Blogging has really begun to take over my life a little bit, something for a long time I kind of knew but hadn’t admitted to myself. I panic now if I enter an exhibition or museum without my notebook and phone to document my reactions and capture my thoughts. I have got to a stage now that I don’t want to visit a museum for the first time unless I know I also have the time to write a blog about my visit. Those first impressions are so important, your thoughts on first entering, the objects that capture your attention. It is very hard to recreate those first moments, you so quickly become inured to a museums’ charms.
I just knew the Grant Museum of Zoology was going to be unusual, so I was waiting to fit in a visit when I had the time to write a blog post. With my weeks planned months in advance, days filled with school runs, nursery pick up and general mothering duties, my one day of museum immersion a week is so precious and always so packed. I decided I couldn’t wait for a blog window any longer, the pull was too strong. I found myself with an hour or so to spare and so I finally, eagerly, sought out UCL‘s little gem. I wasn’t going to write a blog but as is so often the case when I visit an amazing museum, I just can’t help myself.
How best to describe the Grant Museum? A place of jars and bones, squishy, fleshy white indescribables and skeletal remains of life stuck and posed in suspended animation. I was fortunate to meet Mark Carnall the curator on first stepping across the threshold. I immediately exclaimed “What a creepy place to work!”, a comment I am not sure he fully appreciated. But this is really alien territory for me – my background is humanities, it is history, books and archives. It is only recent volunteer projects that have allowed me to get hands on with objects, but certainly not these type of objects.
Now my blogs are bridges, taking me to worlds I am unsure of; dissections and sections, jars of this, pieces of that, I won’t deny they are not my first port of call. Although I am not exactly squeamish, I don’t enjoy the site of things in jars, but I am nothing if not professional and detached when taking on board the whole museum experience.
I seek out the ‘Glass Jar of Moles‘, a celebrity in the world of museum Twitter mascots, yep, that is pretty disgusting. I am fighting my natural aversion, it is clashing with my natural curiosity. I am not sure who is winning till I come to a labelled, bisected dog brain. It tickles me to see the little labels attached, it reminds me of the phrenology head I have at home. Can you even do phrenology on a dog? Has anyone ever tried?
As ever, it is the connections that break down the barriers. Suddenly I see the Blaschka glass models of invertebrates from the late 1800s, they are so beautiful and delicate, I am captivated. How is it possible to make something so fragile, not for decoration or adornment but for study, it kind of blows me away.
I make my way to the Micrarium, a converted old storeroom, opened in January 2013, a place for tiny things, where you can explore microscopic specimens. Such a small space and yet such a wealth of material, a shining example of innovative thinking to display the wealth of museum collections that never see the light of day.
I imagine each slide is like an object from the British Museum, miniaturised and dissected for my contemplation. Standing surrounded by these delicate, ephemeral treasures, it is like being at the centre of a museum universe. Then Mark turns the lights on and a whole new world is revealed to me! The slides are so beautiful, I wasn’t prepared for that, the lamprey heads are like tribal tattoos, the strange globules are translucent and ethereal.
I look at the many different hands that have written the labels and think about those who collected, studied, selected and displayed these items. I talk with Mark about how the collection has come into being, only regularly opening its doors to the public in 1999. It is a ‘museum of museums’, collections rescued and salvaged but often lacking any documentation or history. These objects, never intended as a museum’s collection, but for study, their use has changed over time, they have become part curio, part research heaven, and often artist’s inspiration.
I think of archaeological objects brought out of the earth. If their context is missing, their layer and location, then their usefulness is limited. It is like reading the middle chapter of a book without the beginning and the end, the threads of the story are lost. Sadly much information on how these specimens were collected, the where and when is missing. The Grant Museum’s orphan objects sit side by side, I wonder how many hands have held them, how many studious eyes have been opened to nature’s wonders?
We talk conservation as I marvel at the range of glass and perspex containers that are filled with all manner of preservation liquids, strange concoctions as individual as the specimens inside. Is the fluid ever topped up? If you remove the painted on lids are you destroying the integrity and historical value of the object? Mark tells me the perspex vessels are very difficult to look after, presenting continual problems. He points out one that has been topped up and resealed and others, where to remove the sealant would confront the ethical questions museum conservators continually face.
As I walk round the museum with more of a (volunteer) collection care eye, the more beauty I see. I love the texture and pattern of the tortoise-shell, the intricate spiral of the magnificent anaconda skeleton. There are many things I have never seen before, sometimes the rare, sometimes the simple, a tortoise skeleton in a shell is just wonderful.
Many objects have been adopted by passionate visitors, their names proudly displayed next to their favourite specimens. It is very interesting to see which specimens have been chosen; the quirky, the endearing, the downright strange. Sadly a John Dory fish has not been adopted by a Mr John Dory, a missed opportunity there I think. It costs £12 for a child to adopt a specimen for a year, I wonder what my kids would choose? If they have anything resembling a unicorn that would be great, daughter no2 has a rather fabulous obsession with them and a firm belief they exist, who am I to disabuse her of the notion?
I think about my kids and realise I don’t bring them to see natural history collections enough. What would they make of this place? I realise I have made a mistake not sharing places like this with them. My eldest girl is just coming to understand that she has autism, to her, at the moment, it is the enemy, she doesn’t want this part of her, she is questioning how her brain and body works. Why it reacts in certain ways, she is looking for answers and I have none to give her.
My youngest, a little boy, has developed a fascination with snails. Every time we leave the house, he hunkers down on his haunches, searching. He tells me of their beautiful shells and how they like the rain. I love watching him, my girls were never like this, never took such pleasure from the natural world around them. In fact it makes me incredibly sad that daughter no 2, lover of unicorns, suddenly appears to have such an aversion to spiders and flies. She can’t walk within 10ft of the smallest black dot in case it attacks her.
I want them to come here and not have my initial reaction of a creepy place (!) but somewhere that fires their imagination, incites their wonder and pricks their curiosity. I want to take my unicorn loving daughter into the Micrarium, there are a few specimens I want her to see. I may tell a few little fibs, the fly wings may become the wings of a fairy. The delicate ethereal leaf may become one of Pegasus’ wings, sometimes a little misinformation can go a long way. I know in her own time she will come to the truth of the matter and I hope she will come here and seek it out for herself.
So I hope the curator of the Grant Museum, Mark, accepts my apologies, his work place is not creepy (perhaps just the tiniest bit). It is full of beauty and wonder, I am so glad I came and I hope you visit too. There is nowhere else quite like it, a hidden gem, a museum of museums, I am looking forward to a return visit already. I could even begin to love the glass jar of moles, in time, maybe…..
With special thanks to Mark Carnall for turning the ‘lights on’ .
The Grant Museum of Zoology is open Monday – Saturday 1-5pm, for more information please visit the website – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology
If you want to adopt a specimen please have a look at the website – http://www.ucl.ac.uk/museums/zoology/support