Where Art and Science Meet: Art and Design at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Helen Goulston (University of Birmingham in partnership with the Oxford University Museum of Natural History)

Supervised by Dr Claire Jones (Birmingham) and Professor Paul Smith (Oxford)

Photo of Helen Goulston

Helen recently completed an MA in Decorative Arts and Historic Interiors at the University of Buckingham, achieving a Distinction and receiving the prize for the best performance by a postgraduate Art History student.  The course allowed her to develop her knowledge of decorative arts from the late 17th century through to the 19th century, whilst placing them in their architectural and historical contexts.  The MA culminated in a dissertation on the historic decorative arts display at The Manchester Art Treasures Exhibition of 1857.  Prior to that Helen was an auctioneer and valuer for ten years; this provided her with invaluable hands-on experience of decorative arts across a wide range of eras and mediums. During this time she also qualified as a gemmologist, achieving FGA status.

For Helen’s doctoral project, in collaboration with the University of Birmingham and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, she is researching the interior decorative scheme of the Museum. The Museum was intended as a centre of scientific learning for Oxford University. Henry Acland and John Ruskin were leading figures in the early development of the project, with the Dublin-based architects, Deane and Woodward, winning the building design competition in 1855. By 1859 work had begun on the interior fittings and by 1860 the Museum was open.

The interior includes portrait statues and busts, decorative stonework and ironwork, as well as murals and bespoke furnishings.  Helen will be examining and recording these objects and complementing this with research in the Museum’s archives.

Helen wishes to examine the function and effect of these decorative objects in a museum dedicated to scientific education. She is particularly interested in the role of a museum in university education. Helen is looking forward to this being an interdisciplinary project, assessing the art and design of the Museum in relation to institutional history, history of collections, museology and the development of different scientific disciplines.