It’s a fact not often discussed by travel writers that the act of visiting a new place can be profoundly disappointing. Indeed, a key element of any trip is expectation – before we go somewhere we imagine what it will be like, some of us with more passion and enthusiasm than others. Where our expectations and reality diverge can be a source of misery and bitterness. But when a place lives up to our expectations – exceeds them even – it can be rapturous. It’s a risk worth taking.
I suppose I should back up here and explain that I’ve been an Anglophile for a very long time, and in particular, an Oxfordphile (I’m not sure that’s actually a word, but isn’t novelty what blogging is supposed to be all about?). Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the Chronicles of Narnia, and The Hobbit were my favorite books as a child, and all of their authors lived in Oxford. I loved the Alice books in particular and owned an annotated copy of both (purchased at a sidewalk sale on a hot July day in Ridgefield, Connecticut in 1977) that I read and re-read until I could have told you all about Charles Dodgson the stuttering don and his friendship with Alice Liddell and his photography and their picnics along the Cherwell and visits to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, that great neo-Gothic temple to science and exploration. Could have told you as if I had actually been there myself.
Given that my first visit to the museum took place in July of 2010, that’s 33 years of expectation – quite a lot as Teddy would say (apparently he’s also an Anglophile – it takes one to raise one). I’m delighted to tell you that I was in no way disappointed in this magical place, which is bursting at the seams with curiosities enough to satisfy the most eager dreamer.
For Teddy, who loves everything to do with dinosaurs, fossils, undersea life, and animals in general, the museum was Shangri La. We arrived just as they opened and basically had the place to ourselves for the first half hour. He ran from case to case, periodically shrieking with excitement when he founds something his heart had always desired to see. And so our visit was punctuated with exhortations like “Ammonites!”
or “Spider crab!”
or “Brain coral!”
I was unaware, by the way, that brain coral got quite so big.
Because I am so passionate about Alice, I was thrilled to see the skeleton of the famous Oxford Dodo and its stuffed recreation.
A painting of the Dodo hanging in the museum was said to inspire the character that gives out prizes in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
Dinosaur lovers won’t be disappointed at this museum either. Outside the entrance to you can stand inside the casts of dinosaur footprints (the originals were discovered not far away).
And once you are inside, there are numerous cases dedicated to dinos, including some exhibits that explain Victorian misconceptions about them. But most impressive of all are the skeletons of an iguanadon
and a T-Rex.
They’ve also created a more lifelike version of the latter.
This museum is the ideal place for a scavenger hunt, which someone there has clearly realized, as they are on offer for younger visitors. Teddy found every last thing on his, stopping sometimes to jot down his notes on one of the glass cases like I’m sure many a budding scientist before him has done.
It also contains a number of exhibits that are meant to be touched, from a meteorite to an adorable wallaby.
Even if you aren’t interested in the science of the exhibits, you will be drawn in by their beauty. The skeletons are sculptural and beautifully arrayed (indeed, I saw more than one art student sketching them).
Then there’s the gorgeousness of the iron columns, which support a glass roof through which light pours in ample amounts, shining on butterflies and beetles, malachite, and megalosaurus. In the upper galleries you can read a series of fascinating panels that describe the construction of the museum, funded by public subscription, which ran out before all of the ornate stone carvings could be completed on the building’s exterior.
It is indeed a place designed to satisfy the senses and to give one faith in both the wonders of creation and the power of expectation. It leaves me only to dream of a time when I can return to Oxford with my boys, perhaps to stay for longer so that we can return regularly and explore every bone and insect, claiming them as our own.
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