Museums & Collections Blog
  • Categories

  • Tags

  • Archives

  • Happy 79th Thylacine Day: What they knew in 1896

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2015

    79 years ago today , on the night of 7th of September 1936, the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of the indoor part of its enclosure in a Tasmanian zoo. This followed a government-sponsored cull based on pressure from the farming lobby, who incorrectly blamed the thylacine for the failure of the sheep industry. Happy Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine as depicted in Wood's Illustrated History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Thylacine as depicted in J.G. Wood’s The Illustrated Natural History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Here at the Grant Museum, as holders of a significant collection of specimens, we like to commemorate Thylacine Day. Here you can read how we have commemorated previous Thylacine Days – including the story of their extinction, and how it’s being echoed today in the UK’s unscientific badger cull (which restarted last Friday).

    I recently bought book from 1894* – A Handbook to the Marsupialia and Monotremata – a species by species account of what was then known about those groups by Richard Lydekker. Lydekker was a significant figure at the Natural History Museum, London, and incidentally was born about 100m from us here at UCL. Here is what he had to say about thylacines: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 203: Mastodon jaw fragment

    By Dean W Veall, on 31 August 2015

    Fragment of mastodon jaw with molar

    Fragment of mastodon jaw with molar

    Hello Specimen of the Week readers, Dean Veall here. Unfortunatley we had to be closed over the last week (and also this coming week) for some essential heating works. As part of the process we needed to empty some of our cupboards, (I say we, mostly Tannis Davidson, Curatorial Assistant), in the emptying I came across this week’s specimen of the week and what a treat of a specimen it is with a great name and backstory. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…….


    Specimen of the Week 200: The dodo

    By Jack Ashby, on 10 August 2015

    Grant Museum dodo bones

    Grant Museum dodo bones LDUCZ-Y105

    200 weeks ago the Specimen of the Week was born, and here we are 198 specimens* later. For this auspicious occasion, I thought I should highlight one of the most important specimens in the Museum, both for historic reasons, and because it one of the things that visitors regularly ask about.

    Indeed, we know it is one of the most popular objects as it scores the highest in our “filth left on the glass by visitors scale”. We agree with our visitors’ assessment, and have included it in our Top Ten Objects trail.

    Possibly ranking as our most blogged about species, it’s about time that this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Curt Herzstark and a remarkable machine.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 27 January 2015

    Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet soldiers. To mark this I thought I would discuss an object from UCL’s collections with a pretty remarkable story. This object not only saved the life of its inventor, but also allowed him to save the lives of others at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators. Image taken from

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators.
    Image from

    The Curta calculator is a wonderful machine. It’s was the world’s first handheld mechanical calculator and was used extensively from its invention until the digital calculator took over in the 1960s / 70s. Scientific American called it “the most ingenious calculating machine ever to grace an engineer’s hand” (£ link).

    The Curta calculator was invented by Curt Herzstark, born 1904 in Austria, whose family owned a company that made calculating machines and other precision instruments. (more…)

    Animals in Art

    By Mark Carnall, on 23 May 2014

    One of the aspects of working in a museum that I most enjoy is ‘enquiries’. Normally this will be museum visitors bringing in or sending in photos of mysterious objects that they want identifying. Not only is the challenge of identifying a mystery object fun but it’s very satisfying to work out what the object is and most visitors are happy to have had their object identified (with the rare exception when a dragon/dinosaur egg turns out to be a large very spherical pebble). Occasionally however, I receive an enquiry from a colleague from another museum asking for help with identifying animals depicted in a work of art or archaeological object.

    From the earliest images made on the walls of caves through to today, animals have inspired many people and we see this throughout the history of humans. Animals can be depicted as a record of the animals that an artist readily comes into contact with but often they carry symbolic representations or are merely a visual representation of the idea of an animal not meant to depict a specific species or individual.


    It’s Australia v England, in battle over Stubbs masterpieces

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 November 2013

    In September I wrote a post about two paintings by George Stubbs – of a kangaroo and a dingo – which had been placed under an export bar to allow time for the National Maritime Museum to raise funds to save them for the nation. This was because they had been sold to an oversees buyer.

    This week we learned that the campaign was successful. Had it not been, the paintings would have been bought by the National Gallery of Australia. They are understandably disappointed. I was asked by The Conversation (“an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community”) to update my article for them, covering the Australian case for their acquisition. (more…)

    Ramsay and the Nobel Discovery

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 25 October 2013

    Sir William Ramsay's Nobel Prize Medal

    Sir William Ramsay’s Nobel Prize Medal.
    UCL Chemistry Collection.

    Sir William Ramsay was arguably one of the most famous scientists of his day. Between 1894 and 1898 he discovered five new elements – helium, neon, argon, krypton, and xenon; commonly known today as the noble gases. Not only was this impressive in itself, but these new elements did not fit onto the periodic table as it existed at that time. This led to Ramsay adding a whole new group to the periodic table. In 1904 the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences chose to award Ramsay the Nobel Prize for Chemistry, for his discovery of the noble gases. He was the first British person to win this prize.

    2013 marks 100 years since the retirement of Sir William Ramsay from his post as Head of Chemistry at UCL. To mark this UCL Chemistry Collection will be taking part in a very special pop-up exhibition in the Rock Room, UCL’s Geology Museum.

    Between 12.30 – 3pm on November 1st a range of objects relating to Ramsay and his work will be on display. I have picked out a few of my personal favourites…


    How to Find and Research Biological Specimens in UK Museums

    By Mark Carnall, on 27 March 2013

    We interrupt this normal service to bring a special PSA. This post is intended as a how-to for the global community of researchers who are looking for biological specimens in the UK to study.

    Recently I went to the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) annual conference and with cuts to heritage and museums many of the talks were about how we make the most of natural history collections in the UK. Biological research is seen as one of the most important drivers and reasons for keeping and using natural history collections, however, in my opinion we do a relatively poor job at matching researchers to specimens and a certain portion of the research community can be forgiven for struggling to find material for research despite the wealth of resources we put out there supposedly designed to help them.

    So if you work in a natural history museum, supervise Phd students or teach on a biological/geological course please pass a link to this article on and see if we can’t create more research opportunities that I suspect we currently miss. (more…)

    Considering our History – the Good Times

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 March 2013

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Last week we launched six new permanent displays telling the story of the history of the Grant Museum, focusing on the story of how the teaching of zoology has evolved over the past 185 years of our existence. Like the life cycle of many species, there have been times of rapid diversification and broad niche occupancy, as well as population bottle-necks when extinction looms, before adaptations to changing climates result in a new lease of life.

    Today I’ll focus on our first century or so, when times were pretty darn good. The new displays combine some truly beautiful specimens from our stores – in typically Grant Museumy specimen-rich displays – combined with images from our archives and intricate anatomical drawings from early twentieth century student notebooks.

    Why are we here?
    Robert Grant (1793-1874), one of UCL’s founding professors, established the Museum in 1828 as a resource for students taking his Zoology and Comparative Anatomy lectures. Many of these students would have been medics as comparative anatomy was seen as a crucial element of medical theory. (more…)