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

What’s on the van?… the end of the road

What's on the van banner 2

DSC_1230It all started with a question from a member of the public; “What are these things on your van anyway?” Since then, our weekly blog posts have featured the story of 37 specimens from the Museum’s diverse collections.

From the Oxford dodo to Darwin’s dung beetle, a gemstone to a T rex, the ‘What’s on the van?‘ series has covered it all. Each week, expert voices from across the Museum (and beyond) have brought insight and intrigue to the images, explaining the secrets behind the specimens that decorate our van.


DSC_1221We hope you’ve enjoyed the weekly installments and will feel a little bit more knowledgeable if you see us out and about on the road. You can call out “I know what’s on the van!”.

Rachel Parle, Education Officer


What’s on the van? – Ammonite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Eliza Howlett of the Museum’s Earth Collections.

This ammonite belongs to the genus Mortoniceras, introduced by the American palaeontologist F. B. Meek in 1876 in honour of his colleague Samuel Morton (1799-1851). The species name rostratum refers to the rostrum, the curved projection near the opening of the shell.

This specimen was collected by William Buckland (1784-1856), Oxford’s first Reader in Geology. It was originally described and illustrated by Buckland’s friend James Sowerby in 1817 in his Mineral Conchology of Great Britain, the earliest work to describe all of the fossil shells then known from the country. The specimen lived during the Cretaceous Period and is approximately 100 million years old. It was found in a marine rock formation called malmstone at the hamlet of Roke, near Benson, 10 miles southeast of Oxford. Malmstone is a distinctive fine-grained grey green rock, widely used in buildings in the area.

The ammonite on the van

The ammonite on the van

Ammonites are an extinct group of molluscs whose closest living relatives are squid and Nautilus. They had an external shell made up largely of mother of pearl. As in Nautilus, the animal’s body moved forwards periodically as the shell grew, and the back end of the body secreted an intricately folded plate called a septum after each move, so that the shell was divided into a series of chambers with the animal’s body in the last chamber. The rostrum of our specimen tells us it was an adult and had stopped growing. Ammonites floated freely in the water column, probably feeding on plankton. Although they are traditionally illustrated with the body chamber at the top, in life they were actually the other way up, with the body chamber at the bottom.

Though originally described from Oxfordshire, Mortoniceras rostratum floated its way around the Cretaceous world, and specimens are known from Texas, Japan, South India, Madagascar, South Africa and elsewhere.

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Bumble bee


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr. James Hogan, of the Museum’s Hope Entomological Collections.

Bumblebees and honeybees busily working away are one of the iconic visions of summer. Bumblebees and honeybees are also closely related, both belonging to the order Hymenoptera, family Apidae.

In the UK 28 species of bumblebee (species of Bombus) have been recorded, although several species are sadly now extinct or have been seen only a few times.

The short-haired bumblebee (Bombus subterraneus) has been the focus of recent conservation efforts. Although extinct in the UK, descendants of some British short-haired bumblebees still survive– in New Zealand! These bees originate from a deliberate introduction to New Zealand in the late 19th Century for pollination of clover crops. Unfortunately, attempts to re-introduce these New Zealand bees have been unsuccessful because they are too inbred, but by introducing short-haired bumblebees from Sweden the species is establishing again in Kent (more details about the short-haired bumblebee re-introduction can be found at )

Although we have lost some species we have recently gained one more, the tree bumblebee (Bombus hypnorum). This species is believed to have colonised the UK naturally from France and since its arrival about 10 years ago is spreading rapidly across Britain. We first became aware of this new bee in Oxford in 2008 when Steven Williams, one of our regular volunteers, brought in a strange-looking bumblebee which none of us recognised. It had a colour pattern unlike any other British species, with a red-brown thorax and a black abdomen with a white tip.

After a bit of detective work (and some help from local bee expert Ivan Wright) the arrival of the tree bumblebee in Oxford was confirmed. This bumblebee is now a common sight in Oxford gardens –look out for it next spring!

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Beryl gemstones


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Monica Price, Head of Earth Collections.

This time, it’s a special double issue of ‘What’s on the van?’! Two gemstones, that look very different, turn out to be exactly the same mineral, beryl. On the right is a greenish yellow variety of beryl called ‘heliodor’. It gets its name from the Greek word for the sun, and is coloured by a trace of ferric iron. The stone on the left is absolutely colourless because it has no impurities colouring it. This kind is known as ‘goshenite’ after Goshen in Massachusetts, USA, where it was first found.

Beryl is composed of beryllium, aluminium, silicon and oxygen (Be3Al2(SiO3)6 to be precise) and it is not very common. Flawless transparent crystals are rare, and as they are also very hard and durable, they are ideal for cutting into gemstones. Heliodor and goshenite are not often seen in jewellers shops, and nor is the pretty pale pink variety called ‘morganite’. There are two kinds of beryl which are much better known, ‘aquamarine’ and ‘emerald’. Aquamarine is  coloured light blue or green by a trace of ferrous iron, while rare and highly prized emerald is vibrant green because it contains a little bit of chromium.

We talk about ‘cutting’ gemstones, but in fact the faces are ground away on a flat fast-revolving flat metal plate charged with abrasive powder, called a lap. The faces are then polished using finer and finer grades of abrasive powder. Each face is cut at a very precise angle to get the maximum amount of sparkle in the gem.

Our heliodor and goshenite gems are from a beautiful collection generously presented to the Museum by Mr Bernie Peel in 2004. You will be able to see lots more cut stones from the Peel collection in the Museum’s gemstone display when the Museum reopens in February 2014.

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Trilobite


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Dr David Legg, Post-doctoral Research Fellow in the Museum’s Earth Collections.

This particular trilobite specimen (Acaste inflata) was collected and named by John William Salter during the Ledbury Railway Tunnel cutting in 1864. Salter worked with many famous scientists during his career; he was an apprentice of the famous mineralogist James De Carle Sowerby, before becoming a curator for Adam Sedgwick at the Woodwardian Museum in Cambridge (now the Sedgwick museum), and in his later years he assisted Roderick Murchison on his work on Siluria. During this time, Salter developed an interest in the trilobites of Wales and was considered a world expert on this group.

Trilobites are a group of arthropods (the group that includes spiders, scorpions, crustaceans, insects, etc.) characterised by the possession of a hard exoskeleton composed of calcium carbonate. They are some of the first animals with hard parts found in the fossil record. The first trilobites appeared roughly synchronously on various continents around 520 million years ago, and went extinct during the largest mass extinction of all time at the end of the Permian (c. 251 million years ago), nearly 20 million years before the first dinosaurs appeared.

Acaste inflata belongs to a group of trilobites called the phacopids. The eyes of phacopid trilobites are unlike any others in the animal kingdom. The eye may consist of over 50 lenses, each separated from the next by a thick interlenticular cuticle. Because there are no modern animals with similar eyes it is unclear how they functioned to produce a clear visual image, however, the shape of each individual lens meant it was capable of focussing on objects of varied distance without the need for any additional focal mechanism (like the human lens which needs to change shape in order to see objects of different distances).

This picture is a bit strange because the trilobite is enrolled (curled up like a woodlouse) and the view is of the top of the head. We assume that this was a form of defence used by most trilobites.

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Wallace’s giant bee


This Thursday, 7th November, marks 100 years since the death of the famous Victorian naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was an intrepid explorer and prolific collector and is hugely important in our understanding of the natural world. He co-discovered evolution by natural selection with Charles Darwin and we are fortunate to have several hundred of his specimens and letters in our collections here at the Museum of Natural History. 

To celebrate the life of such an important scientific figure, we’re dedicating this week on the blog to all things Wallace. We’ll be sharing some hidden gems, little known facts about the great man and stories of Museum staff walking in the footsteps of Wallace.
So here begins Wallace Week, with a description of one of his fantastic specimens…


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Sally-Ann Spence of Minibeast Mayhem and the Bug Club.

A single female bee stands out dramatically from all the bees in Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s bee collection and not for one reason, but three.

Firstly and quite simply is her impressive size; with a 63mm (2.5”) wingspan she completely dwarfs all her companions. Secondly she has the most enormous and impressive mouthparts. Jaws longer than her actual head held agape in the same fashion as a stag beetle’s mandibles. The third reason and perhaps the most special, is not associated directly with her body, but the little unobtrusive label impaled with her on the pin. Alfred Russel Wallace was inordinately fond of using tiny round paper discs to store information on when mounting his specimens and this bee is in fact Wallace’s Giant Bee, Chalicodoma [Megachile] pluto the world’s biggest bee. First discovered by Wallace in Indonesia in 1858 and then thought to be extinct until 1981, when it was rediscovered by the American entomologist Adam C. Messer.

It really is the most interesting and unusual bee. The females are not only larger than the males in general size but also have the markedly more impressive mouthparts. They appear to use these jaws to collect resin from trees by rolling it up into neat balls for transport in flight. Then they mix it with wood and dried fibres to make a waterproof nesting material. The next amazing thing is where they actually build their communal nests. Not underground or in cavities, but inside the already existing nests of tree-dwelling termites. Surprisingly, very little is known about the world’s biggest bee. It may be nesting within the termite colony to ensure a microclimate for its own young. It may be gaining protection from predators and parasites by being there. Perhaps it is a combination of these reasons. It is possible that when Wallace collected this specimen in 1858 he was completely unaware of its nesting behaviour, so it then remained hidden for so long within its termite cloak. Even the local people were unaware of its very existence, although local folklore was based upon it.

This lone female bee and her famous collector are a constant reminder to us all today why research is so vital and of the huge importance of museum collections.

What's on the van?

What’s on the van? – Precious Opal


This week’s What’s on the van? comes from Monica Price, Head of the Museum’s Earth Collections.

Spectral Delights

Opal coloured green by a trace of nickel

Opal coloured green by a trace of nickel

The fact that there are two different examples of precious opal shown on the van might just give you a clue to the fact that opal is one of my favourite minerals!  The piece shown here is nearly 9cm across. It has a lovely play of colour and comes from Australia. When the Museum reopens next year, you will be able to see it in our gemstone display.

Precious opal, with its spectral flashes of colour, comes from Australia, Slovakia, Honduras, USA, and just a few other countries of the world. But there are lots of other kinds of opal. Common opal looks rather dull by comparison, and is a hard, brittle, waxy-looking material. As its name suggests, it is found in many different places.

Wood opal

Wood opal
The nickel coloured and wood opal specimens are just a few cm across

Sometimes an impurity can give opal a lovely colour, for example a tiny bit of nickel or copper turns it a pretty shade of green. Opal can fill the pores in fossil trees to form ‘petrified wood’ or ‘tree opal’, and the banding and graining of the original wood may be beautifully preserved.

‘Hyalite’ is a kind of opal found in volcanic rocks. It is perfectly transparent, looking just like bubbly colourless glass. ‘Menilite’, which comes from Ménilmontant in Paris, is sometimes described as ‘liver opal’ and that gives a rather good clue to its colour and appearance!

This glassy clear hyalite is about 2cm across,  and has formed on volcanic lava.

This glassy clear hyalite is about 2cm across and has formed on volcanic lava.

Opal never forms crystals, and instead it consists of tiny spherules of silica (SiO2). The spherules in precious opal are of particular sizes and are very neatly stacked. When white light strikes them, they diffract the light to give a rainbow of colours. No wonder precious opal makes a lovely gemstone!

What's on the van?