Posted by: georginaferry | November 5, 2010

Star-studded series

I’m late in reporting on the final event of the Museum’s anniversary year, an excellent series of public lectures taking place each Wednesday. The museum has lined up an incredible array of distinguished scientists and others, many familiar from our TV screens and all highly engaging in the flesh. This week we had Richard Fortey on trilobites, of which more later, but the series was launched two weeks ago with one modest and intrepid natural historian talking about another.

David Attenborough lectured at the Museum on 20 October

Sir David Attenborough’s title was ‘Birds of Paradise’, but his talk was really a hymn to the generosity and sheer hard work of Alfred Russel Wallace. Wallace was the first European to see birds of paradise in their natural habitat in the islands between the Malay archipelago and New Guinea. His observations of their mating displays convinced him that their extravagant plumage had evolved through the process of sexual selection. Male birds perform intricate and spectacular dances for the benefit of female birds, usually drably coloured themselves,  who then choose a mate apparently on the basis of their prowess on the dancefloor and the magnificence of their dress.

Just as he does on his TV programmes (and look out for his latest series, First Life, beginning tonight on BBC television), Attenborough used arresting footage of birds doing extraordinary things to introduce his audience to ideas about natural selection, specifically female mate choice and male competition. But time and again he returned to Wallace, who deserves all our admiration for modestly accepting that he would forever be in the towering shadow of Charles Darwin despite having reached the same conclusions.

One of the museum's fossil trilobites

This week Richard Fortey of London’s Natural History Museum returned to his first love, trilobites, and through an astonishing series of images showed us how palaeontologists use the remarkably diverse body shapes of this group of long-extinct animals to understand how they made their living in the Cambrian oceans. Needless to say the Museum has examples of many of these species on display, and it was an added bonus to be able to nip into the court once the lecture was over to marvel at Walliserops trifurcatus and its many relatives.

Still to come we have Professor Kay Davies on her research towards a treatment for muscular dystrophy, George McGavin on – what else? – beetles, and the novelist Tracy Chevalier on the 19th century female fossil collectors of Lyme Regis, subject of her latest book Remarkable Creatures. The lectures have been attracting huge crowds, needless to say, with David Attenborough’s fully booked almost as soon as booking opened. So hurry up and get your tickets if you want to hear the rest – booking is at the University’s website.

Posted by: georginaferry | October 8, 2010

Buckland’s Broadway melody?

It’s a common complaint that science hardly ever features either in high art or popular culture, despite its enormous significance in contemporary life. Oxfordshire Theatre Company has decided to do something about that by commissioning a musical about 19th century palaeontologists. Is a medium designed for romance, the triumph of the underdog, or wry and comic commentary on contemporary life, the right one for scientific discovery and the overturning of old certainties? I’m still trying to decide.

Last night Giants in the Earth (a working title) had its first public showing in the Lecture Theatre at the Museum – a rehearsed reading of the first half, almost all ‘sung through’. A very strong cast of performers had been working for a week on the score developed by writer and composer Nick Wood and Matt Marks, rewriting much of it in the process.

They had arrived at a framework in which William Buckland, Oxford’s first Reader in Geology and later Dean of Westminster, imagined (or hallucinated) the key events in the discovery of the dinosaurs while incarcerated in a nursing home in his final years.  (Buckland’s dramatic 1824 discovery, the Megalosaurus or Great Fossil Lizard of Stonesfield, is on display in the museum.)

The diverse cast of fossil hunters who floated through his mind included down-to-earth and practical Mary Anning, anguished and unrecognised Gideon Mantell, and slimy self-publicist Richard Owen. Two other Marys, the wives of Buckland and Mantell, set up the inevitable tension between the demands of a scientific career and those of home and family.

The larger theme, as the pious cleric Buckland struggles with the realisation that life on earth was much more ancient than any Biblical account could explain, is certainly strong enough to sustain a couple of hours on the stage. I’m not entirely sure that having it sung rather than spoken increases its impact. However, a fully developed piece of musical theatre with staging, props and costumes may convince me. I very much look forward to seeing how the piece develops.

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.

Posted by: georginaferry | August 17, 2010

What I did on my holidays

Looking out over the Teifi estuary

It’s not really a valid excuse in these days of mobile broadband and wireless hotspots, but a holiday in West Wales accounts for my absence from the blogosphere for the past three weeks. Most of my energy was devoted to an annual activity that has nothing to do with natural history (see,  but I also had plenty of time to revisit the breathtaking coastline of Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion. Back in the Museum today I’m hunting through the collections to identify some of the objects I spotted.

Like most of the country, Pembrokeshire had a late spring. But unlike Oxford it also had a wet July, with the result that the meadows were still a vivid green. And the wild flowers! Usually by the time we arrive in early August there’s not much left apart from golden gorse and purple heather. But this year it looked more like June than August. Cow parsley, scabious, thrift, snapdragons, viper’s bugloss, hawkweed, red and white campion, foxgloves, all  grew along the coastal path and in the hedgerows. Attracted by the flowers were an abundance of butterflies which I’m ashamed to say I mostly failed to identify. Common blues certainly, and purple emperors on buddleia, but otherwise lots of small brown varieties that moved too fast for me to get a good look at their defining characteristics.

The sky above the village where we stayed was full of the cries of martins, not as elegant as our own swifts but very entertaining to watch. Flocks of oyster catchers flew overhead in V-formation like geese, and the mournful cry of the curlew sounded over the estuary. Buzzards sat on watch atop telegraph poles on every  lane, the hoarse croaking of ravens announced their presence overhead, and I saw a red kite for the first time this far west. My favourite bird sightings were choughs and fulmars on the cliffs, and a solitary gannet far out to sea, the sun catching on its gleaming white wings. Too late for puffins as usual.

Rock pool at the Witch's Cauldron

We did not do too badly for large sea mammals: grey seals swam off the coast, and we spent a magical half hour watching a bottlenose dolphin teach her calf to fish off the headland at Mwnt. But for high drama the tussle between a crab and a prawn twice its size in a rock pool at the Witch’s Cauldron near Ceibwr was better than television. My photo fails to capture this or indeed any of the rapidly-swimming shrimp or gobies – only an assortment of molluscs and seaweeds which I have yet to identify. *Update – I think the snails are rough periwinkles, Littorina saxatilis, and (in the foreground) flat tops, Gibbula umbilicalis, correct me if I’m wrong! Plus the odd limpet, Patella vulgaris.

Cliff near Cwm Tudu

Much of the drama of this shore comes from the fantastic rock formations in the cliffs, all visible from the wonderful coastal path that follows every curlicue of the coastline from Poppit Sands to Amroth. Some of the coastline north of the Teifi estuary towards Aberystwith is also accessible, and a favourite spot is the cove half an hour’s walk north of Cwm Tudu. It’s hard to imagine the forces that must have come into play to bend the rock strata into such startling folds. Since then the sea has eroded the layers differentially, so that as you run your hands over the rock you encounter sharp points, deeply scoured pockets and surfaces worn smooth all within a few inches of each other.

Pembrokeshire has mountains as well as a coastline. I made a third visit to a spot freighted with significance: the outcrop of spotted dolerite at Carn Menyn in the Preselis, said to be the site where our prehistoric ancestors quarried the ‘bluestones’ for the inner circle at Stonehenge.

Part of Carn Menyn in the Preselis, though to be the source of the bluestones at Stonehenge

If this is true, you can see why they picked the spot: the remaining rocks have been almost pre-shaped for standing stones by ice erosion.

Time to go and wander round the galleries, or find someone to badger into looking at my pictures and helping me to understand more about what I’ve been appreciating largely on aesthetic grounds. Many of the staff are on holiday, but the museum is full of  visitors, mostly very young, whose enthusiastic voices echo outside the door as I write.

Posted by: georginaferry | July 12, 2010

Oh frabjous day!

The Mad Hatter introduces the Curious Company's performance

Oxford is full of fiercely independent fiefdoms, and on the rare occasions that several of them get together for a common purpose the result can be spectacular. Alice’s Day, an annual event that took place last Saturday, is a great example.

It’s a city-wide celebration of the world of Lewis Carroll, the shy Christ Church mathematics don who published his story about Alice’s adventures in Wonderland in 1865. Inaugurated in 2007 as part of Oxfordshire’s millennium celebration, it’s now an annual event coordinated by the Story Museum. The Museum of Natural History has always been an enthusiastic participant, among the many museums, colleges, libraries, shops and galleries where Alice-themed happenings take place.

Alice (right) joins the audience

Carroll (real name Charles Dodgson) was a frequent visitor to the Museum in its early days with his young friend Alice Liddell, daughter of the Dean of Christ Church. Many of the animals in the natural history collections found their way into the story, with our iconic dodo featuring as an alter ego for Dodgson himself. He  even mention the museum in one of his poems:

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!

March Hare, Dormouse and Hatter framed by Ghost Forest tree roots

There was lots of happiness endearing the scene on Saturday as the Curious Company performed for a huge crowd of families on the (sadly parched) lawn, with the Ghost Forest as a suitably fantastic backdrop. Inside, a programme of talks catered for a more mature audience. The enduring appeal of Carroll’s stories is a happy match for the enduring appeal of the Museum, both dating from the same decade in the mid-19th century.

Posted by: georginaferry | July 7, 2010

Ghostly presence

It’s not every spectre that needs a 36-wheel articulated low-loader to move it from place to place. Last night a fleet of such trucks arrived at the Museum at 7 pm to begin unloading the ten massive tree stumps that are the centrepiece of the Ghost Forest Art Project, created by Angela Palmer.

Slings are carefully fitted around the stump to lift it from the low-loader

One by one, with utmost care and skill, they were swung into position on custom-cast concrete plinths arranged on the Museum’s front lawn. The operation attracted an appreciative crowd, who stayed to watch as night fell.

The stump swings out over the museum lawn

Under Angela Palmer's critical eye, the stump is manhandled into position on its plinth

Finally as the slings were removed, each stump settled on its plinth as though it had always been there. The exhibition is staying for a full year, so very soon it will seem as though they always have. A breathtaking spectacle, especially at night when the spotlights pick out the grain of these ancient trees, and the desperate grasping of their roots against the sky.

As night falls, another stump swings past the sequoia

With almost all the stumps in place, the exhibition has a powerful presence

Posted by: georginaferry | July 6, 2010

Inordinate fondness

Part of the museum's entomology display, illustrating the wonderful diversity of beetle species

There hasn’t been much to show for it yet, but over the past few months I have been meeting members of the Museum’s curatorial staff and talking to them about what they do. These conversations have given me a wonderful insight into what goes on behind the scenes, and a sense of the passion that drives people to collect and categorise specimens that illustrate the extraordinary diversity of the natural world.

To begin with beetles. Beetles evolved around 300 million years ago, and to date around 450,000 different species of beetle have been described. Entomologists estimate that at least as many are still unaccounted for. Beetles make up 40 per cent of known insect species, and around a quarter of all known life-forms. No wonder that the biologist JBS Haldane (1892-1964), when asked what the works of Creation told him about the mind of the Creator replied ‘An inordinate fondness for beetles’.

Sharing that inordinate fondness is Darren Mann, Assistant Curator of the entomological collections in the Museum. He has collected insects from boyhood, and devotes exactly the same enthusiasm to collecting and caring for specimens in the museum. The foundation of the entomology department is the Hope Entomological Collection, donated to Oxford University by the Revd Frederick William Hope in 1849, soon augmented by another donation from his younger friend and Oxford professor John Obadiah Westwood. You can read all about the history of the collections in a book that is downloadable from the Museum’s website.

With succeeding curators continuing to collect enthusiastically, the Museum now has a collection of arthropods second in the UK only to that of the Natural History Museum in London, with over 5 million specimens held in 27,500 drawers. The main responsibility of Darren and his colleagues is to make the collection safe and accessible to the scholars from all over the world who want to consult it.

‘We’ve got a massive backlog to sort out’, he says. The original trays do not meet modern standards: they are not pest-proof, and many specimens are inadequately labelled or not labelled at all. The primary day-to-day task of the department is to rehouse the specimens from 6000 drawers to modern standards, pinning and labelling each one with its own unique identifier.

Dung beetles from Malaysia, organised and stored to modern standards

Darren showed me a recent drawer he was working on, containing dung beetles from Costa Rica. (Dung beetles, or scarabs, are Darren’s speciality. There are 35,000 species known and more are reported every year.) There seemed to be 40 or 50 of each species so I asked a typical non-specialist’s question: why do you need so many? ‘You can see that within a species there are different sizes’, said Darren. ‘We try to keep multiple examples from the whole geographical range, and also of different sizes and colours. We also keep one male and one female from each transect line. It means that we have all the information necessary if someone comes to us with a specimen for identification, or if an expert is updating a classification we can go back and check that we have identified them correctly.’

The Costa Rican beetles came from an undergraduate project undertaken with advice from Darren, to assess how the positioning of traps affected which dung beetles were collected. Four students came back with 27,000 dung beetles from 35 species: Darren has identified them, mounted and labelled a representative collection that he has sent back to the natural history collection in Costa Rica, given some to the Natural History Museum and mounted up 40 or 50 of each species for the entomological collections in our own museum, half a dozen or so of which were new acquisitions.

Not all of his collecting trips are so exotic. Darren is national organiser for a scheme to record the dung beetles of the UK, and many of the specimens in the museum are of British species. Only a couple of months ago he found a specimen in Devon that was new to the area; on the same trip he and some colleagues went collecting among the leaf litter in the glasshouses of the Eden Project in Cornwall. ‘We spent about a quarter of our time talking to the public about what we were doing’, he says. Considering the size of their task in the collections, Darren and his colleagues devote a lot of time to education and outreach, and the entomology displays, begun by his predecessor George McGavin and completed by Darren and Zoe Simmons, are among the most accessible in the museum.

‘We’re quite a young department’, says Darren, ‘and all started out as hobby entomologists. We get a lot of pleasure out of insects, and I think the enthusiasm shows in the displays.’

It certainly does.

Posted by: georginaferry | June 29, 2010

Out of The Ark

Last week an Ark arrived on the lawn of the Musuem, the culmination of the Ciao Festival. Children across Oxfordshire have been taking part in workshops based on the question of what they would take with them into a post-carbon future, and what leave behind. The Ark is an exhibition and performance space that is showing the results of their work.

It is very interesting to see how well the lawn works as an additional exhibition space, and how having a large, colourful and unexpected object in front of the facade makes passers-by look again at a building that may have become simply part of the scenery. We will have the opportunity to see this happening again very soon, when the Ghost Forest – another exhibit with an environmental theme – is installed in early July.

Posted by: georginaferry | June 29, 2010

Exhibits speak for themselves

Last week BBC Radio Oxford featured the Museum every day in its magazine programme Jo in the Afternoon with Jo Thoenes, concluding with live interviews with the Director Jim Kennedy and many Oxford staff. You can catch the programme here for the next few days.

From Monday to Friday the programme broadcast a little series called Night at the Museum, in which the Oxford Dodo (storyteller Peter Hearn) introduced one exhibit each day. The exhibits told their own stories, voiced by local comedy duo The Awkward Silence (Ralph Jones and  Thom Short). One of the unexpected but delightful little jobs the museum has found for me to do during my residency was to write a series of 200-word scripts for this series, which meant choosing just five out of the thousands of exhibits on display to make into characters.

Naturally I chose the dodo as the host. I then went for a swift as the first exhibit – the swifts don’t exactly belong to the collections, but at this time of year they are a very vocal presence and as I’ve previously mentioned, they are studied as closely as any of the fossils or animal specimens. Going for as much variety as possible, I then chose the Megalosaurus bones, the Nantan Meteorite from the Touchables display, the statue of Charles Darwin and the tiny scale model of the Earth.

The idea for the series came from Judith Paskin, producer of Jo in the Afternoon, and congratulations to her for coming up with such an innovative way of  introducing the Museum to local listeners.

Posted by: georginaferry | June 14, 2010

Into the dark tower

On Friday  I was granted the greatest privilege of my residency so far. Roy Overall, who has been documenting the swifts that breed in the Museum tower since the 1960s, took me up with him. Normally he counts eggs and young on a Saturday when the Museum is quiet, but this week the wildlife cameraman Dr Manuel Hinge has been filming some of the first hatchlings, so he was making an extra visit.

He unlocked a door from the gallery and we climbed more than 50 steps up a spiral stone staircase, to find ourselves in a large, light room with a window looking out onto the casts of dinosaur footprints in the Museum lawn far below. (I recognised the view from an episode of Inspector Morse in which one of the characters had threatened to jump.) Here we paused to catch our breath while Roy began to tell me more about the amazing birds that live in the tower.

I knew that they wintered in Africa. What I did not realise is that once they leave Oxford at the end of August, they will not land again until they come back next April or May. They  do everything – feeding, sleeping, mating – on the wing. That makes them very hard to study. Roy rings all the young that are born in the Museum tower, but few of the ringed birds return, and we can only speculate about the fate of those that don’t.

We then climbed a second spiral staircase into the roof space itself. ‘Give me your hand’, said Roy as I emerged blinded from the brightly lit tower room to the gloom above. ‘The swifts don’t like light’, explained Roy. With the help of a few dim red lamps my eyes soon adjusted. Each of the ventilation holes in the roof has been fitted with a double nest box, with a removable glass wall on the inside covered by a small fabric curtain.

Roy lifted the curtain aside, and there was a swift on her nest. She seemed much smaller than I expected with her wings folded behind her. She had large, dark eyes and a beak so tiny it seemed barely useful. Indeed, swifts don’t need their beaks to catch prey as they scoop insects into their wide gape as they fly. But they do use them to build their perfunctory little nests, made of any material they can collect on the wing – feathers or the husks of tree seeds for example – stuck together with saliva. And they preen their partners while in the nest box together – though Roy tells me one of the many mysteries about swifts is how they maintain their feathers for the nine months of the year they spend on the wing.

In a couple of the boxes the eggs had already hatched. The parent birds take turns to brood the blind, featherless young while the other goes off to fill the pouch under its chin with food and bring it back to feed them. Manuel had his cameras focused on two of these boxes, documenting the behaviour of the parents and young. The Oxford swifts have not been filmed in such detail since 1976, when Derek Bromhall made his film Devil Birds. A high-quality infrared camera makes it possible to film the birds on the nest without disturbing them.

By Roy’s count for this weekend, there are 51 nests occupied, 25 young hatched and 19 eggs visible. This time last year there were 68 nests. Numbers go up and down from year to year, but the survival of swifts in Britain is a cause for anxiety: they are on the RSPB’s amber list. The main problem is the scarcity of suitable nesting sites as old buildings are insulated and new ones built without any of the inviting holes under the eaves that attract prospecting swifts.

By 2002 when he and Andrew Lack wrote their booklet The Museum Swifts, Roy calculated that he had climbed the tower over 1000 times – and he has done it weekly during the breeding season every year since. Thanks to his dedication – all his work with the swifts is voluntary –  the Museum’s swifts have been documented for longer than any other colony in the world, ever since the ornithologist David Lack began his studies in 1947.

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