Saturday, 19 November 2011

Accidental Visits: The Grant Museum of Zoology

I had a rare afternoon off work a week or two ago.  The weather was grey and grizzly otherwise I might have been tempted to stroll across town and do some damage to my bank account with a shopping spree.  Instead my desires leaned toward sitting on my sofa, with the central heating on, watching an undemanding film.  But no, I told myself, I should make more of this city in which I reside, and spend my spare time exploring its delights.  And so I seized upon the opportunity to do something I could never do at any other time.  As I had trudged to and fro from my college in Bloomsbury over the past two years in pursuit of my Masters I had noticed an enticing sign: Grant Museum of Zoology, open weekdays between 1 and 5pm.  I had longed for those two years to visit, but the opening hours were totally useless for anyone with a job.  But why my desperation to look at pickled things in jars?  

Between finishing at school and starting my undergraduate degree I took a gap year, like many of my friends.  But I eschewed the typical option of working in an orphanage or teaching English as a foreign language somewhere.  Full moon parties on the beaches of Thailand or backpacking across Europe held no appeal for me either.  Instead I headed for a large island in the Indian Ocean, to work as a research assistant on a species survey expedition, in a large forest along a river in southwest Madagascar.  Out there we were taught how to set traps, how to check them and how to identify and classify the creatures we found within them.  We were informed of the importance of taking specimens (one male and female from each species that we discovered), and thus taking two lives to be able to save hundreds or thousands more.  Even with the knowledge that we were acting for the greater good, taking specimens was not a comfortable experience.  Yet with practice it became easier and by the time we returned to the UK we had filled and meticulously labelled numerous jars of formalin with lizards, chameleons, mice, snakes and frogs.  We also had a bloody good laugh and my months spent in the forest hold many happy memories for me, yet it made me something of a specimen geek, hence my fascination for zoology museums.

So off I went, that grey afternoon.  The museum itself - with wonderful free admission - is housed in a single large room, and I initially thought I would probably be in and out within 20 minutes or so.  Yet once inside, and engaged in peering into the glass cabinets and surveying the exhibits within, I realised that one could easily lose oneself for quite some time in this place.  Behind the desk at the entrance a woman sketched a stuffed owl whilst, without looking up, she clicked in each visitor who arrived, counting those who had come to wander round this extraordinary place.
The museum - originally founded in 1827 by Robert Grant, a teacher of Charles Darwin - was recently relocated to its current spot, at 21 University Street, where it is now housed in a former medical library.  Many fixtures of the old library still remain, the shelves and cabinets provide wonderful storage facilities for the thousands of specimens in their glass jars and pots.  The library stretches over two floors as well - although the museum is only held on the ground floor - and the second floor is still lined with bookshelves, filled with bound books, and from whence a jaunty collection of large skeletons (one human) peer down on the visitors below.  In one corner, hidden behind the display cases, a small staff sits tapping away at computers, identifying, cataloguing and curating the collection.

The museum holds around 67,000 specimens from the many phyla of the animal kingdom.  There are fish, birds, mammals, reptiles, insects, and even corals.  An enormous rhinoceros skeleton may be the largest exhibit on display but in contrast on tiny glass slides you can also spy minute jellyfish the size of a newborn baby's little fingernail.  Some jars contain multiple specimens, like a large pot of starfish or a bottle of pickled pig embryos.  The shelves look like a peculiar sweet-shop, with the most grisly and intriguing of confectionery for sale.  I was particularly fascinated by a cross-section of a shark egg, with a tiny baby shark curled up inside, and a Suriname toad preserved in the process of giving birth to its babies, which peculiarly burst forth from its back and swim straight off into the water in which it chooses to spawn.  There were some slightly disturbing pickled cross-sections of the much loved family pets, Felis catus and Canis familiaris, and a sweet little otter whose silky fur floated around him as he snoozed in his glass jar.  There were plenty of taxidermy specimens alongside the pickled ones, my favourite being a rather over-stuffed platypus who was balding in patches like a much-loved soft toy. 
Above are a small sample from some of the marine and river-dweller cupboards.  On the left you have sea-mice (actually a kind of segmented worm, known as an annelid) with wonderful holographic bristles, which really do glow and shine as the photo suggests.  And you can, as the label on top of their jar indicates, adopt your favourite pickled friends.  It would make quite a Christmas present: "Oh, a preserved jar of sea cucumbers, just what I always wanted!"  Over on the right is a fishy fellow, who is either very jaunty and friendly-looking or deeply creepy; I'm not quite sure, but I think maybe creepy with that single scary, preserved beedy eye watching you.
Many of the specimens seem somewhat muted in colour as they float in pickled suspension.  Others have been treated with an alizarin preparation which renders soft tissue clear and stains hard organs red; examining these specimens of frogs or fish is like looking at them in an x-ray machine.  The museum also boasts a rare collection of glass models of snails and fish and other animals, which date back to the nineteenth century.  Anatomically accurate as well as rather pretty they are a nice reminder of the close relationship between science and art.  

I passed a happy hour marvelling at the wonders of our natural world, and I wondered where the specimens that I helped gather had ended up.  Our work in Madagascar was undertaken for several zoological partners, including the WWF, and many specimens may have ended up in sealed systems hidden miles away from the general public, but maybe a rare tuft-tailed mouse or a particularly fine skink might grace these wonderful shelves one day and inspire a new generation to spend their gap year living in a forest in the middle of nowhere gathering specimens to identify a new creature or two and to save many thousands more.


  1. What a wonderful little delight. I will have to visit this when i can find the time.

  2. Definitely worth it, Twad'dler. The perfect way to kill a bit of time on a foggy, grey afternoon...

  3. OMG! You are into bugs and strange creatures...I know that the British have an inner taxidermist in them You are no exception my dear!

  4. Ha, I'm afraid so, MuMuGB...I love a little eccentricity!


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