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  • Specimen of the Week 330: The taxidermy koala – The language of natural history

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 February 2018

    With generic terms like mankind and Homo sapiens (“wise man”), people of all genders are well aware that it is the masculine that has dominated the vocabulary of humanity. Not so in the animal kingdom.

    Across UCL Culture we are celebrating the centenary of some women first getting the vote in the UK in a number of different ways. In the run up to International Women’s Day, here on the blog our Specimens of the Week will be exploring themes like women in natural history, female specimens, and – in this case – the language of natural history. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a female attribute. Phascolarctos means "pouched bear". LDUCZ-Z65

    Koalas are one of many Australian mammals that are named after a characteristic that only females have. Their scientific name Phascolarctos means “pouched bear”. LDUCZ-Z65

    (more…)

    Internal Beauty opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 January 2018

    It is very easy to say that biology is beautiful, and obviously a lot of it is. But when it comes to cow rectums, pig fat, maggot-infested mushrooms and sheep testicles, people may need a bit more convincing of the aesthetic qualities of nature. These are the primary materials that make up the artworks in our new exhibition – Internal Beauty – which opens today.

    Artist Elpida Hadzi-Vasileva has created sculptures and installations from caul fat (the tissue that encases pig stomachs and intestines) and other animal organs, drawing attention to parts of the body we would sometimes rather forget. There is no denying the results are exquisite.

    Elpida at work in a previous exhibition (Haruspex, Making Beauty at Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham) cow’s stomach, lamb intestines, caul fat, 2016, photo Nick Dunmur

    Elpida at work in a previous exhibition (Haruspex, Making Beauty at Djanogly Gallery, Nottingham) cow’s stomach, lamb intestines, caul fat, 2016, photo Nick Dunmur

    The Grant Museum shares its building with the UCL Medical School (we moved in to what was once the Medical School’s library in 2011), and Elpida’s work has brought some of the cutting-edge research that our neighbours are undertaking into the museum. Internal Beauty is an exhibition resulting from Hadzi-Vasileva’s residency in biomedical research labs, (funded by Wellcome Trust), considering nutrition, our gut and how man-made, microscopic materials can fix problems. (more…)

    The Top Ten Grant Museum Blogs of 2017

    By Jack Ashby, on 4 January 2018

    Like everybody else, we had an eventful 2017. Surely the pinnacle was our blockbuster exhibition, The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The boring beasts that changed the world. In it we gave the mundane creatures from our everyday lives – like cats, dogs, chickens, mice, cows and rats – a chance to tell their stories. Despite the profound impacts they have had on humanity, they are typically excluded from natural history museum displays in favour of more exotic beasts.

    We’ve also been putting the conservation work that is critical to maintaining collections like ours (and which normally happens behind the scenes) front and centre, and getting our visitors involved with it. Following on from Project Pickle, which focussed on our fluid preserved specimens, we launched Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again – a project to care for our important historic taxidermy specimens (and replace them with plushy toys in the display cases while they were off for conservation). This involved some ethical quandries, including whether or not we should “correct” the googly-eyed owl (we did).

    In July was our Whale Weekender, when we invited you, the glorious public, to come and help us clean and rebuild the largest skeleton in our collection – a northern bottlenose whale. This specimen came to us in 1948 and had never been put together here, so we had no idea how complete it was. And thanks to the 800 people that showed up to do the work, we now know that it’s pretty much all there – except the digits, the hyoid, a rib or two and the last vertebrae in the tail: the bits you might you might expect to lose if you bury a whale for two years, which is exactly what happened after it was shot in the Bristol Channel in 1860.

    On top of all of that, we’ve continued to help develop the next generation of zoologists by teaching with our specimens every day, as well as boring the world to tears with Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month (but then invigorating again with Specimen of the Week).

    As a way of looking back, on Twitter over the past week we’ve been counting down the best of 2017’s blogs – the Top Ten most viewed Grant Museum posts of last year*.

    I’ve announced those ranking at 10 to 2 in the charts, and exclusively revealing here that the most popular post of 2017 is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 321: the Wall of Mice

    By Jack Ashby, on 15 December 2017

    One of the most extraordinary collections in the Grant Museum relates to one of the most Ordinary of Animals. Since its creation, it has been kept behind the scenes. The man who created it, over decades of barely believable dedication and hard work, would probably never have imagined that anyone would firstly want to display it, and secondly find a way to do so.

    Mice Space at the Grant Museum - a wall of 4000 mice skeletons.

    Mice Space at the Grant Museum – a wall of 4000 mice skeletons.

    Personally, I have a real interest in pondering the differences between what gets selected for display in museums and what doesn’t (I published an article in The Conversation about it this week), and in the Grant Museum we have a lot of experience of finding ways to display collections that were not intended for the public eye (our Micrarium is a great example of this). This week’s Specimen of the Week definitely fits these themes… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 318: The newly recapitated bandicoot

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 November 2017

    This is embarassing. The sheer scale of natural history collections means that some objects are going to be wrongly identified, and the fact that generations of professionals have worked here over nearly two centuries means that there has been plenty of opportunity to get things wrong. I am embarrased because I utterly failed to spot that someone had attached the head of one animal onto the body of another. I am particularly embarassed because both animals involved fall within my particular area of zoological interest – Australian mammals.

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie's skull on a bandicoot's body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    A chimeric skeleton of a woylie’s skull on a bandicoot’s body. LDUCZ-Z85 + LDUCZ-Z58

    Allow me to introduce you to…. (more…)

    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*.

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    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: (more…)

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals opens at the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 September 2017

    Throughout my career in museum zoology I have detected (and contributed to) a certain snobbery when it comes to some species of animal. It seems that as far as museum displays are concerned, not all animal specimens were created equally. Our new exhibition – opening today – seeks to address this.

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our daily lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. Do we even need to go to a museum to see animals that we can find on our plates, on our laps and on our streets? People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales.

    Domestic dog skulls. Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Domestic dog skulls. LDUCZ-Z1046 and LDUCZ-Z1338b
    Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Nevertheless, this exhibition puts these everyday species front and centre. It investigates some of the profound impacts they have had on humanity and the natural world, how they were created, and the extraordinary things we have learned from them. (more…)

    Happy 81st Thylacine Day: Thylacines were lucky to last as long as they did

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2017

    81 years ago today – the 7th September 1936 – the last known thylacine died, committing its species, indeed its entire family, to extinction.

    The last known living thylacine, 1933. (Image in the public domain, photographer unknown)

    It was locked out of the indoor section of its enclosure at a zoo in Hobart, and in the overnight chill of the Tasmanian winter it died of exposure. All that now remains of the then largest marsupial carnivore is in museums.

    In a sense it was lucky. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 306: The Bilby Skull

    By Jack Ashby, on 1 September 2017

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Bilby skull LDUCZ-Z82

    Australia is widely considered to be the extinction capital of the world. In the 230 years since European invasion, 29 of its 315 native land mammals have been driven to extinction, and by far the majority of those that do currently survive have suffered significant (and in many cases almost total) declines – they are now only found in a fraction of their former habitats.

    This is all very depressing, but as I write this I am undertaking fieldwork in a remote area of central South Australia, volunteering for an organisation who are trying to make things better. This week’s Specimen of the Week is one of the species they protect. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 301: The formerly googly-eyed owl

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 July 2017

    The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

    The long-eared owl: BEFORE. LDUCZ-Y1604

    In a move unprecedented in Specimen of the Week history, I have chosen to blogify the same specimen as I selected in my last Specimen of the Week. The reason is that in many ways it is not the same specimen as it was six weeks ago: it has undergone a profound transformation. We used to call this specimen “the googly-eyed owl”, due to its comedy wonky eyes, but it is googly-eyed no longer. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)