The Lyme Regis Museum reopened last year after a major makeover including the addition of a new wing named after Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter and one of Lyme’s most celebrated citizens. Mary Anning possessed a unique talent for finding, reconstructing and interpreting fossils in the cliffs of west Dorset and her discoveries transformed the field of geology in the 19th century. The new Mary Anning Wing has transformed the Museum into one fit for the 21st century.
I remember visiting the Museum some years ago on a bitterly cold mid-December day. I recall a pretty but rather spartan Victorian building crammed with interesting exhibits but very much a museum in the old style. I returned this January to a completely different experience. The Museum now has a spacious, welcoming entrance area and shop with natural light flooding through plate glass windows giving spectacular views across Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast. The important features of the old building such as the beautiful spiral staircase and rotunda are still emphasised but there is a new Fine Foundation Learning Centre and with the installation of a lift, the Museum is accessible to all.
I enjoyed the bright, interesting and well-presented galleries covering the Early History of Lyme, the Cobb and the Sea, the Undercliff, Lyme during the War and the Branch Line Railway. A large display on Literary Lyme features, in particular, the writer John Fowles, who lived in the town and was a great supporter of the Museum acting as Curator for a decade. Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was famously made into a film putting Lyme on the international map. Jane Austen also features strongly; she spent holidays in the town and set some of her novel “Persuasion” there.
All this alone is worth the price of admission but, in my opinion, the real jewel in the crown is the new interactive Geology Gallery. Here the visitor can see fossils similar to those discovered locally in the 19th century that changed the face of geology forever and made Lyme Regis famous around the world. The Gallery celebrates these discoveries and the people who made them while not forgetting those who continue this quest into the 21st century.
The large, high-ceilinged room is packed with exhibits: many different kinds of fossil, drawings, artefacts and mementoes. There are striking examples of large fossilised creatures on the walls and suspended above are models of these same creatures. The exhibits are so impressive and so well presented that there is a strong “wow factor” but the interactive displays bring the exhibits to life showing what the fossilised bones mean and what these creatures might have looked like. It is a gallery for all ages but there is no dumbing down.
As I looked around the Gallery, I felt that even if she wasn’t actually there by my side, Mary Anning “spoke to me” from almost every exhibit. Her story is outlined in the displays, how she was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to a very poor family, received no formal education but learned from her father the way to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs. When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother made their first major fossil discovery, an Ichthyosaur, a now extinct “fish-lizard”. One of the most dramatic objects on display in the Gallery is a partial Ichthyosaur skeleton, about 5 metres long, discovered in 2005 by Paddy Howe, the Museum geologist, similar to the one discovered by Mary Anning. There is also a massive fossilised Ichthyosaur head in one of the cabinets, so we can get a real sense of how exciting it must have been to discover one of these creatures for the first time. Mary went on to become the greatest fossil hunter ever known, possessing a unique skill and persistence in finding and reassembling fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science. Among her other unique fossil discoveries were two Plesiosaur skeletons, the first ever found and probably her greatest finds. The Plesiosaur was a small-headed marine reptile with a very long neck and the Gallery contains the skeleton of a juvenile Plesiosaur with a model of the creature hanging above the display.
Despite her lack of formal education and her humble origins, Mary came to be well respected by the leading geologists of the time, Henry de la Beche, William Buckland and William Conybeare, all of whom are described in displays. These men sought her out in Lyme and befriended her but despite this friendship, they used the fossils she found to further their own reputations and gave her little or no credit. As a woman in the 19th century, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy. After she died in 1847, however, Henry de la Beche read a eulogy to the Geological Society dedicated to Mary Anning and her discoveries. This was an honour usually accorded only to fellows of the Society which did not admit women for another half century.
The new Gallery tells the story of Mary Anning but I feel that her importance is slightly underplayed, especially in relation to the male scientists of the time. Her discoveries were unique, showing that large reptile-like creatures had existed millions of years ago but were now extinct. These findings challenged existing ideas in geology and questioned contemporary biblical accounts of creation. They also contributed to changes in thinking that led Charles Darwin to propose theories of evolution by natural selection. The importance of Mary Anning should not be underestimated and it is surely significant that in 2010 the Royal Society voted her one of the 10 most influential women in science.
I very much enjoyed my visit to the remodelled Lyme Regis Museum with its new Mary Anning Wing. It is a treasure trove of fascinating displays, a museum fit for the 21st century, and the staff should be congratulated on their achievement. I urge you to visit, you will not be disappointed.
This article appeared in the March 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine
The picture at the top of this post shows a model of a pterosaur in the Lyme Regis Museum. Mary Anning found the first skeleton of a pterosaur outside continental Europe.