Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

The 17th of May was the height of an event called ‘Museums at Night‘, a UK wide festival that bills itself as seeking to “encourage visitors into museums, galleries and heritage sites by throwing their doors open after hours and putting on special evening events.” As luck would have it this festival coincided with Lyme Regis Museum‘s celebration of the life of one very important palaeontologist, and I was invited to give a talk for the festival, but more about the talk later.

1840’s portrait of Mary Anning with her dog Trey on the beaches around Lyme Regis

The name of that important palaeontologist was Mary Anning, and if you’ve looked into the early years of palaeontology for more than about twenty minutes then you’ll have come across her name. Or perhaps you know the tongue twister that she reportedly inspired…

“She sells seashells on the seashore
The shells she sells are seashells, I’m sure
So if she sells seashells on the seashore
Then I’m sure she sells seashore shells.”

On the nearest weekend to her birthday every year, Lyme Regis Museum celebrates her life with free entry, family events and talks about topics ranging from her life and the early palaeontologists, to the geology of the Lyme Regis area and the animals that she sought in the cliffs and limestone ledges along the coast.

It was into this last category that my talk fell. Earlier this year, Phil Davidson from the Charmouth Heritage Coast Centre and I spent some time looking over one of the Museum’s specimens; a large Ichthyosaur measuring four and a half metres long and stored in pieces in the museum cellar. Our task was to document the current state of the specimen and make sure it was all where it ought to be. This creature has been off of public display since the mid-eighties when a cast was made and hung on the wall of the museum to save on exhibition space. In the end my talk for the Museums at Night festival was much more general than our work on the specimen, and I chose to spend a lot of my time talking about convergent evolution between Ichthyosaurs and modern creatures.

Anywho, Here’s the talk in full, the audio is a bit hard to follow at the start but it improves as the talk goes on, and if you’re interested in the assessment Phil and I made earlier this year it can be seen here. I’d really appreciate any comments, suggestions and observations, as they will help me improve my presentation style, my content and its delivery!


5 thoughts on “Museum Lecture: “The Beast in the Cellar”

  1. Pingback: More feedback from Museums at Night 2013 | Museums at Night Blog

  2. Mary


    I’ve read a lot about Mary Anning and her brother Joseph, those two energetic young amateur palaeontologists who from childhood were accustomed to roam along the cliffs in search of fossils. Their untiring labour was in large part responsible for the discovery of some highly significant species, such as the famous Icthyosaurus and Plesiosaurus.

    I would like to know if the zone explored by Mary and Joseph Anning has been exhausted in palaeontological terms, or if new important discoveries are still being made there.

    1. Benjamin Brooks Post author

      Hi Mary,

      You ask a fantastic question, and I should add an important one!

      The short answer is; Absolutely Not! New discoveries are made on the Jurassic Coast every day by tourists, amateur collectors, commercial fossil hunters and academics. So many in fact that there’s a fossil collecting code and recording scheme. Indeed a couple of years ago I wrote another post about one of my colleagues at the museum finding a beautiful Ichthyosaur specimen. The only real caveat to this is that the exact section where Mary and Joseph found the original ichthyosaur is sadly (though understandably) hidden behind a sea wall and no more fossils come out of that 100 metre section.

      You can, on beaches all along the Jurassic Coast, and indeed many beaches around the UK, and the world, find beautifully preserved specimens of a wide variety of creatures. The science of palaeontology is hugely dependent on the efforts of amateur, tourist and commercial collectors who have the time and motivation to find the weird and unusual fossils. I recommend visiting the local museums to whereever you visit though, as an afternoon talking to a local expert or looking at local collections is worth hours of time spent looking on the internet or weeks of time wasted on the beach not knowing what to look for!

      To borrow from a famous children’s nursery rhyme… If you go down to the beach today, you’re in for a big surprise!

      Happy Hunting!

      1. Mary

        Thanks so much, Ben, for your kind reply to my question. I admire your enthusiasm for palaeontology. I myself have loved this field of study since childhood. When I read about the Annings’ astonishing discoveries, I could just imagine the wonder and joy on the faces of those two children, as they beheld venerable ancient creatures which had not been seen for many millions of years! Mary and Joseph both had keen intelligence; over the years, they became familiar with various species, consulted famous biologists of that time including Reverend Buckland, and often expressed logical opinions of their own. If Mary Anning had lived longer on this Earth, I believe that she would have published works of her own and given scholarly conferences. At any rate, her name will always be enshrined as one of the pioneers of palaeontology.

        I would like to learn everything I can about the fossils found in England. Please, could you tell me which publications I should consult?

        Best wishes,


      2. Benjamin Brooks Post author

        Hi Mary,

        Firstly, I hope you’ll forgive my tardiness in responding to your question, I have been meaning to write a full-blown post in response to it, but life has repeatedly got in the way. For now I hope this will suffice:

        There are (probably) tens of thousands of books that you could look to to learn about the fossils found in England, and hundreds of thousands more scientific journals… in the end it will come down to how much effort or expense you’re willing to go to, and how technical a read you’re willing to subject yourself to.

        There are lots of so called “popular science” books out there that talk in part about the fossils of the United Kingdom, but most of them treat palaeontology as a global science (which it is!) and talk about the most interesting things from all over the world. Some great examples of this type of book are:

        Dry Store Room No.1 by Richard Fortey
        The Ancestor’s Tale by Richard Dawkins
        Wonderful life by Stephen Jay Gould
        Written in Stone by Brian Switek

        Other people to look out for are Michael Benton (a Professor at Bristol University), Simon Conway Morris (a Professor at Cambridge University) and Richard Leakey. The latter especially if you’re interested in the Human lineage.

        For something a bit more technical, you can’t beat field guides, although these are not the cheapest option as they only cover a small area, (often smaller than a county), so you may need to buy lots of them to learn everything!
        However these are great for learning about the specific fossils of an area, and the local geology. The most prolific producers of these guides are the Palaeontological Association and Geologist’s Association, but you can find self published ones out there and the BGS produce *even more* technical ones (although they’re mostly geological rather than palaeontological…)

        Dorset Field Guides

        If on the other hand you literally just want to be able to identify what you’re finding out on the beach or in the quarry but don’t want to splash out on hundreds of specialist field guides, I thoroughly recommend the Natural History Museum’s “British Fossils” series of three books…

        …Originally published when the NHM was the British Museum of Natural History, these have been updated at regular intervals (and indeed were updated in the last couple of years) to keep the names up to date and have beautiful hand drawn pictures of different fossils from across the UK.

        If you *really* want to go technical… then I would recommend joining the Palaeontological Association and Palaeontographical Society, who both produce journals or monographs that go into *LOTS* of depth. But this is both an expensive and mind-numbingly technical option. And of course… I have to recommend “On the Origin of Species by means of Natural Selection” by Darwin, for completeness sake if nothing else!

        For more general geology, I would recommend one book in particular, which is Arthur Holmes’ Principles of Physical Geology, it’s horribly out of date now, and was when I read it, but it was the book that got me interested in geology in a big way, and was rather easy to read…
        I owe this book so much that I own two copies of it!

        One final tip; if you live in or near a University Town, as I do; go into the Oxfam Bookshop on a regular basis and you’ll be able to pick up all the above and many other text books for sometimes ridiculous prices, provided the university has a Geology or Palaeontology department, you’ll find that every September to February, the students who have just finished their courses will have handed in a lot of text books that will slowly be cycled through the shelves. This is how I originally got all by British Fossils books, which are a couple of editions old, but still good for basic identification.

        Anyway, my apologies again for the delay in getting back to you, but I hope this has been a useful reply.


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