Tag Archives: natural history

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum, Exeter, England

By Jana Funke

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) is situated in a magnificent Victorian building on Queen Street in the very heart of Exeter. It holds a collection of approximately 1.5 million objects of local, national and international significance and has a lot to offer to any visitor with an interest in natural history, archaeology, art and world cultures.

Exeter’s owes the existence of RAMM to the initiative of Sir Stafford Henry Northcote (1818-1887), a Devon MP and one of the Secretaries for the Great Exhibition of 1851. Shortly after Prince Albert’s death in 1861, Northcote started to appeal for funds to finance a memorial museum in Exeter. The new building was designed by architect John Hayward (1807-1891) and constructed over a thirty-year period. When it first opened, RAMM comprised a museum and art gallery, a school of science and art as well as a free public library. Since then, the library has moved into its own building, the school of art is now Plymouth University’s Faculty of Art & Education and the school of science is part of the University of Exeter.

Royal Albert Memorial Museum

Today, RAMM offers a lively programme of permanent and temporary exhibitions. Many of these feature displays from the natural history collection – one of the largest in the country, covering much of the animal kingdom. Among the most cherished objects is Gerald, the famous bull Maasai giraffe. Before coming to Exeter in 1919, Gerald belonged to the Peel Collection, which was displayed in the private Museum of Natural History and Anthropology in Oxford. It was founded by Charles Victor Alexander Peel (1869-1931), an enthusiastic big game hunter with a passion for natural history. When Peel moved to Devon later in his life, he brought with him his vast collection of taxidermic specimens – including Gerald.

The botany collection comprises thousands of plant specimens. Many of these came to Exeter thanks to horticultural firm Veitch & Sons. Sir Harry James Veitch (1840-1924), who founded the company, grew up in Exeter and is now most famous for promoting the Royal International Horticultural Exhibition of 1912, the first Chelsea Flower Show. In addition to his significant art collection, which was donated to RAMM in 1924, RAMM’s plant collection owes much to Veitch. In the nineteenth century, employees of his company would travel the world in search for new plant specimens, which then found their way into the RAMM herbarium. The latter is organised using the Linnaeus’ binomial system, named after Swedish botanist Carl von Linné (1707-1778). Specimens from the herbarium are not generally incorporated in public displays, but special viewings can be arranged with the museum.

From 2001 to 2011, RAMM is undergoing major redevelopment. The museum’s main building on Queen Street, Exeter, Devon, EX4 3RX, will reopen in December 2011. For more information on the museum’s collections, history and redevelopment, go to http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/.


Royal Albert Memorial Museum Website. http://www.rammuseum.org.uk/. (May 2011).

The Jurassic Coast, South England

By Hugh Torrens

Winspit Cove, Dorset

This article has been adapted from Hugh Torrens, ‘The Long history of geological studies in Dorset confirms its World Heritage Coast status’, OUGS Journal 25 (2), 2004, pp. 1-16, by kind permission of the author.

The coastline of Dorset and East Devon has fascinated students of nature since the birth of modern science in England some 350 years ago. With its beautiful sea coast and rocky outcrops, yielding many fossils, it has given both aesthetic and scholarly pleasure to residents and visitors. Motives for studying the coastline, now dubbed the ‘Jurassic Coast’ have varied from the gentlemanly to the industrial, from the amateur to the specialist, and from the commercial to the scholarly.

One long-running theme has been industrial – and futile: the search for coal. During the early period of the industrial revolution, an incoming vicar to the area – William Sharpe – determined that local coal would be the solution to the ague endemic amongst his parishioners, by providing them with warmer homes. Sharpe’s Treatise Upon Coal Mines (1769) suggested geological clues for coal-hunters and inspired numerous local attempts at prospecting, long after William Smith’s Geological Map (1815) showed that there was no coal to be found. Needless to say these attempts all failed, many expensively.

Durdle Door II

A second theme has of course been the discovery of fossils. The botanist John Ray noted in 1673 that ‘Lyme in Dorsetshire’ was one of the key places in England ‘which afford plenty of … petrified shells’. One generation later, the Weymouth customs officer and mariner William Hobbs wrote a manuscript of his personal studies of local rocks. Unpublished in his day, it has since been rediscovered and reveals an interestingly non-Noachian view of geology. Hobbs argued that the fossils about the coast had not been placed there by the Biblical flood but had been embedded in rocks on the sea floor and gradually raised up to their present position by ‘pulsations from the centre of the earth’. His conclusions differed from those of John Woodward, a believer in the Flood who had also recently collected fossils in Dorset.

Jurassic Gargoyle, Dorset

During the nineteenth century, several well-known geological savants patronised the Dorset area: William Buckland, Henry de la Beche and William Conybeare chief amongst them. However, the collector of fossils on the Jurassic Coast who is best known today is almost certainly Mary Anning (1799-1847). Anning picked amongst the rocks around Lyme Regis in the hopes of selling them and thus saving her family from the poorhouse. She found the world’s first complete Plesiosaurus in 1823 and the UK’s first Pterodactyl some five years later. Anning’s collecting – which despite her best efforts ended in financial disaster – helped to spawn a veritable Dino-mania amongst the Victorians. Ever since then the Jurassic coast has swarmed with professional palaeontologists and small children alike, hoping to find a fossil of their own.

Rich in both history and science, these 95 miles of wonderful coastline were granted World Heritage Status in 2001, the first British site to gain the honour. An excellent website (link below) gives details of travel, accommodation, science, history and events in the area – everything the visitor could hope for.

Further information:


Deborah Cadbury, The Dinosaur Hunters: A True Story of Scientific Rivalry and the Discovery of the Prehistoric World (HarperCollins, 2001). For a general audience.

Martin Rudwick, The Great Devonian Controversy: The Shaping of Scientific Knowledge among Gentlemanly Specialists (Chicago, 1985) … and many more by the same author. For an academic audience.

Hugh Torrens, book on Mary Anning (forthcoming as of 2011)

Darwin and Glen Roy, Scotland

By Alistair Sponsel

This article is © The Darwin Correspondence Project, University of Cambridge and is used with permission. The original article appears at http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/darwin-glen-roy along with links to the full text of Darwin letters concerning Glen Roy. The Darwin Project Glen Roy page also has a link to historian Martin Rudwick’s field guide to Glen Roy.

Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.
Woodcut showing the 'Parallel Roads' on either side of Glen Roy, from Darwin's 1839 paper.

Although Darwin was best known for his geological work in South America and other remote Beagle destinations, he made one noteworthy attempt to explain a puzzling feature of British geology. In 1838, two years after returning from the voyage, he travelled to the Scottish Highlands to study the so-called parallel roads of Glen Roy.

These ‘roads’ were horizontal terraces on either side of a valley called Glen Roy, and though earlier visitors had supposed that they must be ancient hand-built features, geologists in the last two decades had declared them to be of natural origin. Two geologists, John MacCulloch and Thomas Dick Lauder, proposed in the late 1810s that the roads had been cut into the hillsides by standing water, and were the beaches of a former highland lake that had once filled the valley. They supposed the water in the lake to have stood at several distinct levels, each corresponding to the level of one of the roads.

Darwin’s interest in the parallel roads was piqued by his previous study of a series of terraces at Coquimbo, Chile, which he believed were former marine beaches that had since been pushed above sea level by the bulging of the earth beneath South America. He went to Scotland in hopes of demonstrating that the Glen Roy roads were also former sea beaches. If this were the case, their existence would indicate that Scotland had been elevated from the sea in a manner similar to the process he believed had lifted the continent of South America. In each case, the fact that the terraces remained essentially level indicated to Darwin that tectonic movements could be gradual and equable (as the upright pillars of the temple at Serapis had famously suggested to Charles Lyell).

In 1839 Darwin read a paper on the parallel roads to the Royal Society of London. He dismissed the notion that they were former lake beaches on the grounds that there was no satisfactory explanation for the temporary damming of Glen Roy, which must have occurred for the valley to fill with water and then be emptied. Instead, he advanced his theory: ‘the whole country has been slowly elevated, the movements having been interrupted by as many periods of rest as there are shelves.’ The roads were of marine origin, and each road represented a former stage in Scotland’s emergence from the sea.

While Darwin was thus able to avoid conjecturing about an event that could have dammed Glen Roy, he instead had to explain why the sea had left no marine fossils on the sides of the glen and why it had not cut similar terraces on other hillsides across Scotland. He argued that the preservation of both fossils and old sea beaches should be considered the exception rather than the rule. For instance, Darwin pointed to a number of locations, ranging from his home county of Shropshire to the coasts of Scandinavia, where exposed deposits of undoubted marine origin had been found not to contain any marine shells, presumably because they had been dissolved by acidified rain. Likewise, he pointed out that durable terraces like the roads might have been formed only where a special combination of currents and tides were acting on a coastline of a particular geological composition.

Scarcely had Darwin’s Glen Roy paper appeared in print than the Swiss geologist Louis Agassiz proposed an explanation for the roads that had not been considered by Lauder, MacCulloch, or Darwin. Agassiz was convinced that the earth had formerly experienced an ‘epoch of great cold’, and that glaciers had once been much more widespread across Europe. In 1840 he toured locations in Britain with many leading geologists, pointing out how many familiar phenomena could be reinterpreted with reference to the former action of glaciers. In the case of Glen Roy, Agassiz provided the missing component of the lake-beach theory of the formation of the parallel roads. A wall of ice extending across the foot of the valley could have dammed Glen Roy and formed a glacial lake like those seen in the present-day Alps.

In the hands of Agassiz and others in the succeeding decades, glacial theory prompted geologists to reappraise much more than the terraces at Glen Roy. Darwin was resistant to the glacial explanation for the parallel roads, even as he admitted the action of ice sheets elsewhere. On his last ever geological field trip, a return visit to North Wales in 1842, Darwin wrote that the signs of glacial action in the valley of Cwm Idwal could not have been more obvious ‘if it had still been filled by a glacier.’ Yet in letters written as late as 1861, Darwin continued to defend, albeit halfheartedly, the marine theory of the formation of the parallel roads (see sidebar to the right on the original Darwin Correspondence Project’s Darwin and Glen Roy page). Darwin was later to write, notoriously, in his autobiographical ‘Recollections’ that his paper on Glen Roy was a great failure: ‘and I am ashamed of it.’

Although Darwin eventually abandoned his original conclusions about Glen Roy, it is well worth trying to retrace Darwin’s footsteps there. To understand what led Darwin to ‘see’ what he saw in 1838 is to take a glimpse from the perspective of the young geologist when he was giving full expression to the theory of the earth that was his proudest product of the Beagle voyage.

Science in Fairyland: Second Star to the Right, and Straight on till Morning

By Melanie Keene

A fairy in the garden
A fairy in the garden

It is almost impossible to conjecture when science began in fairyland, but we can be sure it was once upon a time.

Serious attempts to map the terrain were made from the nineteenth century, when the scientific discipline of fairyology first started to receive sustained academic attention. Works such as Michael A. Denham’s A Few Fragments of Fairyology, Shewing Its Connection with Natural History (1859) demonstrated the correlation between natural historical objects and those from the fairy realm: fossil sea-urchins and ‘fairy heads’, fungi and fairy rings, or cattle-disease and ‘elf shots’. Key geographic landmarks were also determined, including ‘fairy caves’, ‘coves’, ‘holes’, and ‘parlours’; not to mention the basaltic monuments of the Giant’s Causeway, and Fingal’s Cave. Peoples from all over the world were classified according to a euhemeristic fairytale scale, identified with legendary tribes and disappeared miniature or gigantic races. And the folklore of regions and nations was collated and synthesized, leading to such pioneering works in linguistics as Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty.

cover image of The Fairyland of Science by Arabella F. Buckley (1879)
Front cover of "The Fairyland of Science" by Arabella F. Buckley (1879)

By 1879, Arabella Buckley’s Fairyland of Science went beyond topology, taxonomy and re-telling, to uncover the mysteries of this under-researched scientific location. Fairies, she showed, were really forces called ‘crystallisation’ and ‘cohesion’. Gravity was a ‘great invisible giant’, and lumps of coal buried ‘gnomes’ freed by miners. She also gave useful directions for those visiting the realm for the first time: where other authors had recommended travelling through rabbit-holes and looking-glasses, Buckley claimed the simplest mode of transportation was best. ‘How are you to enter the fairyland of science?’ she asked her reader. ‘There is but one way. Like the knight or peasant in the fairy tales, you must open your eyes.’ With the right perspective, ‘anything, everything’, from fire and water to flowers and flies could ‘reveal to us nature’s fairies’. Fairyland was not ‘some distant country’: it was all around, and her readers were in many ways already there.

At other times, travelling around fairyland has been shown to be remarkably easy: however, rather than riding the magic carpets of the Arabian Nights, harnessing the magical power of electricity has been the preferred means of scientific navigation. The Children’s Fairy Geography [ca. 1879], for instance, employed many newfangled technologies (or ‘Edisonian notions’) to take a trip around Europe. The ‘Electric Boots’ were self-confessedly ‘medium-paced’, but could still go up to a remarkable 15 miles an hour; the ‘Chilly-warmer’ and its ‘chemical preparation’ could be used to warm the chilly, chill the warm, and even make a cup of tea. Telegraphic communication could beat Puck in a race around the globe; and the railway train would travel faster than any fabled shoes of swiftness. By the early twentieth century, the fairytale hero of The Master Key could travel, eat, attack and defend, record and judge character, through the gifts of the ‘Demon’ of electricity (conjured in a manner akin to Aladdin’s genie, through the rubbing of the eponymous ‘key’). As its preface declared, its story soon ‘may not seem … like a fairy tale at all’.

Guides to science in fairyland have appeared in varied guises, from insect characters attending entomological events such as the ‘Butterfly’s Ball’, to A.L.O.E.’s miniaturised grasshopper lecturer Fairy Know-a-Bit, bedecked in tiny cap and gown (and even tinier spectacles). For Know-a-Bit, the scientific takeover of fairyland was characteristic of the industrial age; as he claimed: ‘Times have changed – and so have I. A railway now runs right through the valley which was our favourite haunt – there are engine-lights instead of the glow-worm’s, and the scream of the whistle drowns the song of the bird! Education is now all the fashion, and fairies, like bigger people, are sent to learn lessons at school.’ J.G. Wood’s preface to an updated edition of Episodes of Insect Life by ‘Acheta Domestica’ [L.M. Budgen] published in 1867 emphasised how close the relationship was between these creepy-crawly characters and the objects of scientific investigation: ‘most of the drawings must be examined, as the insect itself must be viewed, with the aid of a magnifying glass; and not until this is done, will the singular truthfulness of their execution be seen’.

Overall, it is clear that a tour through science in fairyland teaches us one important lesson: that truth is stranger than fiction. The Victorian synthetic chemists were superior modern alchemists; the worlds revealed in the reflecting telescope more strange that the visions of the magic mirror; grisly lizard-like monsters wrestling in primordial ooze more dangerous than dragons. The real history of the world, transformations of matter, and powers of the universe, were far better than any fantastical imaginings. As Charles Kingsley declared in his evolutionary fairy tale, Water Babies, ‘fairy Science’ provided the best stories, and was ‘likely to be queen of all the fairies for many a year to come’. However, he cautioned his readers at the conclusion to his tale about how seriously they should take the fairyland of science, with a warning about what they had just read; ‘remember always… this is all a fairy tale, and only fun and pretence: and, therefore, you are not to believe a word of it, even if it is true’.

Museo Universitario del Chopo (Chopo University Museum), Mexico City

By Juan Manuel Rodriguez Caso

Museo Universitario del Chopo

During the twentieth century world’s fairs were a great success in the major European and American cities, but smaller cities prepared local fairs, and one example of them was the Art and Textile Industry Exhibition held in Düsseldorf, Germany.

For this event, the German metallurgical company Gutehoffnungshütte (Good Hope Mine) located in Oberhausen, built the building parts to assemble, under design of Bruno Möhring.

At the end of 1902 concluded the fair and Mexican Company of Permanent Exhibition bought three of their four exhibition halls. The building was dismantled and shipped to Mexico. Was assembled in the north of the city, in Santa María la Ribera neighborhood, near railway stations, because it was an attractive place for middle class families, it was near the center and had all the services.

Between 1903 and 1905 the so-called Cabaña de la Buena Esperanza (Good Hope Cottage) was assembled in the area of Chopo Street (common name for Populus nigra, tall tree of African origin, found in Europe and Asia), in Santa María la Ribera. Nowadays, street change its name to Enrique González Martínez Street.

In 1909, Public Instruction and Fine Arts Ministry rented the Chopo building to mount there a Natural History Museum. But before was used to install a Japanese industrial art exhibition that was part of the Centenary celebrations of Independence.

Museo Universitario del Chopo at night

On December 1st, 1913 opened the Natural History Museum. The former National Museum of Mexico welcomed anthropological, ethnological, paleontological, and zoological collections. The collection was divided: the anthropological and ethnological collections remained in the original headquarters and the natural sciences formed the new Natural History Museum. By 1922, the Museum was the best in Mexico and received 1,200 visitors daily, which called him familiarly, Museo del Chopo (Chopo Museum).

By the mid-sixties the deterioration of the building and the decline of the heritage caused closure of the Museum. The collections went to the Museum of Natural History in Chapultepec, the Museum of Geology and institutes, schools and faculties of UNAM.

The rescue work of the building began in 1973. After nearly two years of work, Chopo University Museum was ready as a space dedicated to cultural diffusion, particularly young and experimental art.

On November 25, 1975, UNAM Chancellor, Guillermo Soberón opened the Museum. Since its opening, it was a dynamic advocate of contemporary art, characterized by its focus on innovation, inclusive and pluralistic character, and his work is positioned as an essential reference of the Avant Garde.

In 2006 and 2007 renewed its building to better serve the needs of contemporary art, through intervention of renewed architects and engineers and implemented by the Coordination of Special Projects of UNAM.