Imagine walking up to a beautiful Neo-gothic building on a bright English day. Clouds, cotton candy-like, bob around the sky. There is a tall coniferous tree on the ground next to you, and under its shade, what could be the cutest coffee shop in the world, selling hot coffee and donuts. Picture perfect.
And then, you trip and fall—on the cold hard ground leading up to The Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Look alive, for you have tripped on the giant ‘footprints’ of the good fellas from Jurassic Park, the behemoths considered extinct about 65 million years ago. The prints are but replicas, but you do due diligence as a dino-buff by putting your own feet inside the gaping craters, feeling thoroughly insignificant.
The museum was built between 1855 and 1860, when there was a need to have a common display space for the specimens otherwise distributed in various colleges under the Oxford umbrella spread across the city. Situated at Parks Road, the building itself is a grand business, and for any natural history enthusiast worth their salt,it only gets better inside.
The sight of two taxidermy bears on either side of you as you walk through into the main display area is only the tip of the iceberg. “Please touch me,” the sign reads next to the bear, and like a wonderstruck five-year-old, you have all the liberty to observe the massive beasts from the closest distance imaginable. When you’ve had your fill, turn around, because right behind you is a gigantic T. rex skeleton. You’ll find it’s true what the books say, the canines of a T. rex could grow up to 15 centimetres.
The museum also boasts a fantastic display of five cetacean (whales, dolphins and porpoises) skeletons hanging from the ceiling. These include the northern bottlenose whale, the beluga whale, the bottlenose dolphin, the killer whale and the minke whale. What is remarkable about these skeletons is how they were collected as single units in their entirety, in the early 19th century, a feat remarkable at that time. In addition, the museum also has the skull of a humpback whale and a lower jaw of the sperm whale, one of the deepest diving creatures on earth. There’s more once you move ahead. Exhibits of meteorites, one of them, the Nantan meteorite, as old as the Earth itself! There are fossil remains of ammonites and other invertebrates that are thousands of years old; dazzling minerals; vintage paintings. That’s not to forget the jaw-dropping exhibits of the sabre-toothed tiger—think Sid from the Ice Age movies. Walk upstairs, and there is a whole section of live collections, various insects from the Madagascar hissing cockroach to the Brazilian bird-eating spider.
One of the most fascinating exhibits, however, was not a fossil at all. Keep your eyes open for the story of the origin of a certain Alice. It so happened that one Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, mathematician, photographer and storyteller, went on a rowing expedition up the Thames. With him was little Alice Liddell, aged 10. To add to the ambience and amuse his young audience, Dodgson spun a series of tales incorporating in them fictional versions of friends and familiar places around Oxford, coupled with riddles, and plenty of references to natural history. Later bringing Alice and her sisters to the museum, he went on to include many creatures from the collection, including the famous Oxford Dodo. All this led to the publication of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, written under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, in 1865.
The experience of walking around the museum for the whole day is fabulous, and sorely inadequate. Two days cover more grounds but also doesn’t do the trick, as I found out after hitting the museum on both days of my stay at Oxford. It did not help one bit that just as I thought I should head out of the museum, I came across a doorway that led to a completely different museum—Pitts River Museum—which depicts animals and plants as they appear in local art forms and cultures from across the world. I did not dare take my chance.
On the way out, a quick visit to the museum store made me the proud owner of the fossil of an invertebrate almost 400 million years old, collected in Madagascar. A souvenir as kooky as the museum I was sure to return to—and as precious.
Sutirtha Lahiri is a Master’s student at the Wildlife Institute of India, Dehradun. He is always in search of birds and birdsong, good food, a cup of tea, and a reason to ditch transport for long walks.