Specimen of the Week 312: Hundreds of frogs’ legs
By Jack Ashby, on 13 October 2017
We have recently opened out biggest ever exhibition: The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The boring beasts that changed the world. It tells the stories of the mundane creatures in our everyday lives that have shaped our society, our science, our planet and even our own biology. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Don’t take my word for it though: it topped Time Out’s list of the best exhibitions in London this autumn*.
We didn’t struggle too much with the issue of what counts as an “Ordinary Animal” – they are the species we find on our streets, in our labs, on our laps and on our plates. The ones that are really a commonplace part of human society and human culture (and we had to take the main geographic focus as our own European perspective). The vast majority are domesticated, but others have become Ordinary simply because of the way we consider them. There was one species that did cause me trouble, and it’s this week’s Specimen of the Week:
**Hundreds of Frog Legs**
1. Are common frogs Ordinary?
I’d be interested to hear you thoughts. As I explained in this interview for Atlas Obscura
The frogs that people find in their gardens, for example, or that might have been used in university dissection classes, are identical to the ones that live proper wild lives in natural habitats. Frogs can be considered everyday, ordinary animals because they have crossed or do still cross paths with people in fairly human ways. But they are also wild animals. The same frogs in those human environments are essentially identical to the real wild animals.
This sets them apart from most of the other animals in the exhibition – cats, dogs, rats, chickens, mice – that are to a degree man-made. Frogs are awesome (just as cat- and dog-lovers think their pets are awesome), but are they Ordinary?
2. Frogs’ legs
I happened across these frogs legs last year in the very bottom drawer of a floor-to-ceiling rack in one of our storerooms. As soon as I saw them I knew they had to go into the exhibition. They is one of those objects (one of many) that call into question the philosophy and professional practice of historic museum collections like our own. The short version of most of these questions is… “Why?”
This Specimen of the Week is actually two “specimens”:
- LDUCZ-W270: hundreds of frogs’ right legs.
- LDUCZ-W271: hundreds of frogs’ left legs.
We know very little about them, but we do know helps us to guess some of the rest. They came to the Grant Museum when the University of London Examination Collection closed, apparently in 1950. This suggests they were the outcome of a university student dissection exam (lending to their status as Ordinary Animals). They are in fact not even identified to species level: the label just says “Rana”, which is the genus of true frogs. Chances are they are the common European frogs that frequent British garden ponds.
4. STILL WHY?!
What leaps out (ahem) to me about these specimens is the curatorial decision in how to treat them, from a collections management point of view: rather than keep the pairs of legs from each individual frog together (which, should anyone ever want to use them in some kind of anatomical study, would allow them to know which of their data points were linked), it was decided to lump the legs from hundreds of frogs together. They are simply split into a box of left legs and a box of right legs. The motivation for this, one might guess, is that only two entries needed to be made in the museum catalogue, rather than one per frog. Was that the right thing to do? Quite possibly – let’s be honest with ourselves. After the exhibition closes, are these specimens too Ordinary to ever see the light of day again?
* Please forgive the gloating – this was a pretty big deal for us.
The Museum of Ordinary Animals runs until 22nd December. A number of events accompany the exhibition: through discussions, a late opening, a comedy night and offsite events discover how boring beasts shape our relationship with the natural world. Full details are on the exhibition’s website.
The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday. Admission is free and there is no need to book.
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, and curated The Museum of Ordinary Animals.