The beautiful Natural History Museum and Pitt Rivers Museum is situated on Parks Road, a quiet and leafy part of Oxford next to the University Parks. Today, the two conjoined museums attracts around 700,000 visitors yearly, including young school children, families, researchers and students. It is difficult to name all the different artifacts on their displays and also in their archives; to mention one fact, the museum boasts 6 million specimens and close 30,000 types of specimens of insects alone. Among the highlights of the Museum is the head and foot of a dodo displayed, which are the most complete remains of a single dodo anywhere in the world.
This is an interesting link with another famous Oxonian, who wrote the much loved classic Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll; many say that the model of the Dodo, as well as the other animal exhibits in the museum would have served as an influence to the characters which appear in his book. The museum also houses an understandably huge sperm whale jaw at the entrance, a vast collection of rocks and minerals and fossils and of course the Oxford Dinosaurs, alongside more familiar looking cute and not so cute taxidermies. Besides these endless contents of the museum however, I would turn attention to the ‘house’ itself, the museum buildings.
Outside, follow the replica of dinosaur footprints on the front lawn of the museum, and step into the main entrance. As soon as you come through the doors and into the main court of the Natural History Museum, you find yourself looking up, past the T-Rex skeleton and up to the glass roof with cast iron details which is possibly the most striking feature on arrival. The roof is held up by cast iron pillars, the intricate lattice design echoing the negative spaces of the skeletal structures displayed around you. Go upstairs and you will get a better view, as well as rows of pull out drawers and glass display cabinets showing some of its collections. You may even bump into a few cabinets of live bugs, which I personally always try to avoid as I cannot handle the squirm. But if this of interest to you, feel free. Nature never fails to impress.
The more you look into the details regarding the inspiration behind the design of the museum, and also about certain materials which were used, it provides a deeper appreciation for the museum. The construction was initiated by a professor of Medicine, Sir Henry Acland, between 1855 and 1860, as he believed it was important to gather the biological specimens, scattered within the University of Oxford, in one viewing place. The ultimate aim was to raise the importance and appreciation of the field of biology and natural history within the University and also in society. What is remarkable is that the whole project was carried out in such a beautiful way, creating a stunning building which artistically responds to the contents which it holds.
Architects Thomas Newenham-Deane and Benjamin Woodward won the competition for their proposed design for the museum, which they then started in 1855 and finished in 1860. A further museum was then added to the back of the building to hold ethnological collections, which was built in 1885 to 1886; this was designed by Thomas Newenham-Dean’s son Thomas Manly Deane. This is the Pitt Rivers Museum which can be accessed via the Natural History Museum, which holds a collection initially donated from early anthropologists and explorers. Think mummies, totem poles and monkey sculls. Again, like the Natural History museum, the Pitt Rivers can be self-maneuvered through, and the visitor is invited to open drawers for themselves to pick and choose what to explore within its collection.
Some important influence and suggestions for the construction of the original Natural History museum were given by John Ruskin. John Ruskin was an art critic, painter and writer who wrote of the connections between nature, art and society, and he believed that architecture should be derived by the energies of the natural world. Perhaps it is this essence which makes this place so romantic and breathtakingly beautiful; there is an obvious Pre-Raphaelite influence here with the gothic architecture and subject matter.
It is all about the details in the museum. At the top of each iron pillar of the cloistered arcades are delicately crafted depictions of different plants and flowers. The stones used have been chosen from British stone quarries, each labelled to show name. You will also notice from the front of the building the carvings around the window are not quite completed; some of the windows are extremely intricately detailed of animals and plants, and then the majority which are left completely blank. This was due to lack of funds for the construction which forced them to leave it as it was. These unfinished details however somehow increases the charm of the museum.
The museum is passionate about sharing with the community. The education center will engage with the younger visitors in school groups with hands on introduction to some of the artifacts; a team is also dedicated to go out, taking objects from the museum with them, to visit communities who may not necessarily have the ability to come out to visit, such as dementia homes. Giving people the opportunity to experience the museum is the key aim here. The museum dynamically reaches out to all ages, from infants to learned professionals of the field.