Look out Oxford…


There’s a flurry of last minute activity around here at the moment. Display cases are being collected; a funny proto-human ape creature model is being cleaned and prepared for the limelight; and logo-adorned lab coats are being freshly starched and pressed. We are preparing to go to town.

Mobile site

The smartphone-friendly Goes to Town website

You may have seen our teaser trailer a few weeks back. If not, you can check it out here. It didn’t give much away, but regular readers of this blog deserve a proper heads-up: Next week we will be installing twelve specimens in venues all around Oxford city centre, creating the Goes to Town trail, accompanied by a specially-designed mobile website.

You can see what the goestotown.com website will look like on the right here. It features lots of extra info about each specimen on the trail, along with audio recordings about each exhibit made by Museum staff and Oxford University scientists. The site will go fully live after the specimens are all safely in their new homes next week.

Goes to Town will remain in the twelve Oxford venues for six months. During that time residents and visitors to the city can complete the trail and enter our competition. Every specimen display has two Top Trumps-style ratings, one for Danger and one for Rarity. If you tell us which has the highest rating in each category we’ll enter you into a draw for prizes to be awarded when the Museum reopens in February 2014.

There will be another little film to follow too, so watch out for that. In the meantime we need to get back to preparing our crate-clad displays. As you can see below, the workshop chaps are beavering away at this right now…

See you in town!


Preparing the displays

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator

Meet Professor Dodo

Professor Dodo

A couple of weeks ago we opened Natural Histories, our temporary exhibition developed in collaboration with, and hosted at, the Museum of the History of Science. If you’re in Oxford and haven’t been to see it, pop in to the MHS on Broad Street; the exhibition’s in the basement.

There’s a host of interesting things to look at, including the jaw of the first scientifically described dinosaur, the Megalosaurus; a gigantic ammonite fossil which you can touch; and specimens collected by Charles Darwin during his famous voyage on board The Beagle.


This ‘Monstrosities’ drawer features specimens collected by John Obadiah Westwood (1805–1893), each exhibiting some kind of deformity.

We were keen to put something specifically for families and children into the exhibition too. So our education officer Rachel Parle coaxed our primary education officer Chris Jarvis, who is also a splendid cartoonist, to create the Professor Dodo character you see above.

Prof D narrates and guides younger visitors through the exhibition, pointing out interesting things and raising a few questions along the way. So if you have children, bring them along too.

Finally, if you can’t make it to the exhibition, or would like to read about some of its themes and specimens at your leisure, then check out the dedicated Natural Histories website, which contains a selection of images and text from the gallery displays.

As ever, let us know what you think, either in the comments below or via Twitter @morethanadodo.

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Goes to Town


We’re planning something rather exciting starting this summer in Oxford. We may be closed, but if the town can’t come to the Museum, the Museum will have to go to the town…


Watch this space for more and follow @morethanadodo.

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Lightning strikes!

Science Club presenters Mark Miodownik, left, and Dara Ó Briain, right, talk fulgurites with Monica Price, assistant curator of Mineralogy Collections  at the Museum

I’ve just been getting our fulgurites out of their drawer for their second outing to London. ‘What’s that?’ I hear you ask. Well, the clue’s in the name, for ‘fulgur’ is Latin for lightning. Fulgurites form when lightning strikes the ground; and if the ground happens to be made of sand, the intense heat of the lightning melts the grains of sand to form a tube of natural glass. The longest known fulgurite is nearly five metres long, but they are always very fragile things.

A bit of discussion about fulgurites at the end of filming the pilot programme

A bit of discussion about fulgurites at the end of filming the pilot programme. Presenter Dara Ó Briain is holding the Drigg fulgurite. Photo: Alastair Duncan

So why is a fulgurite going to London? We get all sorts of requests to see specimens, from researchers, amateur enthusiasts, students and artists, and even people who are just curious. Our collections are there to be used and enjoyed after all. But in this particular case the producers of the BBC4 programme Science Club were making a pilot for their new series and were looking for a fulgurite to star in the show.

I took two different fulgurites to the recordings, both found in the early 19th century. One is a piece labelled as coming from Drigg in Cumberland. This was a famous discovery; even Charles Darwin knew about them, for he wrote that the fulgurites he discovered in South America were very like those of Drigg in appearance. The second was found in Westphalia, Germany, and it shows a glassy trace of the lightning’s path as it passed through the sand.

Mark was determined to have his photograph taken holding a fulgurite.

Mark was determined to have his photograph taken holding a fulgurite! Photo: Alastair Duncan

For this pilot programme Science Club was investigating natural disasters. Presenter Dara Ó Briain was joined by expert demonstrator Professor Mark Miodownik who had quite a shocking experience with a lightning machine! We were also shown why it is dangerous to stand under a tree during a thunder storm, and we heard about the lucky escapes some people have when struck by lightning.

Fulgurites are rather rare and special, and as the pictures show, both presenters enjoyed a chance to get a close look at these natural curiosities.

The pilot programme was successful, and one of our new Education trainees, Liz Danner, will be taking the fulgurites back for the final filming of Science Club this week. If you would like to see them too, they will feature in our next ‘Presenting…‘ display soon. Follow the blog and we’ll let you know when

Watch out for more Science Club on BBC4 – it’s fascinating and fun.

Monica Price, Assistant curator, Mineral Collections

1683 and all that…

16836Just a quick post to say that things are pressing ahead with our Natural Histories exhibition, which is being hosted and co-curated by the Museum of the History of Science in Broad Street.

Jewson delivery

This morning, as I arrived at the MHS, Jewson had just delivered the pre-cut MDF boards that we will use to make various plinths and structures for many of the specimens in the exhibition.

But along with this delivery came a sweet little coincidence; perhaps even a good omen. On one of the Jewson boards the order number had been written in black marker pen and the number, which you can see above, was 16836, tantalisingly close to 1683, the year this building was founded by Elias Ashmole as the original Ashmolean Museum. The ‘6’ is even written just a little bit smaller than the ‘year’.

Given that Natural Histories is partly about a temporary return of Oxford University‘s natural history collections to their original home in the building in Broad Street, this is an unusually apposite order reference.

I don’t know when in 1683 the building opened, but I really hope it was June.

Cheryl helps bring the boards into the Museum of the History of Science

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Natural Histories

Natural Histories

14 May – 29 September at the Museum of the History of Science

One of the things we’ve been working hard on recently (darkened, not dormant remember) is a temporary exhibition we are putting together with the Museum of the History of Science, just up the road in Broad Street. Taking over the MHS’s lovely special exhibition gallery is a neat way of getting some great specimens out and visible to the public while we’re closed. But there’s a bit more to it than that, as it also ties in with some nice history of the museums in Oxford.

A giraffe in the entrance gallery of the 'Old Ashmolean', now the Museum of the History of Science

A giraffe in the entrance gallery of the ‘Old Ashmolean’, now the Museum of the History of Science

The first public museum to open in Britain – and quite possibly the world – was the Ashmolean Museum, established in 1683 by Elias Ashmole in the building in Broad Street that is now the Museum of the History of Science. Although the current Ashmolean (in Beaumont Street) focuses on art and archaeology, the ‘Old’ Ashmolean’s collections were of both man-made objects and natural specimens.

They remained there – and grew – until the mid-19th century when our Museum was built in Parks Road. At this point, in 1860, the natural history specimens came here, where many of them remain. So the Natural Histories exhibition at the MHS represents a return of natural history to its original Oxford home in the building on Broad Street. There was even once a giraffe in the entrance gallery as you can see above.

Magnificent Riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus)

Magnificent Riflebird (Ptiloris magnificus)

But back to the exhibition. Natural Histories takes a look at some of the history of natural history itself. This is a big subject to tackle, so we’ve picked out just a few themes and stories – some important ideas and big name scientists, as well as some lesser-known but nonetheless significant naturalists. The displays will show specimens and ideas from throughout the centuries, right up to the present day.

There will be creatures collected by Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, Darwin’s contemporary and co-originator of the theory of evolution through natural selection. We have got some examples of the oldest rocks on Earth; extinct plants and animals; and some of the very latest techniques being used in the Museum to reveal exquisitely preserved fossils.

There’s a lot of material to prepare and we’ve been mocking up shelf layouts and making sure everything is going to fit, as you can see in the picture below.

Testing case layouts.

A particularly busy display: what can you spot…?

And since this is the Museum of Natural History there will of course be some things you can touch. We’re also building in a special thread running throughout the exhibition just for families and children, which I think might well be narrated by our friend the Dodo.

We hope you’ll all come and see the exhibition and let us know what you think, either here or on Twitter. And if you can’t make it, there will also be a dedicated Natural Histories website – more on that and our programme of events and activities to follow.

One way or another, we’ll hopefully see you there…

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

Presenting… Bruno’s fossil find

Presenting Bruno's fossil find

Limulus polyphemisYou’ve read about it in the press (probably), but now you can see Bruno Debattista’s rare trace fossil find for yourself in our Presenting… display, just inside the entrance of the Museum. Although we are closed, this changing exhibit can be seen by visitors coming through the building to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

On display we have Bruno’s shale rock, found in Bude, Cornwall last year, which shows faint tracks left by a pair of horseshoe crabs as they crawled up an ancient, muddy shore more than 300 million years ago. Although the species of horseshoe crab which made these tracks is long extinct, we are displaying two modern specimens for comparison. One is around the size of the animal which left the original trackway; the other is a full size horseshoe crab which lives in the Atlantic Ocean – Limulus polyphemus.

We should also point out that horseshoe crabs aren’t really crabs at all. Crabs are crustaceans, but horseshoe crabs are more closely related to the arachnids, such as spiders and scorpions.Fossil and horseshoe crab

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator


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