Rex in a box

Credit: Nicola Fielding

Credit: Nicola Fielding

We couldn’t just tease you with last week’s shot of the Iguanodon being unwrapped. The sight of our enormous dinosaurs being liberated from the foam, tape and chip board which has encased them for the past year is too good not to share.

Credit: Mike Peckett

Credit: Mike Peckett

Each time I look out into the Museum court, another specimen has been revealed. The elephants are back, the camel is looking great and the giraffe is next on the list. But the biggest impact over the last couple of weeks has to be the large dinosaurs regaining dominance in the centre of the Museum.

The T rex and Iguanodon skeletons are far too huge to move… and wouldn’t even get out of the front door! So they had their own bespoke wooden boxes built for them, which protected them from damage and dust during the roof restoration project.

But with just 3 weeks until our re-opening, the boxes are down and the foam wrapping has been discarded. Here are a few of my favourite shots of the return of the dinosaurs.

T rex being revealed Credit: Nicola Fielding

T rex being revealed
Credit: Nicola Fielding

Credit: Nicola Fielding

Credit: Nicola Fielding

The Iguanodon’s tail escapes its box

Credit: Scott Billings

Credit: Scott Billings

Our dinosaurs are ready and waiting for the visitors to return on Saturday 15th February. We all hope to see you then!

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

To conserve and protect

Antler

It’s no surprise that people working in the Museum are rather partial to poking around in dusty storerooms to see what they might find. It’s an extra pleasure then, when we get the chance to do some sniffing about in another museum’s collection and help them with some conservation work at the same time.

Bethany Palumbo examining the collections at Abingdon County Museum

Bethany Palumbo examining the natural history collections at Abingdon County Hall Museum

Our head of Life Collections, Darren Mann, and conservator Bethany Palumbo recently got such an opportunity when they visited Abingdon County Hall Museum to condition-assess some natural history specimens there. The museum wanted to work through the material as part of a larger effort to de-clutter its collections. Bringing in Darren and Bethany helped curators there to work out the value of what they have got.

There were lots of treasures in there. They found an assortment of non-native shells, a large tortoise shell, and many pieces of mammalian sub-fossil dredged from a local river, including pieces of antler and bone. As well as assessing the condition of each item, Bethany and Darren also advised on the potential function within the museum. Specimens without any accompanying data, for example, were separated into a handling collection for use in the museum’s outreach activities.

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Working with local museums in this way is a wonderful way to share skills and expertise with other professionals, and helps to build a stronger base of knowledge in the Oxford area. Besides, it’s always cool to see what can be found lurking in an old storeroom or two…

Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Collections
Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

The One Show

Amazon Dismorphia Wallace

Last week, members of our conservation team were presented with a wonderful opportunity to get out of the ‘Whale Tank’ and make their way to London to escort some very special specimens to the BBC.

The precious cargo consisted of newly-discovered Alfred Russel Wallace butterfly specimens that were uncovered in the Museum’s Life Collection by 17-year-old Athena Martin, a Nuffield Research Placements work experience student. This story featured on Thursday night’s edition of The One Show, where presenter Mike Dilger spoke about Athena’s project with the Museum and was able to show, on national television, the fruit of her hard work.

Papilio

Papilio ulysses. Examples collected by Wallace are marked with a red dot.

Two cases of butterflies were used on the programme and contained specimens collected by Wallace during his exploration of the Malay Archipelago. The show focused in particular on Papilio ulysses, and it was a joy to witness Mike Dilger’s excitement at discovering Wallace’s handwritten collection labels.

Our specimens, which were shown alongside some wonderful footage of CT scans of a developing chrysalis, made for excellent viewing for anyone with an interest in Lepidoptera.

If you missed it the first time around please do have a look on the BBC iPlayer. The butterfly feature begins at about 15’40”.

Gemma Aboe with the drawers of Wallace specimens.

Gemma Aboe with the drawers of Wallace specimens.

We are very grateful for coverage on The One Show as it was an excellent opportunity to demonstrate, outside the Museum environment, the significance of natural history specimens, as well as highlight the important work of our conservators. It was also a thrill to be on set and watch the live show, so thanks a lot to the BBC for asking us along.

Nicola Crompton, Conservation intern
Gemma Aboe, Assistant conservator

Walk this way

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Credit: Mike Peckett

During our closure year, we’ve been having a little landscaping done to our outside space. One of the things I missed while the lawn was being dug up is seeing children hopping, skipping and jumping along the dinosaur footprint casts which cross the grass.

The dinosaur prints provide a lovely introduction to geology, even before you step through the door, so I was delighted to hear that they were included in the new landscaping plan. Even better news was that they were due to be put back in a new formation, which more closely represents the way the dinosaur moved.

The lower jaw of Megalosaurus Bucklandii

The lower jaw of Megalosaurus bucklandii

The prints are casts taken from a fossilised trackway discovered at Ardley Quarry near Bicester in 1997. It is believed they may have been made by the large three-toed carnivore Megalosaurus bucklandii, which roamed the lagoons of Jurassic Oxfordshire some 166-168 million years ago.

The world-famous lower jaw found by William Buckland in the village of Stonesfield, and pictured here, is one of the treasures of the Museum’s Earth Collections. You can see the Megalosaurus jaw for yourself in our Natural Histories exhibition which is running at the Museum of the History of Science until 29 September.

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For the past few weeks, Juliet Hay, Preparator and Conservator in the Earth Collections, has been seen diligently measuring and arranging the prints in front of the Museum. Juliet began by plotting out a ‘walking phase’, with a short stride length, and then used research based on an article published in the journal Nature to add in a ‘running phase’. Although the walking and running phases are actually separated at the quarry, GPS data has revealed that they are very likely to have been a continuous trackway, made by the same dinosaur.

Juliet needed to take into consideration the number of casts she had to play with, as well as the lawn’s new sprinkler system, so she emphasises that our trackway is an illustration of the dinosaur’s movements, rather than an exact replica. So now, our lawn footprints show the theropod dinosaur walking at around 4.23mph, breaking into a run reaching 18.14mph, then slowing back down to a walk at the end of its journey.

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Carl and Richard lower the prints into place. Credit: Mike Peckett

Juliet asked me to thank the University Parks team who helped her to shift the heavy casts into position with good grace. So, thanks go to Walter Sawyer and his intrepid team Carl, Richard, Nolan and Michael. She says “The casts are an important feature as they represent evidence of the first known theropod trackway to show dual speed and an associated change in gait. A pair of Mallard ducks that often visit in the summer seem to enjoy paddling in them too!”

Once our lawn is looking lovely again, do pop along, put your feet in the prints and see if you can keep up with a sprinting, three-toed, meat-eating dinosaur.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

Where’s Wallace? There’s Wallace!

Wallace 3

The Museum’s Hope Entomological Collection is pushing five million specimens. We have room after room, with row after row of cabinets packed full of insects from all over the world. Our collection includes the oldest pinned insect in the world, beetles collected by Darwin and Dr Livingstone’s tsetse fly. It’s packed full of treasures. But even now, some of its gems remain hidden.

So, this week’s rediscovery of several hundred priceless specimens is pretty incredible. But what makes it even more remarkable is the fact that they were found by one person… who is 17 years old!

Athena MartinAthena Martin goes to Wood Green School in Witney and is spending four precious weeks of her summer holiday in the Entomology collection. She is taking part in the Nuffield Research Placement programme, which supports young people studying science to gain practical experience in the workplace. Athena applied to the Museum because she would like to study zoology at university and wanted to see what that might involve.

Her enormous task was to search 3,340 drawers like the one she’s holding here on the hunt for specimens collected by the famous Victorian natural historian, Alfred Russel Wallace.

This year marks the centenary of Wallace’s death and is a chance to celebrate his incredible achievements in collecting and research. The Museum has decided to seize this opportunity to catalogue and rediscover the large number of specimens collected by the Wallace. Darren Mann, Head of Life Collections, explained: “We knew we had 1000s of Wallace’s specimens in there, but we needed clarity. Our accession register goes back more than 160 years, but is listed by species, not collector.”

 - Kite swallowtails

Kite swallowtails

So, Athena began searching through the Lepidoptera (moth and butterflies) cases, reading tiny little labels, hoping to read the magic word…Wallace. Some days were completely fruitless, but she soon built up a lengthy list of the precious specimens. In total, in just three weeks, Athena has rediscovered more than 300 of Wallace’s finds. Her favourites are these beautiful kite swallowtail butterflies, but perhaps the most significant is a Dismorphia butterfly found in the Amazon. Almost all of Wallace’s Amazon specimens were lost on his journey home, when his boat is thought to have caught fire. Nobody at the Museum knew we owned this valuable specimen.

On top of the many Wallace beetles that were rediscovered last year, the Museum is now building up a very clear picture of just how many precious Alfred Russel Wallace specimens it has and, thanks to Athena’s diligent work, we now know exactly where to find them!

If you are interested in more stories from our Entomology collection, follow their brilliant blog, Hope you like insects.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

What’s lurking in the attic?

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Last week saw the announcement of a new carnivore on the block, the rather adorable olinguito. This little South American mammal is the first carnivore to have been discovered for 35 years and demonstrates the importance of museum collections… in case we needed any convincing!

Olinguito

As you may have read, the olinguito was discovered by Dr Kristofer Helgen of the Smithsonian Institution after he saw some mysterious specimens preserved in the collections of the Field Museum in Chicago. After lots of careful study of the skins and skulls, Dr Helgen realised that these animals had gone unidentified for centuries. Since then he has successfully seen and photographed the cute creature in its Andean habitat. But, as highlighted by the Observer newspaper, if the museum’s collections had not been carefully maintained, we may never have known of the existence of this raccoon relative in the first place.

The UK’s natural history collections are currently facing a serious threat. With specialist curators becoming almost as rare as the olinguito itself, specimens across the country are at risk of rapid decay and damage. To discuss current difficulties and create some solutions, we’re holding a one day seminar here at the Museum of Natural History on 20th November. ‘Crap in the Attic?’, as it has been amusingly named, is intended to help professionals to maintain, use and explore their collections in a sustainable way.

If your institution has a natural history collection, and you’re based within a couple of hours’ travel from Oxford, why not join us? You never know, it might help you to uncover the next new species hidden in your attic!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

The Art and Science of Taxidermy

Derek Frampton

On Sunday 18 August we had the pleasure of welcoming professional freelance taxidermist Derek Frampton to the Museum of the History of Science, where our joint exhibition, Natural Histories, is being shown. As part of the exhibition’s public programme Derek delivered a very popular illustrated Table Talk on the Art and Science of Taxidermy.

An attentive audience

An attentive audience

Derek has pretty much been a taxidermist his whole life, having started by collecting, dissecting and drawing animals as a boy. Since then he has done a lot of work for museums, including us and the Natural History Museum in London, where he helped prepare Guy, the Museum’s famous gorilla.

“I really liked drawing and painting animals and would collect things I found. Then I realised I could open them up and became fascinated by the way they worked inside – the mechanics of the muscles and skeleton,” Derek told visitors to the event.

Finishing touches

Finishing touches

“But after a while the specimens started to get smelly and I’d get into trouble with my mum. So I’d have to throw them away and find some new ones. Eventually somebody said to me that the technique for preserving the animals was called taxidermy. I bought a book on it and I have been doing it ever since.”

For the Table Talk, Derek brought along the skin of a female partridge which had been killed in a road traffic accident.

During the hour he went through the process of turning the prepared skin into a finished piece of taxidermy. Using a photograph of a live partridge as a reference, Derek padded the bird with tow, a natural fibre, and inserted florists’ rods to give it a natural shape and posture.

Derek Frampton and the partidge

Partridge and Derek Frampton

At the end of the process the bird was tied and pinned to allow the skin to fully dry and contract, after which the cotton bindings will be removed.

The presentation was a fascinating insight into the half-art, half-science of taxidermy and the perfect complement to the Collect, Preserve, Study display in the Natural Histories exhibition.

The Art and Sciene of Taxidermy