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Harrow and Hillingdon Geological Society

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On Saturday 6th March 2010, members visited the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The main aim of the visit was to go on a 'behind the scenes' tour with the Curator of Geological Collections Paul Jeffrey. Not all of the 17 members attending, however, could go on the tour because of space restrictions, which members already understood before the day.

The Museum itself is a Grade 1 listed building, renowned for its spectacular neo-Gothic architecture, and was completed in 1860. The Museum is an important centre for research and teaching, and is organised into four collections: entomology, geology, mineralogy and petrology, and zoology. It also houses several research libraries, and is home to an environmental archaeology unit. In the galleries there are excellent displays of specimens from the University's natural history and geological collections, the latter totalling over 375,000 specimens with 1,400 type specimens. In 1884 a new building to the east of the museum was constructed to house the ethnological collections of General Augustus Pitt Rivers — the Pitt Rivers Museum.

We were shown samples from the collections of Sir Charles Lyell (1797-1875) and Edward Lhywd (1660-1709). Lyell, born in Scotland near the Highland Boundary Fault, was a geologist, lawyer and close friend of Charles Darwin. He attended Exeter College in Oxford. Edward Lhwyd was a Welsh antiquary and naturalist and second keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford. He published the first work devoted solely to British fossils, including many trilobites from the Welsh Borders where he was raised. Other collections held include those of William Buckland, John Phillips and Charles Arkell. We passed through Charles Lyell's library and were shown samples from his collection of post-Cretaceous fossils, which he specialised in. Edward Lhwyd's collection, along with that of Robert Plot (first keeper of the Ashmolean), comprises some of the earliest material in the Museum. We were shown some of Lhywd's specimens.

After venturing down to the museum's basement, where we were shown the undercroft of the building, we went to a storage room where the bones from an an almost complete pleisiosaur were kept. Paul pointed out that bones such as these can be more fragile than is generally thought, and repair wth adhesive when broken isn't always effective as the adhesive is often stronger than the bone.

Paul very kindly made the staff common room available for participants to have their lunch, while others without food went to a nearby pub.

After lunch, we visited a laboratory where moulds and castings for teaching and research purposes were made. Outside this laboratory was a large collection of 'potato stones' from the Silurian Herefordshire Lagerstatten (German: 'places of storage'). Some of these nodules preserve the soft body parts of organisms and come from volcaniclastic rocks of the Wenlock Series; they were awaiting to be split open.

Finally we went to the attic which played host to the evolutionary debate between T H Huxley (supporter of Darwin) and Samuel Wilberforce (Bishop of Oxford) in 1860. Today this attic is an entomological store. On the way we admired the columns of different decorative stones (a 19th Century shop window for these materials) for which the museum is renowned. We then adjourned to the common room for cups of tea, concluding a most interesting 3-hour tour for which Paul Jeffrey is warmly thanked.

For further information on the museum, visit www.oum.ox.ac.uk.

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