diamond geezer

 Wednesday, December 23, 2009

An alphabetical journey through the capital's museums
Grant Museum of Zoology

Location: Malet Place, UCL WC1E 6BT [map]
Open: Monday - Friday 1pm-5pm
Admission: free
Brief summary: pickled beasts & bones
Website: www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology
Time to set aside: up to an hour

(Yes, I know I've skipped X and Y. That's because museums starting with X or Y aren't terribly common, even in London. But mostly because I've been visiting two museums a month since January, so I need to skip two letters if I'm going to reach the end of my alphabet by the end of the year. So I've skipped X and Y. Cue Z)

Grant Museum of ZoologyWhen you're studying zoology, you need somewhere to go look at animals. The real thing isn't always accessible, not without a round-the-world journey and/or a diving helmet, so it makes sense to collect together the remains of various species and display them for the benefit of future students. So believed Robert Grant, the UK's first Professor of Zoology, who in 1827 started a museum of preserved organisms at the University of London. Such was Mr Grant's talent that he had a sponge named after him - an honour he shares with Queen Victoria (although in this case a hermaphrodite aquatic invertebrate, not a gooey icing-filled cake). A Grantia sponge is one of the many hundreds of animals still on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology, now to be found crammed into a hospital-like basement at UCL in Bloomsbury. Find your way to the University and you can peruse the specimens like a student, no grant required.

The museum isn't huge, more like the corner of a library, but the space is packed full of cases, jars and bones. The most impressive exhibits are the skeletons, one especially large rhino dominating the centre of the room. Another cabinet contains the skeleton of a quagga, one of only seven such specimens remaining in the world today, although more fortunate than the dodo alongside of whom only bits remain. I was able to confirm that the nine-banded armadillo really does have precisely nine bands, and that the three-toed sloth is similarly well-named. As for the aye-aye, that looks particularly cute with all its organs stripped off, and blimey doesn't an orang-utang have very long arms? Although scholarly throughout, there's also an element of humour. The skull of a male deer has been labelled "Bambi's Dad", for example, and a human skeleton has been dressed up with tinsel, fleecy hat and baubles as a seasonal affectation [photo]. No giggling at the long white bone just inside the door, though. It's a baculum, or walrus penis bone, and the size of it is enough to make any female walrus's eyes water. Or light up, whatever.

Grant Museum of ZoologyPeer into the many pickle jars and you'll see animals that died up to 150 years ago, preserved beyond their time for future scrutiny. A "jar of assorted reptiles", for example, or a bloated axolotl, or some tiny crusty sea creatures. Several specimens are labelled with spidery Victorian handwriting, although this is a living museum and there's 21st century printing on more recent acquisitions. Every animal is also marked by a coloured pictogram sticker - a simple but informative way to depict its classification, be that amphibian, crustacean or whatever. Wander round the museum clockwise and the specimens generally get more complex, starting with some of the smaller sea creatures and moving on to fish, birds and mammals. There's not much explanatory text alongside, but there doesn't need to be because the dead animals do the talking. It's a lot more interesting than staring at a textbook, that's for sure.

In the week before Christmas I was expecting to have the place to myself, but not so. Several parents had brought along their inquisitive children, here to stare at animals inside-out, and also to take part in some holiday activities. Nothing too outlandish, just some cards to shuffle and drawings to colour, but engrossing enough for those I had to squeeze past. There was also a lady from the Camden Health Trust sitting patiently in the corner, waiting to dispense rubella-related goodie bags (I trust there wasn't a free virus inside to play with). But today's your last chance to visit before the university, and therefore the museum, shuts down for the festive period. Grant's ex-animals won't be back on show until Monday January 4th, but you can always study some of the collection's highlights here while you wait.
by tube: Euston Square

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