What do a dodo, Lewis Carroll, fossil hunter Mary Anning and Marie Claire magazine all have in common? The answer is they were all found at Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
I have always had a soft spot for Bill Bryson’s travel books, ever since I studied one them at school. I was given a copy of 'The Road to Little Dribbling: More Notes From a Small Island’ a while ago and recently returned to finish reading it. In an effort to spend less of my free time on screens I’ve started reading more ‘proper’ books. To give me options depending on my mood, I have 3 books on the go - a lighthearted Bill Bryson, 'Lessons on Physics' by Carlo Rovelli and psychology book 'The Antidote' by Oliver Burkeman. I’ve also stacked up a huge bunch of books to read next on my Guardian bookshop wishlist and Amazon one. Who know’s how long it’s going to take me to read all these but I’m excited to think of everything I will learn.
I had a free day over the Easter weekend and decided to take a tip from Bryson’s book and visit the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. He wrote in glowing terms about the place - which is uncommon for him - so it had to be done. I’m glad I didn’t Google the place before I went, otherwise I would have spoiled the wow moment that unfolds as you enter single file through the narrow doors.
What I found was what felt like a mini-version of London’s Natural History Museum. The design of the museum itself was faultless, a large square court divided the room into three aisles. Stone columns each made from a different coloured and patterned British stone surrounded the grand building. Roomy corridors, super shiny glass cases neatly laid out, a huge ceiling with 8,500 glass panels which flooded the room with light. Statues of eminent figures from science were amongst the pillars, including Charles Darwin and Aristotle. Opened in 1860, the architecture had many nods to its capital cousin which was opened in 1881 but was designed sometime before in 1864, decorated with leaves and branches high above our heads. No playful monkeys leaping across the rafters here though.
Please touch (some) of the exhibits
A stuffed brown bear marked ‘please touch' was the first exhibit to greet us. A small gaggle of people were doing just that with varying degrees of enthusiasm. I have to admit I’m a little squeamish when it comes to taxidermy and opted out, but there was plenty of other non-animal exhibits to touch - a huge piece of meteorite, the shiniest and largest piece of Pyrite I have ever seen, coral that resembled a brain in both shape and pattern. Unfortunately the brass plaques describing these objects were worn down and rather ironically, pretty hard to read from too many people touching them!
The real Alice
The next exhibit to grab my gaze was the Charles Dodgson one, perhaps better know as Lewis Carroll. The museum was proud to highlight that he was a regular visitor and some its exhibits were the inspiration behind the dodo character in Alice in Wonderland. There was a photo of the real Alice too, a dark haired young girl who was the daughter of Lewis Carroll’s work colleague.
She Sells Sea Shells
My home coastal town of Lyme Regis was well represented amongst the fossils and I was pleased to see a write up on Mary Anning, Lyme Regis’s notable fossil collector, dealer and palaeontologist. Mary Anning began hunting fossils as a child to earn an income and became well known for the important discoveries she made nestled in the Jurassic cliffs of Dorset, her finds were important contributions in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of Earth. It was a shame her likeness hadn’t been captured in one of the many statues which encircled the room. This seemed to be the privilege of exclusively men. It was fitting to read recently that the Natural History Museums famous 'Dippy the Dinosaur' will be making the first stop of a nationwide tour, to Dorset County Museum in Feb 2018, partly in honour the fossil hunter. I learnt from a note in the museum about this tongue twisters origins too, this was also written in honour of Mary, inspired by her life and work.
'She sells sea-shells on the sea-shore.
The shells she sells are sea-shells, I'm sure.
For if she sells sea-shells on the sea-shore
Then I'm sure she sells sea-shore shells.'
Written by Terry Sullivan, 1908
Amateur fossil hunter who did his best
The notes next to each item were perhaps the only thing I could find fault in. Although very interesting, they were on the long side and it would have taken an awful lot longer than I had planned to read them all. The little written gems were a little hidden, I imagine a lot of the best info would have been overlooked by the 'too long, didn’t read’ visitors.
I admired the casual note about the ‘amateur’ fossil hunter who had uncovered the second largest T-Rex ever found, the cast of which was on display. How can you still be called an amateur and have been responsible for discovering that precious find? The archaeology community of the day clearly had sky-high standards!
A right Oxford Dodo
The museum's twitter handle needs a mention as it’s pretty special @Morethanadodo. What’s the dodo connection? According to Bill Bryson, a hapless museum worker took a dislike to the museum's dodo bones, which he deemed were past their best and put them on a fire. Another museum worker rushed to retrieve the precious remains but unfortunately, only the head and foot were saved. Sadly, what had been almost completely destroyed were the last remains, of the last complete dodo on Earth. They are still on show at the museum, alongside a very realistic model of a dodo and a painting.
*Update - the museum's dodo got in touch on Twitter to say "the story about me being thrown in a fire... probably a bit of a myth!" So it sounds as though this story is more fiction than fact.
You just can’t please everyone
My favourite spot of the day was a lady who had perhaps got a little 'cultured out' and was sat in the middle of all these fascinating exhibits, fully engrossed her copy of Marie Claire magazine instead.
It reminded me of this Victoria Coren Mitchell article about Art being not for her 'Yes, great art. Can I go now?’ when she reluctantly confesses that art galleries bore her. She writes: 'It’s not that I can’t find art beautiful. I just don’t know what to do, standing there in the gallery. I don’t know what to think about. Once I’ve seen it I’ve seen it; that takes about two seconds. I am interested and then immediately bored, immediately.’
I wonder if that lady was of the same mindset?
Two Museums in one
In contrast with the bright and light Museum of Natural History, the adjoining Pitt Rivers museum was dark and brooding and packed with artefacts. According to Wikipedia, the two museums are separate because: 'In 19th-century thinking, it was very important to separate objects made by the hand of God (natural history) from objects made by the hand of man (anthropology).’
I don’t think I have ever been in a museum so densely packed with artefacts, there was easily enough to fill a space 3 times its size. An impressive carved totem pole at the back of the room was the standout piece in terms of scale. But the smaller displays were just as charming, intricate Maori boats and detailed paddles, a real Egyptian mummy, multiple Maori boats - doll sized and life size, and writing tools from around the world which showed younger visitors the history of communication. There were 3 floors in all in this museum and I didn’t even manage to do the first one justice. Gives me a good excuse to plan another visit this Summer.
Ending the day with Einstein
On the way back to the train station we walked past a tour guide who was loudly telling an eager crowd of visitors that inside this building was the chalkboard that Einstein wrote his theory of relativity on. I wasn’t sure whether to be impressed or if this was actually a bit naff?
Oxford has a lot of culture to offer and definitely needs a second visit to see the Pitt Rivers museum and the Ashmolean museum in full and I’ll be happy to oblige. Thanks, Mr Bryson for the recommendation. On with the reading in search of the next cultural find.
By Charlee Sully, Designer at The Usual Studio. Twitter: @TheUsualStudio
I work across design, ideas, strategy and content, writing about branding, design, innovation and entrepreneurship. I love sushi, tea's my cuppa of choice and BBC6 music's always on. Unlike a former housemate - I do find comedy funny.