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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


How To: Be a Bad Zoologist

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 3 October 2013

Do you having any burning desires to have something explained by someone on the inside? This blog series is a How To Guide for the museological musings of a Museum Assistant. This edition will explain in detail…


How To: Be a Bad Zoologist


Put on your Dr Alan Grant hat and find your best palaeontological hammer and chisel. Go to some remote location rarely visited and poorly studied. Find a perfectly preserved fossil specimen that is a missing link, hugely important to mankind and that will in one rocky lump, answer a million questions that have been burning amongst the scientific community for decades. Dust it off, polish it up, put it on your mantlepiece, and don’t mention it to a soul. Or you could flog it to another private collector, just so long as it never sees the light of day, or the inquisitive eye of an expert. (more…)

How To: Be a Cannibal

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 29 August 2013

Do you having any burning desires to have something explained by someone on the inside? This blog series is a How To Guide for the museological musings of a Museum Assistant. The fourth along this (hopefully) long and happy blogging path is…


How To: Be a Cannibal


At first response you may think it’s easy to be a cannibal, you just have to eat someone of the same species as yourself. Technically you would be right, however there are ways and means to accomplish such a task. The natural world is a wealth of cannibalistic techniques and methods that will give the inquisitive mind a plethora of inspiration. Let’s look at a few in the hope of encouraging your inner cannibal to spread its wings.


A number of amphibians are known to practice cannibalism. Cane toads for example are known to eat eggs of their own species when they are just tadpoles. Most importantly it provides them with a nutritional boost, but it is also thought to be done in order to reduce the competition. They seem to be choosy eaters however as they don’t appear to eat their siblings. Researchers believe that as cane toads have a short incubation length as well as a long period between clutches, eating your own siblings would decrease the number of offspring any single female would produce. Awfully well thought out for a tadpole with a brain the size of a pinhead. They both locate and differentiate between eggs using an impressive sense of smell.


Specimen of the Week: Week Ninety-Seven

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 19 August 2013

Scary MonkeyThree blogs away from the big 1-0-0! In the run up to the 100th blog I am going to bring to you the top ten specimens at the Grant Museum, as voted for by…. me. I have employed strict criteria with which to segregate the top ten from the other 67,990 specimens that we have in our care…

1) It must not be on permanent display, giving you a little behind-the-scenes magic, if you will, as the specimen will then go on display for the week of which it has been named ‘Specimen’. Oh yes. That’s almost as good as our exhibition It Came From The Stores. Almost.

2) It must have at some point in the past made me say ‘woooo’ out loud (given my childlike disposition for expressing wonderment at the world at large, this is not necessarily a hard qualification for the specimen to achieve)

3) I must know (at least in a vague sort of a way) what species the specimen is, as SotW is researched and written within a strict one hour time frame.

With that in mind, at Number Four, this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

You dirty rats!, moles, dodos, etc…. Assessing popularity from visitor filth

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 15 August 2013

Once every month I get to clean all of the glass throughout the Grant Museum. You may think this laborious back-breaking time-consuming task is not a popular event in my diary. You’d be wrong. It gives me the opportunity to see the Museum through the eyes of those who have visited the Museum over the last month. How? By their grubby little fingerprints. It interests me greatly which spots have provoked the highest number of points of contact between finger and glass as people have pointed things out to their friends and relatives. These prints are not necessarily a measure of positivity- of enthusiasm or pleasure, but a measure of ‘reaction’. How many times have you heard “Yuk, look at this”, as well as the more pleasurable “Wow, look at this”? This month, as I wiped out the traces of this month’s reactions, I decided to do an analysis. (more…)

Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month: November

By Mark Carnall, on 1 November 2012

NEW FEATURE ALERT! NEW FEATURE ALERT! Yes it’s the long awaited Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month (UFFoTM) brough to you by the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy (GMoZaCA) at UCL (UCL).

There are a lot of animals, 1.5-30 million species to be precise* but after learning about 100 or so different animals from books we are read as children, visits to the zoo and from television our otherwise powerful minds start to lose interest. There are a lot of animals and for most people it really isn’t worth knowing more than 100 different types or being able to recognise more than the animals we see in zoos, on safari and on the front of cereal boxes. As we saw with worms the word “worms” is useful in day to day life even if it does describe thousands of species of very distantly related groups of animals. The same is true of terms like frog, butterfly, dog, deer, bat, sea urchin and fish which brings me on to why we’ll be focusing on some our fossil fish specimens in UFFoTM. (more…)

I found this… great white shark

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 11 October 2012

I found this… is a new mini-installation by the entrance to the Museum. In each of the six cabinets one member of our team has selected one object which they have uncovered something new about. Today…

The great white shark jaws

The great white shark jaws in the current exhibition 'I found this...'People often ask where our specimens came from. The truth for some of the oldest objects is we don’t know. However, whoever first acquired this specimen left clues.

During my Ph.D on sharks I learnt that large species attack using the front right, or front left of the jaw. This specimen has empty pits where two teeth are missing from this primary biting location. The teeth either side are intact, showing the damage was caused by something thin: fishing line. The damage is isolated to the top jaw, suggesting the shark tried to get away by diving rather than rolling.

It is sad to think of how this animal died. (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…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Forty-Eight

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 10 September 2012

Scary MonkeyEvery Monday I chose my Specimen of the Week with the care and attention of a model kit expert applying the last decal. We have 4000+ specimens on display and every week I get to draw your attention to just one. The specimen may be chosen for its unusual preservation state, because it represents an intriguing species hanging off the branch of little heard of creatures on the evolutionary tree, or because the specimen featured in my life recently for some reason and endeared itself to me. The last in the list has been the most popular reason to date. This week I was perusing the shelves for specimens to use in a student practical and keeping a sharp eye for the subject of the next Specimen of the Week, when a friend popped in to say ‘hello and how do you do’ to his adopted flying frog. Having exhausted conversation with the largely inanimate amphibian he turned his attention to me and my Specimen of the Week. The subsequent random tangents of conversation resulted in him standing straight, with one arm out pointing, his eyes closed, and spinning in circles as small children ducked out of the way whilst he waited for me to shout ‘STOP’. The next Specimen of the Week lay beyond his finger in the direction to which he pointed. We immediately embarked on a journey of discovery. The first specimen we came across was the dugong, at which point it was decided by unanimous vote that his finger had in fact been pointing over that specimen. Next in line of sight was the whale case, comprising multiple bits and bobs of various parts of the anatomy of several whale species. As we edged closer, wondering what the SotW would turn out to be, we saw it. On the same table as the dugong, in front of the whale case, and clearly what the finger had been trying to tell us it lay unassuming it it’s perspex box. ‘Ah haaaaaaaaa’ I declared aloud, ‘this week’s Specimen of the Week is…’ (more…)

Jaws for Thought

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 1 August 2012

Epaulette sharkWorking at the Grant Museum I get asked a lot of questions about animals, most of which I can answer, some of which (normally from 5-6 year olds) I have to look up. A member of the public knows whether they’ve hit an information goldmine, or else should make excuses and leave immediately, when they say the s-word and see my eyes light up. The s-word brings excitement to some (such as myself) and abject horror to others- mostly those who were of a cinema-going age in the 70’s. For yes- the s-word of which I speak is ‘shark’. What hacking did for the News of the World, the film Jaws did for sharks. Generations of people left cinemas with a new found phobia, virulent enough to replace heights, the dark, and spiders. ‘Man-eater’, ‘blood lust’, ‘crazed feeding frenzy’… I’ve seen them all, and worse, in media from cheap-tat-newspapers to otherwise-decent-television-channel documentaries. As soon as people discover that I am a shark specialist, they either display a mutual appreciation of them through a spouting of random shark trivia (my favourite) or they respond by immediately telling me of their fear of sharks as ‘ruthless killing machines’. Some even make the mistake of using the nails-on-a-blackboard phrase ‘man-eaters’. These people find themselves unable to leave the museum without a conversation with me about why that is in fact, a very unfair thing to say. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Forty-Two

By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 30 July 2012

Scary Monkey: Week Forty-TwoMy name is Emma and I like cookies. I like the giant ones that you have to hold with all your fingers on one hand otherwise the sheer weight of the monstrous chocolatey beast will break it in half as the apex descends towards the centre of the earth through a jealous fit of gravity. I like the soft chewy ones (it’s a treat, my jaw doesn’t want to work hard) and ones with large chunks of chocolate in them that melt as you swish the delectable triple chocolate cookie-ness around in your mouth. It seems to me that all ills can be forgiven when you’re standing staring at a giant cookie that’s yours all yours, just miliseconds from being devoured. I also like sharks. Big ones, small ones, bitey ones, sucky ones (as in ones that suck in their prey, not ones that ‘suck’, which as we all know- sharks do not), grinding ones, filter-feeding ones. They come in blue, yellow, grey, black, silver, with stripes, with spots, with stripes that turn into spots. Sharks just rock. Which do I prefer, sharks or cookies? What about sharks that make cookies? That would be a phenomenon so mind-blowingly fantastic that surely choirs of angels would descend amidst gold auras to sing in their presence. If only such a thing existed. WELL. Hold on to your seats my friends, this week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)