The Lapworth Museum of Geology: A Review

Article by: J. D. Dixon
Edited by: Lewis Haller, Adam Manning, and Harry Jones

Upon entering the flag-waving doors of the Lapworth Museum of Geology, visitors are greeted with a stunning scene. It looks as if a fearsome Allosaurus is charging right for them. Thankfully, this is just cast of a skeleton, and not the ferocious Jurassic predator in the flesh.

Roary the Allosaurus. He is actually a cast of the famous Big Al. Image by J. D. Dixon.

From the get-go, the Lapworth Museum brings an exciting take on prehistory and geology seldom seen elsewhere in Birmingham. An especially nice factor is that it is free, so the museum is accessible to anyone who wishes to go. The museum itself dates back to 1880, when it occupied the top floor of Mason College, which later became the University of Birmingham. In 1900, a new University of Birmingham was designed, but it was not until the 1920s that the museum actually moved into the Aston Webb building, where it now resides. The museum was officially reopened in June 2016, and continues to be an innovative experience for researchers and members of the public alike.

A reconstruction of the Cambrian trilobite Paradoxides groomii drawn by Charles Lapworth in 1889. Image by J. D. Dixon.

The Main Gallery
So, once visitors have encountered the most formidable carnivore of the Late Jurassic, they can enter the main gallery. Two wooden cases sit either side of the Allosaurus cast, addressing what geology is, different types of fossils and how they are formed, discovered and prepared, and the principals of biostratigraphy, and palaeoenvironmental and palaeoclimate analyses. The cases even pose an important question to visitors: would you destroy a fossil for science?

Continuing around the gallery, visitors can see a detailed geological timeline, taking them on a tour of the Earth’s history right from its formation. The information on the Precambrian only occupies one small area, and considering the Precambrian spans ~ 3.5 billion years, this may not seem like much. However, the displays at Lapworth manage to be detailed yet concise, explaining sufficiently to visitors without confusing them. Each area showcases an array of unique fossils, with information about what they are, where they came from, and who discovered them. Sections also display models of the creatures as they would have been in life, and some even have screens displaying all kinds of relevant information about the specimens and animations showing what they may have looked like in their world.

Dalmanites myops, a species of trilobite. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Following the Precambrian is a journey through the Phanerozoic at period-level. Firstly is the Cambrian, with a plethora of beautifully preserved arthropods. The Ordovician and Silurian are displayed, with the latter having a vast collection from the Wenlock Limestones of Dudley. Then, there is detail all about the rise of terrestrial vertebrates from the Devonian – Permian. A cast of the tetrapod trackway from the West Midlands can be seen here, worked on by none other than the university’s own Luke Meade, Dr Andrew Jones, and Prof. Richard Butler.

Instead of the traditional focus on dinosaurs, the Lapworth Museum manages to cover the Mesozoic (Triassic, Jurassic, and Cretaceous) in an applaudably different way. Shifting the centre of attention from the dominant dinosaurs, the display showcases other forms of less well-known life at the time, such as Jurassic marine reptiles, and invertebrates like ammonites, brachiopods, and echinoderms. An amazingly detailed Protoicthyosaurus sculpted by Bob Nicholls can even be seen hanging from the ceiling, as if she’s swimming through the museum air. Nevertheless, there is still an acknowledgement given to the famous fauna, with a rather impressive sauropod femur, numerous skull casts (e. g. Deinonychus), a beautifully preserved theropod footprint, and more distinct collections.

Isla the Protoicthyosaurus sculpted by Bob Nicholls. Image by J. D. Dixon.

The Palaeogene and Neogene are not exactly broken down to their maximum extent, no doubt due to limited space in the main gallery, but there is still detail regarding the rise of mammals and many exceptionally preserved fish fossils.

A fossilised fish. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Again the Quaternary breakdown is limited, but does feature relatively detailed information regarding the Ice Age and its associated megafauna, including some impressive cave bear, woolly rhino, and mammoth fossils, along with a Smilodon skull cast.

This brings visitors up to the story of human evolution, which is told by a tree featuring model skulls of various hominid species, and showing how they may be connected through time. Finally, there is a large wall housing many zoological specimens, fashioned into a tree of biodiversity. A portrait of Charles Lapworth, the man after whom the museum is named, sits in the centre of the museum, above his original desk, which is covered in his own equipment and belongings. This sits below some rather awe-inspiring Megaloceros antlers, and next to a Rock Wall stacked as high as the ceiling. This has an array of more than 125 samples divided into the three main rock groups (metamorphic, igneous, and sedimentary).

The enormous Megaloceros skull and antlers hanging high. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Active Earth
Through a passage on the lower floor near the Rock Wall, visitors will find a section all about Earth. It starts with explanations about different rock types, giving samples for visitors to touch, and a couple of interactive tectonics displays. There is also an interactive globe, which gives visitors the chance to explore palaeogeography, tectonic plates, ocean currents, tsunamis, and more.

There are also information boards all about seismographs and their history, along with some equipment. Boards regarding volcanoes, tsunamis and the frozen parts of Earth can also be found here, with samples of rocks exhibiting signs of past glaciation.

Here there is also material exploring microfossils and their importance in geology and palaeontology, even with a microscope that visitors can use to view samples.

Part of the Active Earth area, featuring numerous interactive exhibits. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Jack’s Adventures With Salt
Currently there is a temporary exhibition all about Jack Richardson’s fascinating PhD: study on the magnetic properties of evaporites and salt deposits in Nova Scotia, Canada. While it sounds like a scarily complex topic, the exhibit is very easy to understand and includes insights into what it’s like studying a PhD for anyone interested in following this path. There are also stories and photos from his study, interactive experiences, a field kit for visitors to try on, and a case housing a geologist’s essential tools. The walls are decorated with fun caricatures of the people involved in the PhD study, Jack, David and Carl, which help keep the experience enjoyable while informative.

Keith Palmer Education Room
This is the room behind the animal tree of life, and houses a hippo skull, a gliding pterosaur, fully articulated Velociraptor and early tetrapod skeletons, as well as impressive cases of fish, trilobites and minerals.

Mineral Gallery
This area can be found up the stairs near Active Earth, and has a unique collection of many samples of different rocks and minerals. It shows where each sample has come from, and has displays showing the properties of different rocks for any budding geologists, such as density, magnetism, lustre, hardness and fluorescence, with an interactive ultraviolet display exploring the latter of these. The Victorian collector William Bragge’s own cabinet of samples can even be found here, beside information and samples of precious gems.

Quartz var. amethyst taken from South America. Image by J. D. Dixon.

The Gift Shop
What would any museum be without an adequate gift shop? This can be located near the entrance, and can be used to buy souvenirs to remember the trip to Lapworth.

So, Should You Visit?
Overall, the Lapworth Museum of Geology is a fun day trip for all ages, offering an exceptional and interesting take on the prehistory and geology of Earth not seen in other museums in the area. The information is educational yet understandable, and so the museum caters to a wide range of guests. A visit is definitely recommended for anyone interested in learning more about the Earth’s history.

Image References
[1] Roary the Allosaurus. He is actually a cast of the famous Big Al. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[2] A reconstruction of the Cambrian trilobite Paradoxides groomii drawn by Charles Lapworth in 1889. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[3] Dalmanites myops, a species of trilobite. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[4] Isla the Protoicthyosaurus sculpted by Bob Nicholls. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[5] A fossilised fish. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[6] The enormous Megaloceros skull and antlers hanging high. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[7] Part of the Active Earth area, featuring numerous interactive exhibits. Image by J. D. Dixon.
[8] Quartz var. amethyst taken from South America. Image by J. D. Dixon.

Information References and Further Sources
[1] “A history of the Museum building” (2016). Display board at: The Lapworth Museum of Geology. Birmingham. Observed: 25th August 2019.
[2] Chart drafted by K.M. Cohen, D.A.T. Harper, P.L. Gibbard, J.-X. Fan (c) International Commission on Stratigraphy, August 2018. To cite: Cohen, K.M., Finney, S.C., Gibbard, P.L. & Fan, J.-X. (2013; updated). The ICS International Chronostratigraphic Chart. Episodes 36: 199-204. URL: http://www.stratigraphy.org/ICSchart/ChronostratChart2018-08.pdf. Accessed 25th August 2019.
[3] Meade, L. E., Jones, A. S., and Butler, R. J. (2016). A revision of tetrapod footprints from the late Carboniferous of the West Midlands, UK, Peer J. doi: https://doi.org/10.7717/peerj.2718. Available at: https://peerj.com/articles/2718/?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_campaign=PeerJ_TrendMD_1&utm_medium=TrendMD. Accessed 25th August 2019.
[4] University of Birmingham Plaque. (2016). Displayed at: The Lapworth Museum of Geology. Birmingham. Observed: 25th August 2019.

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