Getting to know: Lapworth Museum of Geology

  • Published 9 May 2017

Find out more about the five Art Fund Museum of the Year finalists for 2017. Today, the Lapworth Museum of Geology talks ancient rocks, fascinating fossils and why Birmingham used to be covered in water.


We know it's rude to ask, but how old are you?

I agree it is a little inappropriate to ask, but I am 137 years old, and in my prime! My collections and the story they tell stretch back much further though – to the formation of the Earth itself.

If we were to ask you to describe yourself in three words, what would they be?

Inclusive, Engaging, Inspiring.

Art Fund Museum of the Year finalists come in all shapes and sizes and from far and wide. Tell us something interesting about where you live?

I live within the Aston Webb building at the University of Birmingham, named after the architect Sir Aston Webb. Webb’s other work includes the principal facade of Buckingham Palace, the V&A Museum building and Admiralty Arch. During its history the building has been the ‘Hall of Machines’ of the University’s Engineering Department, an ambulance station during the First World War, and ultimately my long-term home. Here, I have welcomed students, school children, Nobel Prize-winning scientists and many more people from all over the world.

In a very exciting year for you, what has been the highlight (apart from being shortlisted, of course)?

Re-opening, following a major redevelopment and hearing gasps, wows and ‘this place is awesome’ from visitors when they enter and explore my galleries.

What is your most treasured possession?

My collections include many highly significant objects, from fossils of the earliest life to stunning gemstones. But perhaps the best-known and most scientifically important part of my collection is the amazing fossils from the Wenlock Limestone of the Black Country, which researchers come from around the world to study. These beautiful fossils of animals like corals, trilobites and sea lilies prove that 425 million years ago, the Midlands was covered by shallow tropical seas – more like the Bahamas than modern day Birmingham!

Your collections cover billions of years of Earth's history. Tell us about your oldest exhibit.

My oldest object is an iron-nickel meteorite which is around 4.5 billion years old, as old as the Earth itself. It was originally from the core of a proto-planet at the time when our solar system was forming, but then broke up. It ultimately hit the Earth in Texas around 60,000 years ago, leaving an enormous crater. This object is battered, bruised and burnt, but has an amazing story to tell.

Before visitors leave, name one thing you are very keen for them to have experienced?

I hope that I have inspired them with a sense of wonder in the natural world and our place in it. I also want them to realise that geology is accessible and open to everyone. My exhibitions tell of the major discoveries made by ordinary people – from the 15-year-old boy who discovered the oldest fossils on Earth, to the Black Country inventor who built a machine that allowed him to record earthquakes on the other side of the world from the shed in his garden.

Children are the future of museums. What do younger visitors most enjoy when they come to see you?

Children and families absolutely love to visit me, and of course kids love dinosaurs, so my Allosaurus, ‘Roary’, is always popular. But their favourite are the ground-level display cases, packed full of weird and wonderful objects, which are at exactly the right level for small people to peer into. It’s almost like they have their own little museum that adults aren’t able to see.

If you had to name one thing, what are you most proud of?

The way my audience profile has been transformed. I’ve retained my lifelong friendships with academics, students and researchers, but I now get to meet and engage a rich and diverse community audience with people from all sorts of backgrounds and all ages. As a result, I am now a much more vibrant and engaging museum, buzzing with activity.

You've had a fantastic 2016 and are in the running for Art Fund Museum of the Year. What are you looking forward to next?

A nice cup of tea and putting my feet up! Seriously though, I’m looking forward to sharing my new face with as many people as possible. It’s wonderful that I now get more than twice as many visitors as before, but there are so many more people that I want to meet.

So, July 5th. You hear your name read out. What would you do if you won Art Fund Museum of the Year?

Go berserk! I may be more than a century old, but I’m not fossilised yet - I still know how to rock a party! I would celebrate together with all my visitors, staff, volunteers, and friends who make me what I am.

This year we're asking visitors to the five finalists to share their best museum stories, reviews, photos, memories and moments on social media using #museumoftheyear.

Find out more about the prize, the history, the judges and this year's finalists at Art Fund Museum of the Year 2017.

Tags: museum-of-the-year