On Monday I went on a Royal Academy Friends visit to two small museums which are part of UCL: the Grant Museum of Zoology and the Petrie Museum of Egyptology. UCL is my alma mater and I was mildly embarrassed that I had never visited either before, though less so when I learned that both only opened to the public long after I left.
The Petrie Museum has thousands of objects, especially from the period of the pharaoh Akhenaten. He was a controversial pharaoh because he introduced a form of monotheism. After his death he was more or less written out of history and the Egyptians reverted to worshipping their legion of gods. They have some interesting pieces, for instance, three linen dresses or tunics, made of very fine fabric, woven with a crimp which means they are stretchy and designed to be very close fitting; and some lovely funerary portraits, full of character, though these are much later. And, inevitably, lots of bits of pots.
In my book, the star of the show however was the Grant Museum. It has a fascinating history, set up in 1827 by Robert Grant as a teaching collection at the newly founded University of London (later UCL). Grant had studied medicine in Edinburgh and qualified as a doctor, but was a specialist in comparative anatomy. He had radical views on evolution and taught Darwin, when he too was a medical student in Edinburgh. At the age of 35, he came down to UCL and became the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in England. The Museum became the first place where evolution was taught in a university.
The idea of using bones to teach zoology and medical students fell out of fashion with the rise of genetics as the basis for studying organisms, but lately there has been a resurgence of interest. As the Director put it to us, studying the genome of a gorilla doesn’t tell you anything about what a gorilla looks like and how it might behave in the wild. Among the highlights of the collection are a box of dodo bones, not enough to make a skeleton; and the skeleton of possibly the last quagga, a kind of South African zebra, of which there are only 7 skeletons in the world.
The highlight for me was the Micrarium, a sort of cupboard sized light box designed to display over two thousand microscope slides, showing slices through tiny organisms or parts of them. Apparently, 95% of known animal species are smaller than a thumb but most natural history museums concentrate on the big ones. So this is a way of redressing the balance.
It made me think about this as a way of displaying lots of information. Although the layout is linear, something about the overwhelming amount of information makes it feel like you are immersed in it all.