Grant Museum

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Dodo bones and a jar of moles

Grant Museum of Zoology, off Gower Street, WC1

The skull of a baboon at the Grant Museum, with distinctive protruding canine teeth
The skull of a baboon at the Grant Muse­um of Zool­o­gy

The Grant Muse­um is one of those idio­syn­crat­ic insti­tu­tions where a short­age of space has com­pelled its cura­tors to cram the copi­ous exhibits wher­ev­er they can pos­si­bly be fit­ted, so that at every turn you’re con­front­ed by a bewil­der­ing array of skulls, skele­tons and lit­tle crea­tures in pre­serv­ing jars.

The muse­um was found­ed in 1827 by Robert Edmond Grant to serve as a teach­ing col­lec­tion at the new­ly found­ed Uni­ver­si­ty of Lon­don (now Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Lon­don). Edin­burgh-born Grant was the first Pro­fes­sor of Zool­o­gy and Com­par­a­tive Anato­my in Eng­land and on his arrival at the uni­ver­si­ty he found no teach­ing mate­ri­als with which to con­duct his cours­es. He imme­di­ate­ly began to amass spec­i­mens, mate­r­i­al for dis­sec­tion, dia­grams and lec­ture notes and these form the basis of the muse­um today. Grant’s fine col­lec­tion was aug­ment­ed by sev­er­al of his illus­tri­ous suc­ces­sors, who added some very rare spec­i­mens.

Hav­ing sur­vived wartime bomb­ing, ceil­ing col­laps­es, flood­ing and threats of clo­sure, the Grant Muse­um moved in 2011 to the UCL Rock­e­feller Build­ing, which used to be the Uni­ver­si­ty Col­lege Hos­pi­tal med­ical school.

The muse­um occu­pies the school’s for­mer library – and you may recog­nise it as Gotham City court­room in Bat­man Begins, a film direct­ed by for­mer UCL stu­dent Christo­pher Nolan. If you didn’t know, you’d nev­er guess the muse­um had recent­ly relo­cat­ed: it feels as though it’s been here its whole life.

The muse­um pos­sess­es around 67,000 spec­i­mens and as many of these as pos­si­ble have been squeezed into and around the dozens of glass cas­es. The col­lec­tion embraces the remains of sev­er­al extinct species, includ­ing the skele­tons of a quag­ga (a type of zebra) and a thy­lacine (also known as the Tas­man­ian tiger) and the bones of a dodo. Oth­er high­lights are the 99-inch wide antlers of a giant elk – acquired when a UCL zool­o­gist saw them mount­ed on the wall of an Irish pub and offered to buy them – and a col­lec­tion of glass mod­els of jel­ly­fish, sea anemones, gas­tropods, sea cucum­bers and cephalopods. To the dis­may of some of the staff – but the delight of oth­ers – the museum’s most pop­u­lar exhib­it is a tight­ly packed jar full of moles. Ten of the dis­plays have iPads attached, ask­ing vis­i­tors to get involved in con­ver­sa­tions about the role of sci­ence in soci­ety and how muse­ums should be run.

Reg­u­lar pub­lic admis­sion is a rel­a­tive­ly recent inno­va­tion – a con­se­quence of the university’s pol­i­cy of ‘access, out­reach and engage­ment’ – and the muse­um con­tin­ues to be used exten­sive­ly for its pri­ma­ry pur­pose as a teach­ing col­lec­tion. Tem­po­rary exhi­bi­tions are organ­ised through­out the year, often accom­pa­nied by work­shops, lec­tures and dis­cus­sions. Admis­sion is free but there are var­i­ous ways you can sup­port the muse­um if you’re so inclined, such as becom­ing a ‘friend’ or adopt­ing a spec­i­men.

Grant Museum of Zoology, Thomas Lewis Room, Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE
Phone: 020 3108 2052
Website: Grant Museum, UCL
Blog: Grant Museum blog at UCL
Open: Monday–Saturday 1.00pm–5.00pm; closed on public holidays and around Christmas and New Year. There may be occasional short-term closures during a construction project that will ultimately improve the design of the foyer, create displays about the history of the teaching and research of zoology, and add an immersive ‘micrarium’ to engage visitors with some of the museum’s tinier specimens. Check the museum’s website for updates.
Admission free
Nearest station: Euston Square (Metropolitan, Hammersmith & City and Circle lines)
Nearby Welcome Collection and Petrie Museum