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  • Lost Things?

    By Mark Carnall, on 4 August 2011

    We interrupt normal service with this alternate history blog post. Author Bruno Hare, writer of Lost Kings has been writing a blog which is a fictional account of events surrounding a creature of legend, Felis serpentis, the snake cat. This article is part of that story. In his blog, which refers to events in the book, Bruno has visited the Grant Museum (and various other London museums) looking for remains of the creature – remains which seem to have mysteriously disappeared….

    Keeping track of specimens in a collection as old as the Grant Museum can be incredibly difficult at times, especially as the collection started as a teaching collection. In the past, specimens were traded and borrowed on long term loans, the dugong skeleton in the museum had been traded for a “very large” manatee for example. This was well before museums had robust paperwork and concrete codes of ethics. Also, because the Grant Museum collection was a teaching collection, objects were only seen as useful for how they could be used in teaching zoology and comparative anatomy. Not too much care was taken to record the whos, hows, wheres and whys because the objects were seen as teaching aids primarily.

    Furthermore, it can be difficult tracking down objects that have been in the collection for a long time because taxonomic classifications change over time as animals are reclassified or their names are standardised. It is not uncommon for animals and plants that occur all over the world to have many different names when in fact they are all of a single species. Cod and daisies for example has well over 25 scientific synonyms because biologists classified these organisms not realising they had already been described elsewhere.

    Another quirk of zoologists appears to be that former curators and professors weren’t above making up names or even writing names down from memory. There are many specimens that I have encountered in the collection that have names apparently conjured from thin air. Human error is also a problem and myself, our museum assistant Emma and volunteers spend a great deal of time correcting typographic errors on everything from our current museum catalogue to hundred year old handwritten labels. Specimens are also quite easily misidentified if you don’t have diagnostic features preserved or if the specimen show odd anatomy.

    Which is where we arrive at zoological hoaxes, specimens created and mislabeled (as genuine) by field zoologists keen to make their names. The Grant has some fine examples, not least the skeleton of Felis serpentis, the Snake Cat, which came into our possession ten years ago, via the hands of a UCL alumnus, and was tucked away with the rest of the hoaxes. Thought to have been created in India at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, a visiting researcher – Bruno Hare, author of The Lost Kings – came to view it recently, but all we found in its box was this card.




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