X Close

UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Skullpture at the Grant Museum opens today

By Jack Ashby, on 26 May 2016

For our newest exhibition – Skullpture at the Grant Museum – twelve sculpture students from UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art have been invited to develop works in response to the Museum’s collections, science and history.

The new artworks – which relate to death and decay, extinction, cloning, and animal behaviour – have been placed among the Museum’s own skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in fluid. The exhibition engages with animal and human encounters and transforms the historic zoological museum in ways that will leave visitors questioning whether some of the installations are playful or serious.

Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher's window.

Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher’s window.


Specimen of the Week 200: The dodo

By Jack Ashby, on 10 August 2015

Grant Museum dodo bones

Grant Museum dodo bones LDUCZ-Y105

200 weeks ago the Specimen of the Week was born, and here we are 198 specimens* later. For this auspicious occasion, I thought I should highlight one of the most important specimens in the Museum, both for historic reasons, and because it one of the things that visitors regularly ask about.

Indeed, we know it is one of the most popular objects as it scores the highest in our “filth left on the glass by visitors scale”. We agree with our visitors’ assessment, and have included it in our Top Ten Objects trail.

Possibly ranking as our most blogged about species, it’s about time that this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

Do Dodo Bones Belong in a Museum?

By Jack Ashby, on 14 November 2013

This week the Daily Mail reported that two bones from a dodo were set to sell at auction for £30,000. This would be the first private sale of a dodo bone since 1934*. My first reaction was one of horror. Why is that?

These are two main reasons why I might deplore this sale:
1) It should be in a museum.
2) We shouldn’t put a value on natural history objects.

I’d like to explore why these might not be reasonable objections.

It Should be in a Museum: For Science
This is the reaction I got on Twitter when discussing this story, and it seems reasonable. Valuable natural history specimens that aren’t in museums are lost to science, as I have argued before when discussing Channel 4’s Four Rooms.

But are these two bones – a femur and partial pelvis – valuable natural history specimens? I’m not convinced. (more…)

The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)

By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2013

Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.

If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.

The Grant Museum team an a sperm whale jaw at the OUMNH (they're closed for roof repairs)Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.

We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world. (more…)

Model Translations: The B roll

By Mark Carnall, on 12 December 2012

My colleague Nick Booth has already introduced the Octagon Gallery that hopefully a lot of UCL staff and students have noticed on their way from one side of campus to another. In addition to the ‘big egg’ a number of objects from the Grant Museum can be seen on display (including another big egg, a model of an elephant bird egg) but as with most exhibitions there were a lot of objects that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut.

A number of months ago one of the Mellon Fellow curators of the Model Translation exhibition, Antony Hudek, came by the museum and asked if we would loan one of our Blaschka glass models to the exhibition. I mustered my best impression of a dodgy second-hand car salesman and informed him that if it was models he wanted, we’ve got hundreds. We then spent the rest of the afternoon going through the model collections at the Grant Museum. Originally there were 30 or so objects on the long list which had to be whittled down for the exhibition. Here’s some of the objects that didn’t end up in the exhibition. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Forty-Seven

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 3 September 2012

Scary Monkey WeekA while back I went to a pub quiz with my parents. I think that they, and their fellow team members, were under the impression that I and my four degrees would bring a dose of omniscience to the table. Four degrees I do have, but they are not four degrees in general knowledge. Sadly, for my team. Rather, they are in a niche area getting more and more specialised as you travel up the qualification scale. If you want to know the average length of a sand tiger shark’s right clasper, give me a shout and a gold medal. But otherwise I’m sadly lacking in value when it comes to providing an answer. You can imagine my delight therefore, when my moment came to shine and prove my worth, as the compere asked a question on zoology. So elated was I that in a fit of new found confidence I shouted ‘Can we have a bonus point if we know the scientific name?’ to which the lady surprisingly and inconveniently agreed. I say inconveniently because I knew that I knew but in that moment, under the self-imposed pressure of the situation, could I remember that flinging flanging scientific name? You bet your snub-nosed monkey I couldn’t. Curses. So in an effort to prevent you my dear reader from ever suffering the same humiliation, I am now going to use it several times in this blog so that it becomes firmly implanted in all our memories. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

Say Hello To My Little Friends

By Mark Carnall, on 1 August 2011

Image of the new models of Quagga, Dodo and Thylacine in the Grant Museum

These three specimens are the latest addition to the Grant Museum collection. Before the museum moved, model maker Tom Payne came into the museum and asked if there were any models he could make for the museum.  After some discussion we decided that we’d like to have little life models made of three of our highlight specimens, the quagga, thylacine and dodo. We reference these three specimens a lot but unfortunately, to the untrained eye the skeletons look much like a horse, a dog and a box (now two boxes) of bones.  In particular the quagga and thylacine have interesting fur colouration so we wanted to display this and quagga and thylacine skins are in rather short supply these days. (more…)

Things people post to museums

By Jack Ashby, on 14 July 2011

On occasion, people like to send things to people who work in museums. You might guess that I’m talking about objects that people want to donate to the Museum – I’m not. This isn’t that common and for that we are grateful – we have a very strict acquisitions policy and are able to take on very few specimens from the public for ethical and administrative reasons.

My postcard

My postcard

Instead, I’m talking about things specifically meant for me. Myself and a colleague have both received the Atlas of Creation in the past – a spectacular book that must have cost a fortune to produce. It is filled with stunning pictures of fossils, and text saying “Here is a 100 million year old fish fossil. We still have fish, so evolution is a lie”. And is filled with inaccurate and misleading “information” about what evolutionary biologists think, and how silly they are to do so. Similar “gifts” have included DVDs about creationism surreptitiously left on my desk after a school workshop about natural selection. (more…)

Half a dodo?

By Jack Ashby, on 22 February 2011

Last week Natasha McEnroe, the Museum Manager and I met with Maev Kennedy of the Guardian to show her around the new Grant Museum space.

One of the things she was most interested in was the unknown specimens that we had discovered when the collection was being packed up in our old home. Some of the new discoveries were rather disappointing but one exciting discovery was a box of dodo bones, and Maev has written a great piece about it in today’s Guardian.

This is actually only half of our dodo material – the other half having been on display for years. According to our records, there should always have been two boxes of bones, but none of the current staff had ever seen it and occasionally material has been documented twice in the past creating phantom duplicate specimens. We asked all the staff from the previous 20 years, and they confirmed its existence, but had know idea where it was. We feared it was lost. (more…)