation showing series of argonaut egg cases of varying sizes.

Argonaut shells are arguably better known than the animals that make them. But unlike other kinds of mollusc shells, which can be reliably used to delineate different species, argonaut shells take a diverse array of forms across individuals thought to be of the same species. Female argonauts can also repair and replace these cases, adding to variation in their forms.

A strange similarity
What’s striking about chambered nautilus and argonaut shells is their superficial similarity, despite the animals being in two distantly-related cephalopod groups. Both argonauts and nautiloids use their shells to remain buoyant in the water column but there are a myriad of different biological solutions to solving this problem, so why so similar?

The three different kinds of ‘nautilus shells’ from left to right chambered nautilus Nautilus, glassy nautilus Carinaria and paper nautilus Argonauta.
The three different kinds of ‘nautilus shells’ from left to right chambered nautilus Nautilus, glassy nautilus Carinaria and paper nautilus Argonauta.

It’s tempting, though not scientific, to suppose that argonauts are somehow tapping into their deep evolutionary history of chambered shelled relatives; however, superficial resemblance aside, the shells of argonauts are chemically, mechanically, structurally and physiologically completely different to those of the chambered nautilus.

So how and when did argonauts evolve this egg case-making behaviour? Fossil examples provide little evidence of how it happened and don’t reveal whether case-making is the ancestral state that has subsequently been lost in related free-swimming cephalopods that brood their young differently.

So the strange similarity between these three structures – the shell of the chambered nautilus, that of the glassy nautilus (not a nautilus really, but a gastropod), and the egg case of the argonaut – remains a beautiful and intriguing mystery.

Imitation game

Last month we had the pleasure of hosting artist and scientist Dr Immy Smith as part of her week-long takeover of @IAmSciArt on Twitter. Drawing inspiration from the Museum’s collections, Immy has created some beautiful paintings. Here she tells us a little more about her interests and work…

My current artwork is focused on crypsis and mimicry – the ways that animals and plants disguise themselves or pretend to be something they’re not. Cryptic camouflage helps animals to avoid being seen, often to help them catch prey – or to avoid becoming prey themselves! Mimicry is also often about trying not to get eaten: the harmless hornet moth, for example, mimics a stinging insect to deter predators. I use these themes to develop print art projects, and also public workshops to help people learn more about the ecology of cryptic animals.

Cryptic Cards by Immy Smith

In my arts practice I try to imagine how animals and plants might evolve to camouflage themselves on human-made materials, and what they might look like. Will we one day find moths adapted to hide on advertising hoardings, or beetles mimicking litter? I made an entire deck of Cryptic Cards as a response to this kind of question.

Another project I’m working on at the moment is called Emergent Crypsis. This is a collaboration with Norweigan generative artist Anders Hoff who makes art using algorithms executed by a computer. I’m imagining how creatures might adapt to an extreme example of human-made patterns – computer generated abstract images.

Violin Beetle (Mormolyce phyllodes) by Immy Smith

My work requires me to closely study many animals and plants, but how do I learn about all these species in order to draw their imaginary relatives? How do I make my art a convincing representation of how life might find ways to hide on human-made art?

One answer is of course, the internet. I’ve been lucky enough to find many wildlife photographers online who are kind enough to let me use their images as reference. But photographs alone are not always enough to get to know the fine details and defining characteristics of a species: the joints and articulations of small insects, for example, are best studied from specimens. And some species are rare, or even extinct, and it can be hard to find photographic a reference.

Leaf-footed Bug (Diactor bilineatus) by Immy Smith

This is where scientific collections come into the picture. The collections held in museums and other institutions are not only essential for scientists and scientific illustrators, they are also an invaluable resource for artists of many disciplines, science communicators, and educators of many kinds. In the collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History I can photograph and sketch leaf-mimicking insects, for example, that are native to the forests of South America which I may never visit. I can study in minute detail the articulation of beetles that are rarely seen, and which might be difficult to find – and irresponsible to collect – myself.

A display of terrestrial bugs (Heteroptera) in the Museum, including the Leaf-footed Bug painted by Immy Smith

Not only do I find specific species that I want to study in natural history collections, I often see new ones – animals I didn’t know about or hadn’t thought of drawing before. In the same week that I visited Oxford, I also made a trip to Herbarium RNG in Reading to study plant mimicry, and found similar inspiration there. I can channel all this into both aesthetic art destined for print and sciart workshops that communicate the wonders of insects or plants with the wider community.

Working on sciart projects and educational workshops helps me appreciate the multitude of ways in which collections benefit research and education. We must try to communicate the plethora of roles they play, and the host of ways they cross into our lives – whether through scientific research on insects pollinators of the crops we eat, or via a deck of cards made by someone like me for mainly recreational purposes. We must fight to protect scientific collections because they are a resource that benefits all of us as a society.