100 Years of the Geology at the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery

When its doors opened on Wednesday 12th December 2012 the Dudley Museum and Art Gallery (DMAG) celebrated 100 years of geology being on display. For centuries geology has played an important role within the Dudley area and to the local community. According to current DMAG Keeper of Geology, Graham Worton, ‘The 100th anniversary will kick off 2013 as the Dudley Museum Year of Geology and each month will have a different Earth Science theme’.

The 100th anniversary celebrations were held at the DMAG. At 17:30 the celebrations officially commenced with an introduction from the Dudley Mayor, Cllr Melvyn Mottram, followed by a re-enactment of the speech given by Sir Charles Lapworth, during the original opening of the museum in 1912. Paul Smith, the new curator of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, followed with a talk titled ‘A geological gift to the future’, a precise to Lapworth’s speech. After a forty minute refreshment break Graham gave a talk on, ‘Things of Beauty and Wonder’ – a potted history of the Dudley Geological Collection. After which, the Dudley Museum Year of Geology was officially launched.

Calymene blumenbachii from Dudley, 000460

DMAG is part of Dudley Council’s Museum Service, which also includes the Red House Cone, Stourbridge and the Broadfield House Glass Museum, Kingswinford. The beginnings of the DMAG started with centuries of traditional coal, limestone and ironstone mining and early pioneering scientists recognising the Dudley area as important for finding superb fossils. From the 1830′s onwards eminent geologist Sir Roderick Impey Murchison made numerous visits to the area. He encouraged local miners to establish a collection of Carboniferous Coal Measures and Silurian Limestone fossils. The Collection contained many new species and included the famous Calymene blumenbachii, or ‘Dudley Bug’.

After Murchison published his work on ‘The Silurian System’, in 1839 he encouraged and inspired local mine agents, industrialists, lay people, patrons and luminaries of the day to establish the Dudley and Midland Geological Society. Murchison inaugurated this, the Midland’s first geological society, in 1842. The Society aimed to keep the Collection together and the first permanent museum to house it was a public house, The Britannia Inn, in Dudley town centre.

Records, or lack of, indicate that this first geology society declined sometime after 1843. However, in 1862 a second incarnation emerged as the Dudley and Midland Geological Scientific Society and Field Club. At this time Society members, with Murchison’s backing, decided that the Collection should be re-housed. Consequently arrangements were made to establish a geological museum in Dudley, which according to Graham ‘became the mechanics institute on Wolverhampton Street’. The new Museum was opened in 1863.

However, in the early 1900′s the geological society’s second incarnation saw its demise along with the declining local mining industry. In 1903, under threat of being broken up and sold off, the collection passed into the hands of Dudley Council who kept it in the basement of their old free library and art school. It was here that during the late 19th Century Dudley Council had been acquiring fine art. In 1911 they acquired the fine collection of Dudley MP Brooke Robinson and displayed it in what had become the DMAG.  The same year a student from Birmingham University, Mr Edward Worsey, started cataloguing Dudley’s abandoned Collection and put it on display.

At 3.30pm on 12th December 1912 Professor Charles Lapworth, from Birmingham University, officially opened the doors on the geology Collection at the DMAG. This heralded a new era of geological conservation and promotion, with Dudley’s fossil collection enjoying a permanent home in the town centre. Up until the 1960′s, the Museum was generally being used as a School of Art and Library.

Pecopteris plumosa, 004010

In 1975 the geological society’s third incarnation, the Black Country Geological Society (BCGS), was born. Since then, the BCGS has had close links with the DMAG and acts as a lobbying organisation and practical body for the conservation and development of geological sites and collections. An early act of the BCGS was to re-catalogue and re-house the collection in 1984. A temporary curator was appointed to take care of, and develop the collection, although it lay dormant again in 1986 once funds dried up. The same year the BCGS successfully campaigned to get local government to recognise geological heritage in its policies and also to create the role of Keeper of Geology at the DMAG.

When the first permanent keeper of geology, Colin Reid, was appointed in 1987 he introduced a new approach to displaying exhibits at the DMAG. This involved moving away from conventional hanging of fine art. Instead, more theatrical exhibits were staged that ran for longer periods and were directed more towards popular culture and the national curriculum. Beginning with Dinosaurmania and The Age of the Pharaohs the exhibits culminated in the opening of the Time Trail gallery in 1992.

However, the reintroduction of more fine art, budget cuts and a need to redirect workloads, meant that towards the end of the 1990s, the museum began to move away from ‘blockbuster’ type exhibitions, which resulted in declining visitor numbers. Colin retired in 1999 and in February 2000 Graham Worton was appointed as the new Keeper of Geology for the DMAG. The loss of mining from the Dudley area meant the fundamentally close connection that had existed between the local community and geology also disappeared. 

A key approach of the DMAG has always been to conserve and celebrate heritage. However, it also aims to make geology more accessible whilst providing a warm and welcoming place, training and support to the local community and those new to the science of geology. The Universities of Birmingham and Wolverhampton awell as Natural England also benefit from the DMAG’s expert support.

Each year DMAG and the Dudley Museums Service education team run a programme of events and exhibitions aimed at supporting the educational community and inspiring the public. Through this DMAG is re-establishing the long lost bond between the local community and geology. Especially through pioneering projects at the Wren’s Nest National Nature Reserve. Projects like the Waves Project (2002), the WROSNE Project (2008) and the recent Ripples Through Time Project (2011) have all aimed to educate and improve the lives of the local community, whilst helping them to appreciate and learn about what is on their doorstep.

DMAG has also established a Young Museum Geoteam composed of graduates and students, which encourages young aspiring geoscientists to get more involved with geodiversity and conservation through regular volunteering programmes. The museum was also key in putting together and launching the Geology Matters website in March 2011, a project led by Wolverhampton Art Gallery. This searchable website allows users to find information about fossil, mineral and rock specimens held within the Black Country museums. The Geology Matters website can be found at www.geologymatters.org.uk.

Marsupiocrinus coelatus crinoid from Dudley, 008120

During the production of the Geology Matters website the Geoteam was required to develop a digital archive of the Collection housed at the DMAG. Today, the Collection contains approximately 18,000 fossil, rock and mineral specimens, including the remaining Carboniferous and Silurian specimens collected in the 1830′s. Approximately 5,000 specimens have been added to the collection since the first Keeper of Geology was appointment in 1987. Gallery 8, the Geology Gallery, displays only part of the Collection, the rest is currently stored at Himley Hall. As well as displaying specimens from three geological periods the Gallery is also home to ‘Fluffy’, the life size replica model of a Woolly Mammoth.

The Dinosaurs returned to the DMAG in 2007 taking up residence in Gallery 1. They are the first thing visitors see as they walk through the main entrance shop into the museum. This display aims to highlight and provide insight into the lost world of the dinosaurs. It includes full-scale reconstructions of land living dinosaurs and Jurassic marine reptiles along with dinosaur skeleton and fossil fragments.

The museums’ Gallery 2 displays Dudley UnEarthed, which presents two timelines. The first is dedicated to telling the story of local Silurian geology and the history of the rocks of Britain. The second tells the story of the Industrial Revolution and human history within the Dudley area. For more information about the DMAG visit www.dudley.gov.uk/dudleymuseum.

Since September 2001 DMAG has hosted regular rock and fossil fairs that draw large numbers of people from across the country. The next one in September 2013 will form part of the Dudley Museum Year of Geology celebrations. With a monthly programme of events planned 2013 looks like being a big and busy year for the DMAG team and a promising future for geology. Hopefully for another 100 years.

By Andy Harrison
BCGS Field Secretary
Amblecote
West Midlands

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