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  • Writer's pictureRebecca Marks, MA

A Brief History of Oxford University Museum of Natural History

What is Oxford University Museum of Natural History?

Oxford University Museum of Natural History is an important collection of natural history specimens and archives in a 19th-century building.


Oxford University Museum of Natural History

User:Ethan Doyle White, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons


Oxford University Museum of Natural History History

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a place of international scientific significance and home to a diverse and prodigious collection of natural and geological specimens. It operates simultaneously as one of the largest collections of natural history in the UK outside London, as well as being an active part of Oxford University’s Chemistry, Zoology, and Maths departments, all of which conduct undergraduate lectures here. The museum also offers the only entrance to the famous archaeological treasure-trove known as the Pitt Rivers collection, making it an especially worthwhile destination not only for those interested in science and nature, but also anyone wishing to learn more about history, anthropology and the arts.


The museum is housed in an awesome neo-Gothic structure. The building, which dates from 1860, was inspired by Oxonian art critic John Ruskin, who famously thought that all art and architecture should be influenced by natural forms. You can see this reflected in the small columns adorning the outside of the building, each in a different kind of stone. And if you look closely, you can see how decorative stonework elsewhere is carved into the shapes of leaves and stems, the designs based on plants from Oxford’s Botanic Garden.


The museum boasts a number of unique collections, ranging from zoology and palaeontology to art history and environmental sciences. These encompass over seven million specimens, including hundreds of thousands of preserved fossils, insects, animals and plants, as well as precious stones, meteorites, and architectural details. There’s a team of expert conservators who maintain and care for the items, in storage and on display, so they can be enjoyed in perpetuity.


Perhaps the most famous subject within the museum’s vast collection is the ‘Oxford Dodo’ – the only surviving remains of dodo soft tissue in the world. The bird has become a key part of the museum’s identity and has been adopted as its logo. Other fascinating exhibits well worth visiting include the ‘Skeleton Parade’ in the main court; the four ‘Oxfordshire Dinosaurs’; the prehistoric ‘Nantan meteorite’; the oldest remains of a human ever discovered in the UK; and William Jones’s wonderful anthology of butterflies from the 18th century.


Aside from its collections, the museum has a rich and thriving program of events as well being a centre for learning and research, welcoming casual visitors, students and scientists alike. Entry is free to all and curators frequently conduct workshops and special events, providing visitors with fresh insight into the exhibits.


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