When the campaign to build the Museum was launched, science at Oxford was understood as natural theology. By the time the Museum opened in 1860, a new secular approach to science was on the rise.
In this last episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the art and science of the Museum responded to the challenge posed by Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection, and the scientific naturalism that they epitomised.
The Museum was not originally simply a museum as we understand it today: It was an entire science faculty. In episode four of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how the museum’s overarching principle of design – that art should be used to teach science and to inspire generations of scientists – was put into practice in some of its less familiar but no less beautiful spaces.
The central court of the Museum was described by one founder as ‘the sanctuary of the Temple of Science’. In the third episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we see how every detail of this unique space was carefully planned and crafted to form a comprehensive model of natural science.
In the second episode of the Temple of Science podcast series we take a closer look at the decoration on the outside of the Museum building.
From the outset, Oxford University Museum wanted to teach the principles of natural history through art as well as science. The carvings around the windows of the façade, incorporating designs by John Ruskin and carved by the brilliant Irish stonemason and sculptor James O’Shea, revel in the vitality of nature, while the decorations round the main entrance remind us that, for the scientists in Victorian Oxford, natural history was the study of God’s creation.
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 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?
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Museum’s collections are on the move. For decades, a deconsecrated church has been used to house material from our Earth collections, but we now have a new and improved off-site space, and between now and the end of 2018 a huge project is underway to sort and shift these objects. You can find out more about all this in our Stories from the Stores article.
Chantelle Dollimore, Move Project Assistant, recently emigrated from Australia and has been experiencing her first British autumn. Here she shares a glimpse of the natural encounters the collections move has offered so far.
As the project team for the collections move settles into the daily hustle and bustle of work there are extraordinary things happening outside. Winter is coming; we have already wound our clocks back for that extra hour of sleep. Leading up to that time, creatures great and small have been preparing themselves for seasonal changes.
Something truly blissful in an English autumn is the deciduous trees shedding their leaves as the days grow shorter and chillier. The crunching underfoot of hues of browns, reds, yellows and oranges adds charm as we make the rounds of our 19th-century church workspace.
Driving from the Museum to the off-site store, we’re likely to see at least one Red Kite. Less than 30 years ago Red Kites were nearly extinct, but through conservation efforts they have flourished in the Oxfordshire countryside. Their distinct calls and unique silhouette, with long narrow wings and forked tail, are a haunting yet beautiful addition to the skyline.
The move project team have also been visited by a different ‘bird’ altogether; the ladybird! At this time of year, when you find one you will most likely see many more close by. When a ladybird finds the perfect place to hibernate for spring it excretes a pheromone to attract more to the area. For some, the perfect place seems to be inside the church itself!
Grey Squirrels and deer are also making appearances throughout the day while we’re working. One cannot help but watch as the bushy tail of the squirrel peeks through the hedges as it forages for food and admire the deer as they stroll through the fields happily unaware of our activities some 50 metres away.
Although it’s great to admire the specimens on display in the Museum, I love that my job allows me to get out and about to appreciate the wildlife of the Oxfordshire countryside. There’s always something unexpected… like a butterfly choosing its resting place on some disassembled storage shelves.