Imagine arriving to teach at a university, only to discover that there are no resources to actually teach with. What would you do? Quickly gather together a few things that might help you survive the first week? Or, begin an incredibly fascinating collection that will be made use of, and added to, in the following centuries? Well, in 1827, this is exactly what Robert Edmond Grant did.
In this year, Grant became Professor of Zoology at what was then called The University of London, and is now known as UCL. After his death, in 1874, this large collection was added to by successors, and it is now housed in the impressive Rockefeller Building; not far from Tottenham Court Road. Once a library, this well-organised space lends itself to the unusual artefacts that make up the collection, and helps to produce what my friend referred to as a ‘homely feel’. This may come as a surprise, especially when you consider the rather macabre nature of Grant’s collection.
A jar of moles; a whole domestic cat in formaldehyde; skeletons leaning over the balcony; and wooden cases filled with many specimens. From this description, the museum seems like it may be an unwelcoming space. But this could not be further from the truth.
Friendly members of staff and objects that are displayed in an engaging manner, help to create an atmosphere that is warm and inviting. Throughout the museum, there is an overwhelming sense of learning and participation, which is made stronger by the presence of inquisitive young people, and artists eagerly sketching artefacts.
Collections that are made up of deceased animals prompt many moral questions, and the Grant Museum seems to have created a unique space in response to this. The loss of animal life that was involved in creating the museum has definitely not been ignored, which is vital considering the zoological basis of the collection. Consequently, an open arena for discussion is enabled. During my visit, for instance, children were questioning why the specimens were actually there. A friend once told me that she overheard a child ask, in response to the infamous moles in a jar, “did they suffer?” It is amazing to think that a museum collection can inspire such a profound question. For me, this really demonstrates the power of these incredible spaces.