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The Grant Museum’s Fifth Birthday

By Jack Ashby, on 15 March 2016

Happy birthday to ewe
Guppy birthday to ewe
Guppy bird-jay deer Grant Museum

Guppy bird-jay shrew ewe.

On the 15th March 2011 the Grant Museum 2.0* opened its doors to a new era. It was the day we begun our lives in our current home on the corner of Gower and University Streets. Permit me to be a little sentimental, but it was the start of something wonderful. It’s been an amazing five years in which our little museum has really grown in stature to be a significant part of London’s cultural offer. Here’s what’s happened over the last year, which I think it’s fair to say has been our best ever!

The year in numbers

33,702 visitors during normal opening hours (vs 24,015 the year before)
£21,1140 raised for skeleton conservation
13,901 participants in our events
3249 university students in museum classes
2890 school and FE students in museum classes
477 objects accessioned
98 blog posts
54 extinct animal models put on display
4-legged status restored to the world’s rarest skeleton
2 blockbusting exhibitions
1 world’s first western painting of a kangaroo put on display

Silverware

Sometimes we may get carried away with ourselves and start making grand claims about just how brilliant we think our museum is, so it’s a genuine joy when we are reassured it’s not all delusions of grandeur – by winning awards! This year the good people of London voted us as their most favourite museum in Bloomsbury, Camden and Holborn, to give us Time Out’s Love London Award for the area. This is pretty heart-warming for us given that a rather larger museum is just down the road. THANKS!

We’ve also been shortlisted at the Museums + Heritage Awards (the Oscars of the museum world). Our Bone Idols project is up for the Conservation or Restoration category (see below). We find out in May, so fingers crossed!

Exhibitions – kangaroos and sponges

'The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo)’ by George Stubbs (1772) (c) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

‘The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo)’ by George Stubbs (1772) (c) National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

This year we really pushed ourselves in the kinds of exhibitions we can run in our little space. The first was Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, which opened a year ago tomorrow. The exhibition explored how exotic animals were represented to the people “back home” when they were first discovered. It was centred around the first western painting of an Australian animal – the kangaroo by George Stubbs, on loan from the National Maritime Museum. Ten UCL researchers from art history to palaeontology told stories from their own research on the theme, establishing a new model for how we develop research-led exhibitions at UCL Museums.

Sponge Man, from our Glass Delusions exhibition. (C) Eleanor Morgan

Sponge Man, from our Glass Delusions exhibition.
(C) Eleanor Morgan

In the autumn term our exhibition was Glass Delusions – the culmination of the year-long residency by artist Eleanor Morgan. Eleanor is interested in the materials that are made by both humans and animals, and for her residency here focussed on our incredible collection of glass sponges. These are intricate animals which naturally build themselves out of glass – they are 90% silica. The exhibition featured Eleanor’s prints and sculptures of and inspired by our specimens. We worked hard on how to both integrate the artworks into the museum’s permanent displays, but also to make them clearly seperate. We think we pulled it off, largely by painting much of the Museum pink.

Protecting our Iconic Skeletons

The other major project we completed this year was our Bone Idols campaign, which was both our first ever public fundraising drive, and a huge conservation project. Thanks to the generous support of our visitors (really, thank you!), we were able to protect the 39 largest and rarest skeletons in our collection for the long term future. This included the complete disarticulation of our rhino and quagga skeletons, which were then thoroughly cleaned and rebuilt, in more anatomically correct poses on friendlier frames. The quagga was also given its missing leg back, by CT scanning a surviving leg, mirroring the data and 3D printing it. We believe this was one of the first uses of such technologies to “complete” incomplete specimens in museums.

The quagga's missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

The quagga’s missing fourth leg has been replicated through 3D printing.

Changing the guard

Finally, the other significant thing that happened this year is that we employed the 14th Curator in the Museum’s 190 year history, Paolo Viscardi. Number 13, Mark Carnall left in August 2015 to care for the amazing collections at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Paolo joined us from the Horniman Museums and Gardens.


All of the big projects we’ve run this year have allowed us to continue to grow the profile and reach of the Museum. When most museums relaunch, as we did five years ago, they see a big spike in visitors in the first year, and then they plateau or dip back down. We are thrilled to contine to grow our audiences – this year we look to be on track to engage twice the number of people who visited in our first year since relaunch.

Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

*Prepare for complicated history…
The collection was founded in 1827 or 1828 (with the bicentenary approaching we really need to nail that number down) when Robert Edmond Grant started amassing specimens in the main UCL Wilkins Building with which to teach. It then moved at least four times ending up in our most recent home in the Darwin Building in 1997. At this point it became called “The Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy”, so while technically there have been many versions of our institution, this is only the second one called The Grant Museum.

2 Responses to “The Grant Museum’s Fifth Birthday”

  • 1
    Peter J Townsend wrote on 16 March 2016:

    As an Alumni of this university, please may I point out that the museum is now housed in what was a quiet area of study, namely the Medical School library. there is no mention of this on any of the websites i have looked at!
    A few years back I was on a nostalgic visit and was able to view a derelict Library and I am so glad such good use of it has been made.
    A squint through the doors of the old refectory produce a similar scene. What has become of that?

  • 2
    Jack Ashby wrote on 16 March 2016:

    Thanks Peter. You’re quite right, we are now in the former Medical Library, and have filled the bookcases that lined the room with specimens. You can download (for free) a book about the history of the library space, up to and including when we moved in, here:
    http://www.ucl.ac.uk/sts/staff/cain/projects/nos
    (it’s also available to buy in paper form in the Museum).

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