London: Grant Museum of Zoology

Like the Petrie Museum which I visited some time ago, the Grant Museum of Zoology is part of UCL, and is one of those unusual lesser-known museums around London that you occasionally hear about on offbeat travel shows, or blogs that showcase weirdo destinations (like my own). So, perfect for me then, you might think, right? Well, I had actually been to the Grant Museum once before some years ago, and was so unimpressed that I was in no hurry to go back and blog about it, hence its absence from my blog (until now).  However, I recently needed to kill some time in the vicinity of Bloomsbury, and rather than wander around the British Museum as I normally would, I decided to give the Grant Museum another chance.

 

And I’m so glad I did, because it turns out that the Grant Museum I saw, in a basement gallery, was just temporary housing whilst they were preparing a new museum space, which opened back in 2011. Meaning my experience of it must have been from 2010 or even earlier…I think I’ve been living in London for too damn long!  Anyway, the first time I experienced the Grant, it also wasn’t under the most auspicious circumstances.  As I recall, Marcus and I had attended a public lecture somewhere in UCL, and a cocktail reception was held in the Grant Museum afterwards.  All I remember is being crammed into a corner of a tiny museum with about two hundred other people, whilst clutching a glass of cheap wine and struggling to see into the cases around the mass of people. I think we bolted down our wine, and left as quickly as was humanly possible.

  

The new(ish) Grant Museum is fortunately in a larger space, one where, despite a few narrow rows of display cases, it is actually possible to read the labels, and you know, breathe comfortably (it probably helps that it’s not full of people clamouring for free wine, or not when I visited anyway. I probably still wouldn’t want to take my chances with a wine reception there though).  The museum is free, and whilst still not terribly big, there’s enough stuff crammed into the cases to keep a visitor entertained for a while.  Like a whole jar full of moles. Or one of bats. (I’ll ignore the one full of centipedes, because bleurgh.)

The Grant Museum was founded in 1828 by Robert Edmond Grant, who was kind of a big deal in the world of zoology.  Charles Darwin was one of his students, and Grant helped influence his theories on evolution (though interestingly, Grant’s own views were formed in part by his admiration for the work of Erasmus Darwin, Charles’s grandfather. So really Charles Darwin was being influenced by his own grandfather, albeit indirectly). It is the only remaining zoology museum in London attached to a university (and probably the only exclusively zoological museum in London?  The Hunterian Museum has some zoological specimens, but its focus is more on its human specimens), which unfortunately means that it was full of some incredibly annoying students at the time of our visit, but you can’t win ’em all.

  

Once the students (finally) cleared out, it was blissfully quiet, however, and we were able to look around without risking catty remarks from the young people.  The cases were completely crammed with stuff, as you can probably tell, and the specimens were a good mix of “awws” and “eews.” I didn’t spend too much time looking at the cases of disgusting crabs and insects, but there were some pretty adorable preserved baby mammals (and the elephant shrew, which is not really adorable).

 

There weren’t quite as many labels as I would have found ideal, because it seemed like only the prize specimens had them, and even those were just a sentence or two.  There were a few weird looking things that I couldn’t identify that only had a hand-written sticker on the jar, and I’m not even sure if those contained the actual name of the animal, or were just some random word for classification purposes.

  

The museum offers a deal whereby on becoming a “friend” of the museum (starting at £15 a year), you get to “adopt” one of the specimens, and have your name on it.  However, it appears that all the best specimens have sadly been taken, some apparently by famous people (there were animals that had been adopted by Bill Bailey and Tony Blackburn et al (I mean, I don’t even think Tony Blackburn is all that famous, but I used to listen to “Pick of the Pops” if I was in the car on a Saturday, so I know who he is), but those are probably fairly common names, and may not have been the actual celebrities, though I could definitely see Bill Bailey wanting to adopt a cassowary heart so maybe it was actually him. Not that it matters, I’m not a fan or anything), so I hope they consider offering more specimens for adoption, since only a few of the remaining specimens had “adopt me” tags attached.

 

But anyway, let’s ignore the “adoption” aspect of the collection for now, and get back to what was actually on display. There was a case full of specimens from extinct animals that I particularly enjoyed, which included the bones of a dodo, and the skeletal hindquarters of a quagga. There were even some bones from extinct animals so obscure I’d never even heard of them, like the thylacine, which was part of Robert Grant’s original collection (thylacines were Tasmanian marsupials that kind of resembled wolves, without actually being related to them, because, marsupial).

 

The thing pictured on the right, above, was a hall of microspecimens, aka, the Micrarium, that would be too small to display without a microscope, so they blew up photographs of them, and put them on the walls of a small nook.  It pretty cool, especially because it had a mirrored ceiling so you could view them from all angles, although only one or two people can squeeze in there at a time.

  

And I can’t neglect to mention that they had the penis bone of a walrus (and a few other, much less impressive penis bones), because it was huge and hilarious (sadly, that has of course been adopted too.  I imagine it was one of the first specimens to be snapped up).

 

As you can probably imagine, since you all know how much I love in stuff in jars, I quite enjoyed this place, even though, as I said, they could do with more labels, fewer students, and perhaps a way to access the upper tier, because there were specimens all the way to the ceiling, but no good way to see them without uncomfortably craning your neck.  3.5/5 for the Grant Museum.

While we were on campus, I remembered that so is Jeremy Bentham, whose auto-icon (basically a stuffed version of him, with a wax head. I think his actual skeleton is inside the stuffing, which is excellently creepy) I have always wanted to see, so we figured out where it was (the South Cloisters at the end of the main building) and popped in to check him out.  He’s actually rather charming (the hat helps), and well worth braving the hordes of even more students for. Apparently his actual head is in a box somewhere in the building too (though it’s in a wooden box, so you can’t actually look at it, or at least I don’t think you can), but I didn’t know that at the time, so didn’t look for it, which probably means a return trip is in order.

  

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7 comments

  1. Some of those specimens are really cute! Others less so. There is a Zoology Museum attached to Glasgow Uni too, but I confess I have never visited. I did have it in mind for if I ever did another A to Z Challenge, but I’ve been too lazy for that. And Tony Blackburn not very famous?! You are just too young to know 😉

      1. No, that’s true, but he was the first DJ on Radio 1 so a huge part of my teenage years. If you wanted to hear the music you had to put up with his corny jokes!

  2. That fruit bat is amazing! I quite like the sweet little house-elf looking kangaroo too. But I am not fond of that elephant shrew. I leaned closer to my screen for a good look and was startled – I did not expect it to have that much face.
    Oh my god, Jeremy Bentham!!! When I was a kid, we had a book of weird facts (or something) that featured his story and photo. I used to dig that book out every so often just to look at his picture and give myself the willies. That you saw him in person – and I get to live vicariously through you – is a treat indeed. Thank you. … and he still totally gives me the willies.

    1. Yeah, the elephant shrew is a creep. I don’t like animals with giant elongated noses like that. I mean, I like actual elephants, but anteaters and tapirs and stuff creep me out.
      Honestly, Jeremy Bentham is much less creepy to me than the elephant shrew. Probably because he’s just wax and stuffing on a skeleton. If it was his actual head on there, I might feel differently. But even though Bentham doesn’t scare me, I know what you mean. I had to write a paper when I was a freshman in high school on whether dereliction of duty played a role in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, and one of the books I used had a picture of what was purported to be the mummified head of John Wilkes Booth, and that thing scared the crap out of me. Even at the age of 14. I had to quickly flip past the page it was on every time I opened that damn book.

  3. I used to teach about Jeremy Bentham when I taught college history – I’m so envious that you got to pose with him! There’s always something so interesting about these “curiosity cabinet” style museums. I love how people can adopt the specimens.

    1. Jeremy Bentham is very cool, in auto-icon form…I’m not convinced by the Panopticon though! I guess the best thing is if you can combine the cabinet of curiosity and the preserved body like Cesare Lombroso did, by becoming a specimen in your own museum! It’s a shame Lombroso had such appalling theories, because that kind of dedication to a museum is admirable, but pretty much everything he believed about anthropology was the worst.

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