"Jewel is restored and ready" Reg Little reports

The buckets, strategically placed to collect rain water, will be gone. And hopefully, after removing, cleaning and resealing some 8,500 diamond-shaped glass panes, so should the great museum’s famously leaking roof.

Given the size of the glass sections of roof spanning the vast neo-Gothic cathedral to science in Parks Road, it is little wonder that the £2m restoration project at Oxford University Museum of Natural History has taken 14 months to complete.

But at 7am on Saturday, February 15, the museum will again open its doors, with a one-off, dawn-to-dusk reopening day offering everything from live bands to live bugs, and the chance to enjoy breakfast in the museum’s new gallery cafe overlooking the famous dinosaurs below.

The museum’s other treasures, have for more than a year been wrapped up in the darkened Victorian building, famous for its collections of fossils, birds and bugs.

Everything from butterflies to decorative stones and a zebra skeleton were packed away, leaving only the mighty T-Rex and iguanodon dinosaurs still in place, surrounded by boxes when scaffolding went up.

The museum’s spokesman Scott Billings said: “The museum has been quite dark for the past 12 months so it is good to see it coming back to life.”

It is difficult to think of a building in the city that would have been more missed than the museum, which routinely attracts 600,000 visitors a year to see zoological collections, boasting more than 250,000 specimens.

Interpretation and education officer Rachel Parle kept spirits up during the long months of closure by running the museum’s Darkened Not Dormant blog.

“We are feeling really excited about having lots of people back in to the museum and showing off how lovely the roof is looking and the museum at its best again,” she said.

“We have a new cafe. People will be able to come in and spend time overlooking the dinosaurs. We are ready to have the light back in as it has been very dark in here.”

With its forest of ironwork that forms the nave and aisle of this great cathedral of a museum, and great glass roof supported by columns of iron and a railway station-like vaulting, the Grade I-listed building itself has always been as much as an attraction as its exhibits.

It was the first major building in the Gothic style since the Houses of Parliament, built 20 years earlier, and many of Oxford’s most famous Victorian figures, such as Henry Acland and John Ruskin, were involved in its creation.

But for months the museum has been full of scaffolding as contractors went about the painstaking business of cleaning and then replacing thousands of tiny glass roof tiles, resealing them with mastic silicon.

The work was carried out by the Oxford-based construction company Beard and specialist heritage architects Purcell.

Where necessary, replacement glass tiles were handmade to match the Victorian originals.

The job was certainly overdue. For it turns out pretty well as soon as the three huge glass roofs were completed 150 years ago, there was evidence of leaking. But the work provided a welcome opportunity to get to work on the museum’s impressive whales.

Construction scaffolding allowed staff to carry out conservation work on the five whale skeletons, which were lowered from their position above the court, and treated for the first time in over a century, before being raised again in a new configuration.

Ms Parle said: “Getting them down and back up was pretty hairy. They had to be lowered down on cables. The condition has been checked and they have been treated and cleaned.”

Additional lighting has also been installed in all the museum’s public areas, including specially- designed rings of LEDs attached beneath the building’s original gas-lamp fittings.

The work on the roof uncovered Victorian graffiti high in the rafters in April last year reading: “This roof was painted by G Thicke and J Randall, April 1864.”

Thanks to a report in The Oxford Times, George Thicke’s great-great-great-grandson Steve Moorwood, from Temple Cowley, got in touch with the museum to view the writing.

The museum has installed a plaque in the rafters with the names of the team involved in the roof refurbishment, which includes the names of the roof’s original painters — Mr Thicke and Mr Randall.

The closure also proved the perfect setting for an episode of detective drama and Inspector Morse prequel Endeavour in October and the filming of Sir David Attenborough’s Eden Channel show Natural Curiosities.

The Endeavour filming was for the second episode in the new series. Ms Parle said: “Because most of the building was full of scaffolding, the Endeavour crew were only able to film behind the scenes. “David Attenborough said he found it really helpful to have the museum closed as it meant they could get on with it.”

During the closure the museum education staff took the opportunity to take its artefacts into the community, including an interactive treasure trail called ‘Go to Town,’ where 12 exhibits appeared in Oxford city centre.

Ms Parle added: “We have had some great experiences. We have been out at festivals, schools, other museums — we have been taking the museum to them.”

A whole series of special events and talks are planned in the coming weeks starting on Saturday, March 8, with the Oxford Geology Group’s Colloquium and a lecture from Prof Ian Stewart and a hands-on science demonstration on March 15 called ‘Wow! How?’.

There has been further good news that the Museum of Natural History is to be one of the four Oxford museums to share £270,000 to pay for new exhibitions from the Government and Wolfson Foundation. It is to receive £65,000 for its Sensing Evolution project.

But museum director Paul Smith will be just happy to open the doors again on February 15.

“This has been a long, dark year with the museum closed.

“Although the closure has been a great opportunity to experiment with different ways of taking our specimens to the public, it will be nice to have the sound of visitors filling the space once more without having to move around buckets.”