Peppered Moths and Unexpected Carvings: Oxford Natural History Museum

This week, our Year Nine Museum Studies students were very lucky to be able to visit the Natural History Museum after a long period of closure. They were greeted outside by Rogder Caseby, education officer, before being led into the main building. There Rodger asked them to think about what the building looked like. Some suggested it reminded them of a cathedral or a train station, with its vast and impressive atrium and glass roof. In fact, as Rodger pointed out, it was designed to be a bit like a temple of learning. He told students to look at the outside entrance as they left the building, where they would see a carving of an angel, holding a Bible in on hand, and a model of a cell in the other. At the time of building in 1855-60, science was viewed as being a pursuit which explored and celebrated divine creation, and so the angel was meant to represent this.

The group were then taken to a lecture hall where they were told more about the construction and design of the museum building itself. At the time of design, Darwin's had not yet published his "On the Origin of the Species", and some of the carvings are even thought to parody Darwin's theory of evolution, which was seen by many as absurd. However, once the theory had been shown to be backed by persuasive evidence, the museum installed a statue of Darwin in a prominent position to show their support! In 1860, a significant debate on the theory of evolution took place. Thomas Huxley, a biologist and supporter of Darwin's theory argued against Samuel Wilberforce, the Bishop of Oxford. The room where they debated is now called the Huxley Room.
Rodger explained how evolution was therefore an underpinning theme of the Natural History Museum, and how it contained evidence in its collections which supported the theory. It also showed some of the many aims and functions of a museum - research and learning, as well as displaying collections to the wider public. The group were able to see some specimens which provided evidence of living things adapting to their environment over time.  A geneticist called Bernard Kettlewell observed the populations of two different types of peppered moths, a pale-winged and a dark-winged variety. He noted that in areas where pollution was low, the white-winged population was larger, as the bark on the trees where they landed was paler, so they were better camouflaged. However, in urban areas, the bark became blackened over time by pollution, and this made the white variety more vulnerable, whereas the darker variety could not be seen by predators, so they started thriving in these areas, while the white winged variety declined.
The group also saw specimens of extinct species, some of whom had been unable to adapt in time with the changes brought about by humans, Examples included "apple bees" (which disappeared in Britain when orchards were no longer economical), and striking "jewel beetles", which were once even worn as jewellry. They were also shown some Large Blue butterflies, which were very beautiful. This is an example of a species that disappeared but was then successfully reintroduced.
After this, the students were split into pairs to find creatures which might show evidence of the impact of humans, change over time, relatedness to other things and adaptation to the environment. The groups selected a range of interesting examples, from a leather-backed turtle, which showed adaptation to its environment with its shell and shape, and birds, whose beaks were adapted according to the sorts of creatures they hunted, to a hump-backed whale, which had been almost hunted to extinction, but then a ban had caused the population to increase again, and human skulls, which showed adaptation to their environments.
It was a very enjoyable and stimulating visit, which encouraged the students to look at the museum, its collections and the building itself, in new ways. We are very grateful to Rodger Caseby, Sarah Lloyd and the whole Natural History Museum team.