A little glimmer of good news for you all in this miserable weather; the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is set to reopen its doors to the public on Saturday 15 February.
The museum has been closed for a full 14 month restoration project on its fabulous roof which should prevent the glass-tiled roof of the museum from leaking rainwater into the courts below. The £2 million roofing work involved more than 8,500 glass tiles being individually removed, cleaned and resealed with a mastic silicone. Where necessary, replacement glass tiles have been handmade to match the Victorian originals. While all this has been going on the museum staff have been able to complete successful conservation work on a number of whale skeletons, which were lowered from their position above the court, treated for the first time in over 100 years, and then raised again in a new configuration. Additional lighting has also been installed throughout the public areas of the museum, including specially designed rings of LEDs attached to the underside of the building’s original gas-lamp fittings. They have even got round to opening a small cafe run by Morten’s (who basically run all the other cafes in Oxford…)
If you have not been to the museum, you really must go… I describe it as a Cathedral to Nature, something Sir Henry Acland, The Regius Professor of Medicine, would have agreed with. He initiated the construction of the museum between 1855 and 1860, to bring together all the aspects of science around a central display area. In 1858, Acland gave a lecture on the museum, setting forth the reason for the building’s construction. He believed that the University should offer a chance to learn of the natural world and obtain the “knowledge of the great material design of which the Supreme Master-Worker has made us a constituent part“. This idea, of Nature as the Second Book of God, was common in the 19th century. The museum was funded through the sale of Bibles by the University, and also houses the Pitt Rivers Museum through a rabbit hole door at the rear… In 19th-century thinking, it was very important to separate objects made by the hand of God (natural history) from objects made by the hand of man (anthropology). But more on that, and the Pitt Rivers on another occasion.
The museum was built between 1885 and 1886, and is a stunning piece of Victorian architecture. It consists of a large square court with a glass roof, supported by cast iron pillars, which divide the court into three aisles. Cloistered arcades run around the ground and first floor of the building, with stone columns each made from a different British stone. The ornamentation of the stonework and iron pillars incorporates natural forms such as leaves and branches, combining the Pre-Raphaelite style with the scientific role of the building. Interestingly, Irish stone carvers O’Shea and Whelan were employed to create lively freehand carvings in the Gothic manner. When funding dried up they offered to work unpaid, but were accused by members of theUniversity Congregation of “defacing” the building by adding unauthorised work. According to Acland, they responded by caricaturing the Congregation as parrots and owls in the carving over the building’s entrance. I hope the new roof makes them easier to spot!