Beatrix Willimont delves into the fascinating and bizarre exhibits of the UCL Grant Museum.
Entering the Grant Museum is like entering a time capsule. The collection dates back to 1828, when Robert Edmund Grant, one of the 19th century’s foremost naturalists, began to collect specimens to educate his students. In 2011 it moved from UCL’s Darwin building to its current location – the old medical library in the Rockefeller Building.
The dodo bones were found by accident, in a drawer, amongst some crocodile bones. One fossil was mistaken for a replica before turning out to be genuine, and the skeleton of a Quagga, an extinct subspecies of the Zebra, was long mistaken for an actual Zebra before someone figured out that it is in fact one of only seven surviving Quagga skeletons. And the micrarium holds a small but significant space; informing visitors of the fact that 95% of all animal species are smaller than your thumb. Somehow, these endearing facts encapsulate the uniquely enthralling and quirky history of the Grant Museum. It’s the only remaining museum dedicated to zoology in London, housing around 68 000 zoological specimens. From the fabulously informative specimen labels, to its impressive public engagement program, it’s no wonder the museum continues to survive, thrive and entertain to this day.
Other displays are equally as wondrous, if not a little nauseating: take the the many specimens Submerged in high concentrations of alcohol, such as “Little Nicky,” the first commercially cloned cat, numerous little moles crammed inside a jar and a variety of heads (yes, decapitated heads). I’m personally quite fond of the monkey’s head with half of its skull removed (in a situation reminiscent of terminator, if that gives you a better idea). Lest we should forget the once adorable little tarsier primate, sadly infinitely less cute in death than it was in life, given that it’s been skinned. Not all 7000 or so specimens on show provide for such a Halloween-esque experience, but I assure you there is no lack of enchanting gore.
It’s virtually impossible not to marvel at the aeons it took for all these creatures to evolve into existence, only to be preserved in eternal servitude for the purpose of zoological understanding (and instagram). The Grant Museum presents a striking reminder of an infinitesimal part of the ever-growing evolutionary tree to which each of us belongs. Communicating science to the general public can be a challenge but the Grant Museum achieves this with impressive ease, efficacy and a strange kind of forgotten elegance. The judicious choice on the part of the curators to place the skeletons of a gibbon, an aye-aye, a juvenile orang-utan and a juvenile chimpanzee in a single row brilliantly emphasises the extreme similarities between their morphologies. It’s no surprise that Darwin himself was influenced by Grant’s original collection.
Glass Delusions, the temporary winter 2015 exhibit, examines the intricate and deceptive demarcation between living and non-living matter. The exhibition was created by Eleanor Morgan and was inspired by the museum’s Blaschka Glass Models; models of glass sponges. Boundlessly valuable due to the apparently infeasible task of successfully storing an actual sponge, no one knows how the models were originally created with such exquisite accuracy and detail. An interdisciplinary exhibit involving art, geology, biology, engineering and more, the exhibition runs till the end of December, and is well worth a visit.
From appreciating the sheer vastness of an Asian Elephant’s skull with one’s own eyes, to admiring some of the more amusing taxidermies, anyone can relish what this museum has to offer.
I simply could not think of a more appropriate way to spend one’s Halloween. The museum is hosting a special Halloween themed late opening on the 31st from 6:30-9pm. Tickets are just £6 and include a glass of wine. Otherwise, do saunter in any day except Sunday between 1-5pm and experience the scientific visual banquet for yourselves.
Images credit: Courtesy of UCL Grant Museum of Zoology