What’s on : Lectures

“A Story in Stone” from York to Oxford

14 Jun 2023
Start time
7:00 PM
The Yorkshire Museum
Dr Nina Morgan
"A Story in Stone" from York to Oxford

Event Information

“A Story in Stone” from York to Oxford

Dr Nina Morgan

Based on a new book “A Story in Stone” explores the fabric of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Geologist John Phillips came to Oxford from the Yorkshire Museum and was involved in choosing every stone carefully to illustrate the variety of rocks across the UK and Ireland. Dr Nina Morgan will highlight the geology on show through this iconic building; providing an introduction to geology at the same time.

Lecture to be held in the Tempest Anderson Lecture Theatre, Yorkshire Museum,
YO1 7DR at 7.00pm

An event for the York Festival of Ideas – free tickets from 28th April for the general public:



Member’s report

John Phillips, well known to the YPS as the nephew and protégé of William Smith, and first curator of the Yorkshire Museum, built an academic career on this promising start.  He ultimately become Keeper of the Oxford Museum of Natural History and Professor of Geology in 1857.   (The vacancy occurred when his predecessor was killed by a train while admiring the strata revealed in a railway cutting, apparently a not uncommon occupational hazard at the time).  Tasked with designing the museum he and his fellow supporter of the project, Henry Acland, Professor of Medicine, decided that “no ornament should be employed which had no significance with reference to the object of the building” – that object being the teaching of science.  Realising this aim with the help of builder William Woodward, Phillips ensured that the building itself is didactic; a collection of geological specimens used throughout, nearly all of them British.  The façade alone uses thirteen different stones, British apart from the Carrara marble used above the door, chosen because its fine grain makes intricate detailing possible.  The facing is of Bath oolitic limestone, string courses and other features are picked out in a variety of coloured stone, and the roof slates come from two sources – Cumbria for its green colour, Wales for its grey.  Inside even the floor “tiles” are slabs of stone of varied colours, while each of the one hundred and twenty-seven pillars is of a different stone, its classification and source recorded on the base.  Such a building did not come cheap.  The initial budget was £30,000, which was not enough to complete so elaborate a project.  Phillips and Acland were however good fundraisers.  The two men solicited donations: £5 paid for a pillar, £75 for a statue or roundel of a significant scientist; Prince Albert, well-known for his interest in the sciences, persuaded Queen Victoria to pay for five of the latter.  So successful were the pair that enough money was raised, the museum was swiftly built, and opened in 1860.  John Phillips himself wrote the first guide (with some errors). NIna Morgan and her co-author Philip Powell have corrected these and added to the account in their comprehensive and beautifully illustrated book, A Story in Stone, a guide, should you be fortunate enough to be visiting the museum, a comprehensive substitute for a visit if the latter is not possible.

Felicity Hurst