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What do all of our Curators have in Common? On the Origin of Our Specimens

By Jack Ashby, on 15 May 2014

Over the past few months we have been investigating what we can learn about where our specimens came from by researching the history of the Museum’s thirteen previous Curators. This “On the Origin of Our Specimens” series has uncovered much about our collections and the people that have worked here over the past 187 years. In this final post in the series I’m going to share some of the unexpected threads that kept reappearing through this time.

In answer to the question “What do all of our Curators have in common?” one thing that leaps out is a consistent failure to usefully identify which specimens they actually added to the collection. Professional documentation standards are a relatively new invention, and they have only recently been applied to our collection, mostly since we became a “proper museum” and not just a teaching collection and research repository.

Besides that, there are four topics that keep reappearing through time…

1) The Grant Museum is an incestuous place

Every curator since Grant has had links with their predecessor before being appointed. Some of them gained the job of Curator/Professor of Zoology as a promotion from a more junior role with the collection (as is common), while others had external links through family, friends or by teaching each other on courses. I’m not suggesting anything untoward here.

2) Everybody loves platypuses

This is of course common knowledge, but given that platypuses are the only species in their family, which is one of only two families in its order, and that that order is the only one in its subclass, platypuses have had far more than their fair share of attention from Grant Museum staff than you’d expect pro-rata across the mammals (which is, of course, the smallest of the vertebrate classes). Four previous curators (Grant, Lankester, Hill and Watson) have all focused on them. They are also incidentally my animal of choice. Similarly Grant and Hill both worked on bandicoots.

3) There has been a penchant for the obscure

Platypuses aside, many of the lineage have specialised in some of the least sexy groups of animal. Both Grant and Minchin worked on sponges, Weldon focussed on decapod crustaceans, Lankester made the horseshoe crab (not very) famous and Watson was the big name in fossil fish. Today, of course, our current Curator Mark Carnall is reaping what Watson sowed, also being a fan of fossil fish, the more mundane the better.

 4) A lot of things were pioneered here

Today one of the backbones of Grant Museum strategy is innovation. Like other backbones in the collection, this philosophy has been with us for a long time. Very many academic and professional practices were first established here in the Museum by our curators.

  • Grant established zoology as an academic discipline in Great Britain.
  • Grant was the first person to teach evolution at an English university.
  • The country’s first female academic biologists were taught in the Museum.
  • Grant and Lankester pioneered practical laboratory work in academic zoology and comparative anatomy.
  • Grant pioneered the teaching with fossils alongside modern organisms.
  • Lankester pioneered the teaching of ecology.
  • Hill was a leading light in embryology and its teaching.
  • Harris pioneered many specimen preparation techniques that would be adopted by museums worldwide.
  • Chatterjee is a pioneer in the field of arts and health.

As one of the oldest natural history collections in the country, we have a long and varied past, but, it turns out, not quite as varied as we might have thought.

Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.

One Response to “What do all of our Curators have in Common? On the Origin of Our Specimens”

  • 1
    jennie brigham wrote on 16 December 2014:


    I worked with Rosina Down as a trainee technician from 1979 to 1986. I worked with Rosina in the Museum looking after the specimens and even donating some cabinet skins of birds that I prepared after a course I went on in Kent. I have very fond memories of working there and still have a photograph of Rosina, Roy and Ed on my wall here at the University of Hull.

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