University of Oxford

Follow us @OxfordASPIRE

This is an archive site and is not updated. It represents works conducted by Oxford University Museums funded by Arts Council England between 2012-2018. For information about our current work please visit

Inside the Tower

28 May 15 -- jsuess
Sarah Phibbs, Head of IT, Museum of Natural History

This post is part of a series highlighting outcomes of the Innovation Fund in 2014-15 - Read about the Innovation Fund.

The aim of the project was to deliver live video streaming from the nesting swifts in the tower at the Museum of Natural History.  During the summer months, when the birds are nesting, the live stream is broadcast on the television in the Museum court, and on the Museum website.

We applied to the Innovation Fund for a grant to allow us to invest in the equipment and expertise to move from the existing system of relaying a series of still pictures over the web that we had developed in house, to the provision of live streaming over the web to a large audience. Despite the somewhat clunky nature of the old system it had always attracted a large audience of swifts enthusiasts, and we knew that improved delivery would enable us to attract even wider audiences. We worked with Wildlife Windows to install the necessary cameras and video streaming equipment. Wildlife Windows also provides a service for hosting the live stream that is generated. They also monitor the flow of visitors to make sure sufficient bandwidth is always available. It is this last feature that is so crucial and had been so challenging for us to deliver previously. Webcams use CCTV technology that is designed to provide live stream to only a small number of users (quite often just one), and live stream tends to ‘fall over’ when watched by a large number of connections.  

The installation work was carried out at the beginning of the nesting season 2014, and the new live stream was extremely popular.  The excitement of real-time and high quality viewing enabled us to publicise one of our most iconic features in a number of ways:

  • Last summer it became a special attraction for local ornithological groups, and we organised some tours and talks on the Museum lawn for swift enthusiasts both amateur and professional. Staff at the Museum also participated in ‘swift’ events further afield. 
  • The website also attracted visitors from around the world, and the live streaming page was among the top ten visited pages from June through to August. With the exception of our home page, no other web page from the Museum website attracts so many visitors (the other top ten pages are always from our educational resources – the Learning Zone.)
  • The progress of the swifts and their chicks made a lively contribution to the Museum’s social media presence, especially, and most appropriately on our twitter feed. Throughout the summer there are also a steady stream of enquiries about the swifts via the website.
  • The project has also led to interest in research projects associated with the swifts in the tower.

The renewable annual contract we were able to negotiate with Wildlife Windows means that the seasonal live streaming will continue, and further development of the project can take place.  The live streaming is already up and running this year – there are 27 active nests in the tower, and  the camera currently feeding the webcam is focused on a nest with three eggs.