Stepping out of the shadows

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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

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.

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Making a few adjustments…

An almost-closed case

Almost ready for closure

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Finding the spot

Glass cleaner at the ready

Glass cleaner at the ready

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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

 

Why Wallace?

David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace's Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough in the Museum with Wallace’s Giant Bee

Sir David Attenborough is arguably the world’s most famous living naturalist and broadcaster. Here he sits in the Museum of Natural History, holding our priceless Wallace’s Giant Bee specimen. So why did a man as important (and busy!) as Attenborough take the time to pose for our photo? It’s because Attenborough, like thousands of other natural history enthusiasts, knows that Alfred Russel Wallace is one of the greatest naturalists, geographers and explorers of all time. So what’s so great about him? Why are we dedicating Wallace Week to celebrating his work?

Chris Jarvis, Education Officer, explain why he thinks Wallace is so special…

Chris at Sedgwick

Chris Jarvis at the Sedgwick Museum

Last week I gave a talk on Alfred Russel Wallace at the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge. I was asked ‘Why does Wallace deserve the statue next to Darwin’s, which he’s likely to get in London’s Natural History Museum?’ My answer was that ‘He deserves a statue as an inspiration on the importance of following your own interests, despite the barriers that may stand in your way’.

Unlike Darwin, Wallace was a largely self-made man. Born into a large family (he was the 8th of 9 children) that was always on the edge of financial disaster, Wallace was inspired by his love of the natural world around him and encouraged to explore it. Later he wrote that he could recall virtually every detail of the environment of the river Usk that was his playground but could hardly remember anything of his family, even faces, from that time! His love of the great outdoors led him to teach himself botany and entomology and how to collect, identify and preserve insects. Today, at a time when many children are being diagnosed as suffering from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder’ Wallace is a particularly pertinent example of the benefits of exploring the natural world.

At school, Wallace described himself as a ‘dull, ignorant and uneducated person’. Lessons were basic and dry and he left school finally in 1837 aged 14. Ironically for the father of Biogeography it was Geography that he found the driest of subjects, after Latin grammar!

Young Wallace

Young Wallace

Despite this, Wallace was a voracious reader and seems to have sought out his own curriculum. His family, although poor in other ways, always had interesting books around the house and Alfred was introduced to libraries, museums and working men’s institutes from an early age. His favourite books as a child included ‘Gulliver’s Travels’, ‘Robinson Crusoe’ and Mungo Park’s ‘Travels in West Africa’ and clearly fuelled the lust for adventure that led to his collecting trips in the tropics.

Wallace’s understanding of the importance of self-education and modest beginnings led him to be a firm supporter of the aphorism that ‘knowledge is power’ and he was involved in advising on setting up public libraries, museums and other free institutions that encouraged education throughout his life. His legacy, as important as all his discoveries and theories are, is surely as an inspiration to all of us to get out into nature, to read about what you find there and then share that knowledge with others, it may lead you to some amazing places and discoveries as it did Wallace!

Goings and comings!

Amoret Spooner (left)  and Zoë Simmons (right) dismantling the exhibition (photo: Keiko Ikeuchi, MHS)

Amoret Spooner (left) and Zoë Simmons (right) dismantling the exhibition

This week we’ve been at the Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street, taking down our temporary exhibition, ‘Natural Histories’. We had some lovely feedback from people who saw the display. They enjoyed seeing old friends from the Museum of Natural History’s displays such as the giant ammonite that people can touch, the jaw of Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur ever to be described by scientists, and the lovely old insect collecting tools used by entomologists.

Specimens stored in spirit need very careful handling

Specimens stored in spirit need very careful handling

The exhibition also had some things we are rarely able to put on display. The beautiful hand-painted butterflies in William Jones’ Icones, and White Watson’s inlaid stone slabs representing the strata of Derbyshire, are just two of the treasures we normally keep in a darkened room because too much light will damage them. We showed crabs collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of The Beagle, and even a plant from the University’s herbaria that was collected by Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist who devised the system of ‘Latin’ names we still use for plants and animals today.

Every item is being carefully checked and packed up, but don’t worry, they are not staying in our stores for long. We will be taking them to Banbury Museum where ‘Natural Histories’ will be going on show again from 30th November 2013 until late February 2014. So, even if you missed the exhibition in Oxford, you’ll have a last chance to see it in Banbury.

Conservator Gemma Aboe packs away the pigmy anteater

Conservator Gemma Aboe packs away the pigmy anteater

All photos, Keiko Ikeuchi, MHS

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections

Space traveller’s arrival

Limerick meteoriteTwo hundred years ago today, at 9 o’clock in the morning on 10 September 1813, the residents of County Limerick in Ireland had a bit of a surprise. They heard loud bangs as a shower of meteorites fell to ground. More than 48 kilograms of rock had just arrived from space!

More specifically, it had come from the asteroid belt, a band of rocky debris that orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter. Collisions can knock asteroids out of orbit, and occasionally send them hurtling on a collision course with Earth. Small fragments burn up in the Earth’s atmosphere, forming meteors or ‘shooting stars’. Larger pieces fall to the Earth’s surface, and these are known as meteorites.

Limerick chondrulesThe meteorite that fell over County Limerick broke into pieces, and the one in our collection is the second largest. It weighs nearly 8.5 kilograms, and landed near the village of Faha on the estates of the Blakeney family. The Rev. Robert Blakeney was an Oxford graduate whose ministry was in the parish of South Elm in Somerset. The meteorite was perhaps found in the rectory after his death, as it was the new rector’s younger brother, the Rev. John W. Griffith, who presented it to the University of Oxford in 1825.

The outer crust of the meteorite is smooth and dark where the surface melted as it fell through the Earth’s atmosphere. The inside is a pale grey rock. Look closely at the photograph to the left, and you can see flecks of metal – nickel iron alloy – and tiny rounded crystalline grains called chondrules. The picture shows an area about 35 mm x 20 mm.

The chondrules show that the Limerick belongs to a class of stony meteorites called ‘chondrites’. At around 4.55 billion years old, chondrite meteorites are some of the oldest materials in the Solar System. They give researchers important clues about how the planets – including the Earth – originally formed.

To celebrate the 200th anniversary of the arrival on Earth of the Limerick meteorite, we are exhibiting it in  ‘Presenting…’, a changing display of treasures from the Museum’s collection. Although the main Museum is closed, this display can be seen by visitors on the way through to the Pitt Rivers Museum, so do come and have a look. It might be the oldest thing you’ll ever see!

Photography: Dara Lohnes

Monica T. Price, Head of Earth Collections

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

Getting about

Westwood

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