Gypsy's Travels

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Travels with Charlie - Inside the Museum of Natural History

Arriving a day early in Oxford provided an opportunity to catch up on rest and see a few things before the program started. Knowing the children would visit the Museum of Natural History, I did not want to spend too long there, but it would be my only opportunity to see it. My first thought on entering the neo-Gothic building, was that a church had been revamped to make the museum. I still can't help but feel that way way when I look around.

Construction started on the museum about 1855 with a plan centered on a large square court topped by a glass roof. The roof is supported by cast iron pillars which serve to divide the square into three aisles.

Columns, each formed from a different stone, and "cloistered arcades" cover the outer perimeters of the first and ground floors. What I first thought to be statues of saints were actually statues of important men of science - Aristotle, Bacon, Darwin , etc.- on the ground floor of the court.

Ornamentation of the stonework (which remains incomplete) features natural elements, like leaves and branches, funded by public subscription. Irish stone carvers were hired to "create lively freehand carvings in the Gothic manner." When the money ran out, the carvers volunteered to finish anyway, but members of the University Congregation accused them of "defacing" the building. The carvers retaliated by caricaturing the congregation as parrots and owls in carvings above the entrance. Those are said to have been removed.

The museum has a host of interesting artifacts, including the head and foot of a, now extinct, Dodo bird. This may have been one of the influences in Lewis Carroll's story of "Alice in Wonderland." I also found this diorama of a hatching Allosaurus egg interesting. There were several hands-on displays amongst the eclectic items.

The museum is free (donations encouraged), open 9-5 daily and also serves as an entrance to the Pitt River Museum (fee).

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