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Oxford University Museum of Natural History

A Look Inside





History of the Museum


Architecture and Stonework


The Museum and Alice


The Oxford Dodo


Charles Darwin




Rocks and Fossils




Museum Swifts


Visitor Information


History of the Museum The building of the Museum was significant in the development of nineteenth century architecture, the history of Oxford University, and in the study of science in England. The result is as spectacular today as when it was first opened in 1860 when people flocked to see its architecture.

Henry Acland’s competition

the Oxford Museum, the design of this building was influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin, particularly in its use of materials and decoration. Benjamin Woodward was the prime designer in the firm and was largely responsible for both the design and the building of the Museum. The Museum building is a striking example of Victorian neo-Gothic architecture. Its style was strongly influenced by the ideas of John Ruskin, who believed that architecture should be shaped by the energies of the natural world. It brought together virtually all the scientific studies carried out in the University. Within a year of completion it hosted the famous debate on Darwin’s Origin of Species between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley.

The Museum owes its existence, in the main, to the foresight and determination of one man, Henry Acland. Acland had been appointed as Reader in Anatomy at Christ Church in 1845 , where he worked in the college’s Anatomy Museum.

The interior roof of the Museum, featuring the glass ceiling and iron work.

He believed that every educated man should learn something of the sciences. He campaigned for a new museum to house research and teaching facilities, and to bring together the collections that were dispersed across the University. Finally, in December 1853 , four acres at the south end of University Parks were purchased from Merton College and an additional four acres were added the following year.

Cloistered arcades run around the ground and first floor of the building, with stone columns each made from a different British stone.

T he official opening

The design for the new Museum was an open competition with prizes offered for the three best designs within a cost limit of £30,000. Of the 32 schemes received, two were voted on by Convocation (a body consisting of certain members of the University). The two schemes were a classical design by E. M. Barry and a neo-Gothic design by the firm Deane & Woodward, Dublin.

The exterior of the Museum.


Acland favoured the winning design of Deane and Woodward, the team who had designed the Trinity College Museum in Dublin in 1853 . Like

The Museum was officially opened in 1860. The first occupants of the building were the science departments of the day: Astronomy, Geometry, Experimental Philosophy, Mineralogy, Chemistry, Geology, Zoology, Anatomy, Physiology and Medicine. These departmental names can still be seen painted above the doors leading off the arcades.

The interior gallery of the Museum, featuring the exhibits, glass ceiling and stonework.


Architecture and Stonework The ornamentation of the stonework and iron pillars incorporates natural forms such as leaves and branches, combining the Pre-Raphaelite style with the scientific role of the building. Statues of eminent men of science stand around the ground floor.

Glass and iron The most striking thing about the Museum is the glass and iron roof of the central court. The use of glass and cast iron had been commonplace since the mid-1840s, in galleries and greenhouses and, of course, the Crystal Palace of 1851. The novel aspect of the Museum was the use of structural iron, but sadly the first design of the roof using mainly wrought iron, proved disastrous; the structure was incapable of supporting its own weight, and had to be taken down before it was completed. The second version was produced by E. A. Skidmore, an experienced ironmaster who had been involved with Woodward in the development of the first design. The cast iron columns are ornamented with wrought ironwork in the spandrels representing branches of species including sycamore, walnut and palm.

of workmanship of the O’Sheas. Statues around the court commemorate a number of eminent men from Aristotle, Galileo and Roger Bacon to Newton, Darwin and Linnaeus. Several busts celebrate Oxford men of science.

The carvings were to be paid for by public subscription and 46 were completed between 1858 and 1860. These were done by the Irish brothers, James and John O’Shea, and their nephew Edward Whelan. They were exceptionally talented stonemasons and produced work of the highest quality and originality; the carvings were made from life with plants being brought up from the Oxford Botanic Garden. The other capitals were completed by 1910, although none to the standard

Stonework carvings on Museum pillar.


Detail of the iron work on the columns.


Columns, capitals and corbels The columns surrounding the court were planned by John Phillips, first Keeper of the Museum. Each column is made of a different British decorative rock, whilst the capitals and corbels are carved into plants representing all the botanical orders. Each column was to be labelled with the name of the stone and its source, and also with the botanical name of the plant. However only the geological inscriptions were executed.

Funds run out The O’Sheas also began the carvings around the outer windows, but a lack of funds dogged the project and eventually it had to be abandoned. When asked to stop work, legend has it, that O’Shea was so upset that he proceeded to carve parrots and owls taken at the time to be a parody of Convocation and he was promptly sacked. These unfinished carvings are visible over the main entrance. A different view of this event comes from Ruskin, who was becoming increasingly disillusioned with the project, and wrote that the O’Sheas had been sacked because of ‘the unnecessary introduction of cats’ around the celebrated ‘cat window’ on the first floor of the Museum. Sadly, this was not the only sign that all was not well with the building of the Museum.

Top: Interior gallery of the Museum featuring stone carvings of prominent scientists and academics. Bottom: Glass and iron roof in the main gallery.


Woodward was becoming increasingly ill and died in May 1861. Lack of funds and the constant interference of University officials meant that the project was never completed. This is most noticeable in the window carvings on the west front of the Museum, but inside the decoration around the court was also left incomplete. Although the original tender to build the Museum was £29,041, by 1867 over £87,000 had been spent. A chemistry laboratory occupied the small building at the south west corner of the Museum which was designed to look like the Abbot’s Kitchen at Glastonbury and was kept separate, as Acland commented, so that ‘all noxious operations are removed from the principal pile’. As the departments grew in size they removed to buildings around the Museum and the science area grew. In 1885 a new building, abutting to the east of the Museum, was built to house the ethnological collections of General Pitt-Rivers.

T he main entrance The carving around the doors to the Museum remains unfinished, with the inner archway showing the roughly hewn stone work where the O’Shea brothers are said to have walked off the job. The outer archway is complete, its apex is decorated with an angel holding a dividing cell in its left hand.

Top: Iron Arches supporting the glass roof ceiling. Bottom: Window with freehand carvings in the Gothic manner designed by the O’Sheas.


The Museum and Alice The Oxford mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a regular visitor to the Museum. Specimens he saw inspired some of the characters in his famous stories of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which he wrote under the name Lewis Carroll.

Dodgson’s early life Charles Lutwidge Dodgson was a shy, retiring lecturer in mathematics at Christ Church. Born in 1832 , he was the eldest in a family of thirteen, and grew up inventing games and stories to amuse his siblings. Dodgson’s imagination and respect for children continued into adulthood, and in 1856 he befriended Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church, and her sisters, Edith and Lorina.

A boating trip on the T hames On July 4th 1862, Dodgson headed a rowing expedition on the Thames; his party included the three girls and fellow don, the Reverend Robinson Duckworth. During the afternoon, Dodgson spun out a series of fantastic yarns incorporating friends and familiar places in Oxford, mathematical riddles, literary allusions and countless references to natural history. By the end of the trip, the famous story of


Dodgson remained at Oxford until 1881, and continued to lecture in mathematics and logic at Christ Church. He had many other interests and was a noteworthy photographer, experimenting with various subjects including some specimens from the Museum. Dodgson was also a lover of logic puzzles, writing many of his own. The Museum has a small collection of these games and other memorabilia, copies of which are in a display in the lower gallery. The curators of the Museum would like to thank Mrs S. Scourfield for the loan of material on display in the Dodgson exhibit.

Publishing Alice In 1865, Dodgson published Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland under the name Lewis Carroll. Dodgson commissioned John Tenniel to illustrate Alice’s Adventures and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, with a series of woodcuts. During Dodgson’s lifetime his books sold 160,000 copies and provided him with such a comfortable income that he asked Christ Church to reduce his salary.

Visits to the Museum Dodgson often visited the Museum accompanied by the young Alice Liddell and her two sisters. The animals they saw there, their friends, and familiar places around Oxford often became incorporated into the stories Dodgson created for his young friends. The dodo was a favourite for Dodgson and some believe that Jan Savery’s painting of a dodo, which hangs in the Museum, was the original inspiration for the character of the dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Dodgson’s life after Alice

We beg your acceptance of this elegant thimble.’ - Alice and the Dodo (Painting by Sir John Tenniel)

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was born. Dodgson wove his tale around the party. The characters included an eaglet (Edith), a lory (Lorina), a duck (Duckworth), and, typically self deprecatingly, a dodo for the stammering Dodgson himself.

Alice Liddell as a beggar girl. Photo by Charles Dodgson. Her father was Dean of Christ Church, where the author was a lecturer.

Deserted Parks Museum! Loveliest building of the plain Where Cherwell winds towards the distant main; How often have I loitered o’er your green, Where humble happiness endeared the scene!

Alice begged him to write the story down. Two years later, he gave her a hand-written, green leather notebook containing the story of Alice’s Adventures Underground, and Dodgson’s own sketches.

Lewis Carroll

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson (1832-1898)


The Oxford Dodo The dodo is the most famous of all the creatures to have become extinct. It was immortalised in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and was a favourite for Dodgson who had a stammer: Do-do-dodgson.

Although the dodos were easy to catch, their meat was not that tasty; their rapid decline was probably due less to hunting, and more to the fact that the dogs, cats, rats and pigs, introduced to Mauritius, destroyed the dodos’ eggs and habitat. By 1680 the bird was extinct. The dodos were a curiosity, and some were brought to Europe by wealthy collectors. One of these birds was exhibited in John Tradescant’s London museum. His collections were later left to Elias Ashmole and so came to Oxford, where now only the mummified head and foot remain. Although minimal, these specimens represent the most complete remains of a single dodo, and are of great value to scientists today. Painting ‘The Dodo & Given’, by G. Edwards (1759), on display on the wester n wall of the g aller y.

What did the dodo look like? Most people believe that the dodo was a fat, ungainly bird, but as it has been extinct since the late 1600s, nobody really knows what the dodo looked like. The ‘dodo’ skeletons in other museums are made up from the bones of several birds, and even the Oxford specimen is incomplete, so there is very little definite evidence. Contemporary paintings are therefore very interesting. The dodo was discovered by Europeans in 1598. It was a flightless bird that lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean.


bird could have carried. This suggests that the ‘fat dodo’ would have been too heavy for its skeleton to support and would have collapsed. The best information about the dodo might be expected to come from the people who saw the bird in its native habitat. In marked contrast to the fatter, European representations, images produced by some of the first Europeans to visit Mauritius in 1598 showed very thin birds. In a scene from Admiral Van Neck’s account, a rather athletic dodo is striding off into the distance.

T he dodo in the Museum A new reconstruction of the dodo is much slimmer and more similar to the earliest drawings of the bird. This ‘slimline’ model, along with casts of the Oxford dodo, and a cast of a composite skeleton are on display in the main court. The Museum is also home to the famous Savery painting of 1651 and a copy of the more colourful depiction of 1759.

The ‘slimline’ dodo on display in the main court.

Fat or thin? Before cameras, newly discovered animals could only be painted; the artists that recorded them often had no knowledge of natural history, and were more interested in the fashion for depicting plump or colourful animals than recording their true likeness. Many of the older dodo paintings were based on the few birds brought to Europe. Others may well have been drawn from badly stuffed specimens, and in some cases they were simply copied from earlier paintings. Recent research has challenged the well known traditional depiction of a fat, ungainly dodo. Measurements of the Oxford specimen and the hundreds of bones amassed in the Natural History Museum and the Cambridge Zoology Museum, have been used to calculate how much weight the


Charles Darwin

T he HMS Beagle

Charles Darwin is probably the most famous biologist of all time. The Origin of Species, published in 1859, challenged the prevailing world view of God’s divine creation of the Earth and its inhabitants, and laid the foundations for modern biology.

The Beagle survey took five years, two-thirds of which Darwin spent on land. He carefully noted a rich variety of geological features and fossils. At intervals during the voyage he sent specimens to Cambridge together with letters about his findings, and these established his reputation as a naturalist. His extensive detailed notes showed his gift for theorising and formed the basis for his later work.

his ideas on variation, and the birds and tortoises he observed there became the subjects of some of his most famous studies. He concluded that new species arose as a result of what he termed natural selection acting on variable populations.

Stone carving of Darwin’s figure within the Museum.

Darwin’s early life

Darwin continued to work on his theories for 20 years, and in 1859 he published his famous and controversial book On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This sparked a furious debate between scientists and theologians, most notably the one between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce that took place in Oxford in 1860 at the newly opened University Museum. Darwin died at home in 1882 after suffering an extended illness and was buried at Westminster Abbey.

Charles Darwin was born in 1809 and grew up with an interest in natural history. In 1828, at his father’s insistence, he went to Christ’s College, Cambridge to study theology. He graduated in 1831. During his time at Cambridge he regularly discussed the natural world with the botanist John Henslow, the geologist Adam Sedgwick and others. It was Henslow who recommended Darwin for the post of naturalist and captain’s companion on board HMS Beagle.

Museum collections

Darwin’s work

Darwin’s collection chiefly comprises crustaceans, but also a few other invertebrates (such as insects, sea spiders, millipedes, spiders, etc.). Some of this material is stored dry and some preserved in spirit, although it is clear from Darwin’s notebooks that originally everything was stored in spirit. Many

During the famous round-the-world voyage of The Beagle between 1831 and 1836, Darwin observed and recorded the rich variety of plant and animal life that he encountered. While visiting the Galapagos Islands in 1835 , he found significant evidence for


Darwin not only made ecological and geological observations during the voyage of The Beagle, but also amassed a vast collection of specimens. On his return to England these were entrusted to various scientists for study, with the Crustacea being sent to Thomas Bell. Over the years, this material was transferred to the zoology collections, with the last transfer taking place in 1975 .

Page from Darwin’s manuscripts.

of the surviving specimens have either numbered labels attached to them in handwriting that has been ascribed to Covington, Darwin’s servant on The Beagle, or numbered metal tags. These numbers correspond with those listed in the Catalogue for specimens in Spirit of Wine - a chronological listing of specimens collected throughout the voyage.

Charles Darwin on the porch of Down House, Kent, the home of Charles Darwin and an English Heritage site.


Dinosaurs Inside the building a spectacular display of dinosaurs includes four species from Oxfordshire, and dinosaurs from around the world. The footprints that span the front lawn give the first time visitor an idea of what to expect on entry.

Dinosaur discoveries Dinosaur bones have probably been found for millennia, but it was not until 1842 that the term ‘dinosaur’ was first coined. Oxford has played a major role in the history of dinosaur discoveries. The first dinosaur to be described and named was presented in 1824 as the ‘Megalosaurus or great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield’. The author of the scientific paper was William Buckland, professor of Geology at Oxford. The bones he described came from the nearby village of Stonesfield, and most of these are on display in the Museum today. Richard Owen invented the word ‘dinosaur’ in 1842. Owen was a distinguished professor of anatomy and based his new grouping on the shared features of the large land-living reptiles Megalosaurus, Iguanodon and Hylaeosaurus. He saw that they shared certain features and recognised that they were more than just the overgrown lizards others had seen them to be.

Misconceptions The first published record of a dinosaur bone was in Dr Robert Plot’s 1677 book The Natural History of Oxfordshire. Recognisable today as part of a single thigh bone of Megalosaurus, Plot wondered if it could have come from an elephant brought to Britain by the Romans, but concluded it was the petrified bone of a giant.

T he Oxfordshire dinosaurs The dinosaur displays in the Museum include four species from Oxfordshire, and two of these, Eustreptospondylus and Camptosaurus, are that great rarity in geology - complete skeletons. The bones of Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur ever described, and the giant herbivore, Cetiosaurus, are also on show.

Replicas of Megalosaurus dinosaur footprints, set across the front lawn of the Museum.

Other prehistoric reptiles

A cast of the skeleton of ‘Stan’, an adult Tyrannosaurus rex stands in the central aisle of the main court.


Dinosaurs may be the most famous animals from the ‘age of reptiles’, but the Museum also has displays of the other reptiles that lived during the Mesozoic. The southern area of the main court is devoted to the geological collections of the Museum; exhibits include casts and models of the dinosaurs, and four cases devoted to ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, pterosaurs and crocodiles. Although perhaps less famous, these animals dominated the seas and skies of the prehistoric world.

Dinosaurs in the Museum gallery.


Rocks and Fossils The petrology displays in the Museum introduce the world of rocks. The Museum offers large touchable rocks, minerals and fossils which are also on display in the mineralogy and petrology aisle.

T he displays

Minerals in the Museum

The rocks and minerals aisle is located in the main court of the Museum. The petrology displays outline the three rock types; sedimentary, igneous and metamorphic. Touchable specimens run down the length of the aisle, ending in the fluorescent mineral display.

The rocks and minerals displays occupy the aisle south of the central aisle of the main court. The displays on the north side of the aisle explain how minerals and rocks form. They show how the rock cycle works, and explain the powerful forces of plate tectonics.

T he touchables

Perhaps the most eye-catching display in the Museum is the fluorescent minerals exhibit which is housed in a hexagonal case at the eastern end of the rocks and minerals aisle. Visitors entering the darkened area are enchanted by the glowing specimens before them.

Most museums have a ‘don’t touch’ policy, but at Oxford we like to see visitors explore specimens up close. This is why the rocks and minerals aisle is now furnished with a series of magnificent touchable specimens, including the oldest rock in Britain, and part of the Nantan meteorite, which fell in China in 1516. Two large mineral specimens are included in the touchables collection: Quartz and Pyrite. A large ammonite, a fossil stromatolite and a piece of petrified wood are all included in the rocks and minerals aisle.

An ammonite fossil - one of the touchables.


Fluorescent mineral display.


Insects Seventy five per cent of all animal species are insects. They are probably the most important and diverse group of animals on Earth. The Oxford collections are among the top ten worldwide.

T he entomology displays

Live displays in the gallery

Insects are the most diverse group of animals on Earth and their diversity is reflected in the taxonomic displays that run along the upper gallery of the main court. These cases detail the thirty or so orders of insects, ranging from minute wingless fleas to some of the larger winged species - beetles, cockroaches, butterflies and bugs. While the taxonomic displays give an understanding of the scope of the insect world, the live displays, also located on the upper gallery, lend an insight into the behaviour of these animals. Cockroaches, beetles, stick insects and some non-insect arthropods are kept in a series of glass tanks giving visitors a unique opportunity to interact with these amazing creatures.

The Museum’s upper gallery is home to four large vivariums containing live insects, cockroaches, spiders and scorpions.

A stunning butterfly specimen located in the upper gallery of the Museum.

Above: Live cockroaches are kept in the gallery, and often startle visitors. Opposite: Large beetle display in the gallery.


T he Museum hive The Museum maintains a small hive of honey bees located on the south west stairwell of the building. Visitors can peek into the glass fronted case and get an insight into the life of these amazing insects. The hive in the Museum is set up with a foundation sheet pressed out of beeswax, reinforced with wire and mounted in a frame. The museum bees usually swarm once a year and gather in a mass somewhere around the building.


Museum Swifts Swifts have been nesting in ventilation flues in the tower of the University Museum for many years, providing a wonderful opportunity for scientists to study these fascinating but elusive birds.

T he European swift The European swift spends virtually its entire life in flight. It feeds, sleeps and collects nesting material on the wing. The Museum tower is a nesting site for European swifts and they are a familiar summer sight here. When the young leave the Museum they may never stop flying until three years later when they return as adults to nest themselves.

T he Swift Research Project

Swifts in the tower of the Museum.

The colony of swifts which nest in the Museum has been the subject of a research study since May 1948. It is one of the longest continuous studies of a single bird species in the world, and has contributed much to our knowledge of the swift. Swifts had been nesting inside the ventilator shafts of the Museum tower for many years when David Lack, the head of the Edward Grey Institute at the Department of Zoology, began the Swift Research Project. Swifts use nesting sites which are inaccessible to predators to safeguard the eggs and chicks. The parents are also quite vulnerable when nesting. Swifts had proved a difficult species to study as they spend most of their lives in the air, but Lack realised that the swift colony in the Museum would be ideal for long term research.

Life in the tower Swifts have an exceptionally long life span for their size. Once they reach adulthood they usually live for about 6 years; one individual was 18 years old when last seen! They are extremely faithful to their nesting site, returning to the Museum tower year after year. They start to arrive in the last days of April and the fledglings usually leave around the beginning of August, followed by their parents a week or so later. The males usually arrive first and take possession of the nest box. Mating takes place and two or three eggs are laid, normally in the last week of May, about a fortnight after the female’s arrival. Both parents brood the eggs, and the incubation takes about 19 days. The eggs hatch around the middle of June and both parents feed the naked nestlings. They bring them small balls of food, packed into their throat, which consist of hundreds of tiny insects and spiders held together by saliva. The nesting period of swifts at Oxford varies from five to eight weeks. The young swifts leave the nest independently of their parents when their wings have reached full or nearly full length.

Nearly full-grown nestlings photographed as part of the Swift Research Project.

Viewing the swifts The swifts’ nest boxes are well hidden within the tower and accessing them is near impossible but the most intrepid researcher. So, to let everybody take a peek at the growing chicks, cameras have been installed in three of the nest boxes. The images from the cameras are relayed to a monitor in the Museum, and are available on the Museum’s website at

The European Swift.



Visitor Information Explore the wonders of Oxford’s long history at the Museum of Oxford. Before the first student took his first lesson at the University, saints walked here, kings were crowned here and parliaments debated here.

Admission is free to all the permanent displays and special exhibitions at the Museum of Oxford. Although entry to the museum is free of charge we kindly request a donation towards the costs of maintaining and improving the Museum. We recommend £1 per visitor, please give as generously as you can. Opening times are Tuesday through Saturday 10:00 - 17:00 with last admission 30 minutes prior to closing. The Museum is closed Monday and Sunday. Please check for holiday hours.

Audio tours Adult and children’s audio tours may be purchased from the front desks of the Museum or Town Hall. They are available in English and French. Total length of tour is around 1.5 hours (Town Hall: 40 mins/Museum: 45 mins).


£ 4.00


£ 3.50

Children under 14

£ 3.50

Family (2 adults/2 children)


Gift shop We sell a variety of gifts for all ages including educational and pocket money toys, historical replicas, greeting cards, Oxford souvenirs, and local interest books. We have a large variety of traditional teas, confectionery and marmalades.

How to find us The museum entrance is off St Aldate’s on the corner of Blue Boar Street. It is a short walking distance from Gloucester Green coach station and the Oxford Information Centre, and 10 minutes walk from the train station. Coaches and buses can drop and collect passengers at nearby Oxpens. Car travellers may leave cars all day at the park-and-ride car parks.

Museum of Oxford, St Aldates, Oxford, OX1 1DZ w w 01865 252761


The Oxford Museum of Natural History  

A look inside this gorgeous museum based in the heart of Oxford. This book design project was created as part of the MA Publishing course at...