Oxford University Museum 1860

An ever-evolving museum

Oxford University Museum 1860

As we embark on our Life, As We Know It redisplay project – the first substantial changes to the permanent exhibits in more than 20 years – our Senior Archives and Library Assistant Danielle Czerkaszyn takes a look back at 160 years of an ever-evolving museum, in the first of a series of posts around the redisplay.

On 15 June 1860, Henry W. Acland, Regius Professor of Medicine at the University of Oxford, wrote:

The Oxford Museum slowly approaches completion. The building will shortly sink into insignificance when compared to the contents it will display, and the minds it will mould.

The University Museum at Oxford, as the Museum was originally known, was established to bring together scientific teaching and collections from across the University under one roof. The doors opened in June 1860, and soon after several departments moved into the building – Geometry, Experimental Physics, Mineralogy, Geology, Zoology, Chemistry, Astronomy, Human Anatomy, Physiology, and Medicine.

Ground floor plan 1866
Ground floor plan of the University Museum in 1866

When the University Museum opened, it was not simply a museum; each department got a lecture room, offices, work rooms and laboratories, as well as use of the library and display areas. According to Acland, a key figure in the Museum’s foundation, in 1860 the outer south aisle of the main court featured mineralogical specimens and chemical substances, while the inner aisle exhibited Oxfordshire dinosaurs.

Acland’s detailed descriptions of the central aisle highlighted zoological specimens with twelve parallel cases of taxidermy birds, four side cases of taxidermy animals, including animals on top of the cases, and six table cases down the centre showing shells, crabs, insects, corals and sponges, starfish and urchins. The inner north aisle presented reptiles and fish, while the outer aisle introduced the Ashmolean‘s zoology specimens, as well as anatomical and physiological collections.

The Museum in 1890
The Museum court in 1890

Although members of the public were welcome in the Museum from the start, the departments which inhabited the building were more concerned with teaching space, research facilities and the storage of their specimens than the needs of visitors. As a result, most of the early displays and cases were arranged in a systematic manner that focused on space-saving practicalities and communicating scientific knowledge, rather than aesthetics.

Geology specimens on the walls
Geology specimens displayed on shelves on the walls
Early Dodo display case
An early display focused around the Museum’s famous dodo specimen

Tracing through old annual reports it is clear that cases in the main court have been almost constantly refreshed and updated, with displays highlighting new specimens and changes to scientific understanding, or through practical improvements to lighting, electricity points and environmental monitoring. Nonetheless, the overall layout of the cases remained the same until the early 1980s.

The Museum court, unknown date
The Museum court, unknown date

From the early 1990s a focus on public engagement began to increase. Longer opening hours were introduced and displays were redesigned to link to both undergraduate teaching as well as the National Curriculum. Temporary exhibitions also regularly featured in the main court to increase the variety of specimens on display.

The Museum court in 1994
The Museum court in 1994
Megalosaurus temporary exhibition
A temporary exhibition about the Megalosaurus dinosaur in the 1990s

The turn of the millennium marked the start of a major project to update the main court displays. The central cases were reconfigured and a new set of introductory cases installed, including many themes familiar to visitors in recent years, such as exhibits on the Oxfordshire dinosaurs, Alice in Wonderland, and the Oxford Dodo.

T. rex makes its presence known

These showcases were complemented by the addition of an imposing cast of ‘Stan’ the Tyrannosaurus rex in the centre aisle, positioned behind the historic Iguanodon cast. The changes were well received and attendance in the month of July 2000 was the highest ever recorded. The Museum also introduced live insects for the first time in 2000, with Upper Gallery tanks containing Madagascan Hissing Cockroaches, South American Burrowing Cockroaches, a variety of stick insects, and some large tarantulas.

The project completed in late 2005 when the displays on Evolution, the History of Life, and Invertebrate Biodiversity were installed. Touchable specimens were also given their own permanent display area, allowing visitors the opportunity to physically interact with natural history material. These and other public engagement activities were recognised when the Museum won The Guardian newspaper’s Family Friendly Museum of the Year Award for 2005.

People around a table of touchable taxidermy specimens
New tables of touchable specimens were introduced for visitors in the 2000s.

The last substantial update to the fabric of the building took place in 2013, when the Museum closed for a year to fix the leaks in the glass roof. Taking advantage of the closure, a major piece of conservation work was undertaken on the seven whale specimens suspended from the roof. Having been on display for over 100 years, the whales were in need of considerable TLC.

A conservation team worked on the whale skeletons during the Museum’s closure for roof repairs in 2013.

Today, new and exciting changes are afoot as we embark on the first major changes to our permanent displays in almost 20 years. New high-end showcases will present displays under the concept of Life, As We Know It – beautiful presentations of the diversity of life, and the importance and fragility of biodiversity and human impact on the environment. The new exhibits will look at how the biological processes of evolution combine with the geological processes of our dynamic Earth to give rise to the immense, interconnected variety of the natural world.

Looking back across the decades we can see that the Museum is never static, but instead constantly changing and adapting, shifting from its foundation as a Victorian centre of academia to the accessible and engaging space we know and love today.

The Life, As We Know It redisplay project is supported by a generous gift from FCC Communities Environment.

A genetic map of Britain

Our Settlers exhibition tells the story of the peopling of Britain, from the arrival of the earliest modern humans over 40,000 years ago to the population of the present day. At the centre of the exhibition is a genetic map of Britain – the first of its kind to be produced of anywhere in the world. But what exactly does this map show us and how was it created? Brian Mackenwells from the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics explains…

While maps can be used to show us where we need to go, the one at the heart of the People of the British Isles study was used to show us where we’ve been. Researchers from the Wellcome Centre for Human Genetics wanted to reach back through time by looking at our genetic code.

We obviously can’t travel back a hundred years and sequence people’s DNA, so the next best thing is to sequence the genome of people whose grandparents were all from the same rural area. This is because people in rural areas at that time had a tendency not to travel very far, so the researchers guessed that the genes of their descendants would be like (slightly jumbled) snapshots of the genetic history of the area they were from.

This video, commissioned from Oxford Sparks especially for the exhibition, expands on this idea.

So the People of the British Isles researchers sequenced the DNA of just over 2,000 people and set to work analysing it all. The scientists looked for individuals with common genetic patterns and grouped them together. They had no idea where the individuals were actually from; the system just grouped people whose small genetic variations seemed to be the most similar to each other.

Here’s an example of the process. Imagine you were presented with a list of colours like these and asked to group them.

You would probably group them something like this:

There would be a ‘sort of red’ group, a ‘sort of green’ group, and a ‘sort of blue’ group. This is what the pattern-matching system was trying to do with genetic codes: make clusters of people who seemed to be similar to each other based on very small genetic variations.

But the really surprising bit came next. We took each individual in the study and plotted them on a map of Britain based on the location of their grandparents, using a symbol to denote which genetic cluster they had been placed in.

We weren’t sure what to expect. Would the symbols be spread out randomly over the map,  or would there be groupings? What might the groupings mean?

The result was striking: the genetic clusters are, for the most part, linked to quite specific geographical areas, as you can see in the final map here.

The People of the British Isles genetic map of Britain was the first map of its kind of anywhere in the world. Each marker represents a participant in the study, and the different symbols represented different genetic clusters. It’s clear that the genetic clusters are connected with geography.

What is this map revealing to us? When we compared these different groups to the unique genetic markers of different European populations, working with archaeologists and geographers, we were able to start to understand the meaning of the map. You can clearly see the genetic footprints left by historical migration and events from hundreds of years ago. The video below explains more about this.

The locations of many of the clusters correspond to regions controlled by known historical tribes and kingdoms. The map also shows how places like Northern Ireland and Western Scotland seem to share a genetic heritage.

You can learn more about the map, and the things we’ve learned from it, at the Settlers exhibition until the 16 September 2018.