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A stuffed Hippopotamus of 1829 at large at UCL

By Mark Carnall, on 12 November 2014

Hippo at large at UCL

Hippo at large at UCL, a poorly photoshopped one too which is a much rarer subspecies. Artist’s reconstruction (also available for palaeontological reconstructions)

Part of my job at the Grant Museum is to document and inventory the collection we have here. With over 68,000 specimens (a modest collection when it comes to natural history) this is no small task given that creating a catalogue of the collection only began some 70 years into the collection’s history and the attempt to document the collection to current museum standards only began in the 1990s. A lot of the frustration is that the collection was very much a teaching and research collection for most of it’s life and the core data about the who’s, what’s, where’s, and why’s – information that is invaluable to make the most of the collection today – was inconsistently recorded if at all.

Recently, whilst looking through our paper archive excavating information for a scientific research request, I found a fantastic document, a summary of all the benefactions in kind made to UCL between 1828 and 1914, right from when the University was first founded. I thought I’d struck gold finding this itemised list of objects and specimens benefacted to UCL and perhaps this would hold some key information about who gave what to UCL, some of which ended up in the Grant Museum. What was shocking however was how much seems to have… ahem… been mislaid  between then and now. Not just the odd bones or shell here and there but whole stuffed hippos and more…

Reading through the document there are a number of easily identified objects which are still in UCL museums and collections. For example, in 1861 a Mr Frederick W. Jansen donated “Basaltic Columns from Giant’s Causeway” (still on display in the Rock Room) and in 1912 a certain Countess of Lovelace donated the “Robert Noel collection of casts and heads”, which are still on campus today. Other notable objects include a 10-inch theodolite and 100 inch standard scale donated by Flinders Petrie, a collection of surveying instruments donated by Professor Chadwick in 1906 (who has a building named after him, which houses UCL’s geomatic engineers) and in 1829 The Society for Diffusion of Useful Knowledge helpfully donated ‘maps’.

Specimen of Natural History

In addition to various busts, paintings, scientific apparatus, geological collections and mummies from Thebes there are a number of natural history specimens which I got quite excited about. Unfortunately, there are lots of donations which are listed as job lots of natural history specimens, such as:

1828 ‘Specimens of objects of natural history’ Dr. A. Thomson and ‘Natural History Objects’ from Lady Raffles.

1829 19 ‘Specimens natural history’ from G.A.Tulk and a ‘collection of quadrupeds, reptiles, fishes and insects from West Indies’ from Mr.J.Hayes

1859 ‘Natural History Collection’ from William Christie

There are two references to a Dr.Grant, presumably Robert Grant who the museum is named after, one donation just listed as ‘To Dr.Grant’s Museum’ from ten named donors and another entry which is just ‘Donation to Museum of Natural History’ from Dr. Grant himself. Annoyingly, with these generic natural history bulk donations there’s not much of a chance of identifying specimens donated by these individuals in the collection and in my time here I haven’t found reference to many of the names of donors of these collections in the specimen documentation and on labels we have today.

Image of a page of the benfactions to UCL 1828-1914 Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

A section of the document listing just a small portion of the donations to the University in 1859, 1860 and 1861

In addition to these job lots there are a number of itemised donations of specimens, such as:

1829 36 Stuffed Birds (Rare British) in Cases, four other birds, three other birds and a spotted dogfish J.P.Kennell

1829 Weasel in a glass case. Mr. Hind

1829 Kingfisher mounted in a case. Mr. Martin

1829 Skull of Alligator from Ganges and Tiger from Bengal. The Warden.

1829 Mounted Bittern and Great Weaver Fish of Pennant. Mr. Kennell.

1829 Carcase of Indian Zebu Cow and a Fine Specimen of Male Kangaroo. Mr.Vigers

1829 Stuffed Hippopotamus. Jos.Brookes.

1860 Two Stuffed Leopards. Case of Dry Insects (2000). Dr.W.W.Johnston.

1914 Disarticulated skeleton of a Tiger. Mr.H.J.C. Turner

Which would have been a very exciting find except almost all of the above (except possibly the tigers and ‘Ganges alligator’ skull) are no longer in the museum and aside from this document I haven’t found a single reference to them. How exactly does one misplace a stuffed hippopotamus and two stuffed leopards? It’s not clear if all of these specimens were destined for the museum so it may be that some of these ended up in different parts of the University (alas no comedy Orang-utan is listed). We know from some of our other documentation that specimens were sometimes traded amongst scientists and science museums, the dugong skeleton in the museum was swapped for a large manatee skeleton by Professor Lankester in 1879/1880. One worrying thing that unites a lot of these is that they are taxidermy specimens so it may be that they were destroyed or damaged by pests and subsequently thrown away.

Of course, there’s a possibility that some of these are still somewhere on campus so if any of our UCL colleagues spots a zebu cow carcass or stuffed leopard or if there’s campus mythology about any of these specimens, no matter how tenuous, please do get in touch!

Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

2 Responses to “A stuffed Hippopotamus of 1829 at large at UCL”

  • 1
    Dominic wrote on 19 November 2014:

    Have you still got the ‘series of casts illustrating Hernis’? They may show the consequences of lifting a stuffed hippo…!

  • 2
    From the Archives: A letter from Robert Grant | UCL UCL Museums & Collections Blog wrote on 11 February 2015:

    […] of the back of this blog post about the mysterious missing specimens that were donated to the University I was contacted by UCL’s Records Manager, Colin Penman, about an exciting discovery in […]

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