Rotunda Geology Museum

Inspiring and educating future geoscientists is vital to ensure that innovation in Earth science can continue. The Rotunda Museum in Scarborough in the UK, as well as being the world's first purpose-built geology museum, emphasizes geoscience learning with interactive exhibits and 'hands-on' events.
This article appeared in Vol. 6, No. 6 - 2009


The Rotunda Museum, Scarborough, on the North Yorkshire coast, UK. Designed by William Smith, the 'father of English geology' and opened in 1829, it was the world's first purpose-built geology museum. Smith had published the first ever geological map in 1815. © Scarborough Museums Trust There have been many stories in the press in recent years about the decline of student numbers in science subjects. Fewer students specialise in science at high school or secondary school levels, so in consequence fewer take science subjects at degree level. Governments acknowledge that more scientists will be needed in future to satisfy the demand for innovation and new technologies, yet little seems to be done to rectify the situation. This problem affects all science disciplines and geoscience is not immune.

We can see this reflected in the statistics of UCAS, the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, the body that deals with admission to undergraduate courses in the UK. In 2002, some 400,000 students were accepted for degree courses, yet only 1,400 were for geology. By 2008, the number of students had risen to well over half a million, but still with only about 1,400 in geology. Other countries show similar trends. Where will our future geoscientists come from?

“In 2002, some 400,000 UK students were accepted for degree courses, yet only 1,400 were for geology "

Scarborough Museums Trust

The first geological map, published by William Smith in 1815. Rock units were colour-coded according to their colours in nature. The story is told in the book "The map that changed the world" by Simon Winchester. ©British Geological Survey (NERC) Some organisations are trying to buck this trend, however. In this article we look at a museum that has very much put an emphasis on learning about geoscience. The Scarborough Museums Trust, in a seaside resort town on the North Yorkshire coast, is at first sight perhaps an unlikely candidate. Closer investigation, however, shows that the history of Scarborough is inextricably bound up with geology, and the Rotunda Museum is an ideal place to educate both young and old in geoscience.

Scarborough's modern touristic role began in around 1627, when Mrs Farrow, a local gentlewoman, noticed a spring bubbling up from the cliff at the south end of Scarborough's South Bay. She discovered it had medicinal properties. In short, it was a cure for constipation, a condition suffered by many wealthy people at the time because of their dietary habits. A spa was built, and when sea bathing also became popular, Scarborough became a fashionable resort, attracting the moneyed and leisured classes.

Scarborough Philosophical Society

At this time it was also fashionable for gentlemen to form Philosophical Societies, discussion and debating clubs devoted to learning, in particular about the emerging disciplines of natural science and natural history. The Scarborough Philosophical Society was founded in about 1827, with a local dignitary, Sir John Johnstone, Bart., as president. Since Scarborough is situated near some of the finest Jurassic and Cretaceous geology outcrops in the world, much of it exposed in the massive coastal cliffs, it was not surprising that geology should become a main focus of the Society. Constant erosion of the cliffs reveals a multitude of fossils, such as ammonites, belemnites and bivalves, but also spectacular specimens such as plesiosaurs that until that time had not been collected.

A new museum

It was not long before the Society members were discussing the possibility of a museum to house their collections. One of those present at the early meetings was William Smith, recently employed as a land steward on a nearby estate, who later became known as 'the father of English geology'. Smith, who previously had experienced a chequered career including some time in debtor's prison, had pioneered work in stratigraphy. This involved the recognition of rock units according to the fossils they contained. He had published the first ever geological map in 1815, with rock units colour-coded according to their colours in nature, a system largely followed to this day. Smith became the designer and then foreman of works of the new Scarborough Museum, which was opened in 1829. The museum later became known as 'The Rotunda', because of its distinctive cylindrical shape. One of the unique features of the museum was the sloping shelves that Smith used to display rocks and fossils in their correct stratigraphic positions.  

"Smith published the first ever geological map in 1815, with rock units colour-coded according to their colours in nature."


Sponsored by Shell, the gallery showcases the work of real geologists in today's world. Academic, industry and amateur geologists explain their work through video and interactive displays while exhibits punctuate this with examples ranging from dinosaur footprints to oil field cores. © Scarborough Museums Trust From the 1950s, the Rotunda Museum was under the ownership of the local government authority. The museum itself now displayed exhibits largely of archaeology and social history and the geology collection was moved elsewhere. Storms coming in from the North Sea had also taken their toll of the building's structure. After the millennium, it was decided that the museum should be redeveloped to once again reflect its geological origins, heritage and links to William Smith.

Funding was obtained from the UK Heritage Lottery Fund and other public funds, and also a number of corporate sponsors. Will Watts, now Head of Public Programmes and Partnerships for Scarborough Museums Trust, and a geologist himself, was actively involved from the start of the redevelopment project.

Three galleries

"There are three galleries in the redeveloped museum", says Will, "and from the start we wanted each of these to play a unique and challenging role. Education of our visitors was a key aspect, and each gallery would play its part at a variety of levels of interest and detail. We were also drawing on our previous Dinosaur Coast project, a collaboration with other local organisations, where family fun days, fossil hunts and geology walks all use the geology collections from Scarborough Museums Trust and the Whitby Museum to explore the 200 million year history of the area."

The Gateway to the Dinosaur Coast Gallery in one of the wings of the building presents visitors with a physical model representing the coast, highlighting stories relating to the area. It shows how the geology underpins these stories and gives people the knowledge and confidence to go out onto the coast to explore for themselves. They can later return to the museum to follow up their discoveries. This space uses physical interactive displays, fossil identification workstations and toddler play stations.

"The Gateway exhibit is designed to be exciting in particular for young children," says Will, "whereas the other wing of the Rotunda, the 'Shell Geology Now' gallery, is more for older students and adults. It showcases current geological research on the coast, and includes exhibits on dinosaur footprints, coastal erosion and hydrocarbon exploration. This space has a modern laboratory feeling and highlights the relevance of geology to everyday life". Shell was the major corporate sponsor of the Rotunda, and the computer driven interactive and video displays show how real geologists work in today's world. The hydrocarbon exploration exhibit has special relevance to Scarborough as it focuses on the North Sea Jurassic reservoirs, source rocks and seals that can also be found in outcrop in the cliffs near the town.  

The almost complete skeleton of a plesiosaur is displayed in the Shell Geology Now gallery. It was found by an amateur collector, Nigel Armstrong, who tells his story in the video displays in the gallery.

Gristhorpe Man

After learning from the displays, visitors can try their hand at reconstructing a Jurassic landscape complete with dinosaurs. Behind these participants, real dinosaur footprints are on show. © Scarborough Museums Trust One thing that may perhaps surprise visitors to the Shell gallery is the skeleton of Gristhorpe Man, a Bronze Age burial, found in a remarkable state of preservation in 1834. Together with his oak tree trunk coffin, Gristhorpe man is one of the oldest exhibits in the museum, and reminds us that the Philosophical Society was interested in many disciplines, not just geology.

That theme is continued upstairs in the Rotunda gallery itself, arguably the most important (and certainly the most challenging) of the museum. The original 1829 circular gallery with its grade two listed 1850s display cases tells the story of William Smith, Scarborough in the 1830s, the early Society and the characters involved. Geological specimens are displayed according to stratigraphy as suggested by Smith, though the sloping shelves have been replaced by modern mountings to provide easier examination. Above and among these specimens are portraits, models and artefacts illustrating the lives involved, including that of Sir George Cayley Bart., a colourful character who pioneered aerodynamics and manned flight using gliders. Topping it all is a mural around the cylinder of the building, showing the stratigraphy along the Yorkshire coast painted in the colours that William Smith originally used.

"The Rotunda gallery itself is arguably the most important (and certainly the most challenging) of the museum".

Source of education

The spectacular central Rotunda gallery of the museum. The dipping stratigraphy of the area is represented by coloured backgrounds and relevant specimens are displayed in the original 1850s cases. Art and artefacts from the period reconstruct the pioneering times and the colourful characters that founded the Rotunda museum. © Scarborough Museums Trust The work of the Rotunda Museum is not limited to the building. Companion Dinosaur Coast events such as this fossil hunt reinforce the message that geology and geoscience is fun, and aim to capture the imaginations of both young and old. © Scarborough Museums Trust The museum reopened on 9th May 2008, and is now known as The Rotunda – the William Smith Museum of Geology. At various levels of interest, from that of small children to adults, the Rotunda and the companion Dinosaur Coast events act as a vital source of education and information about the geological heritage of the UK and the world. Hopefully, it will inspire and motivate some members of the future generation of geoscientists.

Will Watts concludes "the Rotunda museum now provides a unique experience for the visitor that builds on three key elements for success: real people, the visitors and staff; real objects, over one thousand of them are displayed; and real places, an awe-inspiring 180 year old museum located yards from the stunning Dinosaur Coast".

For more information about the Rotunda museum, visit


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