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  • The Micrarium – a place for tiny things – opens

    By Jack Ashby, on 11 February 2013

    complete micrarium 2 whitenedHere at the Grant Museum we’re not afraid to try something big or something new. This time we’re doing just that with something small and something old, with a topic which has traditionally been problematic for natural history museums.

    Last Thursday we opened the Micrarium – a place for tiny things. In what we believe is a first of its kind, we have converted an old storage room into a backlit cave displaying 2323 microscope slides and 252 lantern slides lining the walls on floor-to-ceiling light boxes and the effect is quite staggering. The slides mostly show whole small animals, or slices through whole small animals, a preparation technique which itself is amazing. Imagine taking a slice 1/10th of a millimetre thick through a fly, cutting through its antennae, its body, its head, the hairs on its head, its wings and its legs, all at once.
    There were two main drivers behind the project…

    1) Displays in natural history museums, while being obviously awesome, are deeply unrepresentative of nature. To certain not-particularly-inaccurate levels of approximation, all animals are invertebrates (80% of all described species are arthropods alone – as the UCL legend JBS Haldane [probably] said “the Creator, if he exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles”), and yet I’d be surprised if 10% of museum displays focussed on them. That’s no surprise – dinosaurs and monkeys are a much easier sell than bugs and worms. We can relate much easier to animals like us with skeletons, babies, faces and two eyes. Invertebrates are so alien with larvae, suckers, segments, antennae and various kinds of exoskeletons that it can be very hard to ‘relate’ to corals, acorn worms, sponges and spiders.

    2) We have around 20,000 microscope slides in the Grant – that’s more than a third of our entire collection. Yet not one was on display. Actually I did a survey of all the natural history collections in the country to see how this compared across the sector. This is what I found:

    • Lots of museums have thousands of zoological microscope slides.
      Few have any on display.
    • Those that do only display a few, or at most tens of slides.
    • Slide boxes are displayed as exhibition props, set dressing for illustrating the office or work place of a scientist.
    • Some museums have put a few under a fixed microscope, and some have tried display close up images of them.

    In truth, microscope slides are really problematic for museums, and it’s no wonder we as a sector have struggled to know what to do with them. For one, they aren’t very useful anymore. The main reason we have so many is because microscopy used to be an integral part of biological study and research. Students gained huge zoological knowledge from the practice, and over time we built up a massive collection of teaching slides. Students would each borrow a set (the deposit was £2 2s), like a library book, and be referred to particular slide – 23 Testis mammal, for example – in their lectures. The older, beautifully patterned and colourfully covered slides in the display would have been bought by the likes of Robert Edmund Grant from slide dealers in the mid-nineteenth century for use in teaching or research. Many of the slides, including serial sections of animals, embryology and different development stages were prepared for scientific treatises on comparative anatomy and how different animals grow. The use of microscope slides in teaching and research continued until relatively recently, but has been made obsolete by better imaging techniques and a greater focus on genetics rather than morphology.

    Secondly, they are tiny. How do you label them so that everyday museum visitors understand what they are looking at? Any label which conformed to the Disability Discrimination Act would be at least 4 times as big as the slide itself. That’s assuming that the specimen on the slide is visible with the naked eye anyway (after all, the whole point of microscopy was to show things that weren’t).

    The lantern slides around the bottom of the micrarium are largely from the teaching collection of palaeobiologist and former curator D.M.S Watson and are analogous to the powerpoint presentations that lecturers prepare today. Projected through an interestingly named magic lantern these slides would have illustrated lectures on palaeobiology and invertebrate anatomy. Much like microscope slides these objects are beautiful but obsolete and make up part of the hidden history of how the Grant Museum collection was used to teach students biological sciences. These lantern slides will complement a future permanent display of the history of the collection opening later this year.

    The Micrarium at the Grant Museum is an experiment. We are trying something new with no real idea of how people will respond. Given their sheer number – meaning that attempts to label them individually would be impossible – the intention isn’t for visitors to get specific insights into individual specimens or species, but to appreciate the sheer vastness of invertebrate diversity. There may be 30,000,000 species on the Earth, nearly all of them invertebrates, so obviously the number we display here is miniscule, but it’s a step in the right direction for museums.

    These specimens are exquisite works of art, and this intentionally aesthetic installation aims to inspire awe at both biological diversity and human technical skill in their preparation. Close scrutiny of the slides reads like a who’s who of influential zoologists through the ages, including slides from J.P.Hill, R.B.Freeman, G.H. Fowler and D.M.S Watson as well as numerous technicians who prepared these slides with great skill. Visitors don’t have to be versed in worm taxonomy or the finer points of flea anatomy to appreciate what they are looking at.

    As with any experiment, it needs testing. Please do visit and let us know what you think.

    UPDATE 15/2/13 Curator Mark and I chatted to the lovely folks in UCL News about the Micrarium for their podcast.

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