Secrets of Bones

Once in a Whale

Although the conservation of our whale specimens has drawn to a close, there’s still a hub of activity in the ‘whale aisle’. This week, we had an opportunity to finally uncover the Sperm Whale mandible as it was featured in a new BBC Nature Series, ‘Secrets of Bones’. To see the specimen for the first time, under natural light without the shelter of scaffolding was a real delight.


The conservation team was eager to oversee the action and learn about the process of putting a documentary together. Ben Garrod, evolutionary biologist, used the museum specimens to look at the evolution of the mandible and its diversity in nature.  The beautiful Sperm Whale jaw is an excellent example of this.


The series will be televised in February 2014, and we’re excited to see if we made it on-screen!

The re-installation of the remaining skeletons is expected to happen in 2 weeks…

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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!

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

Conservators in the making

Once in a Whale

Over the last couple of weeks our conservation team has been involved in the popular ‘Making Museums’ school project hosted between the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Bethany, Nicola and I took turns to lead behind-the-scenes tours of our ‘whale aisle’, during which 10-11 year old pupils from East Oxford primary schools were introduced to ‘conservation’ as a wonderful museum profession.

Pupils learned about the importance of specimens to the museum and scientists, what affected the condition of the skeletons, how we conserved the whales, how and why whale anatomy differs between species and about what talents and special interests conservators bring to the profession.

We loved seeing their eyes widen at the size of our enormous Sperm Whale mandible, their disgust at handling a ball of tar-like degraded whale oil, their bewilderment at the fact whales have floating pelvises, and their bemusement at…

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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

Whales making waves

Once in a Whale

Yesterday BBC Radio Oxford interviewed Bethany Palumbo, Conservator of Life Sciences at OUMNH about our ‘Once in a Whale’ project. Do listen to the broadcast online, before it runs out in 6 days!          

Malcolm Boyden’s interview with Bethany lasts 14 minutes- select ‘1:06min’ to listen in on their chat about the whales, the museum renovation, Bethany’s experiences of being a conservator and more!

Project update
As we enter into the last 5 weeks on the whale conservation project, we are pressing ahead with re-articulating the skeletons with new screw fixings and stainless steel wire (- our hands end up looking like we had a fight with a sharp clawed cat).

We’ve also been meeting with professional riggers, who once the main scaffolding has been de-assembled, will raise the cetacean skeletons into their NEW positions- watch this space!

Our next…

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Latest on the lawn


_DSC4566As I explained last week, the outside of the Museum has been getting a make-over, and the finishing touches are now rolling into place. Each day I’ve checked progress through my office window as roll after roll of turf has been immaculately lined up and pressed firmly into place. It took the team just 5 days to transform the space from a dusty wasteland into a spectacular expanse of technicolor green.


Looking out of the window today, the new irrigation system is obviously doing a great job and the grass is lush and getting long. The only problem is the bright orange fence that surrounds the lawn and stops us from testing it out. I can’t wait until that comes down and we can use it for the first time. I just hope there are a few more chances for a picnic lunch on the lawn before Autumn really sets in!

Rachel Parle, Education Officer


Photos: Scott Billings

Seeing prehistoric life in 3D

3d trilobite

On 22nd August, Eliza Howlett and I joined in the London press launch of ‘GB3D Type Fossils’, an exciting project to make images and information about some of our most important fossils freely available online. It is a major collaboration between the Museum of Natural History at Oxford, the National Museum of Wales, the Sedgwick Museum in Cambridge, and the British Geological Survey, and is funded by Jisc, a charity that champions the use of digital technologies in UK education and research.

Type fossils are the specimens used to define each species of plant or animal. They are the ‘heritage specimens’ of the geological world, and need to be preserved carefully for future generations of scientists. The GB3D Type Fossil project is a rather clever way to let researchers, collectors and enthusiasts see our type specimens up close, wherever they are in the world, without any risk of damage to the specimens.

Some of the fossils have been scanned using a 3D laser-scanner. Their images can be enlarged up, rotated and viewed online using free software such as Meshlab. They can also be printed out on a 3D printer, and the one running at the press launch generated a lot of interest! Other fossils were photographed as ‘3D anaglyphs’ so that if you wear cyan-red 3D specs, the fossils appear in three dimensions. The remainder can be seen in really good conventional photographs that show lots of detail. There’s plenty of information about the fossils too, for example how old they are and where they are from.

3D ElizaAbove you can see a 3D anaglyph (stereoscopic) photo of the type specimen of Barrandia bianularis, a trilobite that lived around 464 to 467 million years ago. It appears on the website in 3D when viewed using cyan-red viewing glasses. Have a look here.

Eliza is our Manager of Earth Collections, and has been managing the project to scan and document around 2,000 British type fossils in the Oxford collection. Her work is nearly complete, and the Oxford fossils will ‘go live’ on the website over the next couple of months.  Have fun exploring it!

Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections