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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


What’s a monkey, what’s a primate?

By ucbtcwi, on 8 October 2017

I have something to admit. Before starting my PhD researching the primate gut microbiome, I didn’t completely know the difference between the terms “monkey” and “primate”. Perhaps this is somewhat forgivable given that I was primarily a microbiologist, but I remember still feeling a sort of sneaky shame in googling the differences after I read the project title, like it was something I should definitely know.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

As it turns out, the rules of what’s what in the primate tree are pretty simple once you know them. The evolutionary history of primates can be traced back to between 63 – 74 million years ago (MYA), and as they stand today can be divided into two main branches, named Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini, which based on molecular studies are hypothesised to have branched away from each other around 64 MYA. Interestingly, the two groups are named after their noses, with Strepsirrhini meaning “wet-nosed” and Haplorrhini meaning “dry-nosed” and were called so by a French naturalist friend of Robert Grant, named Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as "prosimians", although this is an outdated term now. Licenced under CC0 1.0.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as “prosimians”, although this is an outdated term now. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

Strepsirrhini primates (unsurprisingly) tend to have wet noses, as well as a more pointed, almost dog-like snout rather than the flatter faces of their Haplorrhini cousins, and are thought to be most similar in appearance to the first primates. The clades that make up the Strepsirrhini primates are the lemurs of Madagascar, the lorises from South East Asia and India, and the pottos and galagos (or bushbabies) of Africa. Until recently, tarsiers were also thought to belong to Strepsirrhini, however now they’ve been moved to the sister clade of Haplorrhini.

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the whole clade. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the clade. Licensed under CC0 3.0

If you’ve been wondering up to this point where the monkeys are, you need look no further than the Haplorrhines. In terms of number of species, this clade is almost entirely monkeys. The major two branches within this clade are between Catarrhini (meaning “down-nosed”), or Old World monkeys and apes found across Africa and Asia, and Platyrrhini (meaning “flat-nosed”), or New Wold monkeys found in Central and South America.

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licensed under CC0 3.0

Within the catarrhines, the apes, or Hominoidea, comprise gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and, of course, us. Apes are thought to have formed their own distinct clade from Old World monkeys (or Cercopithecoidea) around 29MYA, so if you wanted to get really technical, and you were the kind of person who happily accepts birds as being modern day dinosaurs, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that apes are actually monkeys too.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

So, hopefully the next time you get stuck wondering whether the primate you’re looking at is a monkey or not, you’ll be a little more clued in.


If a salamander can grow back a limb, why can’t I?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 29 August 2017

Regeneration has been the deemed the “Holy Grail” of scientific and medical research: the ability to regrow a limb, replace damaged tissue and heal without scars would completely change the face of modern medicine. Whilst regeneration, on a large scale, still precludes us Homo sapiens, other members of the animal kingdom are light years ahead.


Accession no. W584

Not wanting to completely disregard humans, it is important so say that we are capable of a small degree of regeneration. We can heal the upper layer of our skin without scarring, regenerate parts of our gut lining, expand our liver to replace damaged parts, and can even regenerate the very tips of our fingers. However, if you go to the far left corner of the Grant museum you will come face to face with an axolotl salamander, whose regenerative powers are worthy of a science fiction character.

Like many salamander species, the axolotl has the remarkable ability of re-growing lost limbs. An axolotl’s leg can be amputated hundreds of times and it will continue to grow back perfectly! However, what makes axolotls so unique is that as well as regenerating their limbs they can also regenerate their jaw, tail, heart and spinal cord, all without scarring. If you want to find out more about the extraordinary features of the axolotl, read this post from the Grant Museums’ Specimen of the Week blog.

To recreate the limb the axolotl, and other salamander species, need to be able to regrow everything – bone, muscle, blood vessels, nerves – and all of this needs to be built from scratch. So, how do they do this?

Regeneration relies on the formation of highly pluripotent cells that have the capacity to develop into multiple cell types. These types of cells are known as stem cells, and they are the building blocks of all embryo development. As stem cells mature during development, they become restricted to a defined cell fate and lose the ability to become multiple cell types. However, salamanders, and other creatures that can regenerate, are able to revert defined cells, at the site of the lost limb, back to this immature stem-like state by a process known as de-differentiation. Once in an immature state these cells congregate together to form a blastema, which is capable of growing into all the different cell types of the missing limb

CC: Wikipedia

Salamander. CC: Wikipedia

Despite our understanding the basic steps of regeneration, the intricacies of each step are extremely complicated and a lot of questions still remain unanswered. Imagine having to reconstruct an entirely new building from previously used disassembled building materials, without any blueprint or instructions. How would you know what to make and where each building material goes? This is the exact dilemma facing the cells of the regenerating limb, and how exactly they overcome this hurdle continues to puzzle scientists.

OK there are a lot of complex mechanisms involved – but surely if a simple salamander can regrow a limb we should be able to as well?

Well actually our increased complexity could be what’s stopping us from regenerating. All our cell behaviours need to be tightly regulated in order to maintain the function of our complex organ systems and prevent aberrant growth. If cells are reverted back to their immature state they will be more difficult to control and thus more likely to misbehave, which could result in the formation of a tumour or loss of organ function. With less complex animals, such as the salamander, these misbehaving cells are unlikely to inflict as much damage and cause as much of a problem.

Some researchers have proposed that we have the capacity to regenerate but, for unknown reasons, this mechanism was switched off during evolution. The theory is that if our genetic code allowed us to develop entire limbs and structures in the womb, then that information must still exist inside of us. It could be as simple as switching on a few genes and – hey presto – you’ve built yourself a limb! Furthermore, recent discoveries have identified genes involved in the regeneration process of the axolotl that are turned off in humans. Could these hold the key to regeneration?

Accession no. S369

Accession no. S369

Another theory is that it is easier for amphibians to regenerate, as they are cold blooded and therefore have fewer metabolic requirements. A salamander can hide away for months without eating, waiting for their limb to grow back. However, this would be a death sentence for mammals that would need to heal much faster in order to keep up with their metabolic demands. Moreover, the regeneration time of the axolotl is far from rapid, if humans were to regenerate at the same rate it would take up to 15-20 years to regrow a full limb! Therefore, alternative medical interventions are likely to provide a more pragmatic solution.

The axolotl and other salamanders are not the only animals that can regenerate. Hydras, starfish, flat worms, zebrafish, and even the African spiny mouse all have the capacity to regenerate themselves to a certain degree. So next time you encounter one of these creatures whilst exploring the Grant Museum, remember that although they may look simple these animals have science fiction powers that, right now, humans can only dream about.


The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

By uclznsr, on 30 March 2017

It will not be lost upon anybody that visits the Grant Museum of Zoology or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL that these are places of death. Both are a kind of necropolis, containing preserved remains. The remains of the biologically dead, in the former; in the latter, the preserved remains – biological and cultural – of the long deceased people of ancient North African civilisations, many of which are themselves vessels or tokens designed to smooth the passage of the dead to another, immaterial realm.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The morbid nature of these museums and the objects they house would not be lost on the 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. The word “museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses”, a fact which emphasises the supposedly inspirational nature of these cultural institutions. But for Adorno, the creativity-inspiring significance of the museum had in contemporary Western society been eclipsed by its material and cultural function. In his essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno dwells upon the macabre nature of the museum, and the art gallery. The German term museal (“museum-like), he tells us, is a suggestively pejorative one used to describe the character of certain artefacts: objects to which the observer or museum-goer ‘no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying’. We come close to this in the English language when, by saying something or someone “belongs in a museum”, we describe people, technologies, institutions, or ideas that have far exceeded their sell-by date and have become decrepit.

Adorno’s observation is literally true in many cases. Walk through the atria of the Science Museum in South Kensington and you will see installed behind glass a host of superannuated but undeniably contemporary artefacts – Bakelite telephones, Atari computers, horsehair toothbrushes, and so forth. We are being told: by virtue of being useless, these objects are displayed in this museum. Or perhaps: by installing these objects in a museum, these objects should now be considered obsolete (even if they are still technically useful).

The same could be said about art. Once installed in a museum or gallery, a painting, print, or sculpture becomes a commodity whose value is defined primarily by its capacity to create profit – for the museum, the artist, the collector, or the dealer. The life of that artwork – its social, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic value outside that of commerce or “cultural capital” – has been destroyed by the same process of display operative in the Science Museum, which by selecting and displaying objects consigns them to the grave. Art is on display because it is monetarily valuable; being in a museum ascribes monetary value to art. Forget the muses, Adorno says: ‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’

This conception of the museum as mausoleum can illuminate two apparently divergent kinds of museum display, both of which can be understood to drain the life from the objects they seek to exhibit. First, any attempt to place works of art in so-called “authentic”, historical settings is not only a shabby form of nostalgia. Such a move, in a desperate attempt to claw back an irretrievable cultural tradition, reduces to a form of historical citation the artwork it seeks to celebrate. This can lead only to melancholy. For such a purely referential and reverential effort to recuperate the past will always fail, leaving us to lament uselessly the passing of historical time. We resign ourselves to the fact that the historical context that gave life to the artwork is lost to us; and that, therefore, the artwork is itself dead.

The seemingly contrasting practice of deliberately wrenching art from its historical and aesthetic context – such as in the contemporary fashion for “white cube” galleries – can be understood as equally unsatisfactory and inauthentic, since this form of exhibition strips art of its history altogether. Historical nostalgia might at lead us, at least, to a despairing and therefore critical conception of the impossibility of grasping the life of art in undistorted historical context. Decontextualisation wears inauthenticity as a badge of honour. The false trappings of tradition and the over-serious officiousness of the desire for authenticity of which it is symptomatic squeezes the life from art entirely. Willing dilettantism denies us the opportunity of understanding the historical nature of art — however incomplete that understanding might be.

This double bind is a useful way of understanding the objects we see in the Grant Museum in UCL. Adorno’s analysis in “Valery Proust Museum” is aimed at art and art museums primarily. But reading in this way, for example, the literally dead animals in a museum of zoology can illuminate how, through being displayed, they have become museal. How does one display a dead animal? In a mock-up of its original habitat – a tawdry and macabre mirror of the attempt to display art in “authentic” context? Or should we simply display it in a glass box, stripped of context – continuing the violent logic of ecological, geographical displacement that resulted in that animal’s death and preservation?

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew (Z2789)

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew, The Grant Museum (Z2789)

The former, at least, by offering us a glimpse into the original habitat of a species might offer us an unintended critique of how in British museums of zoology many of the species on display are relics of a violent colonial past: animals whose death and passage to Britain was made possible by an imperial infrastructure of scientists, surgeons, and interested amateurs, scattered across British dominions. However, even the act of preservation itself is a false kind of de-contextualisation. While the skeletons, preserved, and stuffed species that line the walls of the Grant Museum were intended first for scientific education and research, as a spectacle they take on a distinctly melancholy aspect. This is especially true for the display of extinct species; thylacine parts, dodo bones, a quagga skeleton: these are embodiments of a desire to preserve what is dead, to recuperate – through entirely artificial means – what is irretrievably lost.

Could we not apply a similar logic to the objects in the Petrie Museum? How do we display the remains of a dead civilisation, and in what way a do we render them historically or immediately lifeless? The set of Fayum mummy portraits housed in this museum pose a suggestive example of just such a problem. Excavated by Flinders Petrie in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, these strikingly naturalist portraits were ‘part of the funerary equipment needed for entry into the afterlife’ for elite members of the Fayum people who lived in Egypt under Roman rule. Such information, we might think, animates these portraits; they are a record of the funerary practices of an ancient people, bringing to life the death-rituals of the past. However, the manner in which these portraits are displayed now and were displayed originally suggests something else.

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Today, these panels sit alongside each other in a row: a set of faces painted in Greco-Roman style lined up in sequence, like the photo album of an ancient family. And Petrie himself first displayed these as if they were European art portraits, set upon the walls of a London room in 1889. Crucially, these two forms of display are made possible by the fact that these portraits are torn out from their funerary and material contexts. Each portrait was literally cut from the mummy to which they belonged. These portraits exist in a museum only by virtue of an act of violent de-contextualisation, which no amount of historical or cultural context can reverse or palliate. What was alive for the dead in the past, has been exhumed for the living today and in turn made museal.

Adorno’s reflections on “the museal” raise important questions about how we display objects in museums, the forms of contextualisation and de-contextualisation to which we submit these objects, and the historical and cultural forces their display reflects. It also mirrors long-running debates in the Humanities about how we should interpret all forms of cultural production. Rita Felski puts it this way: ‘Critics […] find themselves zigzagging between dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art.’ Scholars in the humanities simply do not agree about whether we should stick primarily to interpreting the objects themselves, or whether we need to focus on the social, political, linguistic, and historical contexts that gave rise to those objects.

This essay will not attempt to resolve these problems, but instead has attempted to draw attention to the way in which objects in a museum are involved in a seemingly irresolvable tension. What is easy to ignore, however, is how visitors to museums themselves respond to objects in ways that go beyond the pinched contestations of academic critique. Over four years of engaging with visitors across UCL’s three public museums, I have seen people respond the museum collections in ways that categorisation and critique cannot always account for. Visitors to the Grant Museum respond with both intellectual wonder and personal revulsion to the often grotesque preserved remains of 19th century science’s subjects; in the Petrie museum I have talked with people reflecting upon a divided sense of historical vertigo, ruminating upon the impossibility of knowing the lives of Ancient Egyptians, while at the same time marvelling at the uncanny sense of intimacy evoked by one’s proximity to the hair combs, sandals, and kohl pots of ordinary ancients. Responses to objects in UCL’s museums are never absolutely historically critical nor completely naïve. They are complex aggregates of both; mixtures or compounds of thinking, feeling, scepticism, and wonder. If I have learned anything from working in these museums it is that the necessary but sometimes leaden abstractions of academic criticism must always return to the organic complexity of living responses to museum objects.

The Stories Behind Objects

By Hannah L Wills, on 14 February 2017

By Hannah Wills



During my most recent engagement session at the Petrie Museum, I got the chance to take a look at their new exhibition ‘Exporting Egypt: Where? Why? Whose?’. This fascinating exhibition charts the journeys of some of the objects from British excavations in Egypt, conducted between the 1880s and 1980s, following these objects from the sites where they were found, to institutions around the globe. As this exhibition reveals, each and every object we encounter in a museum has a history, a past life, shaped by the circumstances of its acquisition, and an often complex mesh of politics, agendas and negotiations.

Taking a look around the exhibition got me thinking about my own research, which examines the work of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), secretary to the Royal Society under the presidency of Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Joseph Banks made his name by taking part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage aboard HMS Endeavour, which lasted from 1768 until 1771, visiting Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. During the voyage, Banks and his team, comprised of naturalists and artists, collected specimens including fish, crustaceans, birds and plants, which were described and preserved on board the ship. These collections, when they returned to England, were taken directly to Banks’s own home in New Burlington Street, and were to form the basis of his own collection later stored in his residence at 32 Soho Square.[i]

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), photo credit: Wikipedia

Having made his name on board the Endeavour voyage, Banks also played a central role in organising other expeditions, providing specific instructions for what was to be collected. Cook’s subsequent two voyages resulted in the collection of many more specimens, which, despite Banks not participating directly in the voyages, all passed through Banks as a kind of ‘hub’ for the dispersal of material. These specimens were subsequently to end up in institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons, the Linnean Society and the British Museum.[ii]

Charles Blagden, the key figure in my research, also collected natural history specimens, which, as the historian Reginald Howe has suggested, may also have ended up in the British Museum. Whilst serving as a surgeon aboard a hospital ship during the American War of Independence, Blagden was asked to collect a number of specimens from America for his friend and fellow naturalist Daines Barrington, to be given to his friend Sir Ashton Lever for display in his museum.[iii] Perhaps not wanting to slight his friend and patron Joseph Banks, Blagden decided to send his collection, comprised of preserved animals collected from Rhode Island, jointly to both Barrington and Banks. The specimens, preserved in kegs of rum and transported aboard the Brigantine Betsy, a navy victualing ship, were to be shared “six kegs apiece” between the two men, and either kept or disposed of as each saw fit.[iv]

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever's Museum in Leicester Square, London March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, London, March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Some of the ways in which animal specimens made it back to Britain from far-flung shores in the eighteenth century are described in the Short directions for collecting, preserving and transporting, all kinds of natural history curiosities, published by the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1771. “All Quadrupeds of a great bulk”, Forster wrote, were to be “skinned” and “washed or brushed over with a liquor” made of Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride), water and mercury, before a complex procedure of stuffing and drying. “Small Quadrupeds”, on the other hand, were to be “plunged into a keg of brandy, rack or rum, and thus sent over”. For birds, to be prepared in a similar way, Forster was keen to note that the shot used to kill the animal should be “proportioned to their size”, and that “Young birds… must not be taken”.[v]

The Petrie Museum’s new exhibition is great for getting visitors to think about questions of ownership, collecting and transport—the things that I’ll often forget about as I wander through a museum admiring beautiful or intriguing objects. In the Grant Museum too, it can be easy to forget that each and every specimen has its own journey, a story to tell about who collected it and why, as well as the more gruesome tale of its preparation, storage and transport. The historian Samuel Alberti has written about the notion of object biographies in relation to museum artefacts, arguing that museums serve as a “vessel for the bundle of relationships enacted through each of the thousands of specimens on display and in store”.[vi] But the story of the object does not end when it enters the collection, as Alberti notes. As viewers we react to objects in a range of different ways, according to our memories, associations, and feelings.[vii] By hearing the reactions of visitors in UCL’s museums, I enjoy seeing how these ‘object stories’ continue to develop.


‘Exporting Egypt: where, why, whose?’ is on at the Petrie Museum from Tuesday 31 January to Saturday 29 April 2017, Tues-Sat 1-5pm.

[i] David Philip Miller, “Joseph Banks, Empire and ‘Centres of Calculation’ in Late Hanoverian London,” in Visions of Empire : Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 29-30.

[iii] Reginald Heber Howe, “Sir Charles Blagden, Earliest of Rhode Island Ornithologists,” The American Naturalist 39, no. 462 (1905), 398.

[iv] Letter from Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 28 Oct 1777, quoted in Howe “Sir Charles Blagden”, 398.

[v] Johann Reinhold Forster, A Catalogue of the Animals of North America. Containing, an Enumeration of the Known Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles, Fish, Insects, Crustaceous and Testaceous Animals; Many of Which Are New, and Never Described Before. To Which Are Added, Short Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting, All Kinds of Natural History Curiosities (London: B. White, 1771), 35-37.

[vi] Samuel Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96, no. 4 (2005): 561.

[vii] Ibid., 569.





A Novel Idea: Popular Culture Influences in Zoology

By Arendse I Lund, on 18 August 2016

ArendseBy Arendse Lund

Hidden in one of the far cabinets in the Grant Museum, nestled amongst parasites and other unusual filter feeders, sits a much overlooked worm. This invertebrate marine creature is known as a Chaetopterus and is unusual because it has lived its whole adult life in a tube constructed from underwater sediment and attached to a rock. More colloquially though, the Chaetopterus is referred to as a parchment worm.

Parchment Worm

This worm (image on the right, Grant Museum, G52) has actually nothing in common with parchment, which usually is made of calf-, sheep-, or goatskin and used to create manuscripts. Nor does it have anything to do with those worms that destroy manuscripts to the detriment of scholarship everywhere. Actually, it takes its name from the papery, parchment-like burrows it lives in.

Similar to how visitors who are fans of Pokémon are thrilled to espy some of the animals the monsters are based on, book-loving visitors to the museum seem to take great delight in this worm’s name, granting it a celebrity status higher than it might otherwise have. A worm, by any other name, might not be as popular.

Literary lovers will also be happy that spiders and other arachnids have book lungs, respiratory organs unrelated to the lungs of humans. This diagram from John Henry Comstock’s aptly titled The Spider Book depicts a cross section of a spider’s book lung. These lungs are arranged with horizontal, leaf-like folds. Composed of stacks of alternating air pockets, these “pages” usually do not need to move to work. Similarly, horseshoe crabs have book gills, which are external appendages rather than internal organs.

Spider Book Lung

Figure 2: A spider’s book lung with the #3 marking the leaves of the book lung (Comstock, The Spider Book, pg. 146)

Luckily for fans of whimsy, there is a fair amount of freedom involved in describing or naming species. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature instructs that: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.” This leniency with naming animals, in comparison to naming astronomical bodies, has allowed for newly discovered species to be named after expedition benefactors, popular celebrities, and even mythical creatures.

In the late 1990s, a species of turtle was dubbed Psephophorus terrypratchetti after Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series takes place on that back of a giant turtle. A species of ancient lizard was given the moniker Clevosaurus sectumsemper as an allusion to the vicious spell Severus Snape invents in the Harry Potter series. Similarly, a 66 million year-old dinosaur was named Dracorex Hogwartsia, or the “Dragon King of Hogwarts,” and resembles the fictional Hungarian Horntail. Dragons seem to be a popular source of naming inspiration: Two recently discovered ants were even named after Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons from Game of Thrones: Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion.

Pheidole Viserion

Figure 3: Pheidole viserion, whose spiked appearance and blonde color caused it to be named after the dragon from Game of Thrones. (Photo: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology).

While all these are fairly straight-forward allusions to fictional works, one paleontologist took it even further when she discovered a fossil tetrapod near a quarry in Scotland. She developed a name which only works in translation: Eucritta melanolimnetes, or “the true creature from the black lagoon.”

Sometimes that creativity fails though. An early twentieth-century biologist, overwhelmed at the prospect of naming a whole slew of new moth species at once, decided on: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana.

But with thousands of new species discovered a year, perhaps that’s understandable.

On the Origin of Pokémon Species

By Arendse I Lund, on 27 July 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

Last week, I was in the Grant Museum of Zoology when a cry came that a Pokémon had been spotted! Mobiles out, the visitors advanced on the creature and succeeded in capturing it. Surrounded by zoological specimens meticulously collected over centuries, here were people amassing their own digital collection of creatures. From a mouse that shoots lightning bolts to a shellfish that poisons with its lick, these creatures, collectively called Pokémon, take a variety of forms and all have different abilities. Many of these Pokémon are based on real animals.

TapirFor example, take Drowzee: These psychic Pokémon eat dreams and are based on the chiefly nocturnal tapirs, animals indigenous to tropical America and Southeast Asia. Tapirs have short legs and the Malayan tapirs are two-toned just like their virtual counterparts; they also have long, flexible snouts which allow them to grab foliage beyond their reach and even act as a snorkel when swimming. The Japanese word for tapir, baku, refers to both the zoological animal and a spirit in folklore which consumes dreams—just like its Pokémon counterpart.

PangolinAnother example are Sandslash, which have long claws for burrowing, feature brown quills covering their bodies, and will roll into a ball in order to defend themselves from attack. These Pokémon take their inspiration from the pangolin, which are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters. However, they are more closely related to giant pandas. The name derives from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up.” They have overlapping keratin scales armoring their backs, with tails strong enough to hang from trees, and a tongue that, when extended, is longer than its body. These incredible creatures are found in Asia and Africa but are sadly the most trafficked animals in the world.

DugongThen there’s Seel, which evolves into Dewgong. In these two Pokémon, everything’s in the names: The former is based off of a seal and the latter a dugong. In appearance, dugongs are similar to manatees but both male and female dugongs grow two tusks—this is reflected in its adorable Pokémon counterpart. The semi-nomadic dugongs’ habitat extends throughout the Indo-West Pacific but they mostly stay in the bays around Australia; their conservation status is listed as vulnerable due to overdevelopment of the coastal areas and excessive fishing. Dugongs derive their name from the Malay word duyung, meaning “lady of the sea” and the species is possibly the origin of the mermaid myth.

There are many more examples of the real-life basis for Pokémon: axolotl for Mudkip, tadpoles for Poliwag, and racoons for Zigzagoon, to name just a few. The creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, was heavily influenced by the type of creatures he found while insect collecting as a child. He used to sneak out into rice paddies and look under rocks for beetles. In a 1999 interview, he bemoaned the disappearance of those paddies and said of his love for the outdoors, “As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures.” These findings influenced many of the creatures that would make up the Pokémon world.

As both the Grant and Petrie Museums are PokéStops, it’s great to see people encouraged to check out the museum collections as they pursue their Pokémon. Perhaps most fascinating of all, these virtual Pokémon collections now spark conversations with strangers over techniques and the best places to acquire rarer species in a strikingly similar way to amassing physical collections of any sort.

And any avid collector, be it of stamps or insects, can understand the lure of the Pokémon slogan: “Gotta catch ‘em all!”

Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?

By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills



I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.


Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).

Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.

Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

Cookie Cutter Shark Jaw, photo credit: Grant Museum of Zoology (V415).

Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.

There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.


Question of the week:

How do older people benefit from domestic animals?

By rmjllil, on 3 June 2015

A conversation with a visitor at the Grant museum about my research on ageing led to the question ‘How do older people benefit from domestic animals?’

Human-animal interaction is a field of study that has been scientifically explored since the 1980’s and has ever since has a great focus on the emotional and positive aspects of pets including health benefits. However animals have been used as an aid in treating mental and physical health problems since late 16th century. Research studies have shown that animals are great at keeping people company, providing emotional support and a sense of physical and psychological wellbeing. This is particularly important to older people who are more likely to be disabled than younger adults and this may lead to difficulties doing things and meeting friends which can result in poorer quality of life including low mood and feeling lonely. Pets can play a very useful role making people feel happier and research has shown that older people who have a pet socialise and talk more, not only with the pet but with other people too. Pets can also help us feeling less anxious and can even improve our abstract thinking, concentration and motivation.

Another common health problem in older people is dementia. Someone with dementia has problems with thinking or memory and could for example struggle to recall events that happened recently, find it difficult to plan and organise things, and lose track of the day. This is because their brains are not fully functioning. Interestingly, spending time with a pet can in just a few months’ time improve brain activity in people suffering from dementia. This make researchers think that pets may help slowing down the development of dementia.

Odendaal, JSJ. Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2000;49(4):275-280

Kawamura, N. et al. Long-term evaluation of animal-assisted therapy for institutionalized elderly people: a preliminary result. Psychogeriatrics. 2007;(7): 8–13

Bernabei, V. et al. Animal-assisted interventions for elderly patients affected by dementia or psychiatric disorders: a review. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2013;(47):762-773

Domestic cat





Picture: domestic cat on display at Grant museum

Question of the week:

How can we benefit from studies on social behaviour in rats?

By rmjllil, on 27 May 2015

A Japanese study on rats and their social behaviour published a couple of weeks ago has received attention worldwide. A visitor at Grant museum asked me as a researcher what this study wanted to find out and how we could benefit from such knowledge. Before trying to answer that question I’ll briefly explain what the researchers did.

In the experiment one rat was put in a pool of water where it had to swim for its life and another rat was put in a cage adjacent to it. The soaked rat could only escape the pool and access a dry area in the cage if the other rat opened a gate for it. The experiment shows that rats quickly opened the gate when their fellow rat was in the water but did not bother to open it if there was no water and hence no danger to the fellow rat. The researchers then provided a piece of food in a third cage behind a different gate to see what happened when rats had to choose between opening the gate to help their distressed mate or accessing a different gate to obtain food for themselves. In most cases, rats chose to help their mates before going for the food.

From this study we have learnt that rats can behave in a way that benefits others and they want to help others even if they don’t gain any advantage from it. By saving their mate before going for food it was shown that helping others in danger has a higher value than obtaining a food reward. Based on this experiment it was also found that rats may be motivated to save a mate because of empathy-like feelings. Such findings are important to us because it helps us understand what prompt us helping others. This study also showed that empathy and willingness of helping others seems to be something in our biology. Hence, empathy-like reactions may not happen because you’ve been taught to help others but could be something in our genes independent of culture and upbringing. These findings make this study very interesting and important in order to learn more about ourselves and understand our own behaviour.

Reference: Sato, N. et al. (2015). Rats demonstrate helping behaviour towards a soaked conspecific. Animal Cognition. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0872-2

Animal Healing: From Serpents to Coral

By ucramew, on 27 April 2015

Misha Ewen

A UCL undergraduate student visiting the Grant Museum recently asked me whether I had any insight into how past/present societies have awarded ‘animal objects’ — whether teddy bears that bring comfort to poorly children or exotic specimens used in traditional Chinese medicine — with the power to heal. He was researching this question for a medical humanities course and had come to the Grant to gaze on the hundreds of animal specimens the museum displays and garner some inspiration. It seemed to be such a broad question that at first I couldn’t think of any suggestions; once we talked it over, I realised that there’s a whole host of ways that animals (the dead, inanimate and the living) have been associated with healing.

Animals have been connected to beliefs about medicine and healing since time immemorial. Even our modern iconography, the easily recognisable Rod of Asclepius as a symbol for medicine, retains this connection.


Rod of Asclepius

The Rod of Asclepius is believed to have originated from one of two sources. The earliest Egyptian medical manuscript, the Ebers papyrus (1500 BCE), described a technique (still in use today) for the treatment of worms by wrapping emerging worms around the end of a staff. In Old Testament lore (possibly 1800 – 1200 BCE), Moses is also connected with a similar image: his bronze staff was coiled with a serpent, which had power to heal anyone who had been poisoned by snake venom.

From either or both of these sources, the Rod of Asclepius may have emerged. Asclepius was revered in The Iliad (circa 750 – 650 BCE) as a great healer, but very much mortal. However, he was later worshipped as the son of Apollo and the patron of physicians, particularly of those who healed the vulnerable and the poor. According to Greco-Roman mythology, Asclepius killed a snake with his staff whilst he was examining a man who had been struck by one of Zeus’s lightning bolts. Miraculously, another snake appeared on the scene, healing the dead snake with herbs and restoring it to life. Inspired by the snake, Asclepius was also able to heal the man struck by lightning. Therefore, in honour of the snake Asclepius adopted the snake coiled on a staff as his own emblem.

In the Petrie Museum’s collections there are further suggestions of the association that societies have made between the serpent and medical belief. One object is the Silver Uraeus ‘serpent amulet’ (UC38689) which appears to be a coiled snake twisted around a red coral twig. Amulets were considered to be protective objects by ancient Egyptians as well as serving an aesthetic function, by communicating the economic and social status of an individual. A similar specimen of coral, which are made up of thousands of tiny animals called polyps, can be found in the Grant Museum (C274).

Coral amulet, Petrie Museum.

UC38689, Petrie Museum.

red coral

C274, Grant Museum

Another amulet (UC2341) in the Petrie collection depicts Horus, the god of kingship and celestial power, standing on two crocodiles with an oryx (antelope) and serpents in each hand. According to the catalogue, the hieroglyphs on the back and sides of the amulet are words to be spoken in defence of health, but mainly against snake and scorpion bites. In this example, it seems that the icon of the serpent is invoked to represent a specific type of protection against, and healing for, snake venom.

UC2341, Petrie Museum.

The association between the serpent and medicine survived for thousands of years, but so did the use of coral in protective amulets. In the Victoria and Albert Museum several examples of coral amulets survive in their collection. Their curators believe that stones with distinctive colours and patterns have been used as protective amulets ‘since the dawn of time’. Specimens of green or red coral or malachite were particularly associated with health and healing. In the early modern world (circa 1500 – 1800 CE) coral was also used to create amulets to protect against the ‘evil eye’ and witches who were believed to wield power to curse their victims with sickness and even death. In the early modern world, witchcraft presented a serious and very real threat, creating circumstances where actual illness became entangled with superstitious belief.

Coral amulet, courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (910:1 to 4-1872).

Coral amulet (1700-1800) © Victoria and Albert Museum

Infants and pregnant women were believed to be particularly vulnerable to witchcraft. This stemmed, Lyndal Roper suggests, from contemporary belief about the nature of witches: ’Witches were stereotypically old women, unable to have children any longer, and it was their infertile, hag-like bodies that impelled them enviously to attack the fertility of others. They would creep into the marital bedchamber at night, to press down on pregnant women, leaving them feeling oppressed, or ‘hag-ridden’, as we might say.’ For this reason, it became widespread across Europe to create coral apotropaic items, such as rattles and teething rings for small children. Coral was also sometimes hung around their necks for protection. As Roper has put it, ‘the imaginative connection between witches, birth, and envy lies close to the surface of many witch trials’.

When studying this part of history, I was always fascinated by the idea that people really did make themselves ill and presented real symptoms as a result of fear about witchcraft — they were completely convinced that a curse was upon them. But if they could make themselves sick, they could also make themselves better by firm belief in the protective value of coral.

Coral rattle (1750), courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum (M.18-1996).

Coral rattle (1750) © Victoria and Albert Museum

In both the Petrie and Grant collections there are representations of human belief in the power of the natural world to protect and heal. My own interest drew me to amulets and coral: there are intriguing similarities in the amulets from ancient Egypt to early modern Europe, and I find it fascinating to think about the emotional life of such objects — how they made their wearers feel, the ideas and beliefs they communicated to others. However, there are many more ways that visitors could reimagine this topic and I would urge you to do so.


Katrin MacPhee, ‘Snakes, Mistakes, and Mythology! The Use of the Rod of Asclepius and the Caduceus in Modern Medicine’


Kristen Elise, ‘What a Difference a Snake Makes: The Caduceus Versus the Rod of Asclepius’


Lyndal Roper, The Witch in the Western Imagination, (University of Virginia Press: London, 2012).