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You dirty rats!, moles, dodos, etc…. Assessing popularity from visitor filth

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 15 August 2013

Once every month I get to clean all of the glass throughout the Grant Museum. You may think this laborious back-breaking time-consuming task is not a popular event in my diary. You’d be wrong. It gives me the opportunity to see the Museum through the eyes of those who have visited the Museum over the last month. How? By their grubby little fingerprints. It interests me greatly which spots have provoked the highest number of points of contact between finger and glass as people have pointed things out to their friends and relatives. These prints are not necessarily a measure of positivity- of enthusiasm or pleasure, but a measure of ‘reaction’. How many times have you heard “Yuk, look at this”, as well as the more pleasurable “Wow, look at this”? This month, as I wiped out the traces of this month’s reactions, I decided to do an analysis.


Parameters and biases
The reaction rate to the specimens within all the cases in the Museum was measured using a record of Low, Medium or High coverage of finger prints across each glass planel. For large cases, each panel was scored individually and an average was taken. For ten of our cases, an I-pad sits in front of the glass thus restricting access to the case and providing a finger distractor in the guise of the I-pad itself. To control biases, these cases were therefore discounted from the analysis. Other biases that would need to be considered and corrected for where possible if this study were ever to be published would be:
1. Average human height + plus average height human’s average arm length = greater probability of prints on the glass within this radius.
2. Adults are less probable to point at low down cases, and conversely, children are (much) less probable to point at very high cases. Except maybe a certain age-group of children that are more likely to be carried by an average height (for the analysis) adult. (This is a tricky bias to account for.)
3. Limited accessibility = lower print potential. The very top of each case for example.
4. Absence of prints, or a ‘ghost trace’ i.e. do some people have unfathomably clean fingers tips that leave prints invisible to the naked eye?
5. Where specimens have been moved since the print, this will give a fake signal for the specimen currently in the case.
6. In order to reduce the potential error margin in terms of interpretation of emotion, (was the specimen pointed out because it was liked, or disliked), a Google search of common phobias was consulted to take a ‘best guess’ approach to interpreting the results.
Relative abundance issues would also need to be considered: 1 human can = 20 prints, but 20 humans can = 1 print. However, if the measure of reaction is callibrated and taken as a mean of total reaction levels present, rather than a mean of the top score felt by each individual person, then the above numbers are equal.


Results show that there are definite hot spots throughout the collection. The thylacine and platypus are all kinds of popular. As is The jar of moles (obviously). Spikes seem to occur where there are cute specimens (taxidermy mammals, babies of seemingly any species), gross specimens (the bisected heads of the Negus Collection), and size apparently impresses (the hippo skull, the hippo foot, the rather large walrus penis bone, etc). Interestingly, there is on average a lower number of prints at the rear of the Museum. Could this be a skew in the data caused by fatigue? By the time people have made their way to the back of the Museum are they too tired for pointing at specimens?


A number of interesting conclusions were arrived at. Here are the highlights:
The Dodo bones are more popular than the dodo casts.
The koala taxidermy is more popular than the koala skeleton.
People really like big things, baby things, and fluffy/feathered (taxidermy) things.
There is some mega spider hate. (See section on best-guess emotion interpretations above) (These are not the views of opinions of the staff members at the Grant Museum of Zoology).
Tigers are more popular than all other feline species (on display).
It is noted, that the last conclusion could be caused by the ‘bigger is better’ hypothesis outlined above, as the tiger is by far the largest cat skull on the shelf, rather than a measure of popularity for the actual species.

Finally, throughout the entire Museum, the elephant bird egg (even with the I-pad physical hurdle and finger distraction to surmount), The jar of moles and the portjackson shark and cookie cutter shark jaws (picured above) had the greatest coverage and (all biases accounted for where possible) are subsequently interpreted to be our most popular specimens. (That is… behind glass, at an accessible level to the public).


Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology

5 Responses to “You dirty rats!, moles, dodos, etc…. Assessing popularity from visitor filth”

  • 1
    Nigel Monaghan wrote on 15 August 2013:

    We have a similar rating system at our museum. Extra points go to nose prints and even forehead prints where visitors seem to absorbed to notice the glass.

  • 2
    Lorna Steel wrote on 21 August 2013:

    it’s interesting that ‘museum fatigue’ sets in! You will have to watch your CCTV cameras to see what’s happening.

  • 3
    Georgette Taylor wrote on 9 September 2013:

    I have left forehead prints on museum cases myself. Indeed, it could perhaps be a cheery encouragement to those lumbered with the task of polishing the glass that the cleaner it is, the more likely it is that the absorbed visitor(s) will dong their head on it. On bigger glass cases it makes an extra special noise.

  • 4
    Tom Katsystem wrote on 29 July 2014:

    I like the idea of CCTV mentioned by Lorna 🙂

  • 5
    Specimen of the Week 200: The dodo | UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 10 August 2015:

    […] we know it is one of the most popular objects as it scores the highest in our “filth left on the glass by visitors scale. We agree with our visitors’ assessment, and have included it in our Top Ten Objects […]

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