Stepping out of the shadows

cropped-header-photo.jpg

Standing in a museum flooded with natural light and buzzing with people, it’s impossible to say that we’re now darkened or dormant. The Museum has been open for one week and we’ve had almost 30,000 people flooding through the doors. So now is the time to put Darkened not Dormant to bed and to reflect on the year gone by.

Aardvark ready for storage Credit: Mike Peckett

Aardvark ready for storage
Credit: Mike Peckett

Back in January 2013, the Museum filled up with scaffolding as work began restoring our fabulous roof. The collections needed protecting, so bizarre scenes of wrapped skeletons and bagged-up taxidermy popped up in the galleries. That’s when the inspiration came to document and share our year of closure through this blog.

The scaffolding towers allowed the construction team to reach the glass roof, but it also gave us all a unique close-up of the Victorian craftsmanship. Staff were lucky enough to go on a tour high up into the roof and we all marvelled at the detail in every strut, screw and spandrel.

Steve and Debbie Moorwood with the graffiti

Steve and Debbie Moorwood with the graffiti

The greatest discovery came in April 2013 when silver paint was found scrawled on a wooden beam. The words read “This roof was painted by G.Thicke and J.Randall, April 1864”. Our curiosity was piqued, then satisfied when we were contacted by a relative of George Thicke, who had read our blog post and started digging in family records. A highlight of the year for me was joining Thicke’s great great great grandson Steve Moorwood and his wife Debbie to see their ancestor’s handiwork up in the roof.

The van at Cornbury Park

The van at Cornbury Park

But we haven’t spent the year hanging about in the Museum waiting for the roof to be finished. Our flamboyant van has been out and about taking specimens and staff to festivals, schools and other museums around the country. Our weekly ‘What’s on the Van?‘ posts have given the expert stories behind the specimens that decorate its bodywork; from Stan the T rex to Darwin’s dung beetle.

 

Even museum specimens escaped the Museum’s darkened galleries and set up temporary homes in Oxford city centre.

Natural HistoriesThe Natural Histories exhibition created in collaboration with the Museum of the History of Science gave visitors the chance to see some of the treasures of our collection while our doors were closed.

Crate and MuseumIf you popped into the bank, the fishmongers or the bookshop at the end of 2013, you may have spotted a bank vole, penguin or bookworm looking a little out of place. Goes to Town was a six-month display of museum specimens in Oxford, with an online trail to track down all 12 and find out a little more about them. After a dramatic breakout, they’ve all made it back to the Museum and can now be seen in more familiar surroundings.

Although we certainly haven’t been dormant while the Museum’s been closed, it has been dark. So it is all the more satisfying to see how successful the restoration project has been at bringing light back into the Museum.

Credit: Mike Peckett

Credit: Mike Peckett

Neil Hyatt, the Project Manager for Oxford University Estates Services, looks back fondly on 14 months of hard work; “Whilst the project has been a complex one to get my head around – the logistics of scaffolding out such a huge space, keeping the interior protected from the heavens opening when the glass was out, the sequence of removal, clean and replacement, the ongoing museum conservation work in the same space, the iron, timber and stone cleaning – it has been a pleasure and delight to work on. Having become so dull and lifeless as the glass got progressively dirty and obscured, the roof now shines with a radiance not seen since it was first constructed.”

Goodbye Darkened not Dormant, it’s been quite a year. Hello again bright and bustling Museum.

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

By the light of the Moon

White rabbit

We recently brought you the breaking news that the animals on our Goes to Town trail had escaped from their cases and were planning to return here to reopen the Museum on Saturday 15 February.

We can now reveal that these creatures have been sighted, skulking by the light of the Moon, and making their final preparations for this reopening party. It seems that the Museum will be Darkened no longer, and most certainly not Dormant.

See you there…

Natural Histories: On Tour

Order

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.

_DSC1117

Making a few adjustments…

An almost-closed case

Almost ready for closure

_DSC1126

Finding the spot

Glass cleaner at the ready

Glass cleaner at the ready

_DSC1138

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator

Two pints of lager and a puffin, please

FFTMC Puffin Bar

Seen anything unusual in town recently? If you’re a resident or visitor in Oxford you may have noticed that some strange things have popped up around the city centre. A naked ape-man on the corner of Broad Street and Cornmarket, for example; or a Utahraptor dinosaur in Blackwell’s children’s section. You see, the Museum has had some escapees while we’ve been closed, in a project we’ve called Goes to Town.

Every night, as everyone knows, the specimens in the Museum come alive. And they got talking. And they soon realised they were jealous of their colleagues who had escaped to gallivant around town. In fact, they got so restless being pent up inside the closed Museum, that in the end we thought it best to take them out for a pint.

Have you seen our beer mats advertising Goes for a Pint?

Have you seen our beer mats advertising Goes for a Pint?

So, over the past four weeks, members of the Education team and some super volunteers have been heading out to local Oxford pubs, armed with some great specimens to show off to unsuspecting pub-goers. But that’s not all – for Museum Goes for a Pint we’ve also been hosting our very own natural history-themed pub quiz!

Each week, we have either joined a pub’s regular quiz, or compiled our own special event. We arrive around 7pm and chat to people in the bar about the Museum and its collections, before diving into the quiz around 8pm. Quiz rounds have been roughly based on the pubs themselves (‘rusty’ coloured animals at the Rusty Bicycle; oak tree teasers at the Royal Oak…you get the idea). We’ve had just as much fun writing the quizzes as we hope the quiz-goers have taking part.

Barny gets a stroke from a quiz-goer.

Barny gets a stroke from a quiz-goer.

The idea for Museum Goes for a Pint came from Kathy Clough, a project volunteer, shortly before the Museum closed for the roof repairs. It fit perfectly into our plans to get out and about in the city during the year.

We would like to thank the wonderful pubs who have hosted us so far: The Rusty BicycleFar From the Madding CrowdJames St TavernThe Royal Oak and The Royal Blenheim.

But we’re still only half way through. We’ve got three pubs left to visit. So if you find yourself in the Eagle & Child next Wednesday, the Cape of Good Hope on Tuesday 26 November, or the Big Society on Monday 2 December, look out for some pink t-shirted individuals juggling barn owls and entomology trays.

If you’ve no other plans then do come along and join us. The quizzes are free, and different each week. And where else are you going to get a pint and a puffin?

Simone Dogherty, Education officer

Entomologists of the future

20131012_111047

Ozzie Meads showed his rapidly expanding insect collection

Neatly pinned insects, clear displays on how to maintain a collection and a scientific exploration of the life cycle of the silk moth. This may sound like a museum exhibition but these first class displays were actually created by the young members of the Amateur Entomologists’ Society Bug Club.

Roxanne Shaw demonstrates how to perfectly pin a butterfly

Roxanne Shaw demonstrates how to perfectly pin a butterfly

Layla shows off her live silk moth caterpillars

Layla and her live silk moth caterpillars

On Saturday I was given a glimpse of the future of entomology when I met Bug Club members and was shown round their displays at the AES Annual Exhibition. 

Dozens of children and young people from the age of 7 had brought their invaluable collections to show to fellow insect enthusiasts. The attention to detail with careful labelling, professional-looking displays and imaginative interpretation was impressive.

The Bug Club have kindly sponsored our new family backpacks which I’m currently developing. Bug Safari will be packed full of activities to help families explore the Museum’s entomology collections in an active and fun way.

20131012_120056I took three prototype backpacks along with me, to test out on the Bug Clubbers. The elephant dung smell and the deadly bug sorting went down well, but the most popular pack by a long way was the one where the children can dress like an insect. These two kids thought the world looked great through compound eyes!

It was inspiring to talk to the Bug Club children and young people about their enthusiasm for the natural world and to hear them talk with so much knowledge about their subject. I’m very confident that some of the Bug Club members will be working at the Museum before too long. If this is the future of entomology, the future is bright!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer

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

DMC-LX3 - 0013

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.

_DSC4457


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.

DMC-LX3 - 0022

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

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