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  • Happy 79th Thylacine Day: What they knew in 1896

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2015

    79 years ago today , on the night of 7th of September 1936, the last known thylacine died of exposure, locked out of the indoor part of its enclosure in a Tasmanian zoo. This followed a government-sponsored cull based on pressure from the farming lobby, who incorrectly blamed the thylacine for the failure of the sheep industry. Happy Thylacine Day.

    Thylacine as depicted in Wood's Illustrated History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Thylacine as depicted in J.G. Wood’s The Illustrated Natural History (1872?). Engraved by W. Coleman, after Robert Kretschmer (1865)

    Here at the Grant Museum, as holders of a significant collection of specimens, we like to commemorate Thylacine Day. Here you can read how we have commemorated previous Thylacine Days – including the story of their extinction, and how it’s being echoed today in the UK’s unscientific badger cull (which restarted last Friday).

    I recently bought book from 1894* – A Handbook to the Marsupialia and Monotremata – a species by species account of what was then known about those groups by Richard Lydekker. Lydekker was a significant figure at the Natural History Museum, London, and incidentally was born about 100m from us here at UCL. Here is what he had to say about thylacines: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 195: The Kangaroo Joey Preserved on a Teat

    By Jack Ashby, on 6 July 2015

    Kangaroo joey on teat. LDUCZ-Z1102

    Kangaroo joey on teat. LDUCZ-Z1102

    For the past fourteen weeks a kangaroo has been the most celebrated object in the Grant Museum, but it was not part of our collection, nor was it a zoological specimen. Europe’s first painting of a kangaroo, from 1772 by George Stubbs left us just last week. It had been the centrepiece of our Stange Creatures exhibition and now it is continuing its nationwide tour from the National Maritime Museum*. I have argued it is one of the most important artworks in the history of British exploration.

    Now that it’s gone, I would like to shine the spotlight on a kangaroo that does “live” here at the Grant Museum. Although it also featured in the exhibition, I suspect it’s recently been feeling somewhat overshadowed by its 2-dimensional counterpart. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    (more…)

    The earliest Strange Creatures: Europe’s first meetings with marsupials

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2015

    There is a popular British colonial narrative in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, as demonstrated by this Google autofill:

    Evidence that James Cook discovered Australia

    Evidence that James Cook indeed discovered Australia

    In reality, not even Cook thought this was true. Australia had been known by the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (hence its original European name “New Holland”, which Cook himself used) for at least two hundred years before Cook landed in the southeast of the country on his ship HMS Endeavour. Obviously Indigenous Australians and their neighbours also had been there for around 50,000 years.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals explores how newly discovered animals are communicated to the public back home. It is is centred around a painting that resulted from that voyage of Cook’s – a kangaroo by George Stubbs. This is the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art. As I wrote in the exhibition text:

    This painting helped begin Europe’s relationship with Australian wildlife. Commissioned by legendary naturalist Joseph Banks, painted by celebrated animal artist George Stubbs, and based on findings from Captain Cook’s famous voyage, this kangaroo truly captured the country’s imagination.

    Stubbs’ image became the archetype for representations of kangaroos for decades – reproduced and refigured prolifically. It may not be anatomically perfect, but this is how Britain came to know the kangaroo.

    It is an emblem of the age of exploration at the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.

    Here I’d like to explore some of the meetings between Europeans and Australiasian marsupials that preceded Cook’s visit. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 186

    By Tannis Davidson, on 4 May 2015

    Scary-Monkey-Week-NineSometimes a specimen can tell you a little. Sometimes it can tell you a lot. There has been much written on this blog about the perils and pitfalls of museum documentation. Sometimes there is no information with a specimen – no accession record, no acquisition information, no species name and (occasionally) no specimen. Objects get lost and misplaced. Historical records are incomplete or indecipherable. Specimen labels become separated from their object.

    Alternatively, some specimens may have (dare I say it) too much information which may include multiple numbers, several differing records, erroneous taxonomic information or questionable identifications.

    Caring for a collection entails many things but first and foremost is to identify the collection itself – through all possible means including the consolidation of any (and all) associated information. When luck prevails, one may find a scrap (literally) of information which ties it all together – a word or two which allows a specimen to be given a name, a record, a life!

    Recently while going through the bird drawers, I came across an unaccessioned skull and mandible together with its associated information (unclear object number, outdated taxonomic name) including a  small piece of paper with two words: “El Turco”. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
    (more…)

    Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 March 2015

    Imagine that you are in a place no-one from your country has ever been before. You have just set eyes on an animal incomparible to anything you’ve ever encountered – it might as well be an alien. Cameras haven’t been invented. It will take a year for you or anything you send to reach home. Your job is to communicate what you’ve discovered to the people back home.

    The artistic outcomes of scenarios like this are the basis for much of our exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, which opens today.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    The natural history of art; the art history of nature

    By examining the world of animal representations, the exhibition explores how imagery has been used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye. From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic species that are alien to people at home.

    Strange Creatures investigates what we can learn about art history by researching natural history, and what art history can contribute to natural history.

    (more…)

    Following Captain Cook, and How the Kangaroo Nearly Never Was

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 October 2014

    The Grant Museum is extremely excited to be a partner in the National Maritime Museum’s Travelers’ Tails project, which will involve this painting of a kangaroo by George Stubbs – the first ever western painting of Australian wildlife – coming to the Grant in March.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    Last month I was in Australia on zoological fieldwork. I decided to visit the places that Cook went on his first voyage of discovery, which resulted in Britain’s first kangaroo encounters and ultimately this painting being made. It very nearly didn’t happen, and Cook’s Australian expedition would have been a zoological disappointment.

    I wrote this post for the National Maritime Museum’s blog. It begins…

    The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps

    The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. (more…)