The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Recent posts on the Musings have drawn heavily from my long overdue first visit to this place, so it’s high time I got on and added a review. It is, in short, superb, and well worth several hours of almost anyone’s time. The most notable feature is the way in which so much material and (importantly) information is crammed into such a space. As with many such places and my reviews of them, I really cannot cover the breadth or depth of the place so a brief overview of some key points and then some pretty pictures will have to suffice.

The museum is really built around a single open-plan room with all the exhibits stuffed into it without any real barriers. Thus one can step around a case of theropods to discover mammals are held on the back, or take a look at a pickled squid and realize that through the glass one can see a baby elephant skeleton. If I had one criticism of the museum it would be that in places it is a bit too packed. Some excellent specimens are not easy to see as they are hidden behind or between other specimens or are stuffed into a cabinet that has large wooden beams across it that covers things you want to see. This is not much more than a nit-pick though, I’m always grateful to see lots of things on display.

Those displays are good – well lit, clearly labeled, well laid out (where space permits) and with lots of ancillary information and cross-referencing. It’s the kind of thing I long to see in many museums and don’t. There’s lots of detail if you want to read it, but getting the base essentials (this is a rare insect, this is a toe bone of a dinosaur) takes seconds.

The museum is rather light on plants and fungi, and less unusually, is light on bacteria, algae, and the smaller beasties of the planet. At the risk of annoying many colleagues and readers, most of the public do prefer things like dinosaurs and mammals so it’s no surprise they are favoured. Still, if you do like the ‘lesser’ things, expect to be disappointed.

The museum does cover insects and inverts well, has a large collection of dinosaurs (including lots of locally collected material), a great set of mammal skeletons, various stuffed birds, and various other bits and bobs. There are some real gems to find too like the tuna skeleton, some live insects, classic artworks and more.

Despite the small size there is a ton of stuff here and it obviously has high repeat-visit values even to someone who (Like me) has seen a great many museums and a huge number of galleries and exhibits. There is lots to see and despite the scale of the place there were several small but new, temporary exhibits meaning that things keep turning over there offering further re-visit value. If you can, go. You won’t regret it.

8 Responses to “The Oxford University Museum of Natural History”

  1. 1 Mike Taylor 02/07/2010 at 5:00 pm

    It’s my single favourite museum in the world, which is really saying something given the awesomeness of the Humboldt central gallery. But the OUNHM has a sheer density of specimens that’s exhilarating — no other museum is anywhere near as likely to present me with someone that I wasn’t looking for but which I’ll find fascinating.

  2. 2 Oliver Humpage 02/07/2010 at 6:28 pm

    Don’t forget to visit the Pitt Rivers museum, which is accessed through the natural history museum. Absolutely amazing collection of weirdness and wonders from around the world, I can still remember seeing my first shrunken head there as a kid.

    • 3 David Hone 03/07/2010 at 9:21 am

      Didn’t have time to get there sadly, but did take a peek through the door. It did look good. Reminded me of the Horniman in London.

  3. 4 Paul Barrett 03/07/2010 at 8:14 am

    The lack of botany and protistans in the displays reflects the OUMNH collections – they don’t have collections in these areas. Their strengths are in traditional zoology/anatomy (the core of this collection is the Christchurch anatomical collection with some material from the original Ashmolean collection, together with the Hope Entomological collection (one of the most important in the world) and the geological collection (particularly strong in the Mesozoic and Quaternary and mainly from Oxfordshire, but with some other important specimens including the Red Lady of Paviland, an early human burial). The museum got its current set of displays in the early 00’s, so they still look new and fresh. You might be interested to know that this is still used as a primary teaching resource in the university and the design of the exhibitions has this in mind to some extent.

    • 5 David Hone 03/07/2010 at 9:24 am

      Thanks for this Paul. Always nice to know a bit more about the history and certainly I was impressed by how ‘new’ it all looked. If large chunks of displays are less than 10 years old that explains a fair bit. Still, all good quality.

      I’m not complaining about the lack of plants etc. (sorry botanical enthusiasts) but that does jar a little with the museum’s name since ‘Natural History’ rater implies all life.

  1. 1 An inordinate fondness…. « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 03/07/2010 at 10:35 am
  2. 2 The Buckland collection « Dave Hone’s Archosaur Musings Trackback on 09/07/2010 at 7:49 am
  3. 3 The Grant Museum of Zoology « Dave Hone's Archosaur Musings Trackback on 19/06/2012 at 10:28 am
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