Tuesday, 12 May 2020

DARWIN AND THE GREAT DEBATE

Oxford University Museum of Natural History was established in 1860 to draw together scientific studies from across the University of Oxford.

On 30 June 1860, the Museum hosted a clash of ideologies that has become known as the Great Debate.

Even before the collections were fully installed, or the architectural decorations completed, the British Association for the Advancement of Science held its 30th annual meeting to mark the opening of the building, then known as the University Museum. It was at this event that Samuel Wilberforce, Bishop of Oxford, and Thomas Huxley, a biologist from London, went head-to-head in a debate about one of the most controversial ideas of the 19th century – Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection.

Notable collections include the world's first described dinosaur,  Megalosaurus bucklandii, and the world-famous Oxford Dodo, the only soft tissue remains of the extinct dodo. Although fossils from other areas have been assigned to the genus, the only certain remains of Megalosaurus come from Oxfordshire and date to the late Middle Jurassic. In 1824, Megalosaurus was the first genus of non-avian dinosaur to be validly named. The type species is Megalosaurus bucklandii, named in 1827.

In 1842, Megalosaurus was one of three genera on which Richard Owen based his Dinosauria. On Owen's direction, a model was made as one of the Crystal Palace Dinosaurs, which greatly increased the public interest for prehistoric reptiles. Subsequently, over fifty other species would be classified under the genus, originally because dinosaurs were not well known, but even during the 20th century after many dinosaurs had been discovered. Today it is understood these additional species were not directly related to M. bucklandii, which is the only true Megalosaurus species. Because a complete skeleton of it has never been found, much is still unclear about its build.

The Museum is as spectacular today as when it opened in 1860. As a striking example of Victorian neo-Gothic architecture, the building's style was strongly influenced by the ideas of 19th-century art critic John Ruskin. Ruskin believed that architecture should be shaped by the energies of the natural world, and thanks to his connections with a number of eminent Pre-Raphaelite artists, the Museum's design and decoration now stand as a prime example of the Pre-Raphaelite vision of science and art.