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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The best natural history specimen in the world (did not get thrown on a fire)

By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2013

Last week I saw something that had never occurred to me might be possible to see. Through the years I have learned a lot about this object – I knew where it was, I knew where it came from and I certainly know its place in the pantheon of the history of natural history. We even have a cast of it in the Grant Museum.

If you had asked me what the best natural history object in the UK was, most days I would tell you it was this one. I had just assumed that seeing it wasn’t something that ever happened, even for people who run university zoology museums.

The Grant Museum team an a sperm whale jaw at the OUMNH (they're closed for roof repairs)Last Wednesday the staff of the Grant Museum went on an expedition to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History (OUMNH), which is closed for roof repairs until 2014. On a visit to the zoology section a cupboard was opened before us, it was filled with skulls, dried fish and a couple of boxes. As the history of this cupboard was explained – it was Tradescant’s Museum – the oldest in the country – it suddenly dawned on me what was in those boxes. And that we were going to see it.

We were going to see the only soft tissue of a dodo anywhere in the world. (more…)

Happy 130th Quagga Day – Maybe more extinct than we thought

By Jack Ashby, on 12 August 2013

130 years ago today, 12th August 1883, the last ever quagga died.

As custodians of one of the only quagga skeletons in existence, we consider it our responsibility to commemorate the tragic passing of this, the least stripy of the zebras.

Given that we have marked quagga day annually, what can I tell you that regulars wont already know? Potentially, quite a lot – things that I’ve only found out today as I write. Before I get to that, for those who don’t come pre-quagga’ed:

  • Quaggas were a South African Zebra with a stripy front end and a brown back end.
  • Quagga skeletons are “the rarest skeletons in the world [1].
  • They were driven to extinction due to farmers killing them to stop them grazing the land they wanted for their livestock; and for their unusual pelts.
  • The last individual died in a zoo in Amsterdam, probably years after all of her wild relatives

This is our quagga:

Image of the Grant Museum Quagga skeleton

The Grant Museum quagga


Life, Stilled

By Mark Carnall, on 9 July 2013

Conjure up in your mind, if you will, a natural history museum and you’ll probably be picturing skeletons, taxidermied animals and maybe specimens preserved in fluid. Recently, I spent some time with Rosina Down, the curator before the curator before me, having a look at some of the more unusual specimens we have here that were prepared on site at UCL in the 1980s.

Freeze dried mouse

Freeze dried mouse


Science Research in a Science Museum?

By Mark Carnall, on 30 May 2013

As chance would have it at the same time as we received research interest from the Royal College of Art, colleague Dr Zerina Johanson, researcher in the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, had also contacted me about our paddlefish specimens. We have less than a dozen paddlefish specimens in the Grant Museum (fish is the family Polyodontidae, represented today by only two species the American paddlefish Polyodon spathula and the possibly-extinct Chinese paddlefish Psephurus gladius) and fortunately, one of these specimens, matched the specifications for research (in this article I wrote about how ‘usable’ specimens dwindle to tens from thousands depending on the type of research).

So for the second time in May I was on bodyguard duty to escort one of our specimens down to South Kensington for some scanning, this time for SCIENCE!


Extinction: Not the End of the World? at the Natural History Museum, a Review

By Jack Ashby, on 14 February 2013

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Last week Curator Mark and I went to check out the new Extinction exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which tackles the often tackled but rarely dealt with topic of extinction.

Extinction, as a subject, is a tricky one. Firstly, natural history museums are full of it. We love it. 99% of species that have ever lived are extinct. [non-avian] Dinosaurs are extinct. Mammoths are extinct. Dodos are extinct. It’s bread and butter stuff. So much so that if we try and focus on it too much, it could be hard to make it special. Secondly, whatever museums/conservation organisations/David Attenborough say about modern extinctions, nothing ever changes. (more…)

A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

By Jack Ashby, on 24 January 2013

Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around: (more…)

An imaginary conversation with our former curator

By Jack Ashby, on 19 December 2012

lankester in museumIn his role as Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at UCL from 1875-1890, E. Ray Lankester was responsible for the collection which we now call the Grant Museum of Zoology. Lankester was an extremely influential figure in evolutionary biology, and after UCL went on to a professorship at Oxford and then to direct the Natural History Museum. Something else that people like to say about him is that he was described as having “a head like a benevolent biscuit tin”.

When you visit the Grant Museum today you’ll see his influence all over the place – he put together the first formal cataloguing system (though his catalogue is a bit confusing as it includes labels for specimens he wanted to acquire as well as things that actually existed, and there is no way of telling which is which). Although he brought so many specimens into the Museum (including the famous Blaschka glass models), his most famous specimens are of the horseshoe crabs. He used the dissected specimen on display to demonstrate that they were related to arachnids, rather than crabs.

Why am I talking about Lankester? (more…)

So when is natural history art?

By Jack Ashby, on 19 September 2012

Bisected chimp head

Very obviously science.

Before I start, just to be clear, I’m not one of those scientists who hates art, or is snobbish about the semi-defined/awe-and-wonder/expressive/cheeky-subversion/I-don’t-care-if-the-viewer-doesn’t-understand kind of thing that some artists get up to. Not at all. I think it’s great. In fact, I work hard to incorporate a lot of art into programmes at the Grant Museum.

Over the last couple of weeks two of the city’s biggest block-busters finished – Animal Inside Out at the Natural History Museum and Damien Hirst at the Tate Modern. They were both excellent.

Much has been written about the cross-over between art and natural history, particularly when traditional scientific museum practices are replicated in art. What makes one art and one science?
The obvious answers relate to the intentions of the artist and the interpretations of the viewer. (more…)

Scientists let loose at the Natural History Museum

By Jack Ashby, on 24 September 2011

Last night I was at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered event and these are some things I learnt*:

  • Female paper natuiluses have been known to leave their shells to climb into ones covered in glitter.
  • The NHM has the youngest skin prepratation of a thylacine.
  • Slipper limpets mate for life, and do so permanently sat on top of each other.
  • Black smokers are mostly made of metal (well, rich ores).
  • There probably aren’t any soft tissue samples of Stella’s sea cow.
  • A virus has been physically reconstitued from its genetic code in a lab.
  • Volcanic Kimberlites have brought diamonds to the surface at tens of kilometres an hour from the mantle.

It was an absolutely fantastic night because it was a unique opportuntity (apart from the same night last year) for the Museum to turn itself inside out: to bring the thing that is best about our national natural history collection – the back of house scientists and collections – out into the galleries. (more…)

Review (of sorts): Sexual Nature at the Natural History Museum

By Mark Carnall, on 14 February 2011

Happy Valentine’s Day. Last week, Jack Ashby the Learning and Access Manager at the Grant Museum and I were invited along to one of the private views of the Natural History Museum’s latest temporary exhibitions, Sexual Nature. Private views are a funny thing in museums – they may be a practice borrowed from commercial art galleries or perhaps a practice carried over from classier times when everyone who worked in a museum had to wear top hats. Generally though they are a good event to get together with colleagues, drink some wine, eat some canapés if you are lucky, and very occasionally actually go and see the exhibition that is being launched.  Here’s what we thought of Sexual Nature:

FULL DISCLOSURE: We are pleased to continually work with colleagues from almost every part of the Natural History Museum, either sharing skills and skulls informally, or more formally through big public events and programmes. It is no lie that walking through the main hall for an early meeting before they open is a genuine thrill. There are only four museums with natural history collections in London and we stick together. Many of the curators at the museum are doing astonishing work, truly on the cutting edge of museum practice. However, that being said there is occasionally some resentment from small museums when large institutions get the lion’s share of attention. (more…)