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Oxford University Museum of Natural History

From Academic Kids

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History, sometimes known simply as the Oxford University Museum, is a museum displaying many of the University of Oxford's natural history specimens. It also contains a lecture theatre which is used by the University's Chemistry, Zoology and Mathematics departments, and provides access through to the Pitt Rivers Museum.

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Oxford University Museum of Natural History
Contents

History

The University's Honour School of Natural Science started in 1850, but the facilities for teaching were scattered around the city of Oxford in the various colleges. The University's collection of anatomical and natural history specimens were similarly spread around the city.

Regius Professor of Medicine, Sir Henry Acland instigated the construction of the building 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 viewed that the University had been one-sided in the forms of study it offered - chiefly theology, philosophy, the classics and history - and that the opportunity to obtain the "knowledge of the great material design of which the Supreme Master-Worker has made us a constituent part", i.e. the natural world, should be offered.

Several departments moved within the building - Astronomy, Geometry, Experimental physics, Mineralogy, Chemistry, Geology, Zoology. Anatomy, Physiology and Medicine. As the departments grew in size over the years, they moved to new locations along South Parks Road, which remains the home of the University's science departments.

The last department to leave the building was the Entomology department, which moved into the Zoology building in 1978. However, there is still a working entomology laboratory on the first floor of the museum building.

In 1884, a new building to the east of the museum was constructed to house the ethnological collections of General Pitt Rivers - the Pitt Rivers Museum.

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Interior of the Museum

The largest portion of the museum's collections consist of the natural history specimens from the Ashmolean Museum, including the specimens collected by the Tradescants, William Burchell and geologist William Buckland. The Christ Church Museum donated its osteological and physiological specimens, many of which were collected by Acland.

The building

The neo-Gothic building was designed by architect Benjamin Woodward, consisting of a large square court with a large 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, selected by geologist John Phillips (the Keeper of the Museum). 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.

Statues of eminent men of science stand around the ground floor of the court — from Aristotle and Bacon through to Darwin and Linnaeus. Although the University paid for the construction of the building, the ornamentation was funded by public subscription — and much of it remains incomplete.

Significant events

The 1860 evolution debate

A significant debate in the history of evolutionary biology took place in the museum in 1860 at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Representatives of the Church and science debated the subject of evolution, and the event is often viewed as symbolising the defeat of theological views of creation. However, there are few eye-witness accounts of the debate, and most accounts of the debate were written by scientists.

Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford, are generally cast as the main protagonists in the debate. Huxley was a keen scientist and a staunch supporter of Darwin's theories. Wilberforce had supported the construction of the museum as the centre for the science departments, for the study of the wonders of God's creations.

On the Wednesday of the meeting, June 27, 1860, botanist Professor Daubeny presented a paper on plant sexuality, which made reference to Darwin's theory of natural selection. Richard Owen, a zoologist who believed that evolution was governed by divine influence, criticised the theory pointing out that the brain of the gorilla was more different from that of man than that of other primates. Huxley stated that he would respond to this comment in print, and declined to continue the debate. However, rumours began to spread that the Bishop of Oxford would be attending the conference on the following Saturday.

Initially, Huxley was planning to avoid the Bishop's speech. However, evolutionist Robert Chambers convinced him to stay.

The conventional account of the debate runs much as follows:

Wilberforce's speech on June 30, 1860, was good-humoured and witty, but was an unfair attack on Darwinism, ending in the now infamous question to Huxley of whether "it was through his grandfather or grandmother that he claimed descent from a monkey." Some commentators suggested that this question was written by Owen, and others suggested that the Bishop was taught by Owen.
Huxley is purported to have turned to his neighbour, chemist Professor Brodie and exclaiming, "The Lord has delivered him into mine hands." When Huxley spoke, he responded that he had heard nothing from Wilberforce to prejudice Darwin's arguments, which still provided the best explanation of the origin of species yet advanced. He ended with the equally infamous response to Wilberforce's question, that he had "no need to be ashamed of having an ape for his grandfather, but that he would be ashamed of having for an ancestor a man of restless and versatile interest who distracts the attention of his hearers from the real point at issue by eloquent digression and skilled appeals to religious prejudice."

However, it seems unlikely that the debate was as spectacular as traditionally suggested - contemporary accounts by journalists do not make mention of such notable quotes. Additionally, contemporary accounts suggest that it was not Huxley, but Sir Joseph Hooker who most vocally defended Darwinism at the meeting.

While all the accounts of the event suggest that the supporters of Darwinism were the most persuasive, it seems likely that the exact nature of the debate was made more sensational to encourage further support for Darwin's theories.

The 1894 demonstration of wireless telegraphy

The first public demonstration of wireless telegraphy took place in the lecture theatre of the museum on August 14, 1894, carried out by Professor Oliver Lodge. A radio signal was sent from the neighbouring Clarendon laboratory building, and received by apparatus in the lecture theatre.

Charles Dodgson and the dodo

Today, the head and foot of a dodo displayed at the museum are the most complete remains of a single dodo anywhere in the world. Many museums have complete dodo skeletons, but these are composed of the bones of several individuals. The museum also displays a 1651 painting of a dodo by Flemish artist, Jan Savery.

Charles Dodgson, better known by his pen-name Lewis Carroll, was a regular visitor to the museum, and Savery's painting is likely to have influenced the character of the dodo in Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

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