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  • The world’s rarest skeleton rides again… on four legs

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 July 2015

    Using cutting-edge technology, the world’s rarest skeleton – a South African extinct zebra called a quagga – has regained its missing hind limb.

    The quagga's missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

    The quagga’s missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

    After a brilliant year of fundraising and conservation work, we are nearing the end of a major project to restore 39 of our largest and most significant skeletons to their former glory. The main focus of the project, named Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons, has been our quagga – which is one of only seven quagga skeletons to survive globally. The Guardian gave the project a particularly positve write-up (read the comments if you want to see some of the more unexpected outcomes of media relations. *blushes*).

    The last living quagga died in 1883, having been hunted to extinction by farmers and skin-collectors. The Grant Museum specimen is the only one on display in the UK but the skeleton was incomplete – the right shoulder blade and one of its legs has long been missing, probably since World War II.


    JA Fleming – Discoveries From The Archive.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 24 July 2015

    This guest blog has been written by Kelsey Svaren, a placement student who has been working with us over the past few months. 

    A few weeks ago I spent some time in UCL Special Collections working my way through the 24 boxes of material that John Ambrose Fleming left to UCL. I was able to look at these boxes in the span of four days, and let me tell you that is not an easy feat! Although I spent more time on certain boxes and documents than others, I feel I got a good overall view of what Fleming wanted UCL to have in its possession and can understand how the University’s history is interwoven with that of Fleming’s. During this time, I have been able to make some generalised conclusions about this man; the one who gave us the technology for so many inventions that people find themselves dependent upon today.

    JA Fleming receiving the Kelvin medal. (Image provided by UCL Special Collections Library).

    JA Fleming receiving the Kelvin medal. (Image provided by UCL Special Collections Library).


    Finding meaning in the Thermionic valve

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 26 May 2015

    This guest blog has been written by Kelsey Svaren, a placement student who has been working with us over the past few months. 

    Hi, my name is Kelsey and I am current MA Museum Studies student here at UCL. As part of my program, I am required to undergo a placement where I work on a museum related project. I have spent the last month working closely with Nick Booth, curator of the Electrical Engineering Collections at UCL. I have spent this time researching the numerous thermionic valves in the collection.

    Before I started my placement, I had a vague idea of what a thermionic valve is. I knew that it could be used in technologies, such as radios and telephones, to receive and amplify radio signals. Other than that, I was pretty clueless. Since I have started my placement, I have learned more about thermionic valves than I ever thought I would!

    One of Flemings original experimental valves.

    One of Flemings original experimental valves.

    The thermionic valve is especially important to UCL, because it’s inventor, John Ambrose Fleming was a professor at UCL and helped to develop the Electrical Engineering Department that we see today.


    What kind of animal is a Yoshi?

    By Mark Carnall, on 15 April 2015

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals features images, specimens and objects all related to how animals are represented through time. The exhibition is centered around George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, an iconic image despite the fact that he never saw a kangaroo first hand. From dodgy taxidermy, dinosaur toys, glass models and wildly inaccurate images of animals which were claimed to have been studied from life, the exhibition explores how we make sense of a newly discovered animal species from first encounters with living animals through to reconstructions made from written accounts and sketches. Initial encounters with kangaroos drew comparisons with more familiar mammals such as jerboas, greyhounds, mice and deer, the creature so strange to European explorers it didn’t fit within existing classifications.

    What happens if we start from an animal that we only know from a reconstruction? In the past (and today) mermaids, unicorns, giants, cyclopses, goatsuckers and deathworms have all been speculatively described either due to pervasive myths, hoaxes, delusions or confusion with other animals. To help with the process of working out how we identify animals we know from reconstructions alone, let’s see if we can work out how we’d classify a well known fictional animal, Nintendo character Mario’s companion and steed Yoshi*, this one acquired in a Happy Meal and currently on display in our exhibition.


    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: December 2014

    By Mark Carnall, on 19 December 2014

    Underwhelming Christmas of the yearGod rest ye merry fossil fish

    You’ll never be displayed

    For the selection criteria of specimens

    Isn’t biased in your way

    To save us all from excitement

    You’re here to save the day

    O drawers of underwhelming fossil fish

    Underwhelming fossil fish

    O drawers o-hof underwhelming fossil fish.

    It’s that time of the year when people of all walks of life come together to celebrate the passing of 12 months of underwhelming fossil fish and look forward to the next 12, hoping the fossils stay quietly unassuming, not too bombastic or boisterous and altogether middling-at-best. This year was particularly unexciting one for fossil fish with many stoically maintaining a state of fossiliferous.


    On the search for the Scaly-tailed possum: Wet and Wildlife

    By Jack Ashby, on 11 December 2014

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap in AWC's Artesian Range. (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    A scaly-tailed possum caught on a camera trap
    in AWC’s Artesian Range.
    (C) Australian Wildlife Conservancy,

    Over the past few years I have been spending my spare time in a remote area of the Kimberley, on the northwest corner of Australia, helping a conservation NGO – the Australian Wildlife Conservancy (AWC) – to do ecological fieldwork. AWC are Australia’s largest private owner of land for conservation, and their mission is to manage it based on scientific research. In the northwest their big long-term projects involve determining the effects of cattle and different fire management practices on tropical savannah ecosystems. And in my most recent two trips I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in the detection of super-scarce species in extremely remote pockets of rainforest and monsoonal woodland.

    A few years ago AWC acquired an amazing patch of the Kimberley called Artesian Range – monsoonal savannah criss-crossed with sandstone ranges, gorges of vine-thickets and rainforest pockets. I remember going through the first set of remote camera trap images that came back from Artestian in 2011 and being amazed at the species that were being detected.

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    An endemic Kimberley rock rat being re-released

    The haven from extinction

    It seems that Artesian Range is the only place in mainland Australia not to have suffered any mammal extinctions since European colonisation. A community of amazing endemics has clung on – scaly-tailed possums, golden-backed tree rats, monjons, golden bandicoots and Kimberley rock rats. When I was analyzing those camera trap images in 2011 I was a couple of hundred kilometres south of Artesian, on AWC Northwest’s main home sanctuary, Mornington. Artesian Range is in one of the least accessible parts of Australia, requiring a combination of propeller-plane, serious 4WD and helicopter to get to. As amazing as it was to see these species on the screen, I instantly knew I had to go and see them in the flesh. For me, the scaly-tailed possum had become the holy grail.

    Dismantling Reg the Rhino in Ten Easy Steps

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 November 2014

    On 10th November the Grant Museum team took on the giant task of dismantling the largest specimen in the Museum – our huge (hornless) one-horned rhino skeleton. This is one of the first steps in our massive conservation project Bone Idols: Protecting our Iconic Skeletons (click the link to read more about it and how you can support it).

    In this previous post I described the the history of this specimen and what conservation work will be done to this invaluable specimen. We also set a Twitter competition to #NameTheRhino – he shall now be known as Reg. Full details about that at the bottom.

    How to take apart a complicated massive skeleton, in ten easy steps.

    This was all coordinated by skeleton conservator Nigel Larkin.

    1)  Label every bone and photograph everything so Nigel knows where to put them when Reg gets rebuilt.

    2) Set up a time-lapse camera to record the whole thing:


    Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month: November 2014

    By Mark Carnall, on 26 November 2014

    It’s that time of year, reindeer who are different are being bullied by their peers, Jack Frost is biting noses again, Saturday morning TV is back to back toy adverts with the odd cartoon in between, Sainsbury’s remind us exactly why our ancestors fought and died in the Great War and Z list celebrities are turning lights on in high streets up and down the land. Yes of course, it’s November, a month so average they named it only once. But do you know what’s even less average than the month of November? It’s only UNDERWHELMING FOSSIL FISH OF THE MONTH, our monthly foray into the uninspiring world of forgotten fossil fish whose heyday, if they even had one, is long past. These fossiliferous fish now remain largely unused in museum stores and this blog series is a monthly window into their esoteric and marginal at best world.

    Last months’ fossil fish proved too underwhelming for many leading to a number of network executives to hint that a third series of underwhelming fossil fish may not be forthcoming. To recompense and please the execs, I’m bringing out the big guns. I’ve chosen a pretty exciting fossil fish for November. We will get that third season fanatic fossil fish fans.


    Grant Museum starts major project to preserve rarest skeleton in the world

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 November 2014

    This infant chimpanzee  skeleton will be conserved  as part of  Bone Idols

    This infant chimpanzee skeleton
    will be conserved as part of Bone Idols

    Something very exciting has started here at the Grant. We are undertaking a major project to protect 39 of our rarest and most significant skeletons, some which have been on display in the Museum for 180 years. To help achieve this, we launching our first ever public fundraising campaign – aiming to raise £15,000 to support the costs of this crucial work.

    Preserving the rarest skeleton in the world

    The specimens include the rarest skeleton in the world: the extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra from South Africa. It is the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK, and no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. The project involves completely dismantling and chemically cleaning the irreplaceable skeleton, and then remounting it on a new skeleton-friendly frame in a more anatomically correct position. The work is intended to secure the long-term preservation of the specimens.

    Protecting the uncollectable

    The quagga will be the focus and most involved element of Bone Idols: Protecting our iconic skeletons, a major project of conservation across the Museum’s displays. Interventions will range from deep cleaning bones, repairing damaged elements and re-casing specimens through to remounting huge skeletons. (more…)

    A stuffed Hippopotamus of 1829 at large at UCL

    By Mark Carnall, on 12 November 2014

    Hippo at large at UCL

    Hippo at large at UCL, a poorly photoshopped one too which is a much rarer subspecies. Artist’s reconstruction (also available for palaeontological reconstructions)

    Part of my job at the Grant Museum is to document and inventory the collection we have here. With over 68,000 specimens (a modest collection when it comes to natural history) this is no small task given that creating a catalogue of the collection only began some 70 years into the collection’s history and the attempt to document the collection to current museum standards only began in the 1990s. A lot of the frustration is that the collection was very much a teaching and research collection for most of it’s life and the core data about the who’s, what’s, where’s, and why’s – information that is invaluable to make the most of the collection today – was inconsistently recorded if at all.

    Recently, whilst looking through our paper archive excavating information for a scientific research request, I found a fantastic document, a summary of all the benefactions in kind made to UCL between 1828 and 1914, right from when the University was first founded. I thought I’d struck gold finding this itemised list of objects and specimens benefacted to UCL and perhaps this would hold some key information about who gave what to UCL, some of which ended up in the Grant Museum. What was shocking however was how much seems to have… ahem… been mislaid  between then and now. Not just the odd bones or shell here and there but whole stuffed hippos and more…