Digging in the archives

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 Earl of Derby lays the foundation stone at the 1855 ceremony. Engraving from Illustrated London News.

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?

Details from the Museum’s wrought iron roof decoration. Both the metalwork and the trowel were designed by Francis Skidmore.

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.

Danielle Czerkaszyn holds the newly-discovered trowel. Her next challenge is to track down the missing silver handle.

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 library@oum.ox.ac.uk.

Raising the roof

Raising the roof

As a year of closure stretches ahead of us, it’s easy to feel down about the boards and darkness that are replacing the spectacular views across the Museum court. Our regular visitors have certainly expressed sadness and disappointment that they will be deprived of their favourite museum for a year. But we have to remember that it will all be worth it in the end: the restoration project will return the roof to its full Victorian glory and give the building below the respect it deserves.

During a trial last year one third of the roof’s glass tiles were delicately cleaned, restored and resealed in an attempt to keep the rain out. This test proved successful – the rain drops ceased and the light flooded in. The project to repair the whole roof was given the go ahead.


A close-up of the glass roof tiles before the trial cleaning project


And sparklingly clean afterwards!

At the same time, staff were treated to a guided tour of the roof itself. We scaled ladders and scaffolding high up in the south aisle of the Museum. It was remarkable to see that the careful details of carved screws and painted beams are as beautiful and painstaking at the very peak of the roof as they are at eye level, down in the courts below. It made us all appreciate the effort and care that the Victorian architects, engineers and artists put into creating this masterpiece in the mid-19th century.


The pinnacle of the south aisle’s roof

Up close, it was also easy to see dust on the metalwork and the ancient grime that has steadily built up on the glass tiles. We all wanted this faded glamour to be returned to its original glory; there was no denying it, the roof works were an essential project.


The detailed metal work that adorns the roof

Although we’ll miss the specimens and the stunning architecture during this closure year, the roof restoration will ensure that the Museum is back to its original best for another 150 years… and hopefully many more after that.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer