Elaine Charwat has been on a journey into the attic storerooms behind the scenes of the Museum to discover 19th-century wax models of parasites. A strange occupation you might think, but it’s all part of her doctoral research programme with the Arts and Humanities Research Council to learn about the use of models and replicas in science, past and present. In the podcast above Elaine meets Mark Carnall, Zoology Collections Manager at the OUMNH, who talks about the differences between models and the thousands of specimens he looks after, and Dr Péter Molnár, Assistant Professor of Biological Sciences at the University of Toronto, who offers important insights into current research using mathematical models.
Different types of models and replicas are everywhere in the Museum, and they tell us much about the organisms they represent or reconstruct, but even more about processes in research and science. Made to communicate and produce data, these larger-than-life objects are as fascinating as their subjects…
Top image: Wax models of Sarcoptes scabiei (itch mite) produced by Rudolf Weisker, Leipzig (Germany), probably late 1870s or early 1880s. These models are listed as having been on public display at the Museum in 1911, labelled: “Sarcoptes scabiei: enlarged wax models, male & female + mouth parts”.
One of the most common questions asked about our specimens, from visitors of all ages, is ‘Is it real?’. This seemingly simple question is actually many questions in one and hides a complexity of answers.
In this FAQ mini-series we’ll unpack the ‘Is it real?’ conundrum by looking at different types of natural history specimens in turn. We’ll ask ‘Is it a real animal?’, ‘Is it real biological remains?’, ‘Is it a model?’ and many more reality-check questions. Here’s your final installment…
There’s nothing like standing under a huge T.rex skeleton, staring up at its ferocious jaws, to get the blood pumping. Visitors often ask “Is it real?” and look rather deflated when they find out it’s a cast. So why do we include casts, models or replicas in our displays, if they don’t have the same impact as the real deal? The truth is that they’re valuable additions to museum displays, allowing the public to engage with specimens that would otherwise be hidden behind the scenes.
On any visit to the Museum, you’ll come across labels that tell you the object you’re looking at is a cast. It could be a dinosaur skeleton, a brightly coloured fish, an amphibian specimen or even the head of the Oxford Dodo. But what is a cast? Casts are made by taking a mould of bones, or sometimes whole animals, then filling that mould with resin, plaster or fibre glass to make a copy. They can be incredibly accurate or lifelike.
It’s extremely rare to find whole dinosaur skeletons, and very difficult to mount heavy fossils (weighing tonnes) onto large armatures. Our Tyrannosaurus rex is a cast of the famous Stan, found in South Dakota, USA, and one of the best preserved skeletons of its kind in the world. But the “real” Stan is kept at the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, so the only way we can offer the breath-taking experience of standing beneath a T. rex here in Oxford is by using a cast.
Even Stan has some bones missing, so sometimes casts are made up of several individual skeletons. Copies can also be made to give the impression of a more complete skeleton. For example, if a left bone is missing, a mirror of the right hand bone can be created. We call these specimens “composites”.
Animals such as fish and frogs aren’t easy to taxidermy; their skins shrivel, dry out, lose their colour and crack. Painted casts are a good way to show what these animals look like.
Models, such as the giant insects on the upper gallery and the Archaeopteryx in the Evolution of Flight display (at the top of this post), are very clearly not real. These are made by model makers to show something that can’t be seen or shown with real specimens. The giant insects are a way of showing the detail of very small creatures. The palaeontological models show what we think extinct animals might have looked like in life. They’re hypothetical models based on the latest scientific research, which can change very quickly, and always have an element of artistic assumption or speculation in the details.
In this series we’ve talked about taxidermy, skeletons, fossils and more, but these are just a few of the kinds of specimens we have on display. There are also nests, plastinated models, microscope slides and dioramas, which all have a mix of real and non-real elements. When you are looking around the Museum try to think about which specimens are real and which aren’t… and how does that make you think about the specimen?
Owen coined the term using a combination of the Greek words Deinos, meaning ‘fearfully great’, and Sauros, meaning ‘lizard’, in order to describe a new and distinct group of giant terrestrial reptiles discovered in the fossil record. He based this new grouping – called a clade in taxonomic terms – on just three genera: Megalosaurus, Iguanodon, and Hylaeosaurus.
In the Museum’s collections are some specimens of those three original dinosaurs, collected and described during this exciting early period of palaeontology. These discoveries, amongst others, helped to revolutionise our understanding of extinction, deep time, and the history of life on earth, and paved the way for the theory of evolution by natural selection.
A nine metre long, 1.4 tonne carnivore that roamed England during the Middle Jurassic, about 167 million years ago, Megalosaurus has the accolade of being the world’s first named dinosaur. It was described by William Buckland, the University of Oxford’s first Reader in Geology, in 1824, and was discovered in a small village called Stonesfield, about 10 miles north of Oxford. The toothy jawbone of Megalosaurus is on display in the Museum.
Iguanodon Iguanodon was a plant-eating reptile with a spike on the end of its thumbs, and teeth that look like those of an iguana, only 10 times bigger! Iguanodon lived in the Lower Cretaceous, around 130 million years ago and was named by Gideon Mantell in 1825.
When first discovered, Iguanodon’s spike was thought to go on its nose, like a rhinoceros or a rhinoceros iguana, rather than on its thumb, which is rather unique. In fact, we still don’t know why Iguanodon had such prominent thumb spikes.
Hylaeosaurus A squat, armoured, plant-eating dinosaur with long spines on its neck and shoulders. It is the least well known and smallest of the three dinosaurs originally described, but arguably the cutest. Hylaeosaurus was also named by Gideon Mantell, in 1833.
The exact specimen used by Mantell to describe Hylaeosaurus armatus is in a big block of rock in the Natural History Museum in London. But recently I spotted a specimen in our collections that Mantell had sent to William Buckland in 1834. It has the following label with it, written by Mantell himself:
Extremity of a dorsalspine of the Hylaeosaurus from my large block –
Perhaps Mantell just snapped a bit off to send to his friend. Or perhaps more likely, it was one of the broken fragments Mantell said were lying near the main block when it was dug out of the ground.
From just three genera included in Dinosauria in 1842, we now have around 1,200 species nominally in the group. The study of dinosaurs has come a long way since those early days; new finds, new technologies, such as micro CT scanning and synchrotron scanning, and new statistical techniques are helping us to better understand these iconic animals and re-evaluate older specimen collections.
The Museum’s dinosaur specimens are exceptionally historically important, but are still used heavily by scientists from across the world for their contemporary research. This is something that I think William Buckland, Gideon Mantell and Richard Owen would be very pleased about.
The one that got away… Although Owen didn’t know it, other dinosaurs were known in 1842, including Cetiosaurus, the ‘whale lizard’. When Owen named it in 1841, he thought it was a giant marine reptile that ate plesiosaurs and crocodiles. By the following year, he suggested it was actually a crocodile that had webbed feet and used its tail for propulsion through the water.
It wasn’t until 1875, after more substantial remains had been found that Owen recognised Cetiosaurus as a land-living sauropod dinosaur. Interestingly, however, research published last month presented a new hypothesis for dinosaur relationships which, if the previous definition of Dinosauria had been adhered to, would have placed all sauropods outside of the group. So perhaps Owen’s earlier omission wasn’t so wrong after all.
For the past nine months there has been a lot of moving going on around here. Imagine moving house endlessly for weeks on end, but where your house is full of bones, insects, fossils, rocks, and weird and wonderful taxidermy. And the location of everything has to be precisely recorded. The museum move project was a bit like that.
Project assistant Hannah Allum explains…
The museums are migrating, we declared in May 2016. And so they have. The first major stage of the stores project has been completed. After we had created inventories for the largely unknown collections held in two offsite stores, the next stage was to pack them safely and transport them to a new home nearer the museum, a job which demanded almost 70 individual van trips! We now have over 15,000 specimens sitting in vastly improved storage conditions in a new facility.
Let’s revel in some numbers. All in all there were over 1,000 boxes of archive material, mostly reprints of earth sciences and entomological research papers; over 1,300 specimens of mammal osteology (bones); and more than 1,000 boxes and 650 drawers of petrological and palaeontological material (rocks and fossils).
Some of the more memorable specimens include old tobacco tins and chocolate boxes filled with fossils and shells; a beautifully illustrated copy of the ‘Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa’ from the HMS Challenger by German naturalist Ernst Haeckel; and the skull of a Brazilian Three-banded Armadillo (Tolypeutes tricinctus), complete with armour-plated scute carapace.
There were also a few objects that have moved on to more unusual homes. A 4.5 m long cast of Attenborosaurus conybeari (yep, named after Sir David) was too large to fit in our new store and so made its way to another facility along with a cornucopia of old museum furniture. A set of dinosaur footprint casts, identical to those on the Museum’s lawn, have been gifted to the Botanical Gardens for use at the Harcourt Arboretum in Oxford.
And last but not least, a model of a Utahraptor received a whopping 200 applications from prospective owners in our bid to find it a suitable home. After a difficult shortlisting process it was offered to the John Radcliffe Children’s Hospital and following a quarantine period should soon be on display in their West Wing.
Fittingly, the final specimen I placed on the shelf in the new store was the very same one that had been part of my interview for this job: The skeleton of a female leopard with a sad story. It apparently belonged to William Batty’s circus and died of birthing complications whilst in labour to a litter of lion-leopard hybrids before ending up in the Museum’s collections in 1860.
Though the moving part of this project is now complete there is still plenty of work to do. We are now updating and improving a lot of the documentation held in our databases, and conservation work is ongoing. The new store will also become a shared space – the first joint collections store for the University Museums, complete by April 2018.
The Utahraptor model in the old store awaiting collection by its new owners.
Illustrated plate from the Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa from the HMS Challenger by Ernst Haeckel
The title page of the Report on the Deep-Sea Keratosa from the HMS Challenger by Ernst Haeckel
On the van, off the van; on the van…
Boxes of Earth collections material stored safely and in sequence in the new store
Boxes, glorious boxes…
Rack ‘n’ Roll: Hannah deftly working the racking
Lily Wilks, an intern assisting with the inventory of bound reprints. Image: Hannah Allum
Hannah Allum working in the old store. Image: Edward Adcock
Life Collections Manager Mark Carnall and Project Assistant Hannah Allum carrying one of the final specimens, a Mirounga leonina (Southern elephant seal) skeleton, into the new store. Image: Edward Adcock
The Attenborosaurus fossil cast, in its unusually shaped case, en route to a new custom built support frame. Image: Hannah Allum