Here be monsters: The Museum of Natural History, Oxford

We had a family day out to Oxford last week, to see the Ashmolean Museum’s Spellbound exhibition – an evocative, surprising and dark exploration of folk magic and ritual from medieval to modern times – and to go to the Museum of Natural History where a new display has been installed. Photography wasn’t allowed at Spellbound, as is typical in most exhibitions, so this post is a look at the latter.

The building in which the Museum of Natural History is housed is well worth a visit in its own right. A mid-19th-century neo-Gothic structure, it’s like a post-Enlightenment cathedral to science from the outside, with this semi-religious feel continuing on the inside with soaring glass-roofed central aisles. Surrounding these is a square ‘cloister’ whose pillars are each formed from different British rocks. You can feel the post-Darwinian confidence of its Victorian founders, which felt all the more pronounced after visiting the Ashmolean’s Spellbound exhibition and its exploration of superstition, including that in Victorian England.

The museum’s collections cover the natural history of the world including geology, palaeontology, zoology and botany, of which the age of the dinosaurs – the geological periods of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous – is inevitably popular, including numerous dinosaurs and other plants and animals from their time, many found locally. I remember a visit as a child, and my excitement at seeing the Iguanodon and T-Rex skeletons as we entered. To these displays has recently been added a new permanent exhibit, two complete skeletons of plesiosaurs which swam the warm Jurassic seas covering what’s now England around 165 Million years ago, with one specimen found just outside Oxford in Yarnton, the other from Peterborough, Cambridgeshire.

The Peterborough plesiosaur

The display is in two cases, set perpendicular to each other at low level enabling them to be seen easily and clearly by all, with tropical sea-blue background invoking their habitats. The Yarnton example, excavated by museum staff, is laid out exactly as it was found within the clay, the skull in two pieces, its body splayed out behind. The Peterborough plesiosaur curves along its case, as if caught in the action of turning. Both are about 5m in length, impressive when you’re that close to them. The labels and accompanying videos give much background information on the finds, their rescue and conservation, not to mention how you put them back together again. It’s a great display, I enjoyed exploring it a lot, taking you from the lives of these remarkable animals to how we care for their fossilised remains, the latter an aspect of museum work which doesn’t always reach gallery labels.

Looking through the case at the Peterborough plesiosaur

All around the ‘cloister’ at this end of the museum are the cases showcasing the palaeontology collections of Jurassic fossils, so it’s also easy to put the plesiosaurs into context. We only had about half an hour to look around the museum, but sometimes that’s not a bad thing, concentrating on specific things, in this case something new in a museum we all know well.

The Yarnton plesiosaur, found just outside Oxford

If you enjoyed this post why not read:

Hidden stories: the amazing life of a Budleigh Salterton pebble

More information: the Museum of Natural History can be found here

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