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The right to be preserved

Animatronic T rex at the OUMNH

Sarah Day visits the Oxford University Museum, which celebrates its 150th birthday this year.

New: Listen to the podcast featuring a walk around the museum with Assistant Director Kevin Walsh, and curator Derek Siveter

Many of them are entirely soft-bodied – they have no right to be preserved!”

Geoscientist 20.09 September 2010

This year sees the 150th anniversary of one of Britain’s best loved natural history museums – and it’s not the one in South Kensington. Hidden away in a quiet Oxford street is the Oxford University Museum of Natural History; a beautiful neo-Gothic building housing an impressive array of specimens and exhibits, and currently host to a spectacular temporary exhibition.

The Museum was founded by Sir Henry Acland, who began construction in 1855 with a view to bringing together the science being carried out at the University around a central display area. His view that the University was too focused on traditional subjects like classics, philosophy and history at the expense of science, might still resonate with many today.

Oxford Museum of Natural History - 150 years young “The idea was to store the University’s scientific collections”, explains Kevin Walsh, Assistant Director of the Museum. “It was also designed as a centre for science teaching, so you can see above the doors of the rooms, professor of geometry, astronomy, chemistry, anatomy, things like that. And of course it was also intended to be available for the public to visit – it cost a sixpence to visit in those days, and the clientèle were clearly fairly upper class. It’s been free to visit now for over a century”.

To celebrate its 150th, the museum is putting on an impressive series of events throughout the year, culminating in a series of lectures from October onwards, featuring such luminaries as Honorary Fellow Sir David Attenborough and former President, Professor Richard Fortey. There is also a gallery featuring documents, photographs and engravings from the museum’s earliest years, including some fascinating pictures of the museum’s construction and early visitors.

But the most exciting part of the museum’s events this year can be found tucked away in one corner; a cluster of cabinets containing a remarkable array of fossils.

Kunmingella douvillei - a crustacean from the Chengjiang Fauna The 525 million year old Chengjiang fauna, from Yunnan in China, are preserved in pyrite, which shows up their remarkable level of detail against pale mudstone. Ten million years older than the famous Burgess Shale, and arguably even more beautiful, these fossils are little known. This is their first major exhibition outside China, yet you could be forgiven for missing them altogether – they will be on show for six months, returning to China in mid November.

The Chengjiang fossils may not be as immediately impressive as the museum’s dinosaur skeletons or stuffed dodos, but this astonishing exhibition is full of things not normally associated with fossils – colour, movement, light. Among the many specimens on show are primitive fish, some of which represent the oldest known vertebrates in the world.

“To me, these fossils are equivalent in terms of wonder to seeing the Terracotta Warriors for the first time”, says curator Derek Siveter, who showed me around the exhibition. “I don’t know exactly what the importance of the Terracotta Warriors is to our knowledge of history, but these fossils are unbelievably important to our knowledge of the history of life”.

Discovered in 1984 by Chinese palaeontologist Hou Xianguang, the fauna bears witness to that great benchmark in the history of life, the Cambrian explosion, when many of the major groups which have gone on to dominate global marine and terrestrial biota first emerged. “The preservation is just spectacular” says Siveter.

“Many of them are entirely soft-bodied – they have no right to be preserved! Here you can see worms, all curled up as though they died yesterday, the various segments clearly indicated, and the remains of the gut still intact.”

“And we have sea gooseberries, which are unbelievably sparse in the fossil record – they’re almost like a little lump of jelly. Some five genera have been described from Chengjiang, and they represent the earliest example of this particular group in the fossil record. Here we see an arthropod just nonchalantly flicking its tail, as it would have done in life – it looks like it’s doing a little dance!”

The fossils were sent to the museum in February after months of negotiation and uncertainty. “I’ve learnt to know that you have to actually see the material to believe it” says Siveter. “We were never quite sure whether the Chinese would send it. Once they did, we had very little time to see what they’d sent us and build an exhibition around it”.

As well as fossils, the museum features some live exhibits. Visitors can watch bees going about their business in a hive and swifts nesting in the museum tower via a webcam. It has also developed a number of ‘touchable’ exhibits, from foxes (stuffed) to meteorites (ebay) which visitors are invited to ‘please touch’.

Despite these recent innovations, the museum remains staunchly traditional in its appearance. What at first might seem like a regressive move has resulted in a beautiful building that reflects its past at no expense to present day visitors, and makes a refreshing change to the overwhelmingly modern design of many of its counterparts.

“We’ve kept the traditional design of the cabinets – glass and oak” says Walsh. “And the painted ironwork on the ceilings has been cleaned up to show its original colours. The museum now looks very much as it has done all its life – although we’ve completely redone the displays, it’s very important to us to retain the traditional designs. There’s a lot of art in the building once you start looking for it.”

This is partly a result of the influence of the Pre-Raphaelite movement on the construction of the building. Critic John Ruskin was particularly interested in making sure the building featured carvings reflecting nature accurately – an important feature of the artistic movement.

“Ruskin is supposed to have visited regularly while they built it” says Walsh. “The building features carvings of animals and foliage, carved by Irish stone masons. They used to go to the botanical gardens each morning and bring back huge handfuls of plant material so that they could carve it as accurately as possible”.

Acland was equally interested in promoting scientific accuracy, and provided the labourers with a library and an afternoon off each week so that they could study geology and botany. “Public understanding of science is often seen as a new idea, but it was very much a Victorian ideal as well” says Walsh. “Science was new in those days – the Geological Society was just getting underway. So in terms of how the museum has changed in 150 years, a lot has stayed the same – the design, and in many ways the purpose of the building. The biggest change now is the people who visit – in 1990 we had 100,000 visitors a year, now we have over half a million, from all over the world.”

“We’ve got a new Director arriving in October, so there will be more changes. But we’ll always be keeping the historical features, and the wow aspect’.

With the Chengjiang exhibition delivering on both, Oxford University Museum is a must-see before November.