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On the Origin of Our Specimens: The Chatterjee Years

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 24 April 2014

The Thirteen’

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.

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. This mini-series will look at each of The Thirteen in turn, starting with Grant himself, and giving examples where possible, of specimens that can be traced back to their time at UCL. Previous editions can be found here.

Number Twelve: Dr Helen Chatterjee (1995-2006)

Chatterjee was born and raised in Blackpool. After attending the University of Sheffield to study for a BSc in Natural Environmental Science, Chatterjee set out to specialise her field by studying a masters degree in palaeoanthropology, also at the University of Sheffield. She graduated with a distinction. That same year Chatterjee began her Ph.D research on the phylogeny and biogeography of gibbons, here at University College London.

Whilst studying for her Ph.D, Chatterjee became involved with the museum and was appointed curator in 1995. For the first six years in the role of curator, Chatterjee balanced her Ph.D research with taking care of the collections. In 2001, Ph.D over, Chatterjee began to work full time as a research fellow and curator at the Grant Museum, where she remained for the next five years. In 2006, Chatterjee resigned her position as curator and, loyal to UCL, took up the positions of  lecturer in biology and deputy director of the (then called) UCL Museums and  Collections department. The name of her department and her job title have both changed over the last eight years, today Chatterjee is a senior lecturer in the Research Department of Genetics Evolution and Environment, as well as Head of Research and Teaching in UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, formerly Museums and Public Engagement.

Throughout her career to date, Chatterjee has published numerous articles in peer reviewed journals, as well as two books. Her research has covered a number of aspects of mammal evolution, with a focus on Southeast Asian mammals, gibbons in particular. Chatterjee also researches the therapeutic benefits to be had of handling museum specimens. In the book Museums, Health and Well-being, Chatterjee, together with co-author Guy Noble, tested the hypothesis that using museum objects in specimen handling activities can improve the health and well-being of people, such as hospital patients. Case studies outlined in the book confirmed the theory and the book has serves as an example of one of the many ways in which museum collections can be used to benefit modern society.

A lot of changes took place for the Grant Museum during Chatterjee’s time. Chatterjee’s predecessor, Rosina Down, relocated the collections to the Medawar Building in the early 1970s. As previous curators had done, all the way back to Lankester in 1875, many specimens were put on display for the students. However, under Chatterjee the collections were moved to the Darwin Building for redisplay and in November 1997 were opened to the public as the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy. Two years later, the Museum advertised its first regular opening hours as Wednesday and Friday 1pm to 5pm, which were subsequently extended to Monday to Friday 1pm to 5pm in 2005.

As a doctorate, Chatterjee became the first research academic to be curator at the Grant Museum in 50 years. The last academic in the position was D.M.S. Watson who, reluctantly at first, handed over the reigns to a ‘non-academic’, or rather a specialist curator, in 1948. Although Chatterjee was a research fellow at UCL whilst in the position of curator at the Grant Museum, she did not actively collect specimens to add to the collection. Whilst in post, a number of collections were acquired for the collections such as the series of impressive antlers that adorn the balcony along the South wall of the Museum today. Another group of specimens, perhaps less obvious to the casual visitor, is the Popple woodlouse collection. This comprises nine* jars, each containing multiple specimens, filled with preservative fluid. In 2012, Grant Museum staff collated their ideas for the top ten ‘must see’ specimens. One of these top ten is a collection of brains, that came to the Grant from the Gordon Museum, originally from the anatomical and pathological collection of Kings College London’s School of Medicine. The brain collection was acquired by Chatterjee in October 2000. There are 30 brains held at the Museum, the majority of which are mammals. Most of the Gordon brain collection is displayed in the ‘brain case’ near the entrance to the Museum.

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

*It is possible there are more in the collections

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