Another of University College London's academic collections, the Grant Museum of Zoology is in much the same vein as the Petrie Museum of Egyptology: ancient objects, invaluable items and curiosities all crammed into cabinets into small, traditional university rooms. Inviting in its modesty, this collection has an extremely high concentration of interesting specimens per square meter.
Whilst the collection as a whole is still very much in use by students and educational programs, the selection of items on permanent display offers a slightly out of the ordinary introduction for newcomers to zoology. It certainly seems that the museum is aware of its great number of unusual specimens, giving it a unique angle and a good sense of humour to match. To greet visitors, a blood-stained sheep's head and an eight legged puppy lie on shelves at the door; a human skeleton looks down from the upper gallery, its hand placed on the railing, surrounded by a crowd of skeletal structures from our closest monkey cousins. Undoubtedly, some of the most attention-grabbing and borderline gross specimens are kept near the entrance to entice and excite: a platypus's reproductive organs are placed alongside a collection of animal brains from the pathology museum at King's College London - along with a brain coral, labelled with the helpful reminder "This is not a brain". And the museum's particular pride: glass models of sea creatures made in the 1800s by the Blaschkas, a Czech father and son who adopted an incomparable technique of glass model making, does well to demonstrate the great variety of material in the collection.
Especially good is the selection of skeletons, allowing you to gaze at the inner structures of lions and tigers, as well as some more unexpected specimens such as a massive, coiled Anacanda skeleton and many small, juvenile monkeys. Hugely interesting are the bones from recently extinct animals such as the Dodo, and the rarest skeleton in the world, that of the Quagga, pushed to extinction in 1883. These are individual forms that we have lost in modern times; that might never take shape again.
But perhaps the great appeal of the Grant Museum is that, as well as the specimens that immediately draw the eye, there are many more to be discovered within the depths of the cramped cabinets. Amongst the skeletons are many, many jars of preserved animals, or parts of animals. The vast majority are simply interesting, even to those who don’t study zoology, and you can find yourself staring at a Surinam toad with eggs in pouches on her back for quite some time.
This is not your average zoological museum: there is no extensive collection of taxidermy that you might expect to see at any regular natural history museum. Instead it seems that the museum is largely concerned with education, with showing the spines and pickled insides that lie behind the attractive fuzzy animal fur. It often feels that the novelty here is viewing so many different, and interesting, specimens in such a small space. Much like UCL's Petrie Museum of Egyptology, there appears to be far more material to display than there is room, so that you are met with unnerving specimens from every angle and from every cabinet. But, despite the initial impression of chaos, the exhibition is carefully ordered with birds, amphibians, primates all on their distinct shelves - essentially an academic collection presented with a good wit and no fuss.
This collection offers the chance to view rare and interesting items away from the suffocating crowds at the larger London museums. And curated with a great sense of humour and a good eye, this is where you want to inaugurate your offspring into the world of zoology, and potentially instill a life long interest.
The Grant Museum of Zoology is the only remaining university zoological museum in London. It houses around 67,000 specimens, covering the whole Animal Kingdom. Founded in 1828 as a teaching collection, the Museum is packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid. Many of the species are now endangered or extinct including the Tasmanian Tiger or Thylacine, the Quagga, and the Dodo.
The Grant Museum of Zoology has a selection of spectacular glass models made by the Blaschka family in the late 1800s. The museum also contains many of Robert Grant's original specimens as well as those of Thomas Henry Huxley. The Grant Museum's collection of Sir Victor Negus's bisected heads are both arresting and beautiful and are reminiscent of the work of the artist Damien Hirst.
Admission is free.
Grant Museum of ZoologyRockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street
London Greater London United Kingdom WC1E 6DE
Monday to Saturday, 1-5pm
Closed public holidays.