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It Came From The Stores at the Grant Museum

By James M Heather, on 23 July 2012

The summer ‘Silly Season’ at the Grant Museum is coming to an end, and to send it off in style paleobiologist and curator Mark Carnall gave a talk on some of the museum’s hidden treasures.

Not for the faint hearted, It Came From The Stores revealed some of the weird and wonderful specimens that for one reason or another don’t make it out to the display cases.

The Grant Museum is probably my favourite of the UCL museums. It’s a wonderful cosy natural history museum, which makes you feel like you’ve stepped back in time to some Victorian-era collection, where bottled animals and wired skeletons peer out of the display cases at you.

There’s a very good reason for this impression, as the core collection of the museum was gathered in the early 1800s by the museum’s namesake, Robert Edmond Grant (one of Charles Darwin’s influential mentors), to serve as a teaching collection for the university.

In the intervening centuries, various other scholars, curators and collectors have made their own additions. However, not all of these samples are out on display; at the Grant Museum only five per cent of the material they own is on show.

This may seem surprising to those of us who aren’t in the museum trade, but apparently this is a relatively high number, with larger national museums displaying a fraction of a percent!

This talk was a fascinating glimpse at that other 95%, providing insights into both the natural world of zoology and the occasionally bizarre world of zoological collectors.

We learnt how below stairs behind walls, and in various storerooms across UCL the Grant Museum has stashed portions of its trove. There are boxes of bones, jars of lizards, shelves of microscope slides and a whole whale skeleton – which apparently is an absolute must for any self-respecting natural history museum.

If I ever needed to find 6,000 whelks or 400 mice on sticks, I now know where to go.

This immense hoard provides a great challenge to a modern museum, where sustainability (both for the species and the museum) is a priority. Stocks have to be sorted, maintained and, in the few cases where applicable, displayed.

However, much of what can’ t be displayed is still useful for research purposes; a monkey skeleton without a head might not look great in a museum, but if you’ re studying monkey feet then the specimen is still worthwhile.

We were told about how curating can go wrong, such as when multiple skeletons are put together to make something new, or when one skeleton is assembled by someone who never saw the live animal in the first place. We also saw ‘specimens’ from overenthusiastic past staff members, who added their children’s milk teeth to the stores, or the skeletons of every cod that they ate.

There were also a few brief peeks at some of the samples that are just too creepy to put in the cabinets – which considering the most popular current exhibit is a jar of moles, is something of an achievement.

Over the course of the hour, Mark showed us some of the most interesting zoological specimens, that we’d never otherwise have seen and provided an insight as to how these unseen samples can still be helpful to science.

However, he showed us much more such as about how museums are run and some of the challenges facing a modern curator with a backlog of 200 years worth of stuff to take care of.

James Heather is a first year PhD student in the UCL Division of Infection and Immunity.

Image: The museum’s jar of moles. (Credit: UCL Grant Museum)

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