Steve's Herpetological Blog

An insight into the life of Steve, his research and the many books he reads


#SciFri: Visiting the Oxford Museum of Natural History

The Oxford Museum of Natural History, nestled in the heart of Oxford (which you probably guessed) is a wonderful museum that I have unfortunately only visited a handful of times. The last of which before recently was in 2017 to see a talk by Prof Richard Dawkins on the eve of the launch of The Ancestor’s Tale: A Pilgrimage to the Dawn of Life which he co-authored with Yan Wong. The Museum is renowned for its extensive collection of animal specimens, educational exhibits, and interactive displays (some of which were being installed during my visit). This is the perfect place to offer a fascinating journey through the diverse world of zoology, evolution and geology. Having lived in Cambridge for a while, this museum perfectly blends together the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and the Museum of Zoology.

A view looking down from the upper gallery, looking towards some of the Mesozoic fossils and new displays

The museum boasts an impressive array of exhibits spanning various branches of zoology, botany, palaeontology and geology. One of the most impressive things in my mind about the museum isn’t the Tyrannosaurus rex (which most would probably point to) but the fact that it houses some of the props from Walking with Dinosaurs! You can see a few of them in the photograph above, but seeing these icons from my childhood is always a special moment. The other exhibits are thoughtfully curated, providing both educational insights and aesthetic appeal, while also being educational. Each display is accompanied by informative signage, offering valuable context and enriching the overall visitor experience.

A collection of mounted mammal skeletons covering a number of families from Suidae, Felidae and Elephantidae – very reminiscent of the Muséum national d’histoire naturelle in Paris.

One of my personal highlights of the museum was the temporary exhibition celebrating 200 years since the description of Megalosaurus by Willian Buckland. In the early 1820s, Buckland analysed fossilised bones discovered in the Stonesfield Quarries near Oxford. His detailed study led to the identification of Megalosaurus, which he described in a paper published in 1824. This marked the first scientific description of a dinosaur, predating the formal coining of the term “dinosaur” by several years. Buckland’s work laid the foundation for future paleontological research and helped establish Oxford as a key centre for the study of ancient life. The Megalosaurus became a symbol of the emerging field of palaeontology, and Buckland’s pioneering efforts were crucial in advancing our understanding of Earth’s prehistoric past. It was remarkable to be able to find out more about this monumental discovery. I wonder if Buckland realised just how much the people of the future would become captivated by dinosaurs – I suspect not.

I was lucky to also experience a temporary exhibition celebrating 200 years of Megalosaurus during my visit

The Museum goes beyond traditional displays (although there are still plenty) with its new interactive features, engaging visitors in hands-on learning experiences. Throughout certain parts of the museum, there are interactive objects, multimedia presentations, and other activities that invite visitors to explore various aspects of zoology in an immersive manner. This is an excellent way to help kids get involved with learning but also providing a way for those that may be visually impaired to engage with the collection. We all know that if you make learning fun and informative that people tend to take more away, and it certainly seems that these new displays are aiming to do just that. I shall have to return in the near future to find out more about what was going on during my visit.

Although the new displays were being installed during my visit, some of them had been finished such as this one above grouping invertebrates by colour

Housed in a stunning Victorian building, Museum of Natural History exudes charm and character that demonstrates that the architects were aiming to display the best of the natural world. To me it is very similar to the Natural History Museum in London, with the architecture being inspired by churches and cathedrals – it is a work of art itself. The museum’s ambiance is both inviting and inspiring, creating a welcoming environment for visitors to explore and learn. Each of the pillars around the border main exhibition space are made of different stone/rock from the British Isles, and the glass ceiling allows a lot of natural light in so everything is well lit. I imagine this may not always be the case (such as in the depths of winter), but in early spring it was a pleasant experience.

Just take a moment to admire the architecture

In conclusion, the Oxford Museum of Natural History is a treasure trove of natural wonders, offering a captivating blend of exhibits, interactive features, and amazing specimens on display. Whether you’re a seasoned zoologist or simply curious about the world around you, the museum provides an enriching experience that will leave you with a newfound appreciation for the beauty and diversity of life on Earth. I highly recommend a visit to this fascinating institution—it’s a journey you won’t soon forget. Additionally, within the Museum is the entrance to the Pitt Rivers Museum – which focusses on anthropology. I’ll have to go back and review that another time!

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