Re-collections: William John Burchell

By Matt Barton, Digital Archivist


Over the last few months, I have been working on cataloguing and rehousing the archival collection of William John Burchell (1781-1863). Burchell was an important early naturalist, explorer, ethnographer, and linguist who worked in South Africa and Brazil, contributing greatly to our understanding of the flora and fauna of these areas. He was also a highly talented artist!

Burchell amassed huge natural history collections and described many new species, but his work was not widely recognised in his lifetime. Although he received an honorary degree from Oxford in 1834, he felt neglected by the government and scientific community in Britain. Later on in his life, Burchell became something of a disillusioned and reclusive figure, strictly guarding access to his collections and publishing few of his own findings.

A painting by William Burchell of his collecting wagon, full of natural history specimens (1820)

The first section of the Burchell collection that I tackled was his correspondence. I am happy to report that our wonderful volunteers – Lucian Ohanian, Mariateresa DeGiovanni, Naide Gedikli-Gorali and Robert Gue – have now finished digitising this material and we have made the scans available to all on Collections Online. Now that the digitisation of the Burchell correspondence is complete, we are able to more easily search his letters, and learn more about his motivations to conduct expeditions so far afield.

Burchell first left the British Isles in 1805 when he travelled to the island of Saint Helena. He moved to Cape Town in 1810 before beginning his expedition into the interior of South Africa in 1811. This epic journey covered 7000 kilometres, mainly through terrain unexplored by Europeans at the time. It lasted four years, with Burchell only returning to Britain in 1815.

What prompted him to undertake such an extraordinary expedition? In a letter home to his mother written on 29th May 1811, Burchell relates several potential motivations. Firstly, he describes his frustration with the East India Company (his employers in St Helena), and his desire for a new beginning: “I have been patient with the Company’s promises till it is become evident to everyone that I was only wasting my life living any longer in St Helena.” He goes on to stress his enthusiasm for scientific research, which may also have been a motivating factor behind his journey: “I have thought it best to give free indulgence to my inclination for research which I feel so natural to me, that I flatter myself it will be my best employment.” Finally, Burchell shows a more pecuniary motive when he notes, “I do not consider myself out of the way of making money, when I think of the value of what I shall be able to obtain in my journey.”

Burchell’s correspondence has been digitised and is available from Collections Online.

Burchell closes the letter very affectionately, suggesting he had a close relationship with his family. More than half of the letters in our collection written by Burchell are addressed to his parents or sisters. He ultimately left his specimens to his sister, Anna, who in 1865 donated his botanical specimens to Kew Gardens and his other specimens to Oxford University Museum of Natural History, with the archival collection following later.

No longer an underappreciated figure, Burchell is recognised as a pioneering and significant naturalist. Through preserving and reading our Burchell archive, we can continue to shed more light on his life and personality.

If you would like more information on this fascinating individual, we have a short article about Burchell on our website.

The Prince and the Plinths

By Hayleigh Jutson, HOPE Community Engagement Officer & GLAM Community Engagement Assistant and Danielle Czerkaszyn, Librarian and Archivist


With the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in the air, Hayleigh and Danielle reveal the royal connections that are integrated into the very fabric of the Museum, and reveal the surprising story behind our empty plinths.


Visitors walking around the Main Court of Oxford University Museum of Natural History will find themselves circled by the stony gazes of 19 life-sized stone statues. These sculptures of eminent scientists, philosophers, and engineers include likenesses of Aristotle, Charles Darwin, Galileo, Linnaeus, and Isaac Newton. Alongside these men of science stands a statue of Prince Albert, husband and consort of Queen Victoria. Although now slightly hidden behind the T-rex, Prince Albert’s statue was given pride of place in the main court, a lasting reminder of the Royal family’s contribution to the establishment of the Museum.

Constructed between 1855-1860, the main structure of the Museum of Natural History was built using funds from Oxford University. However, the University only provided enough money to construct the shell of the building. All additional decorations – the stone carvings, pillars, and statues both outside and in – were to be funded by public donations and private subscriptions. To decorate the new building, Oxford’s scientists, along with the architects Deane and Woodward, invited Pre-Raphaelite artists to come up with designs that would represent nature in the fabric of the building.

A key element of the Museum’s decoration involved the commissioning of a series of portrait statues of ‘the great Founders and Improvers of Natural Knowledge.’ These effigies were meant to represent a range of scientific fields of study, and act as inspiration to researchers, students, and other visitors to the Museum. The University came up with a list of six ancient Greek mathematicians and natural philosophers and eleven modern scientists to be included in the Gallery. Funded by private subscription, donors could provide a statue of one of these ‘Founders and Improvers’ for £70 (equivalent to ~£8000 in today’s money).

Prince Albert, a great supporter of the arts and sciences, convinced Queen Victoria to fund the first five statues of modern scientists, costing £350 in total. The first statue that Queen Victoria commissioned and paid for was of the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon — remembered as one of the fathers of the ‘scientific method’. His statue was carved by Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner. The remaining four statues that Queen Victoria paid for – of Galileo, Isaac Newton, Gottfried Liebnitz, and Hans Christian Ørsted – were to be sculpted by Alexander Munro. However, Munro was only able to complete three of these. After the University of Oxford repeatedly failed to fulfil Munro’s request for a likeness of Ørsted, the statue of the Danish physicist went unfinished. Not wanting to waste the money that had been gifted by Queen Victoria, the Museum decided to arrange for a plaster cast to be made of a pre-existing statue of Ørsted, which was sent over from Denmark in 1855.

It was hoped that Queen Victoria’s generous donation would encourage other wealthy individuals to fund the remaining statues. Initially, the plan worked. However, as time went on, donors began to favour British men of science rather than the University’s original list of international candidates. As a result, funding for many of the statues on the University’s list never materialised, and those plinths remain vacant to this day.

Even if the commissioning of the Museum’s sculptures didn’t go entirely to plan, there is no doubt that Prince Albert made an important contribution to the construction of the Museum. Fittingly, he is also commemorated amongst the Museum’s sculptures. Carved by Thomas Woolner, Albert’s statue sits behind the tail of the T-rex skeleton in the Main Court. It was presented to the Museum by the citizens of Oxford in April 1864, and remains a tribute to a champion of the arts and sciences, and one of the Museum’s earliest and most influential supporters.

Statue of Prince Albert in the Main Court of the Museum

Reading Archival Silences

MAUD HEALEY AND HER GEOLOGICAL LEGACY


By Chloe Williams, History Finalist at Oxford University and Museum Volunteer

Email: chloegrace1000@gmail.com


“The professor regrets to have to record the loss of the invaluable services of Miss Healey, who as a result of overwork has been recommended to rest for an indefinite period. This will prove a serious check to the rate of progress which has for some time been maintained in the work of rearrangement, and it is hoped that her retirement may be only temporary.” So ends the Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s 1906 Annual Report, marking the near-complete departure of Maud Healey from the archival record.

Despite how little of her history has been preserved, it is clear that Maud Healey made significant contributions to the field of geology. After studying Natural Sciences at Lady Margaret Hall in 1900, Healey worked at the Museum as an assistant to Professor William Sollas from 1902–1906. Here, she catalogued thousands of specimens and produced three publications. These publications were at the centre of debates about standardising the geological nomenclature, and turning geology into a practical academic discipline that could sustain links across continents. However, Healey was continually marginalized on the basis of her gender. Closing the Geological Society of London’s discussion of one of her papers, “Prof. Sollas remarked that he had listened with great pleasure to the complimentary remarks on the work of the Authoress, and regretted that she was not present to defend before the Society her own position in the disputed matter of nomenclature.”[1] Predating the Society’s 1904 decision to admit women to meetings if introduced by fellows, Healey had been unable to attend the reading of her own paper.

Photo of the Geological Society of London centenary dinner in 1907, at which Maud Healey was present. Healey can be seen seated in the fourth row from the front, three chairs to the left. Of the 263 guests, 34 were women, 20 of whom were the wives or daughters of academics, and only 9, including Healey, were present ‘in their own right’. [2] Source: Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

Healey later worked with specimens collected by Henry Digges La Touche in colonial Burma (now Myanmar). While Healey worked with the identification of species, acknowledged by La Touche himself as ‘a more difficult lot to work at’ than similar specimens assigned to her male contemporaries, the physical collection and therefore its name and record is attributed to a male geologist. [3] She continued her work identifying La Touche’s collection of Burmese fossils after retiring from the Museum in 1906 and published a report about them in 1908. What happened to her afterwards is unclear. Tantalizing snippets like a 1910 marriage record might suggest that she turned to a life of domesticity, but whether Healey continued to engage with geology as a hobby remains uncertain.

It is almost unbelievable that a professional of Healey’s calibre could abandon the work in which she excelled. However, Healey lacked any familial connections to geology, and apparently did not marry into money, which would have made it difficult for her to retain access to organizations like the Geological Society of London. The diagnosis of ‘overwork’ mentioned in the Annual Report makes it possible that a medical professional could have discouraged her from engaging further in academia. Unfortunately, any diaries or letters which might have provided us with further clues were not deemed worthy of preservation.

Maud Healey on a dig site (location unknown). Image from the Archives at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.

Tracing Maud Healey’s history to 1910, it might seem as though we hit a depressing dead end. Healey is one of many nineteenth-century female geologists who participated in an international community in a range of roles including collecting, preserving samples, and actively producing knowledge. However, like many of her colleagues, her contributions are largely absent from the historical record. My research doesn’t aim to simply ‘rediscover’ these exemplary women after previously being ‘hidden’ from history, but instead considers how history itself is constructed from a material archive created along lines of gender and class. A subjectivity which surfaces only rarely in appended discussions to academic papers, and in spidery cursive on ancient fossils, Maud Healey ultimately suggests the need for women’s history to read archival silences as their own stories.


Works cited

[1] Healey, M. ‘Notes on Upper Jurassic Ammonites, with Special Reference to Specimens in the University Museum, Oxford: No. I’, Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society of London 60, (1904), p.1-4.

[2] Burek, Cynthia V. “The first female Fellows and the status of women in the Geological Society of London.” Geological Society, London, Special Publications 317, no. 1 (2009): 373-407.

[3] La Touche, H.D. Letter to Anna La Touche, 1 August 1907. La Touche Collection. MSS.Eur.C.258/77. Asian and African Studies Archive, The British Library, London, UK.


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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.