Stepping out of the shadows


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


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

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


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 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

Into the Wilderness

Wildnerness python

Ah, the rough-smooth joy of snakeskin. Who could resist a little stroke? Well, a few people definitely can it seems (ophidiophobics), but certainly not this young chap. Along with hundreds of other visitors, this family stopped by at the Oxford University Museums yurt at this year’s Wilderness Festival where we spent four great days showing off objects from the collections and indulging in a bit of festival craft.

Wilderness signThe weather was kind, and armed with a brilliant team of volunteers and festival-hardy staff we welcomed costumed, painted and be-masked revelers to our tent to learn about the museums and get up close to some great objects. Outside in the sunshine, people whiled away the day making Pitt Rivers Museum-inspired hats, Museum of the History of Science planispheres and our own peacock headdresses.

Peacock headdress

Peacock headdress

We had a really positive response to everyone who came along and joined in with the activities, and although I shouldn’t brag, this is a nice comment from one parent which I will share:

We had a really fantastic time at the Oxford University Museum area. They love making Napoelon style hats which kept them occupied for ages. They also really enjoyed looking at the bugs and inspecting the snake skin. The staff couldn’t have been more helpful – they had a great rapport with the kids and were a friendly team. Please come again next year!” – Mother and two daughters, aged 8 and 6.

As for Wilderness itself, things took a rather stranger and more adult turn after nightfall as the Bacchanalian Masked Ball got into full swing in a hitherto hidden vale amongst the lantern-lit trees. No record exists of that portion of the evening but suffice to say that visions were beheld and morning heads were a little sore.


The camp


Investigating the collections

Insect drawer

The pinned insect drawer

Rock python

The ever-popular rock python skin (so long it didn’t fit in the tent!)

Thanks to everyone who came to help out, and to everyone who visited on the day. And thanks to the Wilderness Festival team for setting us up with a lovely green yurt as our base-camp.

More next year, perhaps…

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Thanks to Chris Wood for the photos.

Chris Packham Goes to Town

Chris Packham

We have had the pleasure of hosting the brilliant Chris Packham at the Museum recently. He has been filming with the collections for a forthcoming series for the BBC. Keep an eye out for that.

In the meantime, we chatted to Chris about our Goes to Town trail of specimens around Oxford city centre. He was very enthused about the idea and volunteered for this snap in front of our banner outside the front of the Museum.

Chris said: “I think this is a really good idea. If it encourages people who otherwise wouldn’t visit the Museum to come along and have a look at things then that is really worthwhile.”

It is almost a couple of weeks since the release of the specimens and we are now looking forward to receiving entries to our competition. To enter, you’ll need to visit all twelve specimens on the trail and tell us, via the website, which has the highest Danger rating and which has the highest Rarity rating. Prizes will be given to people whose names are drawn out of the hat when the Museum reopens in February next year.

But for you blog readers, here’s a sneaky taster:

Here's an escapee in situ. You'll have to get up close to read the all-important ratings...

Here’s an escapee in situ. You’ll have to get up close to read the all-important ratings…
Photo: Mike Peckett