The Lapworth Museum of Geology lies outside of the centre of Birmingham on the University of Birmingham’s campus, in a part of town removed from the intense bustle of city life. The museum is one of the oldest geology museums in the UK, dating all the way back to 1880. Contrary to what one might think, its displays are neither dated nor dusty, nor are they limited to inanimate stone such as fossils. The Lapworth Museum of Geology is far more than just rocks; it explores the evolution of life on earth in great detail, from microfossils to megafauna, with a beautifully displayed tree of human evolution. Another thing that sets this Museum apart is its community engagement work, delivering an effective programme of events and projects to ensure that the bus ride out of town does not remain a barrier to communities who wouldn’t usually consider this a space ‘for them’.
Set in a Grade II listed building, the Lapworth is able to retain the original Edwardian design with which it was first established. However, it by no means feels antiquated; the galleries reopened to the public in 2016 after a three-year redevelopment process. This was funded by generous donations from University of Birmingham alumni and a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, providing a total of £2.7 million. Alongside the expected wooden and glass cabinets full of fossils, rocks and minerals, there are bright displays, interactive models and colourful drawings.
On entering the Museum, I found myself face-to-face with Rory the Allosaurus. Rory is a carnivorous dinosaur who lived in the late Jurassic period (at least, Rory is a cast of a dinosaur who lived in the late Jurassic period…). His face provides the perfect mixture of friend and foe; although clearly once a top-of-the-food chain predator with large, sharp teeth, Rory seems to grin straight down at you, teasing you to walk straight into his grasp. One almost feels sorry for the Pteranodon who hangs from the ceiling behind Rory. I’ve no idea if he or she has a name, but it certainly has an impressive wingspan, making good use of the building’s majestic high ceilings.
Rory is clearly used to getting a lot of attention from the public with a ‘selfie spot’ sticker in the shape of an Allosaurus footprint placed just beneath his upper limbs. And it is this balance of fun and facts – encouraging visitors to have fun and see the galleries as their own space, whilst managing to convey a large amount of information – that makes the redevelopment a true triumph.
The space is broadly laid out to reflect the history of earth through geological time. On your left-hand side as you walk in, there is a succinct summary of the evolution of life on earth, relaying the main changes that took place during each geological period. For those of us who appreciate a colour-coded system, each period is given its own colour, which corresponds to a larger panel detailing that same time period further round the room; a satisfying system which makes you feel in safe hands!
Moving clockwise round the gallery, each period is explored in more detail, with representative fossils and accompanying images showing how they might have once looked when not frozen in rock form. Many of the time periods have well made animations, imitating a dynamic ecosystem in which species interact with one another. A particular favourite of mine was the animation in the Quaternary section showing young mammoths running away from cave hyenas – an emotional and realistic watch! These displays effectively elucidate the information we can glean from fossils, making them come alive in memorable and engaging ways.
Inside the glass cabinets that fill most of the space are not the typical rows and rows of rocks and fossils with handwritten (and often impossible-to-decipher) labels, but informative displays tackling key questions such as ‘What is geology?’, ‘What do geologists do?’, ‘What are fossils and how do they form?’ and ‘What is evolution?’. Each of these questions had clear answers, providing an alternative route round the space if a family were new to geology and didn’t want to dive straight into ‘The Permian Triassic Periods: When did reptiles start swimming?’
I was particularly impressed by their ‘Active Earth’ exhibit, which lies just off to the right of the main gallery. It features a large globe on which are projected dynamic maps, showing the world’s earthquakes and volcanoes, the movement of humans across the globe via ships and aeroplanes, and ocean and wind currents. These projections follow the revolving surface of the globe, and I watched as toddlers were entranced by the movement, undoubtedly missing the grand messages but nonetheless enjoying being able to press the buttons and watch the earth change.
Also in this section was a clever display illustrating various ways in which mountain ranges can be formed. You could turn a handle to watch blocks of felt fold, illustrating the formation of fold mountains, or watch whole blocks of felt fall to a lower level, illustrating the formation of fault-block mountains. Even though I was aware of these different processes, the simplicity of these demonstrations placed side by side will stay with me for a long time as handy visual reminders. The bright, block colours, illustrating the different layers of rock, make this a simple and engaging way of explaining some complex geological processes to young minds.
I was also impressed by a microscope (potentially the fault of the biologist in me) which was encased safely in a large glass box. You could rotate a disc which lay beneath it, holding ready-mounted specimens, enabling you to examine each in turn. User-friendly ‘zoom’ and ‘focus’ buttons to the right-hand side mean small hands can easily manipulate a high-tech microscope to examine real fossils, without endangering the kit or the specimens themselves.
Whilst the layout, labelling and contents of this Museum were sufficient to catapult it to one of my favourites, what really stood out for me was just how child- and family-friendly the space is. This is so often advertised, but rarely have I seen it achieved as well as here. From the reception desk you can pick up free, colourful trails tailored to different age groups, right down to toddlers, who have to search through the display cases for Tilly the Trilobite (an illustration so charming that I couldn’t resist purchasing it in magnet form). Typical displays of fossils are made accessible to slightly older children, with plenty of drawers to open in the Jurassic section, showing various bones from Jurassic sea monsters. I observed one child work their way methodically through these, opening each one in turn and spending time peering dutifully into each.
Beneath the glass cases in the main hall are beautifully designed spaces at three-year-old height. These are filled with a mixture of real objects and artificial ones to create a fun, 3D environment for children to explore. One of these was an underwater scene with a clown fish, a suspended puffer fish and sea anemones.
Another was a coral reef teeming with inanimate life, and another was a cabinet of curiosities, full of weird and wonderful objects showing what a geologist or naturalist might collect. So engaging were these that a very small person waddled up to us, clipboard in hand, to point out proudly the ‘Nemo’ hiding at the back; this was a child who had enjoyed their time in a museum space and would be wanting to come back – a success!
And if all that doesn’t suffice, there is also a creative room off to the left-hand side of the entrance with small tables and chairs, colouring pencils, plenty of books and a plethora of worksheets for children to explore and scrawl all over.
Going one step further, last year Lapworth installed an exhibition entitled ‘Creative Children Curating Collections’ in their temporary exhibition space. This was co-curated with groups of children from local nurseries who had never been to a museum before and was intended to look at the Museum’s collections through a child’s eyes. The children participated in group sessions in which they met Mary Anning (an enthusiastic and patient actor) and talked about why different objects might be in a museum. Objects were then displayed in the way in which children had engaged with them: a large white quartz crystal, to a three-year-old, was a hedgehog, so this is how it was displayed! These young children then brought their parents and grandparents along, proudly showing them their objects – an ingenious way to get young children from hard-to-reach communities through the door and hooked!
They are hoping to repeat their success this year through an exhibition co-curated with a group of older children, aged 11-12, entitled ‘Museums and Wellbeing’. Children will display their chosen objects along with their thoughts and feelings on them, expressed through emojis and poetry. This will run until the 7th August 2020.
The Lapworth Museum of Geology is free to enter and is open every day of the week: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/lapworth-museum/index.aspx
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Kate is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where she researches green space in UK primary schools and how this affects children's engagement with nature. She enjoys learning and spaces where this happens!