In order to make the most of my time in the UK I planned a trip to Oxford and Cambridge for my first day off and weekend. I took the train to Oxford on Friday the 20th of January. I was very excited about my trip to Oxford as I have read a lot about the museums and galleries there, and I had only ever seen pictures of them. They certainly did not disappoint.
I was fortunate enough to be able to meet with the Director of the Natural History Museum, Paul Smith, and this was definitely the highlight of my trip to Oxford. Paul was kind enough to show me around the exhibition space and collection stores, which as you can see in the images below are wonderful. I was particularly interested in seeing the fluid preserved specimens, as I am currently writing my thesis on historical preparation techniques of fluid preserved specimens in the Tiegs Museum of Zoology at the University of Melbourne. It was great to be able to see other preparations from a similar date and compare the techniques used to preserve them.
I was shown the last surviving skin remains of a dodo. Whilst to many people this may just look like a shrivelled old dead animal, to me is signifies the importance of natural history collections and their conservation. These collections are vast repositories of all known life on earth, and we can learn so much from them. They help to develop our understanding of biodiversity, evolution, population genetics and environmental impacts on species. As in the case of the dodo, they sadly are our last record of the fact that this species existed.
The collections at the Oxford Natural History Museum influenced another well known Oxford local. Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, who wrote under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll regularly visited the museum with Alice Liddel, the daughter of the dean of Dodgson’s college. The specimens and artworks on display in the museum are thought to have inspired the characters in his famous literary work, Alice in Wonderland. For me it was inspiring to see these specimens, and consider how they have gone onto feature in the imaginations of so many children and adults alike.
The Natural History Museum was also showing a temporary photography exhibition of insect photography by Levon Biss, called Microsculpture. Before visiting the museum, I had watched the video below, which shows the process of creating the images from thousands of photographs taken using a microscope. Coming from a photography background, I understand the complexity of lighting, focusing, photographing, processing and editing such large scale images, and I feel very fortunate to have been able to see the prints in person. They are truly incredible!
Whilst in Oxford I also visited the Pitt Rivers Museum, the Ashmolean Museum, the Museum of the History of Science, the Bodleian Library Collection Treasures and the Sheldonian Theatre. The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most fascinating museums I have ever visited. They have their display cabinets crammed full of similar objects made by different cultures from all over the world. It makes for a wonderful comparison of human innovation and skill. I felt as though I was walking through a cabinet of curiosities, with endless fascinating objects to examine.
The Ashmolean also has a large collection of wonderful and rare objects. The Ashmolean building has been recently renovated, and offers an incredible setting for viewing their collections, as can be seen in some of my photographs below. It was incredible to see some of the objects and artworks that have been collected over the years, from ancient hominid remains, to Greek ceramics and sculpture, to modernist artworks.
The Ashmolean have a wonderful display about conservation of collection objects, and details of treatments, analysis, decision making processes and ethical considerations associated with conservation.
I thoroughly enjoyed my visits to the Museum of the History of Science and the Bodleian Library Collection Treasure, both of these are much smaller exhibits. The highlights of the Museum of the History of Science collection for me were a chalk board dating from 1931 on which Albert Einstein wrote equations that connect the age, density and size of the universe; an incredible 5ft in diameter pastel drawing of the moon, completed by the artist John Russel in 1795; and the camera and darkroom equipment used by Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll). The highlights for me of the the Bodleian Library Collection Treasures were an illustration by J.R.R Tolkien for The Hobbit; and Robert Hookes book Micrographia, published in 1665, which is the first book in English to illustrate observations made under the microscope. This was great to see after having seen Levon Biss’ exhibition at the Natural History Museum, and to observe how technology to illustrate nature has changed and developed over time.
Just before I left Oxford I walked up the tower of the Sheldonian Theatre, which offers magnificent views over the city. Despite the fog on the morning of my visit, it was so great to get to see all the spires and medieval buildings.
On Saturday I took a bus to Cambridge. This was a three-and-a-half-hour journey. It was great for me to be able to see some of the English countryside and towns, but also unwind and process everything that I had done and seen in the past week. In Cambridge I visited some friends from Australia who are studying there. It was so good to be able to be shown around the city by others who are familiar with it. Overnight there was a frost – which was quite a novelty for me as I had not seen frost like that before.
Whilst in Cambridge I visited the Fitzwilliam Museum. I was very impressed by the intricate marble and gold staircase, as well as their displays of china and historical paintings. One particular painting in the Fitzwilliam Museum that caught my eye was one which I had previously read about the conservation treatment undertaken on it. Hendrick van Anthonissen painted ‘View of Scheveningen sands with a stranded sperm whale’ in 1641. At some point in history the whale was painted out of the picture, and it was not rediscovered until recently when conservation treatment was undertaken.
I travelled back to Birmingham on Sunday evening, ready to commence another week at the cultural collections of the University of Birmingham.