On the hunt for a fun (and free!) family day out we decided it was high time we visit Oxford University’s Museum of Natural History. It’s funny. With Oxford within easy reach of us you would think we would have explored every corner of this famous city. Yet in over four years our visits have only been a handful of times. Yesterday we got a taste of just what we have we been missing out on.
Oxford University Museum of Natural History is located in the heart of Oxford’s academic quarter and its origins lie firmly in this prestigious institutes’ thirst for scientific knowledge. Founded in 1860, the Museum of Natural History’s collections of grown sizeably over the years with everything from its famous dodo and Oxfordshire dinosaurs to living and breathing exhibits like the hissing cockroaches. Of course it was mainly for the dinosaurs that we had come to the museum. Roo has been fascinated with and frightened of dinosaurs in equal measures since our visit to the Isle of Wight last autumn where we were fortunate to coincide our visit with the brilliant dinosaur and fossil weekend (if you like dinos and get the chance, do go – it’s brilliant). As we approached the impressive neo-Gothic building that houses the Museum of Natural History, Roo declared the windows looked like ‘dinosaur windows’. Heading inside the museum she was excited to be met with huge casts of the real deal towering high above her, including a Tyrannosaurus Rex complete with teeth like small spears. Roo was not disappointed.
One of the instantly noticeable things about Oxford University Museum of Natural History is its accessibility to all different age groups. When we arrived I headed off to investigate the kids’ trails and information packs I had read about online. To be honest I fully expected them to be beyond Roo’s pre-school and pre-reading attention span and skills but I was pleasantly surprised. The trail sheets on offer included a treasure hunt for dinosaurs and birds that came with pictures to identify and tick off as you find them. Even Roo at 3 years old could manage that by herself. The museum even provided mini clipboards and pencils. The exhibits themselves were laid out with plenty of variety and with more than enough room between them to navigate with Beth’s pushchair. The dinosaur casts felt like they were roaming down the huge aisles with you and huge skeletons of whales and other sea creatures hung from the ceilings. Plenty of more delicate exhibits were tucked away in toddler-nose-height glass cases. There were plenty more though that were clearly labelled for touching and Roo’s favourite museum exhibit – a dark tent for viewing fluorescent minerals, all of which turned the museum into a hands-on sensory experience. With Roo in the lead, we all roamed our way down the geology aisle running our hands over millions of years worth of exhibits as we went. My personal favourite was the Nantan meteorite which fell in China in 1516, though it is far older than that. It made me feel strange and oddly young to be stroking a piece of rock which has been in existence for so long and seen places that mankind is yet to truly discover.
As well as the truly pre-historic there are offerings at the museum from more recent times. Stuffed animals, birds and reptiles line the glass cabinets with species both completely familiar and those that have become extinct within the last few hundred years. Roo wasn’t quite sure about the European Wolf which looked so life-like she refused to walk past it without holding hands. Another fascinating museum exhibit showed an eery looking gathering of animal skeletons of everything from a pig and a horse to an African elephant and a giraffe. Roo was quite taken with looking at the alien looking bone structure of those animals with which we are so familiar with in the flesh somehow made it easier to imagine their dinosaur neighbours as living, breathing entities, not just the skeletal monsters they normally seem. I enjoyed learning about the difference between African and Asian elephants. Did you know that Asian elephants have parallel grooves running along their teeth whilst African elephants have grooves shaped like diamonds?
Having spent almost an hour and a half exploring the main room downstairs at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Roo and her baby sister were beginning to reach saturation point. We headed to the upstairs gallery as much in search of some lunch as for an obligatory quick nip round the remaining exhibits so we felt like we had seen most of what was on offer. Rather than hiding away the more dusty and dry material upstairs though, as museums from my experience so often do, the gallery surprises again. Exiting the lift you are greeted with a working bee hive where you can press you nose up against the glass that divides you from a crawling, bustling crowd of bees and examine these important little pollinators in minute detail. Hissing cockroaches and a tarantula, further exhibits of natural ‘present’, waited for us further along the gallery, causing Roo to remove her nose swiftly from the glass. Whilst she counted the number of insects camouflaged amongst a tray of leaves, I read about the ways in which flies are used for police forensics. Round the corner Roo had fun spotting all the birds she knows. She quickly located the puffin, a favourite from our visits to Pembrokeshire last year. She was also pretty taken aback by the vast wingspan of the Red Kite whose call and aerial form she knows so well from the skies above our house.
We then investigated the museum cafe which occupies one side of the gallery and gives you an eagle-eyed view down on to the dinosaurs below. Get there early at lunch time – space is limited and we had to do an extra loop of the gallery before we could get a table. The museum cafe does a good line in sandwiches (so long as you don’t mind Mayo) and some delicious cakes. N.b. the brownies are far too good for sharing! The prices in the cafe are not cheap but given it is free to get into the Museum of Natural History, we didn’t begrudge the spend. Roo showed off her new dinosaur knowledge by proudly counting the horns on the Triceratops on her kids meal lunchbox whilst her Dad was distracted by a scale model of the Earth, Moon and Sun, the former two of which were located right next to our table whilst the sun was visible distantly on the opposite side of the gallery. Lunch was followed by loo stops (good space for baby changing and getting a pushchair in) and returning our clipboard before heading home. We did pop briefly into the Pitts River Museum – a dimly lit anthropological treasure trove of exhibits featuring everything from life-size totem poles to weaving looms and spears. The Pitts River Museum is housed in the adjacent building to the Museum of Natural History and can be accessed directly from the back of the ground floor. Sadly for the human geography student and explorer in me after nearly three hours’ worth of visit Roo and Beth had reached their limit and it was time to go. Reserved for our next visit perhaps…
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a great day out and I’m glad we finally discovered it! With free entry I am pretty sure we will be back here again before too long, especially as the exhibits will take on new levels of meaning and interest as the girls get older. Our trip this time was at a fairly superficial level as Roo flitted from exhibit to exhibit and yet we were still there with her and he baby sister for three hours (and they were both pretending to be dinosaurs at dinner time). You can also bring along your own finds and fossils to be examined by experts and the events diary is busy with family friendly workshops and interactive days. Whilst it was a bit sad to see all those familiar birds and animals still and voiceless in glass cabinets, it did make me think how much faster we would learn to identify all the different species if we lived round the corner and could visit the museum every week. If every child who walks through the doors of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is as taken with the animals and geological exhibits from our natural world as Roo was and understands the fate that awaits them if we continue down a road of environmental destruction, then it can only be a good thing for continuing a love of learning about our natural world and that right now is more crucially important than ever.
You can find out more information about visiting the Oxford University Museum of Natural History online at their website. It’s worth a look for what’s on before you go – they had some great looking events coming up over Easter!