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  • 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…)

    Help us build and clean a whale skeleton

    By Jack Ashby, on 3 July 2017

    Some of the whale's backbone, in one of our stores.

    Some of the whale’s backbone, in one of our stores.

    This weekend we will be attempting to rebuild our largest specimen – a northern bottle-nosed whale skeleton. And we would like you to help us do it.

    The specimen’s story begins in 1860 when it was originally collected in Somerset, when an expedition set off across the Bristol Channel in pursuit of “two great fish” (as they were described by the local newspaper – whales are, of course, mammals) – one of which was brought back to land. After a period “on tour” as a whole carcass, the prepared skeleton was displayed hanging from the ceiling of the Weston Super-Mare Museum. It eventually came to the Grant Museum in 1948, but it had been dismantled into its separate bones. (Its full, remarkable story, including the use of entirely inappropriate whale-murdering equipment, misguided entrepreneurship, rancid carcasses, financial ruin, and the unusual tasks the wife of a 19th century curator might find herself doing, can be read in a previous post).

    At over eight metres long in life, different parts of the skeleton have been stored in different cupboards and cabinets across the Museum and its storerooms. (more…)

    Make Taxidermy Great Again! We launch our new conservation project

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 June 2017

    Taxidermy Elephant shrew in need of treatment. LDUCZ-Z2789

    Taxidermy elephant shrew in need of treatment.

    This week the Grant Museum is launching a project to conserve our important collection of historic taxidermy, which involves taking these much-loved specimens off display to be treated. In their place, we will be filling the gaps with toy stuffed animals to raise awareness of the project.

    The specimens have been on display for over a century, and in that time some of them have begun to split and crack, their filling may be poking out or they are just plain dirty. They require expert museum conservators to repair them, ensuring that they will survive for the long-term future. That is the key aim of this project: Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 295: Do we fix the googly-eyed owl?

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 June 2017

    You do not have to be an expert zoologist to know that this is not what an owl looks like.

    Next week we launch a major conservation project called Fluff It Up: Make Taxidermy Great Again, to repair and restore our historic taxidermy collection (check back on the blog on Monday for more about that). This will involve the expert conservation of specimens that have become damaged over their decades or centuries on display. In planning this project, we were faced with the decision of whether to “correct” the absurd but amusing eyes on this owl…

    Long eared owl. Should we replace his eyes? LDUCZ-Y1604

    Long eared owl. Should we replace his eyes? LDUCZ-Y1604

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 290: The awful Bosc monitor lizard

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2017

    Taxidermy Bosc monitor lizard. LDUCZ-X1314

    Taxidermy Bosc monitor lizard. LDUCZ-X1314

    Taxidermy appears to being going through a period of popularity at the moment. Hipsters and fans of geek-chic have realised what many of us already knew – natural history is cool. Gastro-pubs and boutique coffee shops are widely using it as decoration (I wonder whether they know that it’s probably been covered in arsenic to stop it being eaten by moths and beetles – not the best things to have around food and drink), there are excellent museum installations exploring it, and there are taxidermy classes being offered all over the place. However, some of it is truly awful (perhaps that’s part of the charm?), including this week’s Specimen of the Week… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 283: The Eastern Quoll

    By Jack Ashby, on 17 March 2017

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Eastern quoll. LDUCZ-Z2307

    Mongooses, ferrets, shrews, meerkats, otters, weasels and cats: These are animals that most people will be familiar with.

    Planigales, ningauis, kalutas, dunnarts, mulgaras and quolls: Not so much.

    Despite all being small mammals, strangely named, absurdly cute (the second set even more so than the first), objectively interesting in many ecological, behavioural and evolutionary ways, there seems to be a difference in the level of attention between these groups of animal. The latter are all Australian marsupials, and for undoubtedly complicated political, colonial and egotistical reasons embedded in the western psyche, they don’t get their fair share of the limelight*. This week’s Specimen of the Week is a tiny step in addressing that, with…

     

    (more…)

    Why natural history museums are important. Specimen of the Week 278: The British Antarctic Survey Limpets

    By Jack Ashby, on 10 February 2017

    There is much more to a natural history museum than meets the eye, and that’s mostly because relatively tiny proportions of their collections are on display. At the Grant Museum of Zoology we are lucky enough to have about 12% of our collection on display. That’s because we have a lot of tiny things in the Micrarium and our collection is relatively small, with 68,000 objects. While we REALLY like to cram as much in our cases as is sensible, these percentages are not realistic for many museums, whose collections run into the millions.

    Limpets from South Georgia. LDUCZ-P878 Nacella concinna

    Limpets from South Georgia. LDUCZ-P879 Nacella concinna

    The vast majority of specimens in natural history museums, ours included, were not intended for display, and that includes this week’s Specimen of the Week… (more…)

    The Top Ten Grant Museum Blogs of 2016

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 January 2017

    History will most likely look back on 2016 as a reasonably significant year – you don’t need reminding why. It’s probably fair to say that the activities of the Grant Museum will not feature highly in the list of major global events, but nevertheless we like to think we had a positive impact on the lives of our supporters and visitors last year, both physically and digitally.

    Team Grant had plenty to cheer about in 2016: our two exhibitions were based on artistic ways of looking at scientific topics. First was Skullpture, when we invited the Sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art to takeover the museum with their responses to our collection and history. Then, with Natural Creativity: Sex and Trickery we displayed a collection of stunning drawings by Clara Lacy depicting the species that are being studied by biologists in the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and the Environment: the sexual preferences, sex determination and sexual selection in the animal kingdom.

    In terms of our collections, we reached a giant milestone last year – we finally know where every single specimen stored in the museum space is, possibly for the first time in our 190 year history. We’ve also been focusing our conservation work on our collection of wet specimens, with Project Pickle. We’ve had a really ambitious events programme too, the pinnacle being the dissection of cheetah by a team of five reseachers in front of a huge audience of over 300… It was a busy year.

    As a way of looking back, on Twitter over the past week we’ve been counting down the best of 2016’s blog – 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 2016 is… (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 273: The Narwhal Tusk

    By Jack Ashby, on 6 January 2017

    Happy New Year. It’s the start of January and we are all now staring face-first into the maw of 2017. Let’s hope it’s a good one. When the animal-owner of this week’s Specimen of the Week stares into anything, it has to do so at a distance. That’s because it has one of these giant straight tusks sticking horizontally out of the front of its face. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…

    Narwhal tusk. LDUCZ-Z2168

    Narwhal tusk. LDUCZ-Z2168

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week 268: The carp – How things got fishy

    By Jack Ashby, on 2 December 2016

    This week in The Conversation I wrote that there is no biological definition of fish that doesn’t involve humans. However the group that most people recognise as the fishiest are the ray-finned fishes. They have fins supported by a series of fine flexible rods. It is the ray-fins that have gone on to be the dominant vertebrates in the seas, lakes and rivers: there are around 30,000 species. This makes them by far the most diverse vertebrate group, and I’d like to explore how that happened. Among them is this week’s Specimen of the Week:

    Common carp skeleton LDUCZ-V543

    Common carp skeleton LDUCZ-V543

    (more…)