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Oxford Arts Blog


One dinosaur, free to a good home.

This was the call from Oxford University's Museum of Natural History last year, when they asked the public for suggestions for where they should relocate their four-metre long model of a Utahraptor.

The dinosaur has definitely found a good home: it has now been installed at the Children’s Hospital at Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital.

The Museum acquired the model in 2000, and it spent time terrorising shoppers at Blackwell’s book shop as part of the Museum’s Goes To Town project in 2014.

But following a reorganisation of the Museum’s collections, it asked for nominations for somewhere to send the dinosaur.

200 venues around the world put in their bids, but the winning one came from Sarah Fletcher, who thought the dinosaur could amaze and inspire the young patients at the hospital.

“The idea of having a model Utahraptor in the hospital seemed like a lot of fun,” she said.

“Having been through the Children’s Hospital with my family, I knew that it would make such a difference to everyone who walks through those doors.

“But I never thought in a million years that we would win it – I am thrilled!”

Hannah Allum, Project Manager at the Museum, is delighted with the outcome. “I hope that the Utahraptor will delight patients and visitors,” she said.

“It’s a nice thought that this Cretaceous character will bring a little piece of the Museum into the hospital environment.”

The dinosaur is now in place, looking down on the entrance to the Children’s Hospital.

Compton Verney

Victorian 'shelfie' goes viral

Francesca Moll | 11 Aug 2017

A Victorian woman’s political statement has inspired a diverse group of contributors, from prison reading groups to UN ambassador Emma Watson, to come together in an exhibition celebrating the value of reading.

‘Unsilencing the Library’, the award-winning latest exhibition at Warwickshire stately home Compton Verney, began life with a mystery: who had created the unusual false bookshelf which forms part of the original decoration in the so-called Women’s Library?

False bookshelves, used to disguise the door to a library, are often associated with Victorian whimsy.

But the Compton Verney example, which is composed exclusively of female authors and shows a deep concern with self-improvement, seems to be saying something rather serious.

Puzzled by this, the curators of the stately home called in Dr Sophie Ratcliffe of Oxford's English Faculty and Lady Margaret Hall to help figure out who might have commissioned it.

According to Dr Ratcliffe and her team, Dr Ceri Hunter and Dr Eleanor Lybeck, everything points towards Georgiana Verney, Lady Willoughby de Broke, who was mistress of Compton Verney in the 1860s.

She was a noted local philanthropist and anti-poverty campaigner and was later described by one of her descendants as having ‘notions of progress’ and being in favour of women’s suffrage.

Dr Ratcliffe describes the bookshelf as a ‘quiet feminist statement’ announcing something profound about Georgiana’s self-image.

Georgiana’s ‘shelfie’ inspired the Oxford team, together with Professor Steven Parissien, director of Compton Verney, to invite a group of ‘guest curators’ to fill out the library by choosing the books that mean something to them.

The shelves make a statement about a range of political issues as well as the importance of reading.

Among these curators is UN Ambassador Emma Watson, herself a visiting fellow of Lady Margaret Hall.

She has chosen feminist classics such as Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale and Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi for her collection. She is joined by writers Margo Jefferson and Alys Fowler, as well as members of reading groups from several local prisons, and students from the nearby Kineton High School.

Inspired by the schoolchildren’s feedback that ‘we don’t like exhibitions we can’t touch’, the installation will be fully interactive.

Visitors will be free to take the books off the shelves and examine the bookmarks placed inside them, explaining why these titles were chosen.

For the technologically-minded, there will be tablets to consult about the history of the room and the guest curators.

Books were chosen for many reasons; Margo Jefferson’s bookshelf focusses on race and coming of age, while Alys Fowler uses her shelf to make a statement about the environment.

Prisoners tended to choose escapist narratives, with swashbuckling adventure stories such as Dumas’ The Three Musketeers and fantasy classics such as Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings proving popular.

But there was also a turn towards the practical; self-help books or funny books such as Bridget Jones’ Baby to help cope with the everyday realities of prison life.

One prisoner describes how James Clavell’s Shogun, which describes an English sailor’s adventures in feudal Japan, helped him with its description of a stranger adapting to a culture entirely unlike his own.

‘I see it as a kind of How-To Guide in dealing with some of the problems prison can generate,’ he says.

Books were also chosen for sentimental value. One particularly moving account relates how Roald Dahl’s Danny the Champion of the World, a book he remembered his teacher reading to him in school, helped one reader in HMP Bullingdon to connect with his young son.

‘I think one of the surprises about this exhibition is how similar all the shelves are, and I think that shows how much we’ve got in common,’ Dr Ratcliffe says.

The project, partially funded by a Knowledge Exchange Fellowship from TORCH (The Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities), has also brought together a small army of local artisans and academics.

Bookbinder John Richards helped recreate two missing panels of imitation books, while fabric makers Rapture and Wright designed a special fabric to decorate the room, inspired by Georgiana’s patronage of the Coventry ribbon weaving trade.

Important supporting research was done by art historian Pip Shergold and local historians Peter and Gill Ashley-Smith.

According to Dr Ratcliffe, the project’s success (‘Unsilencing the Library’ recently won a Vice Chancellor’s Public Engagement with Research Award) has been entirely down to the cooperation and generosity of many different people.

‘I see myself very much as the curator of other people’s brilliance; their knowledge, their expertise and the precious things they’ve shared with me.’

‘I think of this project as a celebration of the small things. Just one small detail in one room in the 1860s has sort of rippled out.

'It has gone to the heart of UK prisons, and to an academic in America, who we consulted with on the project. What’s surprising about this story is how you can unfold a really fascinating narrative from something small.’

‘Unsilencing the Library’ is now open at Compton Verney. You can find out more about the exhibition, and read the guest curators’ reasons for choosing their books, here.


The Guardian called it 'extraordinary'. The Financial Times called it ‘once-in-a-generation’. The boy in the queue ahead of me asked his dad if Raphael was the ‘Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle’.

In a way, they are all right.

‘Raphael: The Drawings’ is a collection of 120 works by the Renaissance artist. The Ashmolean owns fifty of these, which are considered the largest and most important group of Raphael drawings in the world.

Add to that 25 works from the Albertina Museum in Vienna and dozens of portraits from international collections, and you have what Ashmolean director Dr Xa Sturgis calls “an extraordinary gathering” of Raphael drawings.

Raphael was one of the best-known Renaissance artists – and yes, he was one of the four artists who inspired the popular ‘Turtles’ cartoon.

Curator Dr Catherine Whistler says the exhibition shows a different side of Raphael.

‘We often think of Raphael as an artist who is quite idealising and graceful and possibly a bit bland,’ she says. ‘But if you start looking at the drawings, a very different Rafael emerges.

 ‘If we look at Raphael’s art, it is full of human emotion, it is devoted to the human body in all of its heroism and in all of its tenderness and expressiveness.

‘He manages to fuse a sense of naturalism and the real thing with a sense of grandeur, and what he is doing in his early drawings is very much inject them with a kind of gestural force determined to put energy into everything he is doing and drawing.

‘Of all of the artists of his day, he is the one who had the greatest impact on European art from his own time right down to the 20th Century.’

The exhibition has been so popular that the museum has announced additional opening hours in August to accommodate demand.

The museum is usually closed on Mondays but it will now open on Monday August 7, 14 and 21.

The museum will also stay open until 8pm on August 25 and September 2. The exhibition will close on September 3.

Colin Harris

In 1967, the Beatles released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Ronald Reagan became governor of California and, towards the end of the Summer of Love, Colin Harris started work at the Bodleian Library.

Fifty years later, now superintendent of the Bodleian’s Special Collections Reading Rooms, Mr Harris has received a prestigious honorary degree from the University of Oxford.

At the ceremony at the Sheldonian Theatre on 18 July, he was praised for his ”truly dedicated service to all types of library reader – from senior academics to masters' students, professional writers to amateur historians – whom he has advised with expertise and unfailing patience."

Mr Harris joined the Bodleian Library in 1967. He worked in the Duke Humfrey's Reading Room from 1968 and in the Modern Papers Reading Room in the New Bodleian from 1980.

Today, he holds the role of Superintendent of the Special Collections Reading Rooms in the Weston Library within the Bodleian Libraries.

Mr Harris, who will retire at the end of September, says the Library has been through some dramatic changes during his tenure.

‘We have gone from card index, handwritten and typewritten catalogues available only in the Library to online catalogues available worldwide on the Internet; from a typing pool serving all staff to everyone having a PC and able to type their own letters and now emails,’ he says.

‘Our readership has become much more international – for many years we were visited in great numbers from the US, Canada and Western Europe, but now researchers travel from all parts, especially from Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, China and Japan.

‘We have also got an impressive social media presence and we promote wide-ranging activities such as lectures, exhibitions on diverse subjects show-casing the Library’s great wealth of collections and research opportunities such as fellowships that are available in the Bodleian Libraries.’

But he says the quality of service provided by the Bodleian has been continuous throughout his distinguished career there.

‘Throughout, the Library has gone to great lengths to further research, responding to the particular needs of the researcher and providing a very personal service’.

‘I am minded of the readers’ typing room used by researchers such as Denis Mack Smith, who died recently, and of the nascent inter-library loan system of the 1970s so efficiently established by my late wife Susan (then Susan James), which was used to great advantage by the late Sir Isaiah Berlin.’

Tom VanNortwick

Earlier today, the parents of terminally ill baby Charlie Gard ended their legal challenge for him to be taken to the US for experimental treatment.

His mother, Connie Yates, said that “to let our beautiful little Charlie go” is “the hardest thing we’ll ever have to do”.

Professor Julian Savulescu is director of the Oxford Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics. He explores about the ethical lessons we can take from this tragic tale:

"At some point in all of our lives, we have to let go. One can only admire Connie Yates and Chris Gard who fought so hard for Charlie.

However, we should continue to question the original decision, and the way in which these decisions are made. Even if it is too late for Charlie now, we should improve how we make these decisions for the future.

Back in January, there was an option for a trial of treatment that had some chance of success, a world leading doctor willing and able to provide it, and, by April, the funds had been raised to achieve it without public funds.

There were also the means to control and minimise Charlie's suffering. I believe that a limited trial of treatment was in Charlie’s interests back then, given the only alternative for him was death.

Doctors opposed this because of the low chance of success combined with fears that the extra time in life support would be too painful.

Four months of the legal process has left us with no trial of treatment, and no chance now for Charlie. Yet Charlie had to go through all the suffering (and more) of being kept alive on life support.

No-one wanted this outcome. No-one believes this outcome was in Charlie’s best interests. There has got to be a better process. It has been traumatic for all the doctors, who have genuinely had Charlie's interests at heart, and Connie and Chris, but most of all Charlie.

It has also raised other issues.

Charlie would have been the first to receive this treatment and some have said it risked Charlie being used as a guinea pig. Medicine won't progress without experiment and innovation.

Over the years processes have been developed to protect patients and ensure the best scientific results. Double blind placebo controlled trials are the gold standard. I have argued that, for rare and deadly diseases with no existing therapies, it is in the patient's interests to access potential treatments earlier and without placebo, provided they have a reasonable scientific basis.

There is little to lose and much to gain for this group of patients, and the protections that are in place can cause more harm than good for them.

A second issue is that social media has given power to the people. Over the five court hearings, Trump and the Pope, and thousands of others have weighed in. We have had to have these discussions about how and who should decide on what makes life worth living and what kinds of chances are worth taking.

The question of who should decide is legitimate. Some people have wrongly concluded that these decisions should only be up to parents, but at the same time it is right that doctors, scientific experts and the Courts should not be considered almighty, beyond question or account.

How much should the decision–making be left to parents? While most parents want to do the best for their children, parents can abuse their children, or can be radically mistaken. We do need oversight to ensure children are protected.

If Connie Yates and Chris Gard had requested ongoing intensive care for a herbal treatment with zero scientific evidence or rationale, that would be abuse. But they weren't. They were asking for a treatment with a clear scientific rationale and some relevant evidence, with the support of a relevantly qualified medical expert.

There have to be protections. But doctors should not activate these legal mechanisms, or stop parents travelling for medical care for their child, unless there is disagreement between the parents, or they are going to an unsafe place, or they are very confident the parents' choice is unreasonable.

That requires doctors to think ethically, as well as having all the scientific evidence. The problem is not who has the power, it is how it is used and the need for robust, and humble, ethical deliberation.

Some have seen this as a further attack on ‘experts’, a current hot topic. But this case was more about disputed values than disputed facts. What has been absent, and is absent from society, is a sound secular ethical approach to these life and death issues.

I haven't seen any substantial ethical discussion of the deep ethical issues in this case like what makes a life worth living or what kinds of chance are worth taking.

Debate has been shut down in monosyllabic ethical argument: treatment is futile or it is not futile. And we have again closed our eyes to the elephant in the room: resources and justice. The NHS may not be able to afford such experimental treatments for everyone who needs them.

We should have had a debate about resources and justice. These are difficult questions but ones that must be addressed openly. It goes beyond accepting the expertise of someone else.

This has been a clash of medicine, science, politics, ethics and religion. Yes, there is always a clash of values because many people hold different values and weigh facts differently. What matters is that people's values are reasonable and they don't seek to impose them on others, or other families.

It would have been very reasonable for Charlie's parents to choose to withdraw treatment; it was also very reasonable to choose a small chance of some improvement. I wouldn't choose experimental treatment if I were Charlie's parents but that does not mean they are wrong or unreasonable to do so.

We need a bit of humility about our moral views about the good life, and about how and when to live. In Charlie's case, his parents have been accused of prioritising their own interests over Charlie's in choosing to take their child for experimental treatment that might give him a chance to live.

The courts have intervened and stopped them. However it is a reasonable view of Charlie’s interests that his parents held. I hope that there will be a review of the basis of these decisions, and how they are decided in the light of this case."