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  • Specimen of the Week 333: The Coal Ball Slides

    By Tannis Davidson, on 9 March 2018

    D.M.S. Watson Coal ball slide

    D.M.S. Watson Coal ball slide

    In celebration of International Women’s Day and the 100 year anniversary of the first women having the right to vote in the UK, the Grant Museum is highlighting specimens in the collection related to women in natural history as well as showcasing female specimens and exploring topics such as gender in zoology.

    As part of UCL vote 100, this week’s Specimen of the Week blog focuses UCL alumna Marie Stopes – campaigner of women’s rights and pioneer of family planning. She is widely known for her controversial and influential book Married Love (1918) – a sex manual for women which popularised the taboo subject of birth control and for establishing (with her second husband Humphrey Verdon Roe) Britain’s first birth control clinic in 1921.

    Stopes’ first passion, however, was science and the Grant Museum is home to a group of specimens associated with Marie Stopes’ significant palaeobotany career… (more…)

    Doris Mackinnon: Investigating the microscopic

    By Hannah Cornish, on 8 March 2018

    Today is International Women’s Day, this year it is 100 years since the first group of women got the right to vote in the UK, and UCL is celebrating with a programme of events and exhibitions called Vote 100. What better time to share a story from the Grant Museum about one of the pioneering female academics who worked at UCL. I took this opportunity to investigate the woman behind one part of our collection. High on the balcony in the Grant Museum are a pair of ever so slightly dusty microscope slide cabinets containing around 400 slides. Each cabinet bears a little brass plaque that reads –

    The Doris Livingston Mackinnon Collection of Protozoa

    University College London

    Who was Doris Mackinnon, and why is her collection here? Protozoa are not animals, so they are an unusual inclusion in a zoology museum. It was all a bit of a mystery until I started digging into it, here’s what I found out.

    Photograph of Doris Mackinnon in her lab © University of Dundee Archive Services

    Photograph of Doris Mackinnon in her lab © University of Dundee Archive Services


    Specimen of the Week 322: The Primordial Skull

    By Tannis Davidson, on 22 December 2017

    Season’s greetings! As presents appear under Christmas trees, the anticipation and excitement grows as recipients wonder what treasures lie wrapped among the dropping needles. In the spirit of mystery giving, this week’s Specimen of the Week is one to puzzle over in curiosity: what could it be? It is already unwrapped, stripped down, revealing all. However, even when seen, it is not obvious what it is… (more…)

    The Woman Who Gave Birth to Rabbits

    By Jack Ashby, on 18 October 2017

    Our current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World ­­- explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition with the UCL researchers who helped put it together.

    Guest post by Dr Alan Bates (UCL Pathology)

    How did Mary Toft – a peasant from Godalming in Surrey – convince some of the eighteenth century’s leading medical men that she was giving birth to rabbits?

    Mary Toft, a copy of a portrait made in 1727 as Mary languished in Bridewell prison, while lawyers considered whether rabbit breeding was actually a crime. (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Mary Toft, a copy of a portrait made in 1727 as Mary languished in Bridewell prison, while lawyers considered whether rabbit breeding was actually a crime.
    (C) Wellcome Library, London

    Fake news out of Surrey

    The story first appeared in 1726, when a London journal reported that Mary had given birth to a creature ‘resembling’ a rabbit, but with its heart and lungs outside its body. In the following days, four more dead rabbits appeared. They were blamed on the theory of maternal impressions – that a child resembled whatever the mother was thinking of at the time of conception. Obviously, a good woman should be thinking about her partner at this key moment, but a child’s resemblance to some other man of her acquaintance might (perhaps conveniently for all concerned) be accounted for by a wandering imagination. Mary had supposedly seen rabbits hunted while she was pregnant, miscarried, and since then had had bunnies on the brain. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 302: Gideon Mantell’s Iguanodon bones

    By Hannah Cornish, on 28 July 2017

    The specimen this week might be small, but it’s pretty important in the history of natural history. These two little pieces of fossil bone are from the collection of the early 19th century surgeon and palaeontologist Gideon Mantell. Specimen of the week is…

    Iguanodon Bones from Gideon Mantell's collection LDUCG-X1606

    Iguanodon Bones from Gideon Mantell’s collection LDUCG-X1606


    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 203: Mastodon jaw fragment

    By Dean W Veall, on 31 August 2015

    Fragment of mastodon jaw with molar

    Fragment of mastodon jaw with molar

    Hello Specimen of the Week readers, Dean Veall here. Unfortunatley we had to be closed over the last week (and also this coming week) for some essential heating works. As part of the process we needed to empty some of our cupboards, (I say we, mostly Tannis Davidson, Curatorial Assistant), in the emptying I came across this week’s specimen of the week and what a treat of a specimen it is with a great name and backstory. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…….


    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…)

    Curt Herzstark and a remarkable machine.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 27 January 2015

    Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet soldiers. To mark this I thought I would discuss an object from UCL’s collections with a pretty remarkable story. This object not only saved the life of its inventor, but also allowed him to save the lives of others at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators. Image taken from

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators.
    Image from

    The Curta calculator is a wonderful machine. It’s was the world’s first handheld mechanical calculator and was used extensively from its invention until the digital calculator took over in the 1960s / 70s. Scientific American called it “the most ingenious calculating machine ever to grace an engineer’s hand” (£ link).

    The Curta calculator was invented by Curt Herzstark, born 1904 in Austria, whose family owned a company that made calculating machines and other precision instruments. (more…)

    Animals in Art

    By Mark Carnall, on 23 May 2014

    One of the aspects of working in a museum that I most enjoy is ‘enquiries’. Normally this will be museum visitors bringing in or sending in photos of mysterious objects that they want identifying. Not only is the challenge of identifying a mystery object fun but it’s very satisfying to work out what the object is and most visitors are happy to have had their object identified (with the rare exception when a dragon/dinosaur egg turns out to be a large very spherical pebble). Occasionally however, I receive an enquiry from a colleague from another museum asking for help with identifying animals depicted in a work of art or archaeological object.

    From the earliest images made on the walls of caves through to today, animals have inspired many people and we see this throughout the history of humans. Animals can be depicted as a record of the animals that an artist readily comes into contact with but often they carry symbolic representations or are merely a visual representation of the idea of an animal not meant to depict a specific species or individual.