Posted by: georginaferry | October 5, 2010

Farewell to Jim

Jim Kennedy, Director of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History 2003-2010

To use an appropriately geological metaphor, an era ended last week when Jim Kennedy retired from his post as Professor of Natural History and Director of the Museum.

With the honourable exceptions of a couple of people such as the geologist Philip Powell and the enumerator of the swifts, Roy Overall, there is no one whose unbroken contact with the Museum extends back as far as Jim’s. He arrived in Oxford in January 1967 as a Demonstrator (junior lecturer) in Earth Sciences, with little more than a half-completed thesis on the chalk strata of southern England to recommend him.

The museum court when Jim first came to Oxford in the 1960s

After spending almost a decade enthusiastically collecting ammonites from around the world with a view to clarifying the historical divisions of the Cretaceous, he succeeded James Edmonds as Curator of Geology at the Museum in 1976. (As an undergraduate, Edmonds had been a member of the famous 1933 Oxford University expedition to Spitzbergen – how’s that for historical continuity?)

The Museum was in a sorry state in the 1970s. It had no Director, and the four Curators, who all had college and University teaching responsibilities, rotated the post of Principal Curator in three-year stints. There was no money. Beautiful 19th century oak display cases had been destroyed or damaged and replaced with ugly 1960s alternatives. Some of the upper galleries had been closed because of a roof leak, and had gradually accumulated unwanted exhibits and empty cases. Opening hours were limited, there were about 8000 visitors a year, donating a total of about £17.

Things began to look up in the 1980s thanks to the government-commissoned review of Earth Science departments under Professor Ron Oxburgh. The original review did not include museum collections, but Jim knew Oxburgh well and ensured that this was put right. Oxford was one of the departments chosen for expansion, and at last money came to the museum to pay staff and build cases for the collections that arrived  from closing departments in Hull, Portsmouth and Reading. ‘That got the renaissance going,’ says Jim, who in the meantime had been gradually rebuilding the geology displays.

There was a further step-change in 1998 when the University finally accepted that the Museum needed a director and appointed Keith Thomson from Yale. Keith was a forceful voice in persuading the government to provide funding to raise standards in regional museums through the Renaissance in the Regions project. All the Oxford museums benefited, and for the first time the Museum of Natural History could support an education team, more curatorial staff and longer opening hours.

Meanwhile Jim too was finding new ways of raising money. The astonishing discovery of dinosaur trackways at a landfill site near Oxford (casts of which now march across the Museum’s front lawn) led to a fruitful partnership with the waste company Viridor, which paid for new displays, including the dodo display, with landfill taxes. Discovering that if only he could get potential donors through the door he could make sure they were in love with the Museum by the time they left, Jim gradually found all the funding he needed for new displays on evolution, on invertebrates and on the geology of Oxfordshire, among others.

Some of the new displays in the court today

In 2003 he succeeded Keith Thomson as Director, and at once made a successful lottery application for half a million pounds. The museum is transformed from the place it was when he first arrived in the 1970s. In the past five years it has won both a Guardian family friendly award and a Queen’s Award, and half a million visitors come through the door each year. ‘The museum has become what I wanted it to be’, says Jim, ‘the public focus for science in Oxford and the friendliest place for the public in the University.’

But what of the future? The abundance of the past decade is about to come to a grinding halt. Those who have retired in the past year have not been replaced. A permanent successor to Jim has not been appointed, though he is leaving the Museum in the extremely capable hands of Professor Susan Iversen, a former pro-vice-chancellor, as interim director. The priorities that Jim established – accessibility, education, displays, and above all curation of the 6 million specimens – may well be vulnerable under a regime of cuts.

Whatever happens, Jim can be very proud of his record. His successors will want to do their utmost to maintain it.


  1. An excellent record. I wonder what Jim is planning for his retirement?

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