The displays of the central aisle
As you walk into the Museum for the first time, you are struck by the sight of two large dinosaurs towering over you. The Iguanodon and Tyrannosaurus rex have greeted thousands of visitors over the years and provide a spectacular introduction to the Museum, but they are not the only wonders to be found here.
Each case exhibits treasures from the collections, and illustrates some of the most famous features of the Museum: its connection with Alice, the dodo, and the celebrated Oxfordshire dinosaurs.
The redesign of the central aisle
For many years the central aisle of the Museum languished as a home to ageing temporary displays. In the run up to 2000 things began to change, and it was proposed that this area should be dedicated to showing off the collections, introducing visitors to the scale of the Museum's holdings, and outlining the most famous features of the building. To reflect the historical nature of the collections it was important that the displays retained the feel of the Victorian era, but with an updated and accessible outlook.
The rest of this article describes the contents of each of the newly refurbished display cases in the central aisle of the court.
The real Alice
On a sunny afternoon in 1862, an Oxford don led a rowing expedition up the Thames. He was Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, and the party included Alice Liddell, aged 10. During the afternoon Dodgson spun out a series of fantastic yarns incorporating friends and familiar places in Oxford.
Alice Liddell's father was Dean of Christ Church, where Dodgson was a Fellow, and had been a keen supporter of the project to build a natural history museum in the city. Dodgson was a regular visitor to the Museum and often brought Alice and her sisters to see the exhibits. He began to incorporate the creatures from the displays into the tales he told his young friends. He was persuaded to write down his stories, and the result, published in 1865 under the name of Lewis Carroll, became the world favourite Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass (1871).
The specimens in the Alice case all feature in Dodgson's books.
The Oxford dodo
The story of the dodo is one of the most famous examples of extinction. It lived on the island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and was discovered by Europeans in 1598. By 1680 the flightless bird was extinct.
Around this time, a dodo was acquired by John Tradescant. On his death its remains came to Oxford with the rest of his collections. Today they remain one of the greatest treasures of the Museum as they represent the most complete example of the dodo in existence.
Belonging to Professor Buckland
William Buckland was a man of enormous energy, being both a member of the clergy and a brilliant scientist. His account of Megalosaurus bones from Stonesfield in Oxfordshire was the first scientific description of a dinosaur.
The display highlights the importance of the historical content of a museum collection. It focuses on some of the most interesting specimens in the geology collections at Oxford that Buckland himself had discovered. Included are skulls of a woolly rhinoceros and a cave hyaena, ancient coprolites (fossilised faeces), ammonites, fossil plants, and an interesting array of curios.
On the trail of the Oxfordshire dinosaurs
In the spring of 1997, a Birmingham schoolteacher contacted the University after learning of the presence of dinosaur footprints in the quarries at Ardley. Staff of the Museum were sent to measure and describe the site, and cast the better trackways.
The Ardley site is made up of a Jurassic limestone that formed some 168 million years ago. The area around Ardley was then a region of mudflats and lagoons with a shallow sea extending north and west, into what are now the Cotswolds. The trackways can be linked to the skeletal remains of two types of dinosaur known from the Jurassic: Megalosaurus and Cetiosaurus.
Megalosaurus: the first dinosaur
The first described dinosaur from anywhere in the world, was found in Oxfordshire. It was a 9 metre long carnivore that stood on its hind legs; now called Megalosaurus bucklandi, or 'Buckland's giant-lizard'.
When Buckland collected the bones that are now on display, he was unsure of their significance. When the great French comparative anatomist Georges Cuvier visited Oxford, he realised that the Stonesfield bones belonged to a giant animal resembling a lizard. Following Cuvier's visit, Buckland started describing the fossils in earnest, and he published an account of them in 1824.
Camptosaurus: the Cumnor dinosaur
The unique skeleton of Camptosaurus was discovered in 1879 by workmen in a brickpit on Cumnor Hurst, 2.5 miles south west of Oxford. The name comes from the Greek kamptos meaning 'flexible', and sauros, 'lizard'; its 'flexibility' came from the incomplete fusion of its vertebrae and skull, and suggests it could have been a juvenile.
The Oxford specimen is the most complete member of the genus known from Europe, and is the earliest known representative of the large-bodied, usually quadrupedal, herbivorous dinosaurs later represented by the iguanodontids.
Cetiosaurus: the Oxford brontosaur
Cetiosaurus was a sauropod dinosaur; it had four massive walking legs, a long, slender neck with a tiny head and an equally long, slender tail. Dinosaurs like Cetiosaurus were once thought to have lived in water, but now it is believed that they lived on land, browsing on low vegetation. Footprints made by Cetiosaurus are found at Ardley.
Most of the specimens on display were found in the 1860s by Mr Chapman, a watchmaker who 'discovered and rescued the monster Cetiosaurus at [Enslow Bridge]. He was on a botanising expedition with his son, and had just got off the train as the first fragment was disclosed by the pickaxe. He found the foreman, stopped the digging, and telegraphed to John Phillips, Professor of Geology and the first Curator of the University Museum, who super-intended the removal of the enormous bones to the Museum. The credit went to Phillips, no one remembered Chapman'.
Bones of Cetiosaurus have also been found at Woodstock a few miles north east of Oxford as recently as the 1980s.
The skeleton of Eustreptospondylus is the most complete specimen of a Jurassic carnosaur in all of Europe. Carnosaurs were a group of heavily built, bipedal, predatory, carnivorous and carrion feeding dinosaurs with reduced fore-limbs, large heads on short necks and sharp cutting teeth.
Eustreptospondylus was discovered in 1871 by workmen at a long-vanished brickpit in Summertown, just one and a half miles from the Museum, and was acquired by James Parker, an Oxford bookseller, publisher and amateur geologist. The brickpit was the source of some of the bricks used in the construction of the Museum.
In the early 1820s Gideon Mantell, a Sussex country doctor and avid fossil collector, acquired a series of unusual fossil teeth, but was unable to identify them. After seeing the teeth the famous French anatomist, Cuvier, suggested they might have belonged to some giant plant-eating reptile.
During a visit to the Hunterian Museum in London, Mantell was shown a skeleton of an iguana, a large South American lizard. So striking were the similarities between the teeth of the lizard and his fossils, that he was certain he had discovered a gigantic extinct reptile. He named it Iguanodon, from the word iguana, and the ancient Greek odous meaning 'tooth'.
The skeleton in the court is a cast of one of the herd of 31 individuals found Belgium in 1878. The skeleton has been posed to show the animal with its tail resting on the ground, but if you look at it closely, you can see that its tail would actually have had to been broken to stand in this way.
Minerals are everywhere, making up all the rocks of the Earth's crust. There are over 4,000 different minerals, each a natural inorganic chemical element or compound with a unique combination of chemical composition and crystal structure.
The mineral kingdom is valuable to us all in our everyday lives. Some minerals are strikingly beautiful - the prettiest, most durable and rarest may be cut as gemstones. Others are the raw materials for making everything from toothpaste and washing powder to computers and aeroplanes. Our civilization depends on the exploitation of minerals.
The minerals in the Museum's collection come from mines and quarries, road-cuttings and other places where rocks are exposed. Long ago they were studied for their supposed healing properties by medical students. Today they are an invaluable resource for research by geologists, mineralogists, and other scientists throughout the University.
Love them or hate them, insects are by far the most successful animals on Earth; they individually outnumber humans billions to one, and scientists discover thousands of new species each year.
Most of us notice insects only when we are bitten or stung, but we could not manage without them. They are a vital food source for birds, fish and other animals, they are important pollinators and excellent recyclers; they make honey, wax and silk. But insects can harm humans too: they can eat up to a fifth of the world's crops each year, and carry deadly diseases, including malaria.
The entomological collections at the Museum are of great scientific importance, containing thousands of historically significant specimens. Among them are the oldest surviving pinned insect, and the tsetse fly collected in Africa by David Livingstone.
Living things have evolved into millions of different forms, producing the variety of life we call biodiversity. There are probably somewhere between 5 and 12 million living species, but only about 1.7 million have been described.
Systematics, the classification of the natural world, is essential for the study and conservation of biodiversity. To describe its breadth, scientists divide living things into groups; traditionally these have been the five kingdoms, animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, and other single-celled organisms. Everything in this display is from the animal kingdom.
The zoological collections held in the Museum are a vital resource for scientists studying evolution, systematics and the diversity of life. They include the original specimen of the white rhinoceros, and crabs collected by Charles Darwin on the voyage of The Beagle, and of course, the dodo.
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