The UK’s geological museums and collections

Geographical distribution of geological collections. (Fothergill, H. 2005., 'The state and status of geological collections in United Kingdom museums: 2001' The Geological Curator 8(3): 53-136

Geographical distribution of geological collections. (Fothergill, H. 2005., ‘The state and status of geological collections in United Kingdom museums: 2001’ The Geological Curator 8(3): 53-136

Everyone has heard of the Natural History Museum – but did you know there are more than 250 geological collections across the UK?

Housed in museums and other public institutions, the majority of our geological collections can be visited by the public. They are spread across the UK, and are vital centres for research, education and public engagement.

Geological Society Statement on the Value of Museums and Collections

Here are just a few case studies, highlighting how important our national collections are to the UK’s cultural heritage.

Kimmeridge Bay

Kimmeridge Bay is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, lying within the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site.

It provides a fantastic opportunity for both industry geologists and students to observe the world class Kimmeridge Bay source rock – a key analogue to aid understanding of source rock systems in North Sea hydrocarbon fields.

Rocks at Kimmeridge Bay, a Spite of Special Scientific Interest

Rocks at Kimmeridge Bay, a Spite of Special Scientific Interest

The Kimmeridge Clay is also crucial to palaeontologists, containing a large range of fossils including remarkably well preserved plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.

The Steve Etches Kimmeridge Fossil Collection is due to be displayed publicly in a purpose built museum from late summer 2016. Showcasing over 2000 specimens, collected at Kimmeridge over more than 30 years, it will be a fantastic resource for researchers, students and the visiting public.

Collections in the landscape – Buxton Museum

At the heart of Buxton Museum’s collection is the geology and archaeology of the Peak District – one of the most popular areas of the UK for visitors. Much of the area’s draw is its outstanding landscapes and natural features.

Landscape around Buxton

Landscape around Buxton

With funding from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Buxton Museum’s ambition is to become the destination of choice for people wanting to find out about the Peak District. To do this, the museum is maximising digital access to its collections. Guided tours of landscape sites for use on mobile phones will provide access to the collections for visitors enjoying the landscape. The museum’s principal gallery will be developed, and items not previously exhibited will be put on show, with additional material provided through digital interpretation and online access.

Through innovative approaches to engagement, regional museums like Buxton are enhancing public outreach and engagement with landscapes and local geography.

Old collections provide new insights into the Stonehenge Bluestones

In 1923, Herbert Henry Thomas published a paper in the journal Antiquity, which suggested a provenance for the stones used to build Stonehenge. Thomas concluded that the doleritic bluestones came from Carn Meini in the Mynydd Preseli area of North Pembrokeshire, the rhyolitic component from nearly Carn Alw, and the ‘calcerous ashes’ from the northern flanks of Foel Drygarn.

Stonehenge, a World Heritage Site

Stonehenge, a World Heritage Site

Recently, researchers from Amgueddfa Cymru – National Mseum Wales, Institute of Archaeology and Aberystwyth University have been using geochemical techniques not available in 1923 to re-examine the stones’ provenance. In doing so, it became essential to track down the original specimens and thin sections that Thomas used.

One of the key rhyolitic thin sections was traced to the Natural History Museum, whilst others were found in the collections of the British Geological Survey in Keyworth.

By comparing these specimens to Thomas’, it has been possible to challenge his original theories, and suggest alternative sources for the stones. These findings have been published in a series of papers in the Journal of Archaeological Science, and highlight the critical value of geological collections held by museums and other institutions around the UK.

In particular, they highlight the importance of maintaining archive collections – long held collections remain of great importance long after they have first been studied, and support further groundbreaking research as new analytical techniques are developed.

Find out more

  • To find out more about the UK’s geological collections, visit the Geological Curators Group website
  • Read the Geological Society’s Statement on the Value of Museums and Collections in full

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