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

Bye-bye buckets

Les Smith hands a bucket down to Stuart Knapp

Les Smith and Stuart Knapp wave goodbye to the buckets

It’s raining. In the past, the sound of rain on the Museum’s glass roof would have our Front of House staff rushing for buckets. The Victorian structure is beautiful, impressive, airy… and challenging.

Les Smith reaches for the last container

Les Smith reaches for the last container

When the Museum opened in 1860, the architecture was right at the cutting edge, and the unique combination of medieval-inspired arches and carvings sitting alongside the soaring glass and iron roof has even been described as Techno-Gothic. Pioneering projects aren’t always perfect and unfortunately the Museum’s roof has leaked since its creation over 150 years ago. Last year’s roof restoration project was driven by the need to keep the rain out, and now every glass tile is sealed with 21st century technology.

Today the leaks are gone and the Museum is dry. The collection of buckets, boxes and all manner of containers has been removed from the tops of cases and the Front of House stash of buckets has gone. Now we can relax and enjoy the sound of the rain, without worrying if the specimens are getting damp!

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

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

Good news travels fast

BBC Oxford's Martin Eastaugh talks to architect Nicholas Bradley

BBC Oxford’s Martin Eastaugh (R) talks to architect Nicholas Bradley (L)

The Museum’s been at the centre of a media whirlwind over the past week. After a rather dormant year, things are coming back to life and the TV cameras, microphones and journalists are keen to capture it all.

Wednesday 15th January marked one month until the day when our doors will swing open again, so it was great to hear us popping up on BBC Oxford… both TV and radio in one day!

IMG_0718Radio journalist Martin Eastaugh seemed to thoroughly enjoy his time with us and put together a really enthusiastic report, which features some names you may recognise. Listen from 01:55 to hear the latest on the Museum’s re-opening. Then at 02:50, make sure you listen to Martin talking to Purcell architect Nicholas Bradley high up on the roof. You have just 5 days left to hear the report, so don’t dawdle!

The BBC TV cameras arrived just in time to capture the unwrapping of one of our very largest specimens, the Iguanodon skeleton. Take a look at Stuart Tinworth’s piece for BBC Oxford news that shows just how beautiful and light the Museum is looking lately.

Museum staff unwrapping the Iguanodon

Museum staff unwrapping the Iguanodon skeleton

Then, to top it off, we’re only on the front page of the Oxford Times!

Of course, the attention’s very nice, but the most positive thing that’s come out of the media coverage is the public’s reaction. We’ve had many people telling us how excited they were to see their “favourite museum” on TV and to hear that they’ll soon be able to come back and enjoy it once more. The good news is, there’s just 29 days to go!

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

The end of the rainbow

Credit: Mike Peckett

Credit: Mike Peckett

Happy New Year everyone! Here at the Museum of Natural History we’re starting the year with a sense of excitement and anticipation. 2013 was a year of darkness. The Museum doors shut on 30th December 2012 and we’ve been closed to the public ever since. But 2014 is a year of change. On Saturday 15th February at 7am, the big Victorian doors will be flung open and the Museum will once again be full of inquisitive visitors.

Stuart Knapp and Mike Peckett put the last tiles in place Credit: Stephen French

Stuart Knapp and Mike Peckett put the last tiles in place
Credit: Stephen French

As I’m sure you know, the closure was necessary to carry out a full refurbishment of the unique glass roof. I’m now excited to say that every one of its 8,500 glass tiles has been removed, cleaned, replaced and sealed. The final tiles were carefully put into place just before Christmas. The roof looks spectacular inside and out, light streams into the Museum and there are no leaks. The work is complete!

So we’re ready to re-open, right?! Well, not quite. Hundreds of specimens are still wrapped, boxed and lying in wait. The next few weeks (40 days to be precise) will be a whirlwind of unwrapping, cleaning, planning and plotting as the Museum staff ensure everything is looking its best again for re-opening.

But now is a chance to celebrate the impressive task that’s been completed and to marvel at our beautiful glass roof. Here you can see Stephen French, Site Manager for Beard Construction, stealing a reflective moment as the work comes to an end.

Stephen French admires his team's work Credit: Mike Peckett

Stephen French admires his team’s work
Credit: Mike Peckett

Rachel Parle, Interpretation and Education Officer

Into the Light

Reopening banner

We have been darkened now for over a year although, as this blog has hopefully shown, far from dormant. But it is almost time to re-emerge into the light. And what a lot of light there will be…

The cause of our closure – and the subject of many posts here – was the restoration of the beautiful glass-tiled roof of the Museum building. More than 8,000 tiles have been individually removed, cleaned and resealed. The result is a luminous canopy above our heads, where the blue sky of a clear day complements the golden ironwork of the architecture.

Visitors to the Pitt Rivers Museum can already get a good look at the roof as they pass through our Museum on their way, but we are now looking forward to welcoming back our own visitors. And the date is set: Saturday 15th February 2014, when we will be open from dawn till dusk (that’s 7am until 5pm). We’ll have a brand new café which will be serving breakfast from daybreak and food throughout the day. More news on that soon.

As well as the welcome return of lots of favourite exhibits, there will be plenty going on throughout the day with talks, live music, star specimens, bug handling and more.

But as we build towards reopening we are also moving into the twilight days of this here blog. Darkened not dormant will become the very thing it claims it is not – dormant and inactive. Of course, it is not the beginning of the end, but rather the end of the beginning as we will be launching a new Museum blog that will continue to report all the comings and goings from the various collections and departments in the building.

For now though: Saturday 15th February, dusk till dawn. Put the date in your diaries and spread the word. See you there…

Scott Billings, Communications coordinator

A blur of activity


After almost a year of being ensconced in metal scaffolding and boarded hoardings the working structure inside the Museum was brought to ground with impressive rapidity – and a whole lot of noise – last week.

The tiles before cleaning!

The tiles before cleaning!

The blurry figure you can see above is one of a number of construction staff who struck the scaffold in a matter of days, throwing sunshine on the north aisle once again. Now only the central column of scaffolding remains, with just 80-odd glass tiles still to be fitted. Once this section comes down the roof again becomes an inaccessible domain, populated with secret graffiti and the newly-installed plaque.

The cleaned glass tiles waiting to be reinstalled

The cleaned glass tiles waiting to be reinstalled

Down on the ground the light is flooding in to the Museum, as you can see in the picture below. To the left you can see why: this is an example of the state of the tiles before they were cleaned, so you can imagine how much light was being blocked by a century or so’s grime.

Now our attention is starting to turn to the task of repopulating all the empty aisles and cases. It’s a big job that requires a lot of careful planning, but we’ll keep you posted along the way.

OUM Project 2013 (2)

Photo: Mike Peckett

Scott Billings – Communications coordinator