First Animals at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History
“For a glimpse of life right at the start of the age of animals, you can’t ask for anything better than this.” – New Scientist, 24 February 2020
When I did my MSc in Science Communication at Imperial College in the 1990s, one of the authors we read was Stephen Jay Gould – a science storyteller of incredible skill whose book Wonderful Life had just won major awards. In its pages I learned for the first time about the Burgess Shale, a fossil site in the Canadian Rocky Mountains, half a billion years old. Imprints, tracks and traces captured in the rock had yielded evidence of an incredible eruption of animal life called the Cambrian Explosion.
Palaeontologists now know that every animal body plan familiar to us today – from whelks to whales, snakes to snails – emerged in this burst of evolutionary creativity. And even though Gould’s theories about the Cambrian Explosion are often debated, the idea of these odd-looking body parts and plans stuck with me. What was life like in the early, watery world? Why was this the time for such an outbreak of new species? And how do scientists today manage to piece life-forms back together – and say definitively that such frondy, spongy or leafy-looking things were animals?
First Animals is the latest exhibition at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, and seeks to answer just such questions. I was thrilled when I discovered that the show would bring together fossil specimens from the Burgess Shale (yay!) along with exceptional examples from two other, even older, sites: Chengjiang in Yunnan, China, and Sirius Passet in Greenland. The Museum’s director, Paul Smith, has published papers on his work on the Greenland site, and the exhibition team, led by Kelly Richards, wanted to make the most of a unique assembly of fossil evidence.
I always like working with OUMNH to help tell the stories flowing from contemporary research. As I draft the text, I try to identify the mysteries and the revelations so that each piece of writing compels visitors to continue on a journey. For this exhibition, the team of in-house scientists, particularly Duncan Murdock and Imran Rahman, and public engagement staff, gave feedback that refined and polished the interpretation. We covered Frankie Dunn’s work on Charnia, the feathery specimen above which tends to look like a plant. Dunn has shown that Charnia initially grow by adding branches at the tip of the body. But at a certain point, they stop, and instead make the existing branches bigger – much more like the way young animals turn into adults.
It was great to see the fossils come together with the witty design by Easy Tiger Creative, reconstructions by Martin Lisec, and interactivity by Fish in a Bottle and the museum’s Scott Billings. The entire exhibition text is available on the OUMNH website along with photographs of many of the specimens.
“It was during the Cambrian Explosion that the Earth experienced a huge increase in new life forms, many of which laid the foundations for the body plans of all subsequent animal life or, as appealingly written in the exhibition: ‘the planet transformed into a slithering, swimming, scuttling place’… it’s not easy to bring a subject like this to life, based as it is on ancient rocks and academic theory. The curators here have done an excellent job… these are exhibits that require a lengthy ponder.” – Geographical Magazine, 2 August 2019