Geeky Oxford–Meeting Dinosaurs and Dodos at The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

The bustling interior of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Here be dinosaurs: the bustling interior of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the opening day.
© Helen Barker

Visiting the Oxford University Museum of Natural History recently was like welcoming home an old friend. The museum had been closed while restoration of the glass roof of the neo-Gothic grade 1 listed building took place. The huge task of removing, cleaning, replacing, and sealing 8,500 glass tiles from the roof cost £2 million, and left Oxford without one of its finest museums for 14 months. The reopening recently was a grand success, with around 5,000 people visiting on opening day and around 30,000 over the first week. I took my family on the very busy opening day to see what had changed and to reacquaint myself with a real Oxford institution.

I’ve been a regular visitor to the museum over the past few years, either with school trips or visiting just for myself. The museum holds a first class collection of zoological, entomological, and geological artifacts, covering everything from meteorites to skeletons, taxidermied birds to dinosaur fossils. Every inch of the museum, including the building itself, is jam packed full of interesting things, from the intersecting geometric patterns on the drain covers to the range of rocks used in the pillars. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve visited, and each time I’ve discovered something new. As well as the collections, the museum itself has an interesting history. It was the site of one of the most famous debates concerning Darwin’s ideas about evolution in 1860 between scientists and philosophers, including Thomas Huxley and Bishop Samuel Wilberforce. It also houses a huge colony of swifts in the tower during the summer months, which are almost as famous as the museum itself!

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History on the opening day. The swifts live in the central tower.
© Helen Barker

Although my daughter had visited the museum before, she was only a toddler then and didn’t really remember what it was like. She is developing a real interest in dinosaurs, so it was lovely to take her now that she is old enough to look at the exhibits and start to understand what the dinosaurs might have been like. She was bowled over by the collections generally, especially the area where you are encouraged to touch various objects, including fossilized dinosaur eggs and a taxidermied fox. We spent ages looking at the dinosaur fossils, including the 1879 discovery of a Camptosaurus skeleton, dug up just up the road from our house! The thought that dinosaurs might have walked around where we lived really made her day.

Another favorite was the display case holding the Oxford dodo, which we discovered at the end of a bird finding trail. The dodo remains were acquired by the museum after the death of John Tradescant, and are the most complete example remaining today. My daughter was amazed at the size and comical shape of the bird, as well as the story of how they came to be extinct. I’m hoping that this story will help her to begin to become more aware of the ways in which people can damage delicate ecosystems and destroy whole species.

As well as access to the usual collections, there were some special events running on the opening day. We enjoyed listening to the live music and talking to the staff, but the highlight was being able to handle a Chilean rose tarantula, which was rather tickly and not nearly as frightening as I thought it would be! It was brilliant to welcome the museum back after the long closure, and I’m thrilled that I’ll be able to take my children along to such a wonderful place. I’m hoping that this will inspire an interest and wonder in the natural world in them, just as visiting the London Natural History Museum did with me when I was a child.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is now open daily from 10am until 5pm, with free entry. As well as their main website, you can keep up to date on their fantastic blog More Than a Dodo and their Twitter feed.

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