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  • 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…)

    Specimen of the week 325: The three-striped night monkey skull.

    By Hannah Cornish, on 12 January 2018

    In life this week’s specimen was small, loud and fluffy. It is also an unsung hero of science described by another unsung hero of science. This specimen of the week is…

    Three-striped night monkey skull

    LDUCZ-Z414 Aotus trivirgatus Three-striped night monkey skull

    **The three-striped night monkey skull**

    Eyebrows on fleek

    Three-striped night monkeys have huge eyes, giving them excellent night vision, and are known for their loud calls. They have a distinctive facial pattern with prominent eyebrows which makes them look rather like startled Ewoks. They eat fruit, nuts, flowers, leaves, eggs and insects, and are found in Venezuela and Brazil. This species is also known as the douroucouli, owl monkey, northern night monkey or Humboldt’s night monkey, but more on that later.

    Night monkey, Aotus trivirgatus by Dick Culbert

    Three-striped night monkeys, Aotus trivirgatus by Dick Culbert, CC Attribution 2.0 license.

    Night monkeys in science

    The three-striped night monkey is not considered to be under threat by the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature). However, related species of night monkey such as Aotus nancymaae are threatened by habitat loss and illegal trade for lab animals and pets, making them vulnerable to extinction. Night monkeys are particularly useful in malaria research as they are one of the few other primates that can be affected by the malaria parasite Plasmodium falciparum, and as such are highly sought-after. In the past this has led to them being taken from the wild in large numbers. In recent years various species of captive-bred night monkeys have been used in research into malaria-induced anaemia and potential malaria vaccines. Thank you night monkeys!

    Night monkey Aotus trivirgatus taxidermy from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, by David Stang

    Three-sriped night monkey (Aotus trivirgatus) taxidermy from Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, by David Stang, CC SA 4.0 licence

    It was originally believed that there were only one or two species of night monkey, but a series of studies since the 1980s has uncovered a complex picture with up to 18 different potential species based on the number of chromosomes they have. Currently 11 different species are recognised by scientists, but this could well increase in the future.


    In 1811 Aotus trivirgatus was the first night monkey described by a European scientist. It was named by Alexander von Humboldt, a pioneering German biologist and explorer. Humboldt was one of the first scientists to travel through South America, and is considered to be the father of the science of ecology, although he is nowhere near as famous today as he was in the 19th century. As well as being one of Darwin’s favourite authors and falling out with Napoleon over who had sold more books, Humboldt was also the first person to describe man-made climate change as early as 1800. He is said to be the person with the most species and places named after them, including at least four universities, several mountains, a penguin, and a really big squid.

    Hannah Cornish is the Curatorial Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology


    The Invention of Nature: The Adventures of Alexander von Humboldt, the Lost Hero of Science Andrea Wulf, 2016


    The dogs that work to detect cancer

    By Jack Ashby, on 22 November 2017

    The Grant Museum’s 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 Katrina Holland (UCL Anthropology)

    It’s 8.45am at a business park in rural Buckinghamshire, UK: my primary field site. A car pulls up and Kiwi jumps out, rushing into the workplace where she spends 3 days each week. Striding into the office, Kiwi wags her tail and greets her colleagues by pressing her wet nose into each of their trousers. Shortly after arriving, Kiwi is escorted by her trainer Sam to a grassy paddock where the pair stretch their legs. For Kiwi, this means darting across the field with her nose to the ground and choosing places to do her “business”. Meanwhile, armed with poop bags, Sam walks several laps of the paddock keeping a watchful eye on Kiwi. On their return to the office, Kiwi curls up on a cushion underneath Sam’s desk and dozes for an hour, before Sam calls her into the training room next door. Here Kiwi works, sniffing urine samples for up to 45 minutes per day as she learns to detect the odour of prostate cancer in urine.

    One of the bio-detection dogs searches the the samples.

    One of the bio-detection dogs searches the the samples.


    The Mechanical Leech – better than the real thing?

    By Jack Ashby, on 31 July 2012

    One of our team of post-graduate researcher/engagers (see what that’s all about on last week’s post) has been talking about the connection between species in the Grant Museum and a nineteenth century mechanical replica, which was designed as a clinical tool.

    It’s on the new Researchers in Museums blog, but to pique your interest here is how Sarah Chaney starts the post off…

    “Leeches! Leeches! Leeches!”
    So ran one particularly enthusiastic nineteenth century advertisement for the animal that has had the most enduring association with medical history. So much so, that one inspired individual decided to make a mechanical version of the creature. During my public engagement sessions in the Grant Museum, I’ve tried asking various visitors to guess what animal the fist-sized metal box was designed to emulate: no one has yet hit on the right answer, even though I usually stand right in front of the leech cabinet. Shiny, clean and angular, where the leech is squat, wet and slug-like, there would appear to be little comparison between the two.

    Indeed, that was the claim of certain nineteenth century leech advocates, who deemed the miraculous little creature itself far gentler than lancet, fleam or scarifier (also called a scarificator: the “mechanical leech” in the illustration, left). The leech secretes a substance called hirudin, which stops the blood from clotting, meaning that one small bite will continue to bleed for around 12 hours after the leech has been removed. I know this well, for, in the pursuit of medical history, I have been leeched not once, but twice, and still have the (tiny) scars to prove it!

    You can read the rest of Sarah’s post on their blog here: