Appeasing ethical karma: A look at the new home of the Grant Museum of Zoology

By Ben Miller | 05 April 2011
A photo of a reptile head in a jar
© UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology / Matt Clayton
Mark Carnall, the erudite curator responsible for the 67,000 items held at University College London’s Grant Museum, has a dilemma.

“There aren’t many numbers left of things like sturgeons and cod, but how can we tell people ‘this is your fault’ or ‘this is your personal choice?’” he asks, walking past a skeleton of an extinct zebra subspecies near the entrance.

“We don’t want to put visitors off or inundate them with more doom and gloom scenarios, but I think it’s ethically irresponsible to just put this stuff out, say ‘here’s a sad story’ and not take it any further.

“In order to appease ethical karma we should really be generating specific kinds of interest in it.”

Technologically swish iPads dotted around the place pose provocative questions, introduced when the museum reopened in its new Rockefeller Building base last month. They aim to leave the public with something more to ponder than exotic skulls and bottles of flesh.

“We’re trying to juggle the expectations visitors have when it comes to a natural history museum with showing them that although it all looks Victorian, these things enshrine issues which are ongoing and critical,” he argues forcefully.

“We want to try and get people interested in areas of biology where there aren’t just black and white answers.”

It doesn’t help that the collection itself was partly founded upon a distinct lack of ethics.

“In 1827, they’d put an order in with a guy who’d bring stuff back in a crate. It would be a case of ‘I want a rhino for teaching’ – there was no sense of ecology, no-one asking ‘what was it doing? How did you catch it? How many of these were left?’”

The destructive legacy leaves fieldworkers to do what Carnall calls “the mopping up work”.

“It’s ‘well, what have we got left?’ One of my colleagues at the moment is on fieldwork with Tasmanian Devils because they’re getting this facial tumour disease, and he’s looking at what’s happening now that they’ve gone.”

Previously a teaching collection for biology, the Grant was turfed out of its former home – “it got to the point where they said ‘we love having you in the building, but you’re essentially squatting’” – having been a public museum since 1996.

The project didn’t go perfectly. “Moving a museum isn’t like moving an office – you can’t just stick stuff on a trolley and get a man with a van to move it,” sighs Carnall.

“A special company were installing the cases, then the guy died a couple of weeks before we opened, so we had to come up with a temporary solution. And there were building works downstairs, so we were asking ‘when’s this going to end?’ and they said ‘maybe in a couple of weeks.’”

Despite his curatorial angst, the combination of crammed shelves and learning space is a triumphant improvement on their old haunt.

“Accessibility in the other place was awful – not only did you have to enter the college, which was a big psychological barrier, but you had to walk past chemical bins, bike racks and security barriers,” recalls Carnall.

“Now we’ve got it at street level and people can walk straight in.”

The dusty cupboards imbue every corner with a charm swankier institutions can only dream of.

“We’ve brought all our old cases with us,” he says, nodding to his artefacts.

“Some date from The Great Exhibition [1951], and they’re in 19th century display cases, so that’s how state-of-the-art we are.

“It’s a question of how we can upgrade that but keep the aesthetic, without turning it modern and bulletproof.”

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