Reading room

Library Reading Room

This past year may have been darkened for our court displays, but we have been working hard to make sure the Library and Archives start to emerge from their dusty shelves and cupboards to see the light of day (figuratively speaking of course: too much light is very bad for books and archives!).

With generous funding from Arts Council England and the Heritage Lottery Fund, there have been two large-scale digitisation projects underway to make two important collections available online: the maps of William Smith, dubbed the ‘Father of English Geology’, and the Flying Icons project to make freely-available scans of the Jones’ Icones, a manuscript of Lepidoptera paintings by William Jones of Chelsea.


A sneak peak at our new online archive catalogue.

These projects have allowed us to develop an online catalogue for the Archive Collections, making access simpler and more widely available than ever. Watch this space to find out about the catalogue’s launch early in 2014.

There is also work underway to upgrade the facilities in our Reading Room, which you can see in the photograph at the top. We’ll have more computer workstations and more work space for readers.

The Library and Archive are open to anyone with a research interest in our collections, and we’re proud to be one of the few Oxford University Libraries with such an open policy.

We’re planning to improve our services during 2014 too and we’d really like a bit of help from you. We have set up this quick survey and would very much appreciate any info people are able to provide.

To visit our Library and Archive Collections, you can make an appointment at, or follow us on Twitter @morethanadodo to find out about tours and workshops coming up in the New Year.

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

Natural Histories: On Tour


In May this year we opened Natural Histories, our collaborative exhibition with the Museum  of the History of Science on Oxford’s Broad Street, who hosted the displays. As we wrote at the time, it was a great opportunity to put on view some lovely and important specimens while we were closed. It also linked nicely with the long history of the museums in Oxford, beginning as far back as 1683.

Lost and FoundIt was a lot of hard work pulling together all the material, themes, and displays for Natural Histories so we were particularly pleased when Banbury Museum, one of the University museums’ development partners, approached us asking if the exhibition might tour there…

And so it has. It’s a short, one-stop tour admittedly, but with a bit of jiggling and reconfiguration here and there, the whole Natural Histories show is now open to the public in Banbury.

Banbury MuseumSo if you missed it at the Museum of the History of Science, head over to Banbury Museum by 22 February 2014 and have a look.

There’s plenty to see, including the jawbone of the Oxfordshire Megalosaurus, the world’s first scientifically-described dinosaur; creatures collected by Charles Darwin; and a meteorite the age of the Earth itself. With touchable specimens too (of course), Natural Histories explores some big themes and ideas that have shaped our understanding of the natural world.

But as the finished exhibition is now on display for all to see, here instead are a few behind-the-scenes shots of the late night measuring, painting, fixing and adjusting that were needed to get everything ready for opening day last Saturday. Thanks very much to everyone who mucked in and helped out.


Making a few adjustments…

An almost-closed case

Almost ready for closure


Finding the spot

Glass cleaner at the ready

Glass cleaner at the ready


Scott Billings – Communications coordinator

Am feeling quite jolly!

"Many thanks for kind congratulations – am feeling quite jolly!"

“Many thanks for kind congratulations – am feeling quite jolly!”

This lovely example of Alfred Russel Wallace’s beautiful handwriting and cheerful nature was written to chemist and Wallace’s good friend Raphael Meldola. He wrote it on his 90th (and sadly last) birthday. It is particular favourite of Annette Lord, who has scanned and transcribed the Museum’s collection of 300+ Wallace documents.

Fungus weevils (Anthribidae) collected by Wallace

Fungus weevils (Anthribidae) collected by Wallace

Today marks 100 years since Wallace’s death and provides a good opportunity to reflect on his achievements. We’ve set up a display in the Museum to mark the occasion and show some of the most impressive Wallace specimens in our collection. Wallace travelled to remote, dangerous parts of the world in search of new and fascinating species. He was a meticulous and careful collector; you can’t help but marvel at how the incredibly long antennae of these beetles survived the journey back to Britain!

Wallace is now credited by many as co-author of the theory of evolution through natural selection, so it is very exciting to hear that today Sir David Attenborough is due to unveil a statue to the great man at the Natural History Museum in London.

Ulysses Butterflies (Papilio Ulysses)

Ulysses Butterflies (Papilio Ulysses) collected by Alfred Russel Wallace

Wallace is not a household name like his collaborator Charles Darwin, but naturalists and Wallace fans all over the world will appreciate this gesture and the new interest in his work that this will promote.

If you would like to know more about Alfred Russel Wallace, you may like to see this new slideshow that the BBC have released today. It tells the story of his life and works and is narrated by Sir David Attenborough, one of Wallace’s greatest supporters.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer


Wallace in his own words

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with a Wallace letter

Here in the Museum of Natural History’s archives, we proudly house over 300 of Alfred Russel Wallace’s documents. Letters, notes and postcards written by the great naturalist himself. Here you can see Sir David Attenborough holding one of his favourites.

Over the past two years, all of the Wallace paper items in our collection have been scanned, transcribed and uploaded to Wallace Letters Online, a worldwide documentation project that’s part of the Wallace 100 celebrations. But the most remarkable thing is that all this work was done by one woman!

Annette Lord

Annette Lord

Annette Lord has been a volunteer at the Museum for 3 years and has helped with many family friendly activities, but one day she popped up to the Entomology Department to ask about Wallace’s letters. Her curiosity was piqued and she soon set to work on the enormous task of making them accessible to Wallace fans across the world.

The bulk of the letters are from Wallace to Edward Bagnall Poulton, the Hope Professor of Zoology, based at the Museum. Wallace sent Poulton specimens that he collected on his travels and they were good friends, sharing advice and anecdotes. Annette told me about one of the most memorable letters, which revealed Wallace gave Paulton some tips on setting up a display on mimicry in the Museum. In return, Wallace asked for tips on the best microscope to buy for his young daughter Violet… sadly, before he could decide on the final choice, Violet decided she didn’t want a microscope after all!

Wallace signatureAnnette said that she has found the project incredibly satisfying; “It’s given me a real insight into what he was like – I’ve seen his human side and his excellent sense of humour”. She also praised his lovely handwriting, which she’s found relatively easy to read for the transcripts. As part of the project, Annette has given talks in Bournemouth and here in Oxford, where I’m sure her enthusiasm and knowledge help to spread the love of Wallace.

I also spoke to Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections, who was singing her praises; “Annette’s enthusiasm for the project is un-shakable. Every time you think she must have had enough of reading Wallace’s letters, she’s still right in there in the thick of it. She really has become one of the Museum’s greatest Wallace experts! The material that Annette has recorded gives us an invaluable glimpse into the close relationships between the early natural scientists.”

Tomorrow, to mark the centenary of Wallace’s death, I’ll reveal Annette’s favourite letter of all!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Getting about


With our Goes to Town exhibits in place all over Oxford city centre, we are keeping our collections hard at work even while the Museum is closed. But it isn’t just our specimen collections that are getting all the action – material from the Archives has journeyed outside the Museum walls too…

In association with the Friends of Summertown Library, we have put together a display from our archival collections celebrating former Summertown resident and Museum scientist John Obadiah Westwood. Westwood was the first Hope Professor of Zoology at the University in the late 19th century, and in addition to being a leading figure in the development of entomology as an academic discipline, he was also an amazing artist.

Westwood was so well known for his ability to accurately capture the details of insect specimens in his own work that he was commissioned to complete illustrations for a number of important entomological texts of his time.

Chairman of the Friends of Summertown Library, Marcus Ferrar, with the display at Summertown Library

Chairman of the Friends of Summertown Library, Marcus Ferrar, with the display at Summertown Library

Our archive is full of examples of Westwood’s talents, though most of his drawings have never been on display to the public before. This first-of-a-kind display for our Archive features a number of original copies of his work, including drawings of butterflies, beetles and even medieval manuscripts. It also features lots of interesting facts about Westwood, including his love of gardening and his fascination with biblical texts.

Westwood by Chris JarvisThe exhibit in Summertown Library runs until 18 October 2013 and can been seen during library opening hours. If you’re there with children don’t forget to ask for a Museum of Natural History colouring sheet, featuring this drawing of Westwood in action by our other talented Museum artist and Education Officer, Chris Jarvis.

A big thanks goes to the Friends of Summertown Library for working with us to make this unique opportunity happen. Do let us and the library know what you think.

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

Flying Icons

Jones' Icones

We are thrilled in the Museum’s Library and Archive to have just been awarded a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund. It’s for Flying Icons, our project to digitise and make freely available online the beautiful and important 18th-century Jones’ Icones manuscript.

This is the second project to receive financial support in the past year and it’s all part of an exciting initiative to make the library and archive collections more accessible and more useful to wider audiences.

The Flying Icons project was inspired by our collection of archives and specimens belonging to William Jones of Chelsea (1745-1818), a highly regarded, but relatively unknown amateur British naturalist in the late 18th century. A London wine merchant by trade, he became more well-known for his work on butterflies and moths (Lepidoptera).

IconesHis most famous work is his six-volume manuscript, popularly known as the Jones’ Icones. It contains very beautiful and remarkably accurate paintings of over 1,500 butterflies and moths, as well as taxonomic and geographical information of the species depicted. Created from some of the earliest known butterfly collections in Britain, the manuscript is critically important to understanding the history of taxonomy of Lepidoptera, but has never yet been fully published..

As well as digitising the Jones’ archive and specimen collections at the Museum, we will also be using the funding to create a range of workshops for amateur natural history researchers and students. These will launch late this year, allowing individuals and groups who are not associated with universities or research facilities to gain some instruction in how to use and access digital resources for their research.

The online copy of the Jones’ Icones itself is planned for summer 2014 and will include resources on butterfly studies and identification. The launch will be accompanied by an exhibit and lecture given by the foremost William Jones expert, Professor Dick Vane-Wright, Honorary Professor of Taxonomy at the University of Kent.

In the meantime you can see the actual manuscript for yourself in our Natural Histories exhibition at the Museum of the History of Science.

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections

Happy Birthday William Smith!

William Smith

Today marks the 244th birthday of William ‘Strata’ Smith, a very important figure in the history of English geology and to the Museum, so we thought it only appropriate that we mark this day.

Despite being born to humble beginnings in Churchill, Oxfordshire in the late 18th Century, Smith single-handedly mapped the geology of Great Britain and created the first geological map of England and Wales, which was published in 1815. He managed this amazing feat through his observation of the layers, or strata, beneath the earth and the fossils found within them. His work as a Land Surveyor and Engineer for both Mining and Canal companies proved to be the perfect opportunity to complete his work, allowing him to travel the country to complete contracts and still make his observations.

While this accomplishment was undoubtedly remarkable, Smith unfortunately didn’t receive the recognition for his work he so deserved until late in life. His lack of formal education and his family’s working class background made him an outcast to most of higher society at the time. It wasn’t until just a few years before he passed away, in 1839, that he received any recognition for his ingenious contribution to the science of geology, receiving a number of awards, including the prestigious Wollaston Medal and an honorary degree.

William Smith map

We are very fortune to have a large number of Smith’s papers here at the Museum, and to have recently received generous funding from Arts Council England to catalogue and digitise his collection. As uncle, guardian and teacher to the Museum’s first keeper John Phillips, Smith’s papers have long been housed within our archive and are an important resource into the history of geology and geological mapping in Britain. This funding will give us the opportunity to make them available online to the public for the first time.

William Smith project

A work experience student helps to process scans of original documents in the Smith archive

William Smith Online will be available early next year, but work is well underway behind the scenes. The website will launch a number of events over 2014 through to 2015, to celebrate the bicentenary of Smith’s geological map of England and Wales, both here in the museum and around the country. Watch this space, or follow us on twitter to keep updated on this exciting project!

Kate Santry, Head of Archival Collections


Presenting... William Burchell display in the Museum

Presenting… William Burchell display in the Museum

As readers of this blog will be well aware, most of the Museum’s exhibits are closed up and under wraps. But because visitors on their way to the Pitt Rivers Museum still pass through the Museum of Natural History we have decided to install a new changing display of a few treasures from the collection.

The series is called Presenting… and it kicks off with a selection of objects belonging to William John Burchell, a 19th century explorer and naturalist, who died 150 years ago this month. He left a treasure trove of natural history specimens, many of which are now in the Museum.

You can see the display for real just inside the entrance of the Museum, and you can read more about it on our website.

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator