Posted by: georginaferry | November 16, 2012

Archive only

I ceased to be Writer in Residence at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History in the middle of 2011. The Museum continues to flourish under its new Director, Paul Smith, and up-to-date information about its activities can be found at its own website.

Although this blog will inevitably become increasingly out of date, I’m leaving it up as an archive of the enjoyable time I spent working with the Museum, and just in case someone else wants to revive it in future.

Posted by: georginaferry | October 17, 2011

Take the Museum home!

The souvenir guide, which I mentioned in a previous post, has now been on sale in the Museum for a couple of months.

The design by Chris York at Richard Boxall Design Associates really complements the Museum’s character as a magical space filled with intriguing objects and staffed by creative enthusiasts. Stunning photos by Greg Smolonski and many others help visitors to keep their experience of the Museum fresh in their minds.

I’ve tried to give some idea of the Museum as an institution where at least as much goes on behind the scenes as in the court and galleries with their wonderful displays. And there are some fun facts and activities for children scattered through the pages.

You can now buy the guide online through the Oxford University Shop. If you’re planning to visit the Museum, why not buy it before you come?

Posted by: georginaferry | July 12, 2011

Get stuffed

I am intrigued by the combination of science and decorative arts that goes into the craft of taxidermy. The birds that surround the northern edge of the court in the Museum are examples of this. One of the most spectacular is a group of sand grouse, one of them apparently in flight, its wings fully extended to their elegant pointed tips. Another is a family of crows on their nest, nestlings begging to a parent that offers a dangling rodent as food. The scarlet ibis, in splendid isolation, is caught in mid-stalk, focused and oblivious to its surroundings. The shoebill looks as comical as it would in life.

Elee Kirk, a PhD student in Museum Studies at Leicester, is spending time in the Museum as part of her research on pre-school children and museums. She has recently started her own blog, StuffedStuff, where she posts about natural history museums and taxidermy. Do look at her post about lollipop rats!

Posted by: georginaferry | July 12, 2011

Guiding hand

Please take as read the conventional blogger’s apology for long absence.

For the past few months my Museum time has been fully occupied preparing a souvenir guide booklet. The Museum last produced one more than 20 years ago, and it has long been out of print. Meanwhile the number of visitors has been steadily climbing, passing the half million mark in 2009-10. Once they’ve enjoyed the displays, there is nothing for them to take home that will tell them more about the Museum’s origins and architecture, or about the scientific work that goes on the collections.

All that will change later this year when the new guide is published. I have had a wonderful time working on it. There are great stories to tell, from the 19th century struggle to put science on the curriculum in Oxford, to contemporary research on dung beetles or the rocks of Mount Everest. And it is very satisfying to have a chance to celebrate the work of the education staff, recently rewarded with a £10,000 prize in the inaugural Clore Award for Museum Learning.

The Museum staff have been models of tact in giving their feedback at each stage, saving me from howlers while supporting the aim to make the guide as lively and accessible as possible. Chris York at Richard Boxall Design Associates has taken the heap of text and images I supplied and turned it into a magical journey with treasures on every page. Watch this space for an announcement of the publication date.

My time as Writer in Residence is formally at an end, though I seem to have found various reasons to hang about in the Museum and will keep Dodology going for a while longer.

Posted by: georginaferry | March 23, 2011

Sniping and grousing

The Museum is currently preparing new displays from its collection of British birds, which will highlight their adaptations to different environments and the problems of conserving them in the face of changing land use and climate. I’ve been helping a bit with editing the text to go on the panels in each case.

One of the joys and frustrations of the English language is that it develops not by any kind of logic or grammatical imperative, but through long cultural usage. Our relationship with the natural world is just one example of such a cultural influence.

I asked innocently why the plural of oystercatcher is oystercatchers, while knot, dunlin, redshank and snipe, even if they congregate in thousands, seem happy to make do without a terminal ‘s’. My reliable informant, Andy Gosler of Oxford’s Edward Grey Institute of Field Ornithology, explained that ‘quarry species’ – those that are or were hunted for food – traditionally don’t take an ‘s’ in the plural. Hence pheasant, partridge, grouse etc.

This got me thinking about examples outside the bird class. Sheep never take an ‘s’, goats do. Horses do unless they are part of an army, in which case they become ‘a troop of horse’ as in King Lear.  (Humans were not exempt from military singularity – they might belong to a ‘regiment of foot’.) Deer, antelope, gazelle and wildebeest don’t – presumably the quarry criterion again. Elephant(s) and zebra(s) seem undecided on the matter.

Context seems to play a part. You might go hunting for rabbit, but if  lagomorphs invaded your garden you would complain that rabbits had eaten your lettuces.

Which brings us back to the birds. Ducks are a can of worms. Pochard, widgeon, teal, but shelducks and shovelers. Mallard(s) can go either way. Most of the waders actually sound fine with an ‘s’ (see my earlier post on redshanks, which I remember caused me anxiety on this point), and sources are inconsistent. Curlews, godwits and plovers all fall comfortably on my English ear.

But I think we are stuck with snipe and grouse.

Posted by: georginaferry | February 23, 2011

Not-Nessie moves house

Story Museum director Kim Pickin leads the model through Oxford

One of the heartening things about the Museum is its willingness to collaborate with others who are trying to achieve some of the same goals. So it was that yesterday a surplus plesiosaur found herself being wheeled through the streets of Oxford from OUMNH to the new permanent home for the  Story Museum in Pembroke Street. The move took place at the end of a hugely successful half-term activity on Dinosaurs and Dragon Hunters, so there were plenty of young enthusiasts happy to escort ‘Not-Nessie’ on her way.

The life-size model, created by Crawley Creatures for the Channel 5 programme The Loch Ness Monster: The Ultimate Experience, has been stored at OUMNH but pressure on space meant that it needed a new home. Kim Pickin at the Story Museum thought it would provide a wonderful opportunity for children to create their own stories when the centre opens its doors in 2014.

Posted by: georginaferry | February 16, 2011

Kofi Annan visit

Angela Palmer with two great Ghanaians: Kofi Annan and the mighty denya

Following the launch of I touched the rainforest on the Museum lawn, on Sunday the Ghost Forest received a visit from two of its most distinguished compatriots: Kofi Annan, the Ghanaian former Director General of the UN, and former Ghanaian President John Kufuor.

During their visit Angela Palmer, the artist who created the Ghost Forest art project, returned an Ashanti stool that had been taken from the palace of Queen Asantuah by a British officer in 1900.

The Ashanti stool returned to Ghana on Sunday

In one of those strokes of serendipity that have made the story of the Ghost Forest project so riveting, Palmer had spotted the stool in a local auction catalogue soon after she returned from her trip to Ghana to collect the tree stumps. With her newly-acquired knowledge of Ghana’s proud history, she immediately understood the stool’s significance, and made sure it was hers.

Returning the stool to its rightful owners is a powerfully symbolic gesture as the Ghost Forest forces us to confront the complex relationship that continues to exist between the resource-hungry industrialised countries and the developing world.

Posted by: georginaferry | February 13, 2011

I touched the rainforest

Yesterday the Museum saw an eclectic gathering of schoolchildren, artists, local, national and international notables (including the Colombian ambassador and the Chancellor of Oxford University, Chris Patten)  as the artist Angela Palmer launched the next phase of her Ghost Forest art project, ‘I touched the rainforest’.

The stumps of ten rainforest trees have been displayed on the Museum lawn since July last year (see my earlier post). As the seasons change they take on new meanings: their tropical trunks covered in snow in December, they graphically illustrated the extremes we might experience as the climate changes.

In the remaining five months of the exhibition, Angela hopes that every schoolchild in the county will visit the trees, touch them and smell them. They will be invited to use the experience to inform their learning about deforestation and climate change. Each school will also have the opportunity to plant a tree in a new stand of native hardwood trees being created on Cumnor Hill.

Max from the Big Bang serves sausage and mash

After watching a moving film about the creation of the project and its impact on visitors in Trafalgar Square, Copenhagen and Oxford, we trooped out to enjoy hot drinks and sausage and mash in the February sunshine. We have become so used to the presence of the trees that it was a wonderful opportunity to look at them anew, and to think about the messages they convey.

I am frankly in awe of Angela’s drive and passion. Having conceived the project, she charmed, inspired and cajoled an astonishing array of people to collaborate on making it a reality.

Anglea Palmer and the Ghost Forest at Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Posted by: georginaferry | February 13, 2011

Prize longlist for ‘Making Museums’

Janet Stott and her team in the Education department are thrilled to be among ten projects longlisted for the Clore Award for Museum Learning, a special award associated with the Art Fund Prize for museums and launched for the first time this year.

‘Making Museums’ is a joint project with the Pitt Rivers Museum that takes primary school children through the whole process of museum curation, from accession to display. Through handling objects, thinking about them and comparing them with others, they develop skills of analysis that open their minds to a world of possibilities. The project  has been growing steadily since 2003, and in 2010 nearly 1200 10- and 11-year-olds from schools in East Oxford took part.

It begins with museum education officers visiting each class, taking real museum objects from fossilised dinosaur poo to dreamcatchers, and helping the children to learn what museums are for. All the children then visit the museums for a whole day and explore what really happens in a contemporary research collection. Beginning with a staged ‘archaeological dig’, they make their own choices about which of their discoveries to focus on, using the museum displays to help identify and classify objects before making a final presentation. ‘The mystery of the dig is an open-ended question relying solely on the evidence that the children discover’, says Janet.

Children who are less comfortable with formal book-based learning and written tests thrive in this atmosphere of discussion and debate. They all go back to school ‘exhausted, but buzzing with excitement’. The final stage of the process sees the children making museums in their own classrooms, choosing their own accession criteria and forms of display.

The most remarkable thing about this project is that it has developed with no extra funding from any source. While it demands a lot of the education officers’ time (and some too from curators and teachers), it is fully sustainable and has grown from year to year purely thanks to the enthusiasm of everyone involved, from school pupils to museum staff.

I think Janet and her colleagues in the both museums deserve every penny of the £10,000 prize, and will be keeping my fingers crossed. (Unlike the Art Fund Prize itself, there does not seem to be any public voting involved, so that’s all I can do!)

Update: they won!

Posted by: georginaferry | December 10, 2010

The dodo in print

As I remarked in a previous post, the dodo has become an icon of the Museum, thanks to the unique specimen it holds of that unfortunate creature. Long before I had anything to do with the Museum, the idea was born that visitors might like an attractive booklet giving the history of the Oxford specimen and its relatives.

Jane Pickering, a former assistant curator of zoology who is now at the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History, prepared a draft text. The Museum’s former director, Keith Thomson, made some additions, especially including the exciting work of Oxford scientists on dodo DNA. But when I arrived as Writer in Residence at the beginning of this year the text was still waiting for someone to push it across the finish line and prepare it for press.

The Museum had several lovely images in its collections, and I collected a couple more: the wonderful shots of the specimen itself (now too fragile for public display) taken by the FInnish photographer Harrio Kallio, and the Mughal painting of a live dodo that belongs to the Institute of Oriental Manuscripts in St Petersburg. (My somewhat frivolous decision to take Russian O level as a sixth-former gave me the confidence to make the phone call that kicked off the permissions process, if only to ask the question ‘Do you speak English?’ in Russian.)

With a lovely full-colour design by Claire Venables at Giraffe Corner, the booklet is ready just in time for Christmas. It’s on sale in the Museum shop, but anyone in the world can buy it via the University’s online shop.

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