Oxford University Museum of Natural History is a free museum, showcasing a fascinating selection of specimens that cover geology, evolution, biodiversity and so much more. Alongside their exhibits they have an in-depth learning programme, with events for schools, families and adults.
This year we were lucky enough to have the Oxford Univeristy Museum of Natural History sign up as Sponsor-Partners for The Big Draw Festival. We caught up with Carly Smith-Huggins to find out more about the museum, their amazing collection and the exciting Big Draw events that they have in store this Autumn.
Interview: Lucia Vinti in conversation with Carly Smith Huggins
We’re really happy to have Oxford University Museum of Natural History as a part of The Big Draw Festival this year! Could you let us know a bit more about the museum and what people can see and learn there?
Oxford University museum of Natural History is a museum of national and international importance, open daily to the public free of charge. OUMNH welcomes over 700,000 visitors annually, making it the most visited university science museum globally.
The museum collections include over seven million specimens including the UK’s oldest surviving natural history collection, the most complete remains of a dodo and the earliest scientifically-documented dinosaur remains. The museum’s displays cover life and earth sciences, including geological history, evolution and biodiversity, as well as regular Contemporary Science and Society exhibitions. The displays are specimen-rich and also feature casts, models, and interactive elements. The museum has a particular emphasis on featuring touchable specimens in the displays to enable multisensory learning.
OUMNH delivers programmes for a wide range of audiences including schools, families and adults.
Could you tell us a bit about your role at the museum and what it entails?
My role at the Museum is Families Education Officer. It is my job to ensure that families who visit are able to engage with the displays in a meaningful way. 45% of our visitors come with children under 18 years and the museum holds over 120 days of family activities annually. My job is to interpret the collections so that the science featured within them is accessible and relatable. I plan, design and deliver lots of family events on a huge variety of science topics. I work with all ages from 0-18 years and tailor the events for these age groups.
In October you’re hosting some fab Big Draw workshops called Doodlebugs. What can visitors expect from the workshops?
During October half-term, we are inviting families to come along and do some doodling for the afternoon. For the past 3 years we have been delivering a project funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, called HOPE for the Future. This project is all about insects, which we have plenty of here, with 5 million specimens in our collection! 1 million of these specimens are in a special collection called the HOPE collection and they are all British insects.
During this project, a historic room called the Westwood room has been renovated. We will be hosting some of our Big Draw activities in this room. At the event families can use microscopes and magnifying glasses to study and draw pinned insect specimens and learn more about them. The event will also feature University researchers who focus on climate change and they will be telling visitors all about their beautifully illustrated children’s book The Fabulous Fables of Laurabee. With its inspiring main character Laurabee who wants to save the planet the story communicates the science-backed issues and solutions to climate change. Families can take part in fun bee themed activities including a pollen collecting race!
Our big draw theme this year is Come Back to Colour which is all about capturing, celebrating and finding joy - how do your events this year fit in with that theme and what in the museum makes you feel the most joyful?
Insects are incredibly diverse and come in all shapes, sizes and colours. Insects use colour in a variety of ways, from camouflage to give warning to predators. Some of the colours you can see on insects are beautiful and really make you appreciate the true beauty of the natural world. My favourite colourful insect is the Blue Morpho butterfly, found in South America, which is a stunning iridescent blue colour. When the tiny scales of its wings reflect light, the surface appears to change colour when you look at it from different angles, producing a rainbow effect. This is a bit like when look at the surface of a bubble.
Do you have any other workshops coming up that you’d like to share?
We are kicking off our Big Draw programme with an event on Silver Sunday, the National Older People’s Day (Sunday 2nd October). As part of our HOPE for the Future Project, we will celebrate colourful creativity of older adults with a peaceful afternoon of insect inspired illustrating, led by local artist; Mini Grey.
Mini is a British Illustrator and writer of children’s books, who runs illustrations workshops for people over the age of 5, including older adults. Mini loves drawing insects and exploring the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which inspired her to create this wonderful children’s book, The Greatest Show on Earth.
This event will also take place our newly opened, historic Westwood Room, where participants will enjoy looking at specimens from our British insect collections, and creating colourful artworks inspired by the HOPE for the Future Project.
Here at The Big Draw, we think that visual literacy and drawing are such important tools that can relate to many disciplines and aspects of life. What do you think the importance of drawing and creativity is when it comes to science and conservation?
Science and art overlap significantly. In the past people’s skills and knowledge were more multidisciplinary. Some people were excited by both art and science and enjoyed acquiring knowledge of both hand in hand; they were using the techniques or art and science to try to understand and explain the world around them.
Think about the dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures, how else do we bring these fossils to life without drawing them based on scientific evidence? With drawing we can detail what we think they may have looked like. Art helps to bring science to life and makes it more relatable to everyone. At the end of the day, art and science are both attempts to comprehend and explain the world around us.
How do you think drawing can help people engage with what they see in museums?
Drawing can help us to analyse a specimen and notice features and details that we may not have noticed at first glance. Looking closely at the specimens can also help us to appreciate the beauty of nature.
You mentioned that the museum’s collection has over seven million historical and modern specimens - wow! In your opinion, what’s the most interesting or unusual specimen people can find at Oxford Museum of Natural History?
Well, my favourite thing in the Museum is a Victorian curio, and it is pretty unusual! It is a flea specimen that someone has made tiny clothes for and a small backpack too. I love the idea that someone has used their creativity here to make something entertaining for people to look at.
Thank you so much Carly for your time and brilliant answers. We can’t wait to see how your events go :)
Colourful Creations takes place on Sunday 2nd October 2022.
Doodlebugs takes place on Monday 24th and Tuesday 25th October 2022.
Check out more upcoming events at the Oxford Museum of Natural History here! If you’re as fascinated by the flea wearing a tiny backpack as I am, you can read more about that on their blog here.
Registrations are open for The Big Draw Festival 2022: Come Back to Colour! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.