Archive for the 'Museum Collections' Category

Question of the Week: Why do box jellyfish have eyes?

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 10 May 2018

If you meet me during one of my shifts as a PhD Student Engager in the Grant Museum, you’ll find me next to the Micrarium, facing a case packed full of jellyfish and their ghostly relatives. I’ve never had an interest in jellyfish before, but hours and hours of staring at them over the time I’ve been an Engager has inspired my admiration (as well as a previous blog post).

Box jellyfish specimen at the Grant Museum, photo by author.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of visitors ask me about box jellyfish eyes, because it’s surprising to find out that something which often looks and moves like a floating plastic bag has eyes. And not just one or two eyes, but 24 in total. Their eyes are bundled into four structures called rhopalia, which sit around the bottom of its bell. Two of the eye types have the capability to form images, while the other two types help with swimming navigation, avoiding obstacles, and responding to light. Fun fact: Box jellyfish can regenerate their eye bundles (rhopalia) in as quickly as two weeks’ time.

On the specimen in the Grant Museum, you can only see two of it’s eyes because it’s been carefully bisected to reveal its internal anatomy.

Grant Museum specimen with eyes highlighted by author.

Like other jellies, box jellyfish have no brain, perceiving the world only through their nervous systems. Most jellyfish catch their prey without having either brains or eyes, just by floating transparently through the sea until prey run into their tentacles. So, our question should actually be: why do box jellyfish even need eyes?

There are at two main possibilities:

1)  Habitat: Unlike most jellies, which live on the open sea, box jellyfish tend to live in shallow water, which has many obstacles. Scientists have shown that box jellies near Puerto Rico can navigate around the dense mangrove swamps where they live, and also make sure that they don’t drift away to where there is less prey. Their upper lens eye can actually peer through the water’s surface to navigate from landmarks above the water, and perhaps celestial ones as well! Some scientists think these kinds of jellies actively hunt rather than passively encounter prey.

2) Reproduction: Among jellyfish, box jellies also have unusual mating practices, involving the precise transfer of sperm, which might involve the use of their complex eyes to identify mates.

Many things about jellyfish biology and behaviour are still a mystery to scientists, so keep a lookout for ongoing discoveries.


Bonus fact: box jellyfish also need to rest their eyes

Scientists have only recently discovered that jellyfish appear to sleep at night—an activity usually only associated with vertebrates. Some reasons why they might do this include is because of their reliance on vision for hunting (they don’t see well enough to hunt in the dark) or because they jellies simply need to take a break from the neural processing their eyes require.



Of Gastropods and Glass: The Grant Museum’s Blaschka Models of Invertebrates

By Hannah L Wills, on 24 April 2018

This week it’s time for another of my favourite objects from the UCL museums, today from the collections of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Displayed in a case near the front of the museum is a collection of extraordinary objects. At first glance, these objects appear somewhat otherworldly; their lightly transparent and almost twinkling surfaces captured my attention from my very first visit. They are, of course, the Grant Museum’s collection of glass models of invertebrates, a collection that includes jellyfish, sea anemones, gastropods, and sea cucumbers, produced at the end of the nineteenth century by the Blaschkas, a renowned family of Czech jewellers.

Limax arborum (tree slug). Blaschka glass model of a white slug, (P202). Image credit: Grant Museum.

Actinia equina (beadlet anemone). Blaschka model of a beadlet anemone. Red/orange body with white beadlets. The tentacles are transparent. On a black wooden base, under a glass dome, (C373). Image credit: Grant Museum.


The Blaschka family

The models in the museum’s collection were produced by Leopold and his son Rudolph Blaschka in the late 1800s, and may have been ordered by E. Ray Lankester during his time at UCL as professor of zoology.[i] Leopold Blaschka was born in 1822 in Northern Bohemia (today part of Czechia), in Aicha, a village known for its glasswork and decorative crafts.[ii] The Blaschka family specialised in producing jewellery using a range of materials, including glass, metal, and semi-precious stones. During his career, Leopold developed an interest in natural history, and began producing and selling models of invertebrates in the mid-1860s. The models were created using glass, wire, glue and paint, and occasionally incorporated parts of once-living creatures, including snail shells (see below).[iii] Today, Blaschka invertebrate models can be found in museums all over the world. The Harvard Museum of Natural History also holds a collection of glass flowers created by the Blaschkas, commissioned by the university in 1890.[iv]

Arianta arbustorum (copse snail). Blaschka glass model, (P196). Image credit: Grant Museum.


Why make specimens out of glass?

Passing the collection of models for the first time, a visitor to the Grant Museum could be forgiven for mistaking these models for specimens that were once alive. In light of the museum’s other displays, which feature real animals preserved using a variety of methods, one might wonder why artificial specimens, such as the Blaschka models, should be on display in a museum of natural history. While some creatures, such as mammals, birds, and fish, are easily preserved using methods of taxidermy, flowers and the softer bodies of invertebrates pose specific challenges in terms of their preservation. Putting these specimens into alcohol causes them to lose their shape and colour.[v] By creating models out of glass and other materials, it is possible to depict the vibrant colours and forms of the original specimens, allowing these creatures to be preserved and studied.

Art, Science, and ‘Jokes of Nature’

Former student engager Niall Sreenan has mused on the nature of the Blaschka models as artificial creations that occupy an ambiguous realm between nature and art.[vi] As a historian of science, I am fascinated by this interplay, particularly as it relates to the practice of natural history and the display of specimens. The relationship between art, nature, and science held great significance to the practice of natural history in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. As the historian Paula Findlen has noted, collectors of natural specimens in the Early Modern period were fascinated by the idea that Nature, as a creative force who produced all the objects and creatures in the world, sported or played in her work by producing ‘jokes of nature’.[vii] Such ‘jokes of nature’ incorporated instances where natural objects appeared to ‘mimic’ human artifice, as seen in unusual fossils, geometric crystals, or in stones which appeared to have pictures implanted within them.[viii] ‘Jokes of nature’ were connected to science through the idea that man might match nature using art. Artificial creations and human imitations of natural forms were thought to mimic these jokes in a way that was central to natural philosophers’ understanding of the world.[ix]

Though produced over a century later, the Blaschka glass models call to mind this ambiguous division between human artifice and natural object. As models of difficult-to-preserve specimens, they allow visitors to understand what these creatures look like. On the other hand, they draw attention to human ingenuity and skill in the way they artfully capture the look of organic specimens.

Sea cucumber (female). Blaschka glass model in a cylindrical specimen jar, (S73). Image credit: Grant Museum.


The end of a craft

In 1895, Leopold Blaschka died. When his son retired in 1938 with no apprentices left at the firm, the Blaschka family business closed.[x] The skills used to produce the models died with the Blaschka family, and their work has not been repeated since.[xi] The models in the Grant Museum stand as a remarkable testament to unique craftsmanship and skills now lost.

Though models are no longer produced using the techniques once used by the Blaschka family, the relationship between art and natural history continues to fascinate contemporary artists. Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby has recently written about the ways in which artists explore and reference the methods of natural history, and the treatment of both living and preserved animal specimens on display.[xii] Exploring the intersection of natural history and art, whether in the creation of model specimens or in the interrogation of the practices of natural history, can prompt us to question the ways in which natural and man-made objects are encountered in museums, and the way we understand an object’s (and our own) relationship with the natural world.




[i] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[ii] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vi] Niall Sreenan, ‘”Strange Creatures” – Reflections – Part One’, 25 June 2015, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/06/25/strange-creatures-reflections-part-one/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vii] Paula Findlen, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1990): 292-96.

[viii] Ibid., 297-98.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xi] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xii] Jack Ashby, ‘When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion’, 19 April 2018, https://natsca.blog/2018/04/19/when-art-recreates-the-workings-of-natural-history-it-can-stimulate-curiosity-and-emotion/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

Jewels of an Ancient Civilization

By Julia R Deathridge, on 1 March 2018

Whenever I’m in the Petrie Museum I’m always drawn to the jewellery. This is because a) much like a magpie my attention is easily attracted to shiny pretty objects, and b) I would actually wear a lot of the pieces on display, probably to some future fancy event that I’ll one day attend post PhD life. So I decided to do a little research on the history of jewellery in ancient Egypt and pick out my favourite pieces from the collection.

Gold wide collar necklace, dynasty 18. From the tomb of the three minor wives of Thutmose III. CC BY-NC 2.0 © Peter Roan

The rise of extravagant jewellery

As far back as the Stone Age, our ancestors have been decorating themselves in jewellery. Originally these were just simple pieces crafted from easily available resources such as seashells, bone and animal skins. However, the ancient Egyptians had other ideas, and they would go on to create trends and styles of jewellery that would live on to this day.

The discovery of gold in ancient Egypt, along with the use of precious gems, resulted in the creation of highly lavish jewellery pieces that epitomised the luxury culture of nobles and royals. As technology advanced and materials became more readily available, the popularity and extravagance of jewellery also increased, making it one of the most desirable trade items of the ancient world.

Jewellery and religion

Jewellery was extremely popular in ancient Egypt. Everyone wore it, whether they were male, female, rich or poor. But jewellery was not just about adorning oneself with pretty gems; it also acted as symbol of status and was steeped in religious beliefs.

Small charms, known as amulets, were of particular religious importance to ancient Egyptians. They believed that these charms had magical powers of protection and healing, and would bestow good fortune to the wearer. Much like charm bracelets today, these charms were commonly worn as part of a necklace or bracelet, and the shape or symbol of the amulet would specify a particular meaning or power.

Violet faience scarab bead (Petrie Museum: UC1367)

Jewellery offered magical powers to the dead as well as the living, and ancient Egyptians were often buried wearing their prized jewels. One of the most common amulets to be buried with was the scarab, as it symbolised rebirth and would ensure reincarnation to the next level.

 Materials and metals

The materials that a jewellery piece was made out of acted as an indicator for social class. Nobles would wear jewellery made up of gold and precious gems, and others would wear jewellery made from copper, colourful stones and rocks.

Gold was the most commonly used precious metal, due to its availability in Egypt at the time and its softness, which made it the perfect material for establishing elaborate intricate designs. Moreover, the non-tarnishing properties of gold added to the magical prowess of the metal, leading ancient Egyptians to believe that it was the ‘flesh of the gods’.

Another regularly used material was the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli. The deep blue colour of Lapis Lazuli symbolised honour, royalty, wisdom and truth. Other prized stones included obsidian, garnet, rock crystal and carnelian, pearls and emeralds. However, artificial more affordable versions of these precious gems were also crafted, and commonly worn by the lower classes. Much like the fake diamonds and pearls of today, these artificial gemstones were practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

I want that jewellery!

So now we’ve had a little history. Lets get on to the important stuff – which pieces of jewellery I would most like to wear!

First, lets start with the earrings. It wasn’t actually until King Tutankhamen that earrings became a popular jewellery item among ancient Egyptians. The style and use of earrings is likely to have been brought over from western Africa. My favourite earrings are these beautiful hoops, which would not look out of place on stall in a Brick Lane market!


Another piece that would nicely fit into my jewellery collection is a string of faience cat amulets. Firstly, it will go brilliantly with all my other cat jewellery. Secondly, cats were highly regarded in ancient Egypt and these cat amulets would likely to have been of great importance to the owner.


Faience, turquoise glaze, sting of cat amulets (Petrie Museum: UC37170)


Finally, the ultimate extravagant piece from the collection that I would love to own, is this wide collar necklace, which was likely to have been worn by Akhenaten, Tutankhamen’s father. Each bead was excavated separately and the design of the necklace was reconstructed for the Petrie collection. Additionally, conservation revealed a turquoise bead (11th from the right) to have a cartouche of Tutankhamun. When you’re next in the Petrie, see if you can spot it!


Reconstructed bead necklace. Armana period (Petrie Museum: UC1957)


Question of the Week: Why Do Wombats Poop Cubes?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 February 2018


A wombat waddling along (Image: © Jack Ashby)

With pudgy little legs and a determined waddle, wombats are amongst Australia’s cutest marsupials. I mean, have you ever seen a wombatlet (not the technical term, unfortunately) sneeze? There’s lots to love about wombats—including their cube-shaped poop.

Wombat faeces—not a snack treat (Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

This odd wombat feature has sparked a lot of gleeful speculation. The prevailing thought is that these six-sided excrements are caused by a combination of the digestion time, the shape of the large intestine, and the dryness of the resulting fecal matter.

Wombats have a slow digestive system—it takes up to 2.5 weeks for food eaten to make its way down the alimentary canal, through the stomach, small intestine, and finally out the anus as fecal matter. (On the scale of animal defecation time, wombats aren’t even in the running. One snake was recorded as “holding it” for 420 days.)

A common wombat, or Vombatus ursinus, skull with large teeth for masticating grasses and roots, and a skeleton with large front claws for digging (Images: Grant Museum of Zoology, Z68 and Z67)

After being processed by the stomach, the digested matter transverses the large intestine, which is a long tube-like organ with ridged sides. These ridges may help to break the matter into compact sections. Since the final part of the intestine is much smoother, these cubed sections retain their shape all the way to the anus.

A wombat’s long digestive time means that this matter becomes condensed and, ultimately, dry as the nutrients are extracted. Wombats have some of the driest faeces amongst mammals and, it turns out, it’s a handy evolutionary trait. Wombats use their droppings to mark territory; with a propensity to defecate on logs and other elevated objects, cubes won’t roll off, unlike cylindrical droppings. As wombats drop between 80 and 100 scats a day, it would be a pain if they, well, scattered.


According to Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, “Another thing to note about wombat poo is that since wombats have backwards-facing pouches, larger wombatlets end up spending a lot of time with their faces in poo. It has been suggested that this is an important way that they gain helpful gut bacteria that they need to digest the wombat diet of tough Australian grasses.”

If you want to see fake wombat faeces in action, Robyn Lawrence created a video demonstrating a wombat’s digestive system. She uses Jell-O to illustrate the forming and squeezing of the food into cube shapes, which then passes unchanged through the colon and out the fake anus.

So no, the wombat rectum isn’t square.


Further Reading:

Menkhorst, P. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Triggs, Barbara. The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia. University of New South Wales Press, 2002.

I spy with my little eye… Micrarium Top 5

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 9 January 2018

Want a tour through the Grant Museum’s iconic display of the tiny creatures that populate our world? Well unfortunately, it’s much too small for that! However, here I’ll tell you about five of my favourite slides to be on the lookout for when you visit.

The Micrarium. Photo by author.

The Micrarium’s floor-to-ceiling lightboxes illuminate 2323 microscope slides featuring insects, sea creatures, and more, with another 252 lantern slides underneath. While this sounds like a lot of slides, it’s only around 10% of what the museum holds. Natural history museums often find it difficult to display their slide collections, but the diminutive creatures often featured on them make up most of our planet’s biodiversity.

I start most of my conversations with visitors during Student Engager shifts here – the Micrarium provides a clear illustration of my PhD research about how challenging aspects of diversity (of all kinds) are integrated into existing collections. It’s also an ideal place within the museum to try to pause people in the flow of their visit – it’s hard to resist stopping to snap a selfie or two.

Selfie by author.

The soft glow of the Micrarium’s backlit walls often draws people into the space without realising the enormity (or tininess!) of what they’re looking at. Over time, I’ve cultivated a number of favourites that I point out  in order to share the variety, strangeness, and poetry of the individual slides.

Small and mighty

‘Stomatopoda “Erichtheus” larva’. Photo by author.

I was attracted to this slide because at first I thought it looked like a little flying squirrel. In actuality, it’s the larvae of a mantis shrimp.

The mantis shrimp is an incredible animal. To start, they have the most complex eyes of any animal, seeing a spectrum of colour ten times richer than our own. Its two ‘raptorial’ appendages can strike prey with an amount of force and speed, causing the water around them to boil and producing shockwaves and light that stun, smash and generally decimate their prey.

For more, check out this comic by The Oatmeal that illustrates just how impressive mantis shrimp are.

‘and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog’

‘Eye of beetle’. Photo by author.

This is one of my favourite labels in the collection – was a zoologist also dabbling in witchcraft ingredients?  Probably not. But, I’d love to know what the slide was originally used for.

The slide itself also looks unusual due to its decorative paper wrapping. These wrappings were common to slides from the mid-19th century, which were produced and sold by slide preparers for others to study.

Many of the slides in the Micrarium were for teaching students who could check out slides like library books. So, perhaps it illustrated some general principles about beetle eyes rather than being used for specialist research.

Cat and Mouse

Fetal cat head (L). Embryonic mouse head (R). Photo by author.

One of the secrets of the Micrarium is that there are bits of larger animals hidden among all of the tiny ones. I like how the mice look surprisingly cheerful, all things considered. Bonus: see if you can also find the fetal cat paws!

Seeing stars

‘OPHIUROIDEA Amphiura elegens’. Photo by author.

This is a young brittle star, which in the largest species can have arms extending out to 60cm. Brittle stars are a distinct group from starfish; most tend to live in much deeper depths than starfish venture. They also move much faster than starfish, and their scientific name ‘Ophiuroidea’, refers to the slithery, snake-like way their arms move.

This slide can be found at child height, and it’s nice to show kids something they’re likely to recognise.

And finally:

Have you seen the bees’ tongue?

‘Apis (Latin for bee) tongue’ Photo by author.

Showing visitors this slide of the bee’s tongue almost always elicits surprise and fascination. Surprise at the seemingly strange choice to look at just the tongue of something so small and fascination at how complex it is.

We don’t normally think of insects having something so animal-sounding as a tongue (more like stabby spear bits to sting or bite us with!). But, bee tongues are sensitive and impressive tools: scientists have observed bee tongues rapidly evolving alongside climate change.

Good luck finding these…or your own Top 5! Share any of your favourites in the comments.

The Grant Museum blog did a similar post five years ago when the Micrarium opened. These don’t overalp with my Top 5 (which is easy to avoid when there are 2323 slides), so you should also check that out.

Why are animals 3D?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 23 November 2017


Have you heard that our body is mainly composed of 70% water? Although true, the percentage varies from 55% of water in adult women, all the way up to 78% in babies, with the percentage for adult men somewhere in between. This is also true for animals, where some — like the jellyfish — have even 90% of their body composed of water. With this in mind, why don’t animals, including us, look like a soup? How can animals have a defined 3D structure?

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)


Animals are made out of cells, the building blocks of our organs and tissues. But cells are basically a bag of water and chemicals; so again, why don’t animals look like giant bags of chemicals? The most obvious reason is that animals have bones that give structure to the rest of the body. But even bones are 31% water, and organs with no bones, such as hearts, still have a unique 3D form. Hearts have defined chambers (see the elephant heart below); they’re not just a mush of cells. The answer lies not in the cells themselves but in what surrounds them.

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Cells are engulfed by the extracellular matrix (ECM) which is mainly composed of proteins. This matrix encompasses the space in-between cells, gives them structural support and acts like a scaffold. It can also act as a pathway for cells to migrate along and it gives out chemical and physical cues that cells respond to. The ECM varies from organ to organ. The brain, for example, is mainly composed of cells with an ECM of only 20% of the total mass. In contrast, cartilage has fewer cells and around 70% of its mass is ECM. Every cell type is surrounded by a specific matrix that will affect its function. Studying this extracellular environment is important to understand how cells develop, how they interact with each other, and how they react to disease.

At the same time, by studying the ECM, researchers can get an idea of how an organ or tissue is structured and how to replicate its intricate architecture. Scientists that work in tissue engineering use a technique which consists of washing away the cells of an organ, literally. By using detergents, the cells are washed away in cycles until just the extracellular matrix is left. In this manner, they can analyse its composition and experiment with the matrix with the end goal of growing an organ in the lab. Therefore, one day we could replace diseased or aged organs with new ones without the need for transplantation. The unique composition of the ECM provides cells with the support they need to survive, and at the same time, gives animals and their organs a defined 3D structure.




How to visualize the insides of an animal?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 26 October 2017

When studying animals, sometimes we need to study them from the inside out —literally. One way to do this is to cut them open and looking at their internal structures, such as with the bisected heads or the microscope slides in the Grant Museum of Zoology. Another way to visualize the inside of an animal is to stain a particular body part while making everything else clear; researchers can do this by using chemicals and colour stains. For example, in the Grant Museum of Zoology, we can find specimens like the tarsier, with its skeleton stained in red, or the zebrafish with red and blue parts.

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)


The process of staining these animals begins with the removal of the skin, viscera and fat tissue.  Then, soft tissues like muscle are cleared using a variety of different methods which mostly involve exposing the specimen to different baths of chemicals. Next, the bones are stained with Alizarin Red and the cartilage with Alcian Blue. It’s a long process that can take a couple of days because the stain needs to properly penetrate the tissues, but the results are amazing.

Initially, both Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue were used as textile dyes, but now they also have numerous biological applications. Alizarin Red staining is a method to visualize mineralized tissue because it stains calcium and Alcian Blue stains specific structures mainly found in cartilage. These stains constitute an important part of research because they allow researchers to visualize the intricate structure of tissues and thus understand how they form throughout development.


Image credit: Eleonora Zucchelli

In the lab where I study, researchers work with adipose (fat) derived stem cells which have the capacity to become different kinds of mature cells. These stem cells are grown under specific conditions and by changing these conditions scientists can direct them into becoming mature cells like fat, bone or cartilage — a process called differentiation. But this process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks up to a couple of months! In order to determine if the differentiation is working, researchers stain the stem cells with Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue to identify if they are in fact turning into bone or cartilage. In the images depicted, undifferentiated adipose derived stem cells (ADSCs) on the top appear clear but their differentiated counterparts are stained in blue or red. This means the differentiation is working.

There are many other stains used on animals or cells. The process of clearing and staining can be very complicated depending on the specimen and what one wishes to stain, but the results can be quite fascinating. What animal would you like to see stained from the inside.


Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)

Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)



PUCHTLER, H., Meloan, S. N., & TERRY, M. S. (1969). On the history and mechanism of alizarin and alizarin red S stains for calcium. Journal of Histochemistry & Cytochemistry17(2), 110-124.

McLeod, M. J. (1980). Differential staining of cartilage and bone in whole mouse fetuses by alcian blue and alizarin red S. Teratology22(3), 299-301.


Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills



A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.


A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)


What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)


How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.


What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!



[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

Label Detective: Are Bacteria ‘Ordinary Animals?’

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 17 October 2017

A few weeks ago, the Grant Museum opened a new exhibit, The Museum of Ordinary Animals: boring beasts that changed the world. As a detective of the mundane myself, I am a huge fan. But I’m particularly curious about the ordinary animals we can’t see.

Rather than focusing on a specific artefact label, I answer the title question by visiting two places in the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition that help raise questions about how things are organised and labeled in zoology more broadly.

Case notes: Bacteria are everywhere. As I mentioned in my previous post, we have 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies alone, living and working together with our organ systems to do things like digest nutrients. This is also happens with other animals — consider the ordinary cow, eating grass. Scientist Scott F. Gilbert tells us that in reality, cows cannot eat grass. The cow’s genome doesn’t have the right proteins to digest grass. Instead, the cow chews grass and the bacteria living in its cut digest it. In that way, the bacteria ‘make the cow possible’.


The Ordinary Cow, brought to you to by bacteria. Credit: Photo by author

Scientifically speaking, bacteria aren’t actually ‘animals’; they form their own domain of unicellular life. But, as with the cow, bacteria and animals are highly connected. Increasingly, scientists say that the study of bacteria is ‘fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology’ and theories about the origin and evolution of animals.

But, before we get into that, let’s go back to Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin studied how different species of animals, like the pigeon, are related to each other, and how mapping their sexual reproduction shows how these species diversify and increase in complexity over time. This gets depicted as a tree, with the ancestors at the trunk and species diversifying over time into branches.


Darwin’s Ordinary Tree of Pigeons. Photos by author

When scientists began to use electron microscopes in the mid-20th century, our ideas about what made up the ‘tree of life’ expanded. We could not only observe plants, animals, and fungi, but also protists (complex small things) and monera (not-so-complex small things). This was called the five kingdom model. Although many people still vaguely recollect this model from school, improved techniques in genetic research starting in the 1970s has transformed our picture of the ‘tree of life’.

It turns out we had given way too much importance to all the ordinary things we could see, when in fact most of the tree of life is microbes. The newer tree looks like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Now there are just three overarching domains of life: Bacteria, Eucarya (plants, animals, and fungi are just tiny twigs on this branch), and Archaea (another domain of unicellular life, but we’ll leave those for another day).

There’s a third transformation of the ‘tree of life’, and this one is my favourite. Since the 1990s, DNA technology and genomics have given us an even greater ability to ‘see’ the diversity of microbial life and how it relates to each other. The newest models of the tree look more like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is a lot messier. Why? Unlike the very tiny branches of life (plants and animals) that we focused a lot of attention on early on in the study of evolution, most of life on earth doesn’t reproduce sexually. Instead, most microbes transfer genes ‘horizontally’ (non-sexually) across organisms, rather than ‘down’ a (sexual) genetic line. This creates links between the ‘branches’ of the tree, starting to make it look like….not a tree at all. As scientist Margaret McFall-Ngai puts it: ‘we now know that genetic material from bacteria sometimes ends up in the bodies of beetles, that of fungi in aphids, and that of humans in malaria protozoa. For bacteria, at least, such transfers are not the stuff of science fiction but of everyday evolution’.

Status: Are bacteria Ordinary Animals? We can conclusively say that bacteria are not animals. But, they are extremely ordinary, even if we can’t see them with the naked eye. In truth, they’re way more ordinary than we are.




As with the previous Label Detective entry, this post was deeply inspired by the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, an anthology of essays by zoologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who explore how environmental crisis has highlights the complex and surprising ways that life on earth is tied together. Scott F. Gilbert and Margaret McFall-Ngai, both cited above, contribute chapters.

Embryological Wax Models

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 14 September 2017

The Grant Museum has a number of embryological wax models on display (Images 1, 2, 4, and 5 amongst others not shown here). These models, while often ignored by visitors, are actually quite remarkable as they showcase the brilliance and mystery of embryological development. They were created to help elucidate essential questions like: how do humans and other animals form? How are a bunch of seemingly insignificant cells, with no shape other than a ball, able to grow so much and in such detail to form intricate patterns like our eyes? How can one cell transform itself into such different tissues, from hard rock bone to the jelly like liver? In order to understand how a human body is formed it is vital to study the very first stages of its creation, i.e. when we are just a bunch of cells.

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

The very first cells that are formed after fertilization are called stem cells and they start with an unlimited capacity to form any type of cells. With time, they start to differentiate and mature into specialized cells with a limited lifetime. In this process, little by little they lose their unlimited capacity until they can only form cells that are similar in lineage. In this manner, totipotent stem cells can form any body part including extraembryonic tissue like the placenta. On the next level, pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells for example) are capable of forming any body part but have lost the capacity to form extraembryonic tissue. And finally, multipotent stem cells, much more restricted, can only form cells from a specific tissue or organ.

This may appear as a straightforward process, but the development of an animal is a deeply specific, delicate, and sophisticated interplay of signals and coordinated transitions. Think of it as an orchestrated dance of on and off switches leading to specialisation and exponential growth. In fact, it is so complex that we still don’t understand it entirely.

Although not all human, the wax models display the first stages of development of vertebrates and closely related animals. First, one cell divides symmetrically into two, then four, then eight and so on (Image 1 and front models of Image 2). Afterwards, cells start organizing themselves answering to chemical and physical signals and different patterns start to appear (Image 2 models in the back). Eventually, an axis emerges on which cells migrate along which will give rise to the head on one side and the body and limbs on the other (Image 4). 

Slowly but surely, we all go from looking like little worms to fully grown animals (Image 3). It is important to note that in this initial period most embryos have a very similar appearance, at least between vertebrates. These similarities tell us that a lot of the genes that govern this initial growth haven’t changed between species over time. It’s like nature is saying, “well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and so these mechanisms have been conserved in different animals.

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

These early stages are crucial moments because if one little element of the spatial/temporal organization is out of place, improper organization can lead to lifelong malformations, diseases, or even the termination of the embryo. Hence the importance of understanding how this process works. We know that even in adult life, there are still stem cells proliferating and forming new tissue to a certain degree. Some organs, like the skin, have a lot of stem cells to replace old cells when they die or get injured. But other organs like the brain, have a very limited capacity to grow new cells—one of the reasons why a brain is much more difficult to fix.

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

So can we get back all the limitless capacity there once was in the developing embryo? Even though the genetic and molecular mechanisms governing all these changes are still somewhat elusive, researchers are using stem cells and powerful genetic tools to answer this question and decipher every single step of how a human is formed in the womb. Moreover, if we can understand the process, then we can recreate and modify it in the lab, and this is exactly what the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is trying to do. Imagine having the capacity to grow new organs to be used for transplantation or drug testing. How about growing a brand new functioning leg or arm for amputees? Or studying the mechanisms of diseases like Parkinson’s, leukaemia, diabetes, amongst others. The benefits of harnessing the regenerative potential of cells are far-reaching.

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

The exciting field of stem cells and regenerative medicine has come a long way, more than a century has passed from the first time the term stem cells was used in 1906 up until the creation of genetically modified human embryos in 2017. The embryological wax models represent initial efforts of identifying how changes give rise to specific structures and ultimately how an animal comes into existence. Furthermore, the future still holds exciting breakthroughs, there is still a lot to understand about human development and the wax models are a fantastic resource to portray the morphogenetic changes we all once went through.



Gilbert SF. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000. Comparative Embryology. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/