Stuart Forster outlines what to expect from the The Grant Museum of Zoology in London, a quirky, fascinating and free-to-visit tourist attraction in the British capital.
In an age when interactive exhibitions are par for the course in museums, with many focusing on engaging youngsters and infotainment, heading somewhere like the Grant Museum, in London, makes a refreshing change.
This zoology museum opened in 1828 and is packed with skeletons, stuffed creatures and fascinatingly gruesome-looking exhibits preserved in formaldehyde. With a creaking wooden floor and humorously postured primate skeletons up in the gallery, seemingly looking down at visitors, the Grant Museum still has something of a nineteenth-century feel about it. Far from being a flaw, the old-fashioned nature of the museum and its displays, within glass cabinets and wooden shelving, helps make spending an afternoon here an informative, quirky, pleasure.
Would you rather view some slickly produced video on the lifecycle of burrowing mammals or stand by a glass jar, topped with preserving fluid, attempting to guess how many dead moles are inside? If the latter is more your thing, then you should plan a trip to the Grant Museum.
Named after Robert Grant
The museum is named after Robert Grant, who lived from 1793 to 1874 and built a collection of specimens in order to research and teach zoology and comparative anatomy. Grant organised his collection by taxonomic groups and was, essentially, researching aspects of evolutionary theory even before the publication of Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking On the Origin of Species, in 1859.
The Grant Museum’s collection is vast. Just seven per cent of the 67,000 artefacts are displayed. They range in scale from insects and tiny creatures preserved on microscope slides, displayed in the backlit micrarium, to a mammoth tusk and the antlers of a giant deer that roamed the earth 11,000 years ago. Not everything is old-fashioned here; a QR code provides access to information about the prehistoric mammal.
Skeletons of extinct mammals
You’ll also see rarities such as the skeleton of a quagga, a zebra-like creature, and a thylacine, a doglike marsupial, better known as the Tasmanian tiger, that became extinct in 1936.
Some of the exhibits made me contemplate how a Victorian might have felt while visiting a freak show. The partially dissected head of a monkey, preserved in formaldehyde, gave me the impression it was winking and sticking out its tongue. You’ll see a jar containing an elephant’s heart, weighing between 20 to 30kg, and the penis bone of a walrus, roughly the size of a rounders bat.
The museum has a number of thought-provoking exhibits, including a Surinam toad, whose female carries fertilised eggs in pouches on her back. Her offspring emerge fully developed. Elephant birds, from Madagascar, became extinct in the 1700s. The cast of an egg, roughly two-and-a-half times the size of an ostrich egg, prompted me to think about human impact on the environment.
A commercially cloned cat
‘Little Nicky,’ who in 2004 became the world’s first commercially cloned cat, is also among the exhibits. Touch screen displays allow you to read about the subject and enter into an online debate on the ethics of cloning.
The Grant Museum may be Victorian in appearance but as part of the University College London it is still used for research and teaching. It’s free to visit and a fascinating alternative to the British Museum and other popular attractions, which can become extremely busy over the summer holidays.
The Grant Museum of Zoology is in the Rockefeller Building at the University College London, 21 University Street, London, WC1E 6DE. It is open from 1.00 pm to 5.00 pm from Monday to Saturday. You can also book to visit on weekdays between 10.00 am and 1.00 pm.
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