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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


This Little Piggy went to Market…

By uctzcbr, on 6 December 2017

One of the objects on display as part of the Grant’s Ordinary Animals exhibition is a jar of piglets. These particular specimens often receive a lot of attention, probably because the piglets are so small and visitors are surprised to discover what they are. I was happy to see them included in the exhibition because piglets are used by other researchers in my department (the Department of Crime and Security Science) and so they provide a useful launching pad to engage visitors in my research.

The specimen in question, courtesy of the Grant Museum.

This tactic has had varying success. The way pigs are used in Crime Research is fascinating but can also be a bit gruesome — perhaps too gruesome for some visitors. Pig skin, and flesh, is similar to that of humans and so can be used to conduct experiments in the absence of a human cadaver. For example, a colleague, Sian Smith, whose PhD research focuses on 3-D digitisation methods for sharp-force traumas, studies stab wounds she has made in pigs. A number of her experiments have required her to transport pig parts to Mile End cemetery where they are buried and left to decompose before being photographed so that the images can be used to create 3-D models. Her work has potential applications in crime scene forensics, as well as for providing evidence in court, or even archaeological research on burial sites and other human remains.

I think this story is fascinating and can start many different conversations about how crime research is conducted and used. But, I have learned very quickly not all visitors feel the same way. For example, I made the mistake of telling this exact tale to a pair of visitors who were vegan. Concerned by the use of living things in order to meet the needs of humans, they were not very impressed by this particular research project. Perhaps, I should have guessed that they were not my target audience. Whilst I have met many visitors in the museum who have backgrounds in forensics or who like to preserve animal remains as a hobby, many more visitors haven’t ever seen anything like the Grant Museum’s collection outside the museum itself. I now make sure I check with visitors whether or not they want all the gory details before launching into my stories.

It is worth pointing out, however, that a reason that piglets are often used in research is because it is not uncommon for mothers to kill their young accidentally (by rolling over on them) leaving farmers or other pig owners with piglets that they cannot raise but can sell to labs instead. The vegan visitors that I spoke to felt that — as the pigs were not killed for the purpose of research — it seemed reasonable to use their bodies in this manner. Incidentally, both visitors were organ donors and intended to leave their own bodies to science. We spent a great deal more time discussing the use of animals in scientific, but non-medical, research which made for very interesting chat, if not exactly where I saw the conversation from the start.