Who clothes there?


By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer

Tucked in a display case in the southwest corner of the Museum is a sculpture of an unidentified female figure, small enough to fit in your coat pocket. It is a replica of one of the most important examples of Palaeolithic artwork ever discovered; a 25,000-year-old carving known as the Venus of Willendorf. The Venus of Willendorf is one of several Palaeolithic statues found in Europe or Asia believed to depict female deities or fertility icons. Known collectively as the Venus Figurines, the carvings are similar in size and subject matter, but each has her own peculiarities. Many are naked, but some of the later examples are wearing distinctive garments, clothes we might describe today as ‘snoods’ or ‘bandeaux’. The Venus of Willendorf is easily distinguished by her statement headpiece; perhaps a spiralling hair-braid or ceremonial wig. But there is another, more exciting interpretation — this strange, thimble-like adornment might actually represent a woven fibre cap, making it the oldest ever depiction of human clothing.

The Venus Figurines are incredibly important to the study of human fashion because they significantly predate any direct archaeological evidence of ancient clothing. The oldest surviving garment dates back an astonishing 5,000 years; an exceptionally-preserved linen shirt discovered in an Egyptian tomb. But our species, Homo sapiens, has a much longer history, perhaps up to a quarter of a million years. How much of this time have we spent wearing clothing? And why did we even begin to dress ourselves in the first place?

By comparing human genes to those of our furrier primate relatives, researchers have been able to estimate that modern humans lost their body hair around 240,000 years ago. A mutation in a gene called KRTHAP1 likely led to a decrease in our production of the protein keratin, the building block of hair. The exact reason why this mutation spread through the population is still up for speculation. One commonly held theory is that, with less body hair, our ancestors could sweat and tolerate higher temperatures, allowing them to expand their habitats from sheltered forests into sun-drenched savannahs. But at some stage, our ancestors started covering their skin again — leaving us to wonder when nakedness became a nuisance.

An intriguing clue about the circumstances that led to the adoption of clothing has come from studying the DNA of our parasites — namely, clothing lice. In 2010, researchers used genetic sequencing to determine that clothing lice split from their ancestral group, head lice, between 170,000 and 83,000 years ago. When compared with genetic data from our own species, we can begin to weave a story about the origins of clothing that ties in with human migration. Gene sequencing has helped us work out that Homo sapiens originated in Africa but must have begun migrating towards Europe between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, a window which overlaps neatly with the evolution of clothing lice. Is it possible that clothing lice are a consequence of the widespread adoption of clothing; a result of humans migrating into more northerly latitudes with cooler temperatures?

Curiously, there are indications in the archaeological record that human clothing could date to an even earlier stage in our species’ history than the expansion of humans into Europe. In 2021, researchers uncovered 120,000-year-old bones from a cave in Morocco believed to be used to process animal hides. There is a strong possibility that humans would have used these tools to make wearable items out of hunted animals, including blankets, cloaks, or perhaps more structured garments.

It seems likely that the first clothes humans made from hides were loose-fitting capes or shawls, which may have been more important for protection or camouflage than keeping warm. There are numerous reasons why other animals cover themselves with foreign objects besides thermoregulation. ‘Decorating’ behaviours occur in animals as diverse as crabs, birds, and insects, allowing them to disguise themselves from predators, or protect themselves from UV radiation. While early humans might have only needed simple clothing items to aid with disguise, as the climate began cooling 110,000 years ago, cloaks probably wouldn’t have cut it; our species must have learned how to make multi-layered and closer-fitting garments to maintain high enough body temperatures. Archaeology provides a similar estimate for the adoption of constructed garments, based on the discovery of 75,000-year-old stone awls — tools used for puncturing holes in hides to prepare them to be sewn together.

Homo sapiens‘ ability to make complex clothing items may have helped give our ancestors a competitive edge over the Neanderthals in Europe. Researchers have studied sub-fossil material in museum collections to learn about the changing distributions of European mammals throughout human history, allowing them to deduce that Neanderthals only had access to large animals like bison to make cape-like clothing from. But, in addition to bison, Homo sapiens lived alongside other, fluffier animals like wolverines during the last Ice Age, which could have been hunted to make warm trims for our clothing. Studies like these are highly speculative, but with such a threadbare archaeological record, they contribute valuable insight into the landscapes of ancient Europe.

The Neanderthals might have been less well-dressed than our Homo sapiens ancestors, but we can’t be certain that humans of our own species were the only prehistoric fashionistas. The oldest sewing needle to have ever been discovered dates to 50,000 years before present and was actually found in a cave associated with Denisovans — a group of extinct hominins we know little about. The Denisovans may be an extinct subspecies of Homo sapiens, but they might also have formed an entirely separate species altogether, perhaps learning how to sew independently of modern humans.

Following the invention of sewing was another crucial innovation in the history of human clothing — the ability to make textiles. In 2009, a group of researchers discovered 36,000-year-old evidence of textile-based clothing in the form of microscopic flax plant fibres that had been dyed and twisted together. There are many potential uses of twisted fibres such as these, but scientists have been able to study the organisms associated with the fibres, finding the remains of skin beetles, moth larvae, and fungal spores that are all commonly associated with modern clothing. Humans do not simply fashion clothes, we also fashion microhabitats, capable of supporting organisms as diverse as insects, fungi, and bacteria.

The discovery that humans have been making textiles into clothing for 36,000 years lends credence to the theory that the Venus of Willendorf is wearing a woven cap — but we might never be able to draw any certain conclusions about such an ancient artefact. Until just ninety years ago, humans could only make textiles from biodegradable materials, meaning that we have very little evidence about the clothing that our ancient ancestors wore. Thankfully, however, the story of human fashion is closely interwoven with the natural histories of hundreds of other species, allowing us to stitch together a patchwork history, utilising evidence from all corners of the kingdom of life.

The outside and inside of a box, showing its contents

Boxes, Bags, and Bones


Looking through the collections at OUMNH never gets boring, but sometimes a drawer will open up to reveal something even more eye-catching than the fossils usually found inside. Whilst working on the Museum’s Jurassic marine reptiles a few weeks ago, I came across something particularly surprising: a jewel-green box with a fantastic piece of art on the front. I was instantly intrigued and reminded of all the other times I had encountered a holder as fascinating as the specimen inside it.

Storage in museum collections is an ongoing pursuit of balance between ideal environmental conditions, specimen accessibility, and efficient use of space. This balance applies to all levels of storage: from building to room, cabinet to specimen tray. OUMNH’s Earth Collections are stored in conservation-grade, acid-free boxes or trays made of plastic or cardboard. These boxes are sometimes layered with low-density foam or ‘plastazote’ which can be carved to fit the specimen and keep it from being jostled or damaged. Holders with lids can also provide a micro-environment for specimens to help minimise their exposure to changes in humidity and temperature. The use of these standard materials not only helps protect specimens from degradation but can also deter pests from harbouring in collections spaces.

However, historical collections like those at OUMNH may retain holders that are not standard use. Sometimes, a clean and empty plastic Ferrero Rocher box is the perfect size for that small mammal skeleton that needs storing! Other times, an unusual holder might have been the only thing a field collector had on hand to transport a specimen to the Museum.

A harmonica box containing pliosaur teeth, a marine reptile that lived during the Jurassic (145.5 million – 201.6 million years ago).

One example of an unusual specimen holder is this ‘Echo Harp’ box by pre-eminent German harmonica manufacturer Hohner, likely from the 1960s. The box no longer holds a harmonica, but instead accompanies pieces of Jurassic pliosaur teeth from Weymouth, Dorset. Pliosaurs were a kind of carnivorous marine reptile related to plesiosaurs, with four flippers, and long tails and necks. If they hadn’t gone extinct in the Cretaceous-Paleogene extinction event 66 million years ago, perhaps they would have come to appreciate the harmonica and its artistic packaging!

Aside from their artistic value, museums may sometimes retain unusual holders because they contain primary source information on the specimen. One such example is a ‘Bryant and May’s Patent Safety Matches’ box in our Earth collections, bearing a packaging design from the early 1900s. The box actually houses a chicken tarsometatarsus bone excavated from “High St. New Schools” in Oxfordshire and is accompanied by a label which describes the particular layer of gravel the specimen was found in — important information for any archaeological or palaeontological find. Although the specimen is stored alongside Pleistocene fossils (10,000 – 2.6 million years ago), chickens did not originate in the UK, so the bone is likely from much more recent times. Someone still must have thought it was important enough to keep in its own special holder!

A Tate and Lyle sugar bag containing a Jurassic specimen, with handwriting on the outside describing the stratigraphy the fossil was found in.

Similarly, this ‘Tate and Lyle Granulated Sugar’ paper bag features a handwritten original notation in blue pen on the outside. The bag originally contained a specimen found in a collection of Jurassic gastropods and bivalves from Somerset, with the handwriting describing the fossil’s stratigraphic information. The bag also features a recipe for cinnamon apples on the reverse, which we have yet to try!

A wooden box and the Quarternary fossils (up to 2.6 million years ago) it originally housed. An accompanying letter describes the delivery of the fossils to William Buckland, Oxford University’s First Reader in Geology.

In addition to primary source information, original holders may also provide specimens with provenance. This ovular wooden box filled with organic stuffing material originally contained Quarternary fossil specimens found in Peak’s Hole, Derbyshire. The Museum archive also holds a handwritten letter describing the specimens inside the package and how they were found. The letter dates to 1841 and is addressed to Oxford University’s first Reader in Geology, William Buckland.  The specimen holder forms part of a group of objects with such a strong interconnection, and such strong documentation, that retaining the box is a matter of course.

All in all, it’s great that we’ve come so far in the advancement of safe and stable housing for specimens. At the same time, it’s always fascinating to see what else has made its way into collections, just by nature of being able to hold things, either for a short time or a long one. Despite living in the Earth Collections – among fossils, rocks, and the geological past – these objects offer us a little bit of human history too.

By Brigit Tronrud, Earth Collections Assistant



During the summer months, the beaches of Mallorca offer an irresistible draw for tourists and palaeontologists alike. Visitors to the small Spanish island find themselves lured by its glittering seas, captivating coastline, and tasty white sands…

…well, tasty for some, at least!

Coastal cliffs near Estellencs (Mallorca, Spain). Palaeontologists working here discovered fossils of Triassic mayfly nymphs with unusual gut contents. (photo: Balearic Museum of Natural Sciences)

Following recent fossil excavations near the the coastal town of Estellencs in southwest Mallorca, palaeontologists have discovered evidence of a species of mayfly with a pretty peculiar diet. The mayflies in question lived 240 million years ago in bodies of water associated with ancient floodplains. Some of the juvenile mayflies (nymphs) were so well-fossilised that it has been possible to study the contents of their guts. A research team, led by Dr Enrique Peñalver, and featuring OUMNH’s own Dr Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente, discovered that the mayflies’ digestive tracts contained a mixture of detritus (the decomposed remains of other organisms) and particles of a type of rock known as claystone. The most likely explanation for this strange food-pairing? It seems that the nymphs actually survived by eating muddy sediments that had settled to the bottom of the swampy-waters they lived in – yum!

If you’ve ever tried eating a sandwich on the beach, you’ll be familiar with the feeling of sand in your teeth. The sharp crunch of mineral sediment is worth the sacrifice for the delicious, digestible portion of your sandwich – the bread and fillings. Animal digestive systems are unable to extract energy from inorganic mineral matter, like sand. Instead, we rely on organic material for nutrition, i.e. matter derived from plants and other animals. It seems that the Triassic mayfly nymphs found in Mallorca would have munched through large quantities of sediment; digesting the organic detritus it contained, and excreting the inorganic remainder.

One of the numerous Early Triassic mayfly nymphs from Mallorca preserved with gut contents. These inclusions result from the original sediment the nymphs fed on (cololite, labelled here with arrows). Image adapted from Peñalver et al. (2023).

Sediment-based diets are extremely rare among living insect species. A handful of modern mayfly species have been observed to munch on the muddy sediment that surrounds the openings of their tunnels, but this is a very rare occurrence. Sediment is a pretty challenging food source, and it’s hard to say why insects may have relied more heavily on it in the ancient past. It is possible that the mayflies found in Mallorca adopted their diet as a result of the Permian mass extinction, which killed off more than 80% of all the species on Earth, ‘just’ five million years prior. With fewer choices of organic material available to eat, perhaps the mayflies were left without a better choice? Or maybe they were simply exploiting new environmental niches that opened up in the aftermath of this catastrophic event?

One of the reasons why it is so difficult to theorise about the evolution of species following the Permian mass extinction is the dearth of fossil evidence dating from the period. Luckily, the coastal cliffs of Mallorca can offer us a rare, exciting glimpse into some of the ecosystems that existed ~247 million years ago. The research team behind the Mallorcan mayfly discovery have also used fossils from the same site to describe the world’s oldest-known dipteran (a group of insects including flies, mosquitoes, gnats, and midges), naming the species Protoanisolarva juarezi. These flies would have lived on land, in back swamp areas, rather than in the water. However, much like the Triassic mayfly nymphs, they would have fed on detritus, and played a key role as recyclers of organic matter in these ancient ecosystems.

The larva of the oldest-known gnat, 247 million years old, was found near Estellencs in Mallorca. (Image: CN-IGME CSIC).

It is by paying attention to tiny insect fossils like these that we might hope to find answers to one of the biggest questions in palaeontology: how did life rebuild in the aftermath of our planet’s worst mass extinction? And what might this teach us about ecosystem responses to future mass extinction events?

By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer

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 Beginning of the End: Do locusts still spell danger for humanity?

By Ella McKelvey, Web Content and Communications Officer

A few days ago, I was working from home when a delivery driver arrived with a strange parcel – a cardboard box stamped with the letters FRAGILE that seemed to be producing a peculiar, scratching sound. Tentatively, I opened the cardboard box and pulled out a plastic punnet filled with newspaper, old egg cartons, and… wait! Was that an antenna? 

The parcel turned out to be a box of locusts, ordered by my housemate who uses them to feed her pet reptiles. I set the punnet down beside me and tried to continue with my morning’s work. But over the next few hours, the locusts grew increasingly restless, bouncing against the walls of their punnet like hot, microwaved popcorn. The sight and sound of the insects began to return memories of the infamous locust swarms of 2020 — one in a series of near-apocalyptic events that befell us that fateful year. Worryingly, climate change is set to make locust swarms increasingly common, with Sardinia currently facing its worst locust swarm in thirty years.1 

Left: A poster for The Beginning of the End (1957) about a fictional invasion of giant, mutant locusts in Illinois. Right: A real-life locust swarm near Satrokala, Madagascar (2014).

Throughout history, locusts have been widely understood as symbols of maleficence and misfortune. One of the oldest written references to locusts is, of course, the Biblical story of the ten plagues of Egypt, in which locusts were sent as a punishment from God. Since then, these infamous insects have been featured in art, books, music, and films as harbingers of destruction. Americans of the mid-twentieth century were somewhat obsessed with giant locusts and grasshoppers which were featured everywhere from cartoons to postcards. 1957 saw the release of the movie The Beginning of the End – a schlocky Hollywood sci-fi tale about a swarm of giant, mutant locusts invading Illinois. The film’s principal Entomologist describes locusts as “deadly killer[s]”, both “intelligent and strong”. Real-life locusts are, indeed, very strong for their size, with back legs that can catapult them up to a metre from standing. This means that it would be feasible for the human-sized locusts in The Beginning of the End to jump as far as forty metres — a terrifying thought!2  

While The Beginning of the End is ridiculous both in premise and execution, I can’t deny that I find the concept of giant locusts pretty nightmarish. Earlier in the week, I sent an email to the Life Collections team to enquire about the possibility of looking through our pinned locusts and snapping a few photos of the biggest and grisliest specimens. As I walked upstairs to entomology, I braced myself for an encounter with some fearsome insects. But what I found were a few drawers of modest-sized locusts that looked about as benign as garden grasshoppers. Many of them were even stuffed with wool; more like teddy bears than agents of Armageddon. 

Left: Anacridium aegyptium or Egyptian Locust from the Collections at OUMNH. Right: Underside of a locust specimen showing cotton wool stuffing.

According to Collections Assistant Rob Douglas, stuffing large insect specimens with cotton wool used to be a common entomological practice. Insects with fatty insides, like locusts, must be gutted to ensure good preservation. Following the removal of the insects’ insides, cotton was often used to return their abdomens to their usual size and shape. Locusts’ ample fat stores contribute as much to their physical prowess as their powerful hind legs; sustaining them through migrations of up to 310 miles a day.3 Such migrations occur when locusts are exposed to a dry spell followed by wet weather, allowing for the sudden regrowth of vegetation. These conditions will cause locusts to switch their solitary lifestyles for gregariousness, coming together to chomp their way through crops and vegetation at a density of 80-160 million insects per square mile. A large migrating swarm of locusts has been estimated to need as many calories in a day as 1.5 million human males, explaining why even ordinary-sized locusts are capable of causing agricultural annihilation.

If it weren’t for government and international interventions, the 2020 locust swarms in East Africa could have caused up to $8.5 billion in economic damages by the year-end.5 But locusts can do much worse. One of the most notorious locust swarms on record was that of the Rocky Mountain locust in the USA between 1874 and 1877. According to some accounts, the swarm caused damages to agriculture equivalent to $116 billion in today’s money, leaving behind piles of locust carcases up to six feet high.6 

When it comes to protecting crops from locusts, prevention is better than cure. Likely locust outbreaks can be pre-empted by studying weather patterns and using satellite imagery to keep an eye on vegetation growth.7 Once a (potential) locust swarm has been identified, traditional methods of locust management involve the use of pesticides to wipe out the insects as soon as possible. Back in the 1950s, this meant dowsing locusts with DDT. But as the drawbacks of synthetic pesticides become increasingly apparent, chemical interventions are being replaced with the application of naturally occurring ‘pesticides’ like the fungus Metarhizium acridum.  

Our understanding of locusts has come a long way since the release of The Beginning of the End. One of my favourite news stories of the past month was the announcement by a laboratory at Michigan State University that locusts have been successfully used to ‘sniff out’ mouth cancer.8 It turns out that locusts no longer just spell danger for humanity — they can smell danger for humanity too! These cancer-detecting locusts are, in my opinion, far more ‘sci-fi’ than the giant bugs imagined by scriptwriters of the 1950s, reminding us that, when it comes to science, the truth is often stranger than fiction. Reports like these demonstrate that scientific research has the power to transform our relationship with the pests that have tormented us for thousands of years.

[1] Sardinian farmers suffer worst locust invasion in over 30 years | Reuters 

[2] https://www.st-andrews.ac.uk/~wjh/jumping/perform.html

[3] https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/facts/locusts

[4] Weis-Fogh T. 1952 Fat combustion and metabolic rate of flying locusts (Schistocerca gregaria Forskål)Phil. Trans. R. Soc. Lond. B2371–36http://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.1952.0011

[5] Dominy, Nathaniel J., and Luke D. Fannin. “The sluggard has no locusts: From persistent pest to irresistible icon.” People and Nature 3, no. 3 (2021): 542-549.

[6] Lockwood, Jeffrey A. Locust: The Devastating Rise and Mysterious Disappearance of the Insect that Shaped the American Frontier. London: Hachette (2004).

[7] Zhang, Long, Michel Lecoq, Alexandre Latchininsky, and David Hunter. “Locust and grasshopper management.” Annu. Rev. Entomol 64, no. 1 (2019): 15-34.

[8] https://www.technologyreview.com/2022/06/21/1054532/cyborg-locust-brain-hacked-sniff-out-cancer/

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