Making Prints Public


Stop the press! Or perhaps more appropriately… start the press!

We are currently undertaking a project to make prints public; cataloguing, researching and digitising approximately 1,500 prints held in our collections.

This will mean you will be able to use our online ‘collections search’ function to find these items, see (and order) high resolution images of them.

These items have not previously been thoroughly investigated, making it an exciting project to be involved with. We already know there are important and rare astronomical broadsides by Benjamin Martin (a scientific instrument maker, compiler of an early dictionary and popular lecturer on science – think of an Eighteenth Century Brian Cox!). The collection also includes a rare set of 105 separate prints created in Seventeenth Century China by Ferdinand Verbiest, a Jesuit mathematician and astronomer. They illustrate the form and construction of instruments for the Imperial Observatory in Beijing, using the Tychonic model. See our Online Exhibition on the ‘Images of Tycho Brahe’ for more details.

The rest of the material ranges from portraits of scientists, to historic images of the museum building, to paper instruments with movable parts, to ephemera such as advertisements for public lectures and more.


A day in the life of a cataloguer-researcher

We are currently cataloguing portraits, where the first jobs are identifying the printing technique used, the artist and subject of the portrait and when it was made. Usually this is fairly simple as inscriptions at the bottom of the print often tells you the artist and engraver, and sometimes the date and publisher. If not, it takes a little longer to research.

The main techniques used for the prints in our collection are relief processes such as woodcuts, wood-engraving; intaglio processes such as engraving (line and stipple), etching, mezzotint, aquatint; and planographic processes such as lithography.

The above images show differences between two different intaglio techniques; a line engraving and an etching. The engraving (on the left) is created with tool called a burin which cuts into the metal plate, removing a sliver, which then provides grooves for the ink when the plate is wiped clean. A dampened sheet of paper is pressed into the plate, leaving the characteristic intaglio plate mark on the paper. The engraved lines often taper off towards the end coming to a sharp point. In an etching (see right hand image), the grooves are created by acid corroding the surface of the plate. The lines are created with a needle scratched through an acid resistant substance called the ground. The lines are freer than with an engraving and of even width, with rounded ends. In practice prints often use a combination of techniques.

All the prints are given inventory numbers, catalogued in our collections database, and the records become available online. Items or people of particular interest give us the opportunity to do a little extra research to give more context to the prints.

It is a varied collection, so each day can throw up some interesting and unexpected finds!


Oxford Brookes Alternative Placement

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet and Jordan teaching their final sessions after their 3-week placement at the Museum

Harriet Crombie and Jordan Greco are currently studying for BA in Primary Education at Oxford Brookes University. As part of their second year placement, as well as working in a school, they had the opportunity to work alongside an education officer in a museum in Oxford; they decided to visit the Museum of the History of Science. Here they would plan a session to teach to the children from their class. They reflect on their experience:

“On our first day we made our way down the stones stairs to the basement and met Michelle, the Education Officer, who took us round the 17th century building showing us the many different displays of instruments used in the past by many different people. We didn’t get long however until the first school visited, they had been studying Space, and Michelle ran a session enabling children to look at and touch a variety of objects used by Space explorers.

When planning our session we had to think really hard about what we would want the children to learn, what they could gain from their visit and hopefully take back into the classroom. As the children were learning about France this term, we decided to make this the theme of the school trip.

For us (and we think for the children!) the trip went really well- Jordan and I organised 3 different activities, consisting of a French object trail in the Top Gallery, sketching the French Revolutionary Clock in the main entrance, and creating and using sundials in the basement. To finish off the trip with a fun, whole class activity we taught the children some relevant words to the trip (such as sundial, museum, clock etc) in French to take back to their families at home.

We managed to introduce much of the trip knowledge in school prior to the day, such as talking about the French Revolution and the rising up of the people in France against the Royals so that the Revolutionary clock was more relevant to the children.  Extensions to the sundial activity would be to use them outside during a science lesson.

We both had a fantastic time in the museum made much easier by the support of Michelle, one of the education officers working there. The staff were great to work with and we really felt like we explored learning outside of the classroom. It was a very worthwhile experience and we would recommend it to anyone who has the opportunity!”


The acquisition of a WWII nursing handling collection

Michelle and a colleague model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

Michelle and Laura model the Indoor and Outdoor nurse unifoms from the new handling collection

I was very excited when I heard that we had the opportunity to acquire some new objects from the Balfour Museum at the British Red Cross Offices in Winchester, which are to be closed down and the Museum with them. I had been looking for ways to build a Primary school session around our penicillin collection, and the possibility of acquiring some handling objects seemed an ideal way to shape a session, as well as adding to the existing offer for secondary schools about the development of Penicillin. The WWII connection is a great context for the climax of the story of penicillin. Handling objects are useful anyway, for any number of reasons, and education departments are always keen to acquire them, particularly when they are being offered free of charge.

At the end of December 2012, our long list of requested objects was de-accessioned from the Balfour, and found its way to the University of Oxford Joint Museum Education Service. While we will share all the objects (in fact, there is often lending and borrowing between the education departments of all the University Museums), a selection have found their way here, to serve as inspiration and motivation for the creation and promotion of a WWII session for primary schools.

We have been lucky enough to acquire two full indoor and outdoor uniforms, and when one of each came out of the box in the office, how could we resist trying them on? The result can be seen in the photograph above.

The process of acquiring the objects began in October 2012, when I went with a colleague from the Oxford University Joint Museums Service to the Balfour Museum where we found a small room packed with a huge assortment of objects and uniforms, mostly from the period around the Second World War. Armed with a list of the items on offer we viewed a table full of objects selected by the Balfour Collections Manager.

The room was very quiet and we were shy to reveal how many of these objects we would love to have, but just as we were in whispered conversation about how many would seem too greedy, the kind Collections Manager piped up from the corner with “Everything here has to go, so please feel free to take anything that you might like”. It then became a question of reigning ourselves in, and remembering how we were hoping to use the objects for education.

While it was exciting to be choosing objects to take away with us, the rows of uniforms hanging in translucent dry cleaning bags, booklets on topics from first aid to how to deal with gas attacks, bandages, feeding cups, bedpans, first aid kits and myriad other miscellaneous objects hit me with a poignancy that I had not expected.

It was the drawers full of hundreds of medals for service (sometimes engraved with the names of the individuals who had earned them) which particularly struck me. Each of these represents an individual, most likely a woman, and also likely very young, who had no idea of the outcome of the war, nor how long it would ultimately last, nor what post-war England would bring in terms of rationing and hardship.

In a small, blue “British Red Cross Society First Aid Manual No. 1”, inscribed in pencil on the overleaf with “H.G.Rutherford, spring 1939”, I discovered a clipping from a newspaper:

Sniff and Snatch it?

Yes, I mean a gas mask. A hundred letters a day and they all ask me how they’ll know the kind of gas. Here’s a reader’s way.

’Ware Gas!

If you get a choking feeling
And a smell of musty hay,
You can bet your bottom dollar
That there’s PHOSGENE on the way.

But the smell of bleaching powder
Will inevitably mean
That the enemy you’re meeting
Is the gas that’s named CHLORINE.

When your eye begins a-twitching
And for tears you cannot see,
’Tisn’t mother peeling onions
But a dose of C.A.P.

If the smell resembles pear-drops,
Then you’d better not delay,
It’s not the youngster sucking toffee,
But that tear gas K.S.K.

Should you sniff a pungent odour
As you’re going home to tea,
You can safely put your shirt on it
They’re using B.B.C.

If you see an oily liquid
On the road – be on your guard;
It isn’t where a bus was parked,
But that wicked gas MUSTARD.

Peaceful geraniums may
Look pleasant in a bed.
Dodge their scent in wartime;
It’s LEWISITE! You’re dead!

Thank you, Mr. Staniforth, of Nottingham

And grateful thanks must go to the Balfour Museum for their generosity in donating these exciting new objects to our handling collection, and for delivering them to us here in Oxford.


By Michelle Holloway, Education Officer