Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Review

of an Exhibition

by Eric Leyland

Published on August 01, 2011

  • Description:

    If you get to Oxford England be sure to visit the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

    The building was designed by Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward and built between 1855 and 1860. It is a wonderful example of neo-Gothic architecture and was influenced by the writings of John Ruskin who apparently offered constructive suggestions to the architects during its construction. Set in a university town that is filled with more incredible history and more magnificent buildings than any town should have the museum houses Oxford University’s extensive world-wide collections of zoology, entomology, geology, and mineralogy. Amongst them are; natural history specimens from the Ashmolean Museum, the most complete remains of a Dodo bird anywhere in the world, an historically important dinosaur collection and specimens collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of The Beagle. Over the years the museum has been the site of numerous historically significant debates and demonstrations. In 1860 a debate about the subject of evolution took place between members of the scientific community and the church. Thomas Huxley and the Bishop of Oxford squared off with the Bishop putting his infamous question to Huxley of whether “it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey” Huxley’s reply was equally cutting. This was also the location of the first public demonstration of wireless telegraphy in 1894 giving birth to our current mobile lifestyle.

    The collection and exhibits aside it is the building that I feel is worth the trip. Soaring cast iron pillars each ornamented by different types of plant forms draw your eye upwards to a glass roof that supplies the lighting for the museum exhibits during the day. Cloistered arcades run around the two floors supported by stone columns each made from a different type of stone found throughout England. Each has uniquely carved capitals and bases of plants and animals. There are statues of important figures of science placed around the main gallery; Darwin, Bacon and Aristotle amongst others are standing looking down on the exhibits and watching the visitors. The exhibit displays remind me of museums I went to as a child. Aisle upon aisle of wood and glass cases filled with specimens laid out in neat rows, tiny hand printed labels fixed to them with pins, a kind of gigantic “Cabinet of Curiosities”. However, I find that the exhibits and the building compete with each other, not because the specimens in the exhibits are not spectacular but rather the building details are so magnificent. For me the building itself is a museum exhibit.

    The Oxford Museum is a must see for any fan of neo-Gothic architecture and if you can get passed the beautiful building the specimens on display are pretty amazing too. So if you make it to England be sure to include time to visit Oxford and one of the most memorable museums in the world.

    I have a slide show of the buildings and exhibits posted on Youtube.

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