Britain has a long and proud history of geological museums (and museums that have significant geological collections) dating back at least to early Victorian times. One need only think of William Smith’s revolutionary and magnificent, 1829 Rotunda in Scarborough to understand this (Fig. 1).
Here, Smith’s fossils were (and are once again, after significant renovation to the building) arranged up a spiral staircase in the order they occur in the rock column – an extremely modern way of doing things. And, of course there is Richard Owen’s Victorian masterpiece, the Natural History Museum in London with, among many other things, its dinosaurs and exhibits of other fossils (Fig. 2).
However, the venerable NHM raises an important question. To create a display for the public, to what extent should museums use push-button technology and pretty pictures, rather than displays of the actual subject matter? In recent years, it seems that museums increasingly want to cater merely for children (and certainly not adults), who (apparently) can only be engaged by technology rather than, for example, a well-labelled and beautifully prepared fossil ammonite. The belief seems to be that they simply cannot look at exhibits in the way that Victorians did – with specimens set out in cabinets – but rather, need to be engaged by electronics and graphics that are one remove from the subject matter itself. I suspect that it was this belief that lead the NHM to close the wonderful ‘Geology Museum’ in 1988, with its hundreds of Victorian cabinets packed with fossils and minerals, and replace it with the ‘Earth Galleries’ with a more ‘modern format’. This was despite vigorous protestations by, among others, the Geologists’ Association, that it would be a significant backwards step.
|Subsequent to publication of this artcile, I was contacted by Mike Howgate (see, for example, Check those damaged ‘Megalodon’ teeth for an alrticle he wrote for this magazine), who had the following to say about the old Geology Museum in London:|
“The old displays … were not housed in Victorian cases. The ‘Museum of Practical Geology’ was opened in 1935 and was the brainchild of the Director of the BGS, Sir John Smith-Flett. It was full of excellently displayed specimens and a whole floor was given over to cases explaining the regional geology of the British Isles to tie in with the handbooks published by the BGS. All were in specially designed new cases. I used to take my Birkbeck extra-mural students and WEA (Workers’ Educational Association) geology classes there. We could easily spend half an hour or more at just one case.”
And yet, is it true that children (or indeed their parents) need to push a button, which might reveal a picture of a T. Rex and another to hear it roar, to be engaged or to learn? My experience is that a wonderful fossil will enchant a child (and the child within every adult) far more than any pretty picture or push-button machine. Why else is the most busy part of the NHM the dinosaur exhibition, where it is undoubtedly the dinosaur fossils (or their beautifully created casts) that captivate the public? This is not to say that well-written explanations and excellent explanatory graphics showing, for instance, how a fossil animal or plant might have looked in life are irrelevant. They are not. It is just that it is the fossil that is the most important thing, not the picture.
The National Stone Centre (NSC) in Derbyshire is about as far removed from the ‘modern format’ scenario discussed above as you can get. This wonderful new centre, rather than just displaying geology in pictures, computer graphics or even cabinets, gets visitors (both children and adults) to look at the stones and the rock faces themselves. There are also wonderful outdoor exhibits and, I promise you, there is hardly a button to push anywhere!
The National Stone Centre
The NSC is about the ‘Story of Stone’ in the UK. That is, its role is to explain the geological origins of British rock, the history of its working, its many uses, environmental issues and its contribution to landscape and art. This is an ambitious project and I suspect more than it is capable of ever achieving. After all, the museum is centred in Derbyshire, where the rock types are dominated by those from the Lower Carboniferous, whereas the geology of Britain includes examples from virtually every geological period. Nevertheless, its ambitions are admirable and what has been achieved is similarly impressive.
The geology and palaeontology of the Centre
The NSC covers about 50 acres (20Ha), about half of which is a geological Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). It is significant, as part of the National Geological Conservation Review, for its fossil lagoons and reef mounds, and also for its shark remains. Most of the site is of limestone that was deposited during the Lower Carboniferous (330mya), when Derbyshire was located just south of the equator. At this time, the county was covered by tropical seas, with shallow lagoons enclosed by fringing patch reefs, and dissected by deep water gulfs. There was also the occasional volcano.
The site is made up of a series of disused quarries, all of which can be visited. Throughout, there are picture boards, which explain the geology. In this way, a visitor can, for example, identify a line in the rock face of a quarry as being the edge of what was once a reef mound – something most non-specialists would not usually be able to do.
If you look closely at the rocks around you, you can see fossils that are typical of the sorts of hard-bodied animals that would have been present on Carboniferous reefs. Particularly common are the plant-like animals called crinoids (or ‘sea lilies’; Figs. 4 and 5), together with brachiopods (Fig. 6) and corals (Fig. 7).
If you look carefully enough, you might also be lucky enough to see shark teeth (Fig. 8). (Note that this is an SSSI, so no collecting is allowed. However, you can appreciate from the photos that accompany this article, which were taken at the centre, that there is plenty to see in the rocks.)
At the southern edge of the Centre, the limestone is overlain by younger shales and mudstones (and thin glacial deposits), which also form the rising ground below the Millstone Grit crags. These were laid down as the tropical seas became shallower and a great river brought sediment down from the north from where Scotland is now. This sediment was the remains of huge mountains that were being eroded, with their debris deposited in a massive estuary (think, the Nile or the Mississippi).
It is because of this fascinating geology that the centre was created here and there are three themed walks to allow visitors to explore the geology, aided by a guide. While I would not necessarily recommend a visit in rain or snow, it is these outdoor geology trails that form the backbone of the Centre.
Other activities at the centre
Throughout the year at the NSC, you can see minerals, crystals and millstones, or attend courses on such things as dry stone walling (see below), using stone in gardens and sculpting in stone. As well as the geology trails, there is also a trail taking in the ecology of the site, which links the geology to the flora and fauna.
One particularly interesting permanent exhibition is the ‘Millennium Wall’. This consists of a collection of dry stone walls created by members of the Dry Stone Walling Association of Great Britain. It consists of 19, six-meter-long sections of dry stone wall, each using ten tonnes of stone from different regions of Britain and each built in the style of walls from those regions. The result is a quite extraordinary variety of stone wall that, I for one, had no idea existed in Britain.
The self-explanatory ‘Story of Stone’ exhibition is indoors in the Discovery Centre. There is also a rock shop, for those of you who would rather buy your geology than collect it! There are also special events of a geological nature, and things for children and schools to do (check the website for details: http://www.nationalstonecentre.org.uk/).
In fact, the NSC offers not only a pleasant experience for those interested in fossils, but also a whole range of other interests, for either leisure or professional purposes. It even welcomes volunteers. While it would be naive to suggest that this sort of museum could be created anywhere or that technology and pictures never play a role in museums (of course they do), nevertheless, if the NSC could inspire the trustees of more museums to display the subject matter of the idea rather than something at one-remove, it will have done a great service.
Location and opening times
The NSC can be found at Porter Lane, Middleton by Wirksworth, Derbyshire, DE4 4LS and is open all year (except Christmas Day) with no entrance charge. However, you will have to pay to get into the ‘Story of Stone’ exhibition. There is on-site parking.