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  • Specimen of the Week 318: The newly recapitated bandicoot

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 November 2017

    This is embarassing. The sheer scale of natural history collections means that some objects are going to be wrongly identified, and the fact that generations of professionals have worked here over nearly two centuries means that there has been plenty of opportunity to get things wrong. I am embarrased because I utterly failed to spot that someone had attached the head of one animal onto the body of another. I am particularly embarassed because both animals involved fall within my particular area of zoological interest – Australian mammals.

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie's skull on a bandicoot's body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie’s skull on a bandicoot’s body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    Allow me to introduce you to…. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 312: Hundreds of frogs’ legs

    By Jack Ashby, on 13 October 2017

    We have recently opened out biggest ever exhibition: The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The boring beasts that changed the world. It tells the stories of the mundane creatures in our everyday lives that have shaped our society, our science, our planet and even our own biology. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Don’t take my word for it though: it topped Time Out’s list of the best exhibitions in London this autumn*.

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    We didn’t struggle too much with the issue of what counts as an “Ordinary Animal” – they are the species we find on our streets, in our labs, on our laps and on our plates. The ones that are really a commonplace part of human society and human culture (and we had to take the main geographic focus as our own European perspective). The vast majority are domesticated, but others have become Ordinary simply because of the way we consider them. There was one species that did cause me trouble, and it’s this week’s Specimen of the Week: (more…)

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals opens at the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 September 2017

    Throughout my career in museum zoology I have detected (and contributed to) a certain snobbery when it comes to some species of animal. It seems that as far as museum displays are concerned, not all animal specimens were created equally. Our new exhibition – opening today – seeks to address this.

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our daily lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. Do we even need to go to a museum to see animals that we can find on our plates, on our laps and on our streets? People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales.

    Domestic dog skulls. Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Domestic dog skulls. LDUCZ-Z1046 and LDUCZ-Z1338b
    Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Nevertheless, this exhibition puts these everyday species front and centre. It investigates some of the profound impacts they have had on humanity and the natural world, how they were created, and the extraordinary things we have learned from them. (more…)

    Happy 81st Thylacine Day: Thylacines were lucky to last as long as they did

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2017

    81 years ago today – the 7th September 1936 – the last known thylacine died, committing its species, indeed its entire family, to extinction.

    The last known living thylacine, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    It was locked out of the indoor section of its enclosure at a zoo in Hobart, and in the overnight chill of the Tasmanian winter it died of exposure. All that now remains of the then largest marsupial carnivore is in museums.

    In a sense it was lucky. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 306: The Bilby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 1 September 2017

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Australia is widely considered to be the extinction capital of the world. In the 230 years since European invasion, 29 of its 315 native land mammals have been driven to extinction, and by far the majority of those that do currently survive have suffered significant (and in many cases almost total) declines – they are now only found in a fraction of their former habitats.

    This is all very depressing, but as I write this I am undertaking fieldwork in a remote area of central South Australia, volunteering for an organisation who are trying to make things better. This week’s Specimen of the Week is one of the species they protect. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 301: The formerly googly-eyed owl

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 July 2017

    The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

    The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

    In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    Help us build and clean a whale skeleton

    By Jack Ashby, on 3 July 2017

    Some of the whale's backbone, in one of our stores.

    Some of the whale’s backbone, in one of our stores.

    This weekend we will be attempting to rebuild our largest specimen – a northern bottle-nosed whale skeleton. And we would like you to help us do it.

    The specimen’s story begins in 1860 when it was originally collected in Somerset, when an expedition set off across the Bristol Channel in pursuit of “two great fish” (as they were described by the local newspaper – whales are, of course, mammals) – one of which was brought back to land. After a period “on tour” as a whole carcass, the prepared skeleton was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the Weston Super-Mare Museum. It eventually came to the Grant Museum in 1948, but it had been dismantled into its separate bones. (Its full, remarkable story, including the use of entirely inappropriate whale-murdering equipment, misguided entrepreneurship, rancid carcasses, financial ruin, and the unusual tasks the wife of a 19th century curator might find herself doing, can be read in a previous post).

    At over eight metres long in life, different parts of the skeleton have been stored in different cupboards and cabinets across the Museum and its storerooms. (more…)

    Make Taxidermy Great Again! We launch our new conservation project

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 June 2017

    Taxidermy Elephant shrew in need of treatment. LDUCZ-Z2789

    Taxidermy elephant shrew in need of treatment.

    This week the Grant Museum is launching a project to conserve our important collection of historic taxidermy, which involves taking these much-loved specimens off display to be treated. In their place, we will be filling the gaps with toy stuffed animals to raise awareness of the project.

    The specimens have been on display for over a century, and in that time some of them have begun to split and crack, their filling may be poking out or they are just plain dirty. They require expert museum conservators to repair them, ensuring that they will survive for the long-term future. That is the key aim of this project: Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 295: Do we fix the googly-eyed owl?

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 June 2017

    You do not have to be an expert zoologist to know that this is not what an owl looks like.

    Next week we launch a major conservation project called Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again, to repair and restore our historic taxidermy collection (check back on the blog on Monday for more about that). This will involve the expert conservation of specimens that have become damaged over their decades or centuries on display. In planning this project, we were faced with the decision of whether to “correct” the absurd but amusing eyes on this owl…

    Long eared owl. Should we replace his eyes? LDUCZ-Y1604

    Long eared owl. Should we replace his eyes? LDUCZ-Y1604

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 290: The awful Bosc monitor lizard

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2017

    Taxidermy Bosc monitor lizard. LDUCZ-X1314

    Taxidermy Bosc monitor lizard. LDUCZ-X1314

    Taxidermy appears to being going through a period of popularity at the moment. Hipsters and fans of geek-chic have realised what many of us already knew – natural history is cool. Gastro-pubs and boutique coffee shops are widely using it as decoration (I wonder whether they know that it’s probably been covered in arsenic to stop it being eaten by moths and beetles – not the best things to have around food and drink), there are excellent museum installations exploring it, and there are taxidermy classes being offered all over the place. However, some of it is truly awful (perhaps that’s part of the charm?), including this week’s Specimen of the Week… (more…)