Words & Photography Kirk Truman
“He was one of the earliest evolutionary biologists. He was a biologist 30 years before Charles Darwin ever published. He taught Darwin evolution, Grant was his mentor…”
I admit it! I’m guilty of unveiling my favourite secret hideaways in the journal. And as ever, it’s a pleasure to do. Have you ever heard of Fitzrovia’s Grant Museum of Zoology? Don’t worry neither had I! And I’ll confess, I find it somewhat worrying that, up until about a year ago, this wonderful cavern of intrigue and wonder had not registered on my radar.
Jack Ashby of the University College London’s Public & Cultural Engagement Department explains that the name Grant derives from Professor Robert Edmond Grant (1793-1874), who established The Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy to serve as a teaching collection at the then newly founded University of London (now known as University College London). Born in Edinburgh, where he studied medicine, Professor Grant remains a relative unknown to the public, though he is recognised within his field for his work on marine invertebrates, in particular sponges, sea pens and molluscs. “Nobody has ever heard of him. He’s not in any way famous, though he should be. He was one of the earliest evolutionary biologists. He was a biologist 30 years before Charles Darwin ever published. He taught Darwin evolution, Grant was his mentor,” says Jack. Grant was the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in England and upon arrival at the University found there to be no teaching materials with which to conduct his courses. Thus, he immediately began to amass specimens, material for dissection, diagrams and lecture notes. On his death bed, Grant was persuaded by a colleague, William Sharpey (1802-1880), to leave his considerable collection of books, academic papers and natural history specimens to the college. This ensured that successive generations of students would have access to his knowledge. Though his personal papers have never been found, his collection forms the basis of the museum today.
This collection has grown organically through time, until the early 1980s through to the early 2000s, when its size increased dramatically. It was during this period that other colleges and Universities throughout London had begun to donate their collections to the Grant museum. As Jack remembers, “They had decided they no longer required any sort of collection of zoology. Animal biology had begun to go out of fashion, with people just teaching molecular biology and genetics. Today many universities in London have realised that you can’t teach a student what a tiger looks like by looking at its genes – you actually need some whole animal bits too! We teach every day during term time.”
In absorbing a whole variety of collections, the museum has effectively become a museum of museums. Today it includes collections from the Gordon Museum, which consists of an assortment of animal brains from the comparative anatomy collections at King’s College London: The Imperial College London’s entire fossil, skeletal and spirit specimen collection was transferred to the UCL in the 1980s and soon after, in the ‘90s, primatology and fossil hominid materials were donated from the Napier Collection along with subsequent donations from a variety of collections throughout the city. A large majority of the specimens originate from the Victorian-era, with many having been on display for over 180 years. Among the specimens lies one of the rarest skeletons in the world: that of the extinct quagga – an unusual half-striped zebra from South Africa. As if that weren’t unique enough, it is also the only mounted quagga skeleton in the UK; no more than seven quagga skeletons survive globally. The museum also boasts a number of wax models which are used in teaching and around 20,000 microscope slides from scientific research material through to sets that students would borrow for a year – many of which are displayed on a giant vertical light box. And look out for my favourite, the jar of (many, many) moles!
Traditionally, the museum was only available for students to visit but in 1997, it was opened to the public for two afternoons a week. Today, however, it is open 6 days a week. In over 170 years, much has befallen the museum: in 1884, a ceiling collapse destroyed a number of specimens, with further collapses in the 1890s and, after flooding in the 1970s, the roof was completely destroyed. During the dark days of the Second World War, the entire collection was evacuated to Bangor while the museum on many occasions was threatened with closure. In recent years, however, the museum has gone from strength to strength, relocating several times to expand the space for its collections. When it was made open to the public in 1997, the collection moved to the UCL Darwin Building. In March 2011, the museum was relocated again, this time to the wonderful Rockefeller Building on University Street, formally the medical school library.
The museum continues to be used for teaching, as it was in Professor Grant’s day, as well as serving as a fully accessible resource to more people than ever before through outreach programmes and its different exhibitions. Jack Ashby and staff at the museum fully encourage visitors and remain keen to create awareness of this beguiling collection.