British geological museums

View of the rotunda museum and iron bridge at Scarborough - drawing by W Tindall

The Lapworth Museum, Birmingham

The sea-lily Marsupiocrinus (Silurian period)Named after geologist Charles Lapworth (1842-1920), this museum is part of the University of Birmingham and has a fine collection of fossils and early geological maps, some of them illustrated on its website. Among the renowned lagerstätten represented in its collections is the Wenlock Limestone of the West Midlands and Welsh Borders (from the Silurian period). The museum also houses many manuscript works of Lapworth himself, who amongst other things was a leading authority on an extinct group of plankton known as graptolites. As the organisation of these tiny branched animals changed very rapidly over time, graptolite fossils proved to be instrumental in working out the depositional sequence of strata in the Southern Uplands of Scotland. Lapworth showed that there was a time gap between the Cambrian and Silurian periods, which he named the Ordovician. Today that period, the last of the ten Phanerozoic periods to be named, is allocated 44 million years. While it saw a huge diversification of marine life and ended with an enigmatic glaciation that iced over much of Africa, the real duration of the Ordovician is likely to have been much shorter.

The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

This spectacular monument to neo-Gothic architecture houses the university’s palaeontological and zoological collections. You could spend a day here, for this is a real museum, not a playground, and in the happiest of ways it engages people at all levels, young and old. There is plenty to touch, from fossilised dinosaur eggs to stuffed animals, and plenty to see. Many of the exhibits are as spectacular as the building.

The experience starts before you enter. Sunk into the lawn are casts of dinosaur footprints from a quarry in nearby Ardley, made by Megalosaurus, the first dinosaur ever to be described (by William Buckland in 1824). Above the doorway, beside a carving of Adam and Eve and a non-Darwinian tree of life, an angel holds the ‘Book of All Nature’, reminding you of a time when science and religion were not divorced. A thicket of slender pillars greets the visitor. Before long you have a sense that the animals within the thicket are more alive than dead. A giant of an iguanadon takes centre stage, chased by an even more massive tyrannosaur, while row upon row of display cabinets introduce you to all the other vertebrate groups,Trilobites and starfish on a sandstone slab from Morocco (Devonian) from fish to mammals. One cabinet holds the world’s most complete remains of a dodo, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s dodo in Alice in Wonderland. Another holds an ichthyosaur so well preserved you can see the outline of its skin around its skeleton.

The building was funded from the surplus in the University Press’s Bible account and completed in 1860, a year after the publication of the Origin of Species. That same year it hosted a debate on evolution between Thomas Huxley and Samuel Wilberforce. A plaque by a door on the first-floor gallery marks the spot, close to two panels that discuss the protagonists and substance of the debate. One caption suggests that natural selection provides an explanation for animal camouflage, but perhaps the truest words are these, commenting on the debate:

The adoption of any scientific explanation, such as natural selection, is never independent of what is going on around the scientist. Social and political ideas affect the acceptance of scientific ones, as well as vice versa. It is easy to imagine scientists as seekers after absolute truth, which once found will allow society to identify and attain goals for its betterment. In practice, socio-political systems may dictate, consciously or subconsciously, what scientists are allowed to find out, and different philosophical commitments may dictate whether absolute truth is thought to be attainable or not. Scientists are people too, and their personalities affect their science and that of others.

The reader is left to consider for himself what systems of belief control or influence the scientific pursuit of truth today.

There is much more to be enjoyed along the gallery. Magnificent displays of stuffed birds stand against the wall. On the opposite side of the walkway another series parades the living world of shellfish, the glorious markings and markings and shapes of the oceans’ bivalves and gastropods. At the top of the stairs a board studded with jewel-like beetles, butterflies and a host of other hexapods introduces us to the Insecta:

There are 1.25 million known animal species on Earth – 75% are insects. Insects are key components of every food chain, without them global ecosystems would collapse.

Perhaps that simple observation offers a profounder insight into their origin than any Darwinian presuppositions. Insects exist not because they are accidents of nature but because they play a vital role in communities bigger than themselves. Whether prey or predator, organisms are interdependent, and both their origin and subsequent diversification can be understood in the context of creation, cataclysm and ecological recovery. So take time to study and marvel at the different insect orders on display: the crickets, the termites, the praying mantids, the stick insects, the earwigs, the flies. And don’t miss the case teeming with live Madagascan hissing cockroaches up to three inches long. As we said, there is something for everyone in this museum.

The Rotunda Museum, Scarborough

Built in 1828, the Rotunda is the oldest geological museum in Britain, perhaps in the world. It was founded to illustrate the work of the pioneering stratigrapher William Smith (1769-1839). Smith showed that particular fossils occurred only in the strata of particular periods, allowing strata from different areas to be correlated with one another. This ‘principle of faunal succession’ was a crucial first step in piecing together Earth history on a regional and ultimately global scale. In 1799 Smith produced the world’s first geological map, showing the distribution of rocks around Bath, and in 1815 he published the first geological map of England and Wales. His main purpose was practical, for an ability to map rocks hidden from view was important for canal-building and mining. He offered no explanation as to why fossil species had such a restricted stratigraphic range.

The museum consists of three main areas. One, ‘Shell Geology Now’, shows interviews with geologists who describe what it is like to work in oil exploration, fossil preparation or researching dinosaur tracks. Also interesting is a display of the newly discovered ‘Speeton plesiosaur’ from the Lower Cretaceous. You can see signs of predation by other animals, and oysters are said to have colonised some bones. Another area on the same floor, ‘Gateway to the Dinosaur Coast,’ is a disappointment: hackneyed in its reference to dinosaurs and The Rotunda galleryonly superficially child-friendly, the games, though they may amuse, educate little. One redeeming feature if you bend down to knee level is a wonderful slab of fossil invertebrates. The third area is the rotunda gallery, the heart of the museum: visually stunning, and with perseverance you can make some sense of its exhibits. In presenting material on the social history of Scarborough, its natural history and even some Egyptology they try to do too much. Smith himself gets crowded out.

The Rotunda domeAbove the showcases is a diorama of the geology of Yorkshire’s coast as published by Smith’s nephew, John Phillips. The Jurassic sequences along this coast are of international importance. Equivalent to Lapworth’s graptolites, the most useful fossils for determining the relative chronology of these rocks are ammonites, being plentiful, of wide geographical distribution and, because of their rapid evolution, of narrow stratigraphic range. Several beautiful specimens are illustrated here. Smith’s pioneering work in establishing the sequence of zonal fossils for the British Jurassic culminated in his Stratigraphical System of Organised Fossils of 1817. He lived in Scarborough from 1824 to 1826.