21 University Street
London WC1E 6DE
Wednesday April 13 2016
Jo thought this was likely as they maintain a lively blog with students guesting on entries and so there is a certain level of self-awareness for e.g when commenting on ‘boring fish fossil of the month.’ And indeed we both greatly enjoyed this compact yet dense display now housed in a former library with an upper gallery not accessible and a range of cases and tables ( presumably for handling) and reference books generously available. The signage was good – they had left the Victorian brown labels with minute handwriting tied onto the various objects but had added big labels which gave very straightforward and legible information. Most of the objects are skeletons or parts thereof and where the animals might seem a little rare or unknown they have provided a very small (as might go into a toy Noah’s Ark) model thereof to remind you that a tapir and okapi for example are not the same thing or even remotely related.
The skeletons are arranged in species groups so the above mentioned fish both skeletal and fossil are all together, some are preserved in liquid (we presume formaldyhyde which we remember with little fondness from school) so it was rather odd to have the fish swimming vertically not horizontally – to save space we concluded. I had no idea what a Remora Fish was, not having spotted it on the wet fish slab at Sainsbury’s – so it seems it suckers onto anything that passes including scuba divers.
Reptiles always make good copy and we were most impressed with the rock python skeleton, most beautifully mounted – my memory from reptile enclosures at zoos is that they are pretty static anyway so the skeleton was every bit as interesting. The frogs and toads on display were all certainly bigger than the home grown variety and included both cane and midwife toads.
There is of course a section for extinct animals including a sprinkling of dinosaurs in fossil or skeleton form. More recent specimens that have been hunted to extinction include the Quagga which sounds as though it ought to be some kind of Australian cocktail but turns out to be a South African mammal related to the zebra (there is a little model here too). Jo wondered whether someone could not take some DNA and try to clone a new style Quagga ‘Jurassic Park’ style – how right she is; here is the Quagga Project.
There were some Dodo bones which we missed but on the whole I prefer the stuffed and stone (d) Dodo at the Horniman Museum.
There are some impressive cat family bones and two elephant skulls which is all the space allows for – there is also a preserved elephant heart including all the various tubes. As I believe most hearts work the same way it’s a useful exhibit for illustrating heart function.
Another LARGE exhibit (and one of their Top Ten Objects) is the giant deer – the antlers are 3m across on an animal which would have been about 2 metres high so I guess the ‘architects’ for the Crystal Palace Park dinosaurs got it about right .
The archaeopteryx shows quite clearly the transition from reptile to bird..(except it's a pterodactyl photo
Looking at the saltwater crocodile Jo was reminded of her trip to Australia when they were warned off from bathing on a white sandy beach as apparently these crocs have a fine turn of speed and are apt to snatch folk off the beach. Sea cucumbers are altogether more peaceful and apparently related to starfish! Talking of Australia there are fine coral specimens and I always forget that sponges are really animals.
The most disturbing objects are those pickled in jars – there were plenty of body parts in the Hunterian, but the Grant’s jars have many, many moles (whole ones) squashed together and mice similarly packed in but still very recognisable.
There is a sub-collection of skulls --- from monkeys to man and some of these are bisected to show ‘the inner workings’ .
So how did this collection come about?
Robert Grant was a Scot who was eventually established as professor at London University – as you might guess from the collection he was a keen follower of Darwin and amongst the first to teach his theories as part of the curriculum – very forward thinking when you realise there are several Southern US States where Creationism is still taught and Darwin banned… There are pictures of Victorian era students dissecting and examining many of the specimens you can see today and his aim was to have ‘one of everything’. For the visitor the crammed cases with many highlights are a delight of surprise and learning – small but perfectly formed, and I have only given you a very small taster of what is on offer.