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  • On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Grant Years

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 4 February 2014

    ‘The Twelve’

    The collection of specimens, known since 1997 as the Grant Museum of Zoology, was started in 1827 by Robert E. Grant. Grant was the first professor of zoology at UCL when it opened, then called the University of London, and he stayed in post until his death in 1874. The collections have seen a total of 13 academics in the lineage of collections care throughout the 187 year history of the Grant Museum, from Robert E. Grant himself, through to our current Curator Mark Carnall. In 1948, the role of chair and collections care evolved into separate lineages. The chair of zoology remained as such, but a role more dedicated to the care of the natural history specimens emerged as the first professional curator was employed, a title that was passed down through to the current post in charge of collections care. Both Grant and many of his successors have expanded the collections according to their own interests, which makes for a fascinating historical account of the development of the Museums’ collections.

    However, although the Museum now adheres to strict policies regarding our specimens, ‘back in the day’ the rules regarding such things as paperwork were a little more… lax. As such, although many specimens have been added by eminent academics such as Robert E. Grant, E. Ray Lankester, W. F. R. Weldon and D. M. S Watson (after who UCL’s science library is named), in many cases we simply don’t know which specimens they are. On one hand it is highly frustrating, but on the other hand, it makes it thrice as exciting when we come across one that can be directly attributed to one of the earlier members of ‘The Thirteen’.

    Over the next 13 weeks, this blog series will give a brief introduction to each of the 13 curators in the history of the Grant Museum. Each week a different curator will be looked at, in chronological order, and illustrated (where possible) with some of the specimens that can be traced back to each of them in the collections. So, let us start at the beginning with the big man himself…

    (more…)

    The time to live life is now

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 7 November 2013

    As both of my parents worked in travel I guess whether you fall down in the camp of nature or on the side of nurture, eitherway I was probably destined to be a traveller myself. Although I was a late developer in this area, only travelling alone for the first time once at university, I have since clocked up 49 countries and have back of the envelope plans for well over fifty more. As a zoologist and conservationist seeing the natural world first hand is indescribable, though my background also makes me only too aware of the rapidity with which the planet is changing. I don’t just mean animals and the environment, people themselves are changing as well. It is not an uncommon site in Kenya to see Masai tribesmen in the bush wearing traditional red blankets and sandles, and herding goats whilst chatting away on their Nokia. But I feel privileged to have seen them and witnessed their lives and cultures even in this transitional state. In a few years they’ll be wearing GAP t.shirts and Nike trainers, tearing around the bush on quad bikes*. There is simply nothing like seeing mountain gorillas in the wild, being woken up in your sleeping bag by a giraffe munching leaves outside your tent, or being caught in the middle of a capuchin monkey turf war in the Amazon rainforest. (more…)

    The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2013

    Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.

    If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.

    The Grant Museum team an a sperm whale jaw at the OUMNH (they're closed for roof repairs)Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.

    We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world. (more…)

    Happy 77th Thylacine Day: Culls Against Science

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2013

    7th September is an incredibly important day in Australia. I’m not talking about the general election. It’s the day, in 1936, that the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of its cage in a zoo in Hobart. In Australia, this is marked by National Threatened Species Day. In the Grant Museum, it’s Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    Thylacines – the half stripy wolf-shaped marsupials – are a regular feature on this blog because we have a pretty amazing collection of them. Two years ago today I made the point that their deliberate extinction at the hands of a cull promoted by the farming lobby was being echoed by a proposed badger cull here in the UK. In this past month those proposals have become reality, and I’m returning to the story today. (more…)

    A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 January 2013

    Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

    As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

    Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around: (more…)

    Model Translations: The B roll

    By Mark Carnall, on 12 December 2012

    My colleague Nick Booth has already introduced the Octagon Gallery that hopefully a lot of UCL staff and students have noticed on their way from one side of campus to another. In addition to the ‘big egg’ a number of objects from the Grant Museum can be seen on display (including another big egg, a model of an elephant bird egg) but as with most exhibitions there were a lot of objects that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut.

    A number of months ago one of the Mellon Fellow curators of the Model Translation exhibition, Antony Hudek, came by the museum and asked if we would loan one of our Blaschka glass models to the exhibition. I mustered my best impression of a dodgy second-hand car salesman and informed him that if it was models he wanted, we’ve got hundreds. We then spent the rest of the afternoon going through the model collections at the Grant Museum. Originally there were 30 or so objects on the long list which had to be whittled down for the exhibition. Here’s some of the objects that didn’t end up in the exhibition. (more…)

    Happy 76th Thylacine day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2012

    Another year has passed since the last known thylacine – one of the greatest icons of extinction – died of exposure. That makes 76 years today.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    We have celebrated the thylacine here at the Grant Museum for some time. We have some fantastic specimens – including one of the only fluid preserved adults (with the added bonus of having been dissected by Victorian evolutionary giant Thomas Henry Huxley), and skeleton from the early 1800s, which belonged to Grant himself. The only recent thylacine-based activity that happened at the Museum was for all our thylacine-geek colleagues to watch The Hunter together, a film about a bounty-hunter hired to collect the last individual for an evil bio-tech company. It was brilliant.

    Here on this blog we have told tales of thylacine apparitions, potentially new specimens, the lessons of extinction and the thylacine’s own story, which ended so tragically on 7th September 1936. On 2012′s thylacine day I’m going to spread the net a little further. (more…)

    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 January 2012

    This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

    I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here. (more…)

    Should we clone extinct animals?

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 December 2011

    Gone for Good display…is the latest question we are asking on our iPad displays. So far many living species have been cloned, for various reasons (just to see if we can and replacing lost pets being two of them. Resurrecting extinct species in this way has also been attempted, with very limited success. The question is, are they gone for good?

    The technology may soon exist to clone recently extinct animals using DNA from museum specimens, but usable and complete DNA sequences are hard to find. Should we try and bring back animals that humans have driven to extinction? What would you do with a handful of cloned individuals? Would the money be better spent on animals we still have? (more…)