Thursday 27 March 2014

Grant Museum at University College, London: a Must-See Museum of a Museum

We managed a short visit to the Grant Museum of Zoology on a trip to London in February. The museum can only be described as excellent because it demonstrates what the teaching of zoology was like, as well as showing rare specimens of extinct animals. Based on the UCL collection that was started by Grant, the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in England, specimens have been added from other London institutions. The museum is now housed in the Thomas Lewis Room, the old medical school library, of the Rockefeller Building, on the corner of University Street and Gower Street.

From commonplace pickled specimens, through bones, skins and models to the thylacine dissected by Thomas Henry Huxley, there is something there not only for those who like their museums and specimens in their original state, rather than covered by trendy  ‘educational’ material that turns children away from the subject, but also the historians of science.

The only point I took issue with was the label that stated such museums had fallen from favour because of the rise of biochemistry and molecular biology. As I have pointed out earlier, it was ‘experimental biology’ that first of all pushed comparative anatomy from its importance, followed by ecology and ethology. There was some biochemistry and physiology involved in experimental biology but molecular biology came very much later.

Zoology was very different in Grant’s time at UCL, as Medawar demonstrated in Pluto’s Republic:

Biology before Darwin was almost all facts. My friend R. B. Freeman has brought to light some Victorian examination questions from our oldest English school of zoology, at University College, London. The answers called for nothing more than a voluble pouring forth of factual information…This is one (by no means the longest) of eight questions set by Professor Grant in Comparative Anatomy in February 1860:
'By what special structures are bats enabled to fly through the air? and how do the galeopitheci, the pteromys, the petaurus, and petauristae support themselves in that light element? Compare the structure of the wing of the bat with that of the bird, and with that of the extinct pterodactyl: and explain the structures by which the cobra expands its neck, and the saurian dragon flies through the atmosphere. By what structures do serpents spring from the ground, and fishes and cephalopods leap on deck from the waters? and how do flying-fishes support themselves in the air? Explain the origin, the nature, the mode of construction, and the uses of the fibrous parachutes of arachnidans and larvae, and the cocoons which envelope the young; and describe the skeletal elements which support, and the muscles which move the mesoptera and the metaptera of insects. Describe the structure, the attachments, and the principal varieties of form of the legs of insects; and compare them with the hollow articulated limbs of nereides, and the tubular feet of lumbrici. How are the muscles disposed which move the solid setae of stylaria, the cutaneous investment of ascaris, the tubular peduncle of pentalasmis, the wheels of rotifera, the feet of asterias, the mantle of medusae, and the tubular tentacles of actinae? How do entozoa effect the migrations necessary to their development and metamorphoses? how do the fixed polypifera and porifera distribute their progeny over the ocean? and lastly, how do the microscopic indestructible protozoa spread from lake to lake over the globe?'
That’s the sort of question that some decades later would have elicited the query at the end of a seminar, ‘So, what?’, or, from an external examiner to a young lecturer missing the point of examinations, ‘Is that really an honours question?’ 

The Grant Museum is a must-see for any visitor to London:

Here are a few poor photographs (my iPhone 4 had difficulty coping with the low light):

The microscope slides look pretty modern to me

Thylacine skeleton