If you have ever visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History you will know that one of the most striking aspects of the Museum is the building itself, and in particular the huge, arching expanse of the glass-tiled roof which towers over the court. This roof, while certainly spectacular, has also always been rather problematic. Ever since the Museum building was completed over 150 years ago, rainwater has leaked through the tiles and dripped onto the displays and specimens below – a far from ideal situation.

To remedy this, a process began in 2011 that would eventually lead to the Museum’s closure for 14 months between the end of 2012 and early 2014. The first stage involved the closure of the south aisle of the court so that scaffolding could be erected and the painstaking process of removing, cleaning and resealing each of the glass tiles in the roof could begin. This phase served as a trial for the proposed system of sealing the tiles with a mastic silicone adhesive to keep the rain water out.

The south aisle work proved successful so the difficult decision was taken to close the whole Museum to allow the same repairs to be carried out across the centre court and north aisle. In total, over 8,500 glass tiles were removed, cleaned and resealed. Where tiles broke, bespoke replacements were sand-cast to replicate the style of the Victorian originals.

Needless to say, closing a museum and filling its spaces with scaffolding and decking levels requires a lot of careful consideration and preparation. There were a number of aspects to this. Perhaps the most immediately obvious is that the specimens themselves must be demounted, checking, conserved if necessary, packed and stored safely for the duration of the restoration work. Another important consideration was the impact for our Education team: how could education work continue if schools could not visit the Museum for sessions using the collections and displays? And finally, what are the public engagement and public awareness implications of remaining closed for over a year?

Firstly, the specimens. To make way for all this work staff had to carefully demount, wrap, pack, and move all the specimens in the central and northern aisles. The imposing dinosaur skeletons in the centre court – an Iguanodon and a Tyrannosaurus rex – were too big to move and too complex to dismantle, so instead they were encased in their own tomb-like boxes and the workers continued around and above them. Material was stored on-site, partly in the collections departments and partly in special racking fitted and sealed into one of the upper galleries.

Packing up the Iguanodon
Packing up the Iguanodon

“Museum staff constructed boxes and carefully pack up the most vulnerable of specimens, including the taxidermy which is always at risk of insect pest infestation,” says Bethany Palumbo, conservator of the Museum’s Life Collections. “Having specimens accessible meant we could check up on them throughout the year. We also wanted to protect the skeletons from the scaffolding poles and the inevitable build-up of dust and debris, as well as possible rainwater, so they were all wrapped in conservation quality foam and plastic sheeting.”

But as well as the disruption and relocation of many of the displays, the installation of the scaffolding also presented an opportunity. Suspended above one of the aisles are five whale skeletons that were in desperate need of a conservator’s care, having not been examined or treated in well over 100 years.

The whales were in poor condition, with a build-up of dust and dirt sticking to a dense layer of natural oils, secreted and oxidised over the decades to form a thick, black coating. Continuous light and UV exposure had weakening the matrix of the bone material, resulting in warping and cracking. But with the scaffolding in place, the Museum was able to carefully lower these skeletons and undergo a full conservation project to treat and clean the specimens of a Dolphin, Northern Bottlenose Whale, Minke Whale, Orca Whale, and a Beluga Whale. It was also an opportunity to re-articulate the specimens to correct their anatomy which in some areas was not scientifically accurate.

The skeletons have since been raised to resume their vigil over the Museum courts below, reordered into ascending size and staggered by height to make better use of the vast space below the roof. Supported by the Arts Council’s Preservation of Industrial and Scientific Material (PRISM) grant, the whole Once in a Whale project is documented, with detailed photography, at onceinawhale.com.

One of the challenges during the closure was to maintain the Museum’s presence locally, nationally and internationally at a time when people were unable to visit and see the building and its specimens. A huge effort was undertaken to keep the ongoing activities of the Museum visible through the use of social media. This included the creation of the closure blog Darkened not Dormant and daily updates from the then-new Twitter feed @morethanadodo. Used to promote the internal activities as well as outreach projects such as the Goes to Town trail in Oxford city centre, social media have proven to be effective channels of communication for the Museum, with around 3,600 followers on Twitter and over 31,000 views on the blog to date.

photo credit to Mike Peckett
photo credit to Mike Peckett

Taking the Museum onto social media presented a very good opportunity to think carefully about how to communicate with different people and about what the Museum had to say. Despite launching while the building was closed, or perhaps thanks to this, social media channels are now an important aspect of how the Museum engages with people far and wide, extending access to the collections.

The Education team maintained its activity too, taking to the road in a special-liveried van to deliver primary sessions to rural schools in the county which might ordinarily find Museum visits quite difficult. “We packed the van with fossils, bones and even a cheetah, and popped up in some pretty diverse places; rural, non-visiting schools, other museums, music festivals… and even pubs,’” says education and interpretation officer Rachel Parle. “Far from being a year off, 2013 was a chance to try some new approaches and learn from working alongside excellent practitioners from other institutions. Now we’re reopen we’ll certainly be approaching our programme development and delivery with a fresh outlook.”

The Museum of Natural History re-opened on 15 February 2014, with a dawn-til-dusk event titled Into the Light. With live music and roving touchable specimens, the day enjoyed a record attendance of approximately 5,300 visitors.

Whale project blog: www.onceinawhale.com

Closure blog: www.darkenednotdormant.wordpress.com

Main Museum blog: www.morethanadodo.com


Architects – Purcell | Construction – Beard Construction, Eura Conservation | Lighting Design – Zumtobel | Lighting – Monard

Back to top