The Grant Museum of Zoology has moved. Formerly housed in a building not unlike a school science block, it's now located over the road and up a bit. Try to approach from Gower Street if possible, as the stunning Georgian residences are worth seeing en route. There's also a rich seam of blue heritage discs on the buildings, indicating that significant persons formerly lived at these addresses. Probably the densest concentration anywhere in the UK.
If you like your preserved specimens to be human in origin, you're probably thinking of another museum (The Hunterian), but it's nearby so you could visit both in one session. The Grant Museum of Zoology leans towards animals displayed in jars and antique viewing cabinets. Close to the entrance is a glass container, brimful of moles (18 apparently, but looks more). Not an image you're adequately prepared for, so it serves as a useful acclimatisation exhibit for the museum. It's difficult to look at - yet equally difficult to look away. You're caught in a form of intellectual, horror-tinged quicksand. Moving further into the museum, the emphasis veers more towards taxidermy and skeletal displays. A useful opportunity to stand back and survey the surroundings.
The move to this former Edwardian library is an appropriate one. Tall ceilinged and dressed in wood panelling, it's the kind of room in which Holmes would lecture Watson on the merits of a mutton supper. Or where Phileas Fogg would dash out - India bound - to locate a fresh packet of tea. It's stunning and all the better for having exotic birds and beasts packed into every available square-foot. Like the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, the Grant Museum belongs to University College London and is part of their Bloomsbury campus (The Wellcome Collection is also around the corner). Consequently the museum has 'part-time' opening hours (see below) and shuts on public holidays, so planning a visit is advisable. Some displays have iPads attached and visitors are invited to voice their opinions concerning the role of science in society, or more specifically, how the museum should be run. Called QRator, QR codes are displayed throughout the museum and visitors can hashtag #GrantQR on Twitter if they wish to directly solicit the museum's attention (like an online "ahem!"). You see, it might appear a lofty and distant institution, but UCL is distinctly cutting edge and approachable when it comes to technology. It's also the largest research institute in the UK and among the world's university elite.
Robert Grant - Professor of Zoology & Anatomy
Robert Grant was the first Professor of Zoology and Anatomy and the museum is named after his collection. It was amassed after he arrived at the newly established seat of learning in 1827, and found the educational materials to be lacking (he tutored Charles Darwin in his previous post at Edinburgh) . Once he started collecting, Grant evidently found it difficult to stop. After 47 years as professor of zoology, he died, aged 81, and left his entire collection to the university - apparently on his deathbed. It's difficult when that happens, not to imagine a pen in his frozen hand, as the last will and testament was moved in a signature-shape below. He was buried in Highgate Cemetery.
There are no highlights, in this 'all-highlight' Grand Guignol of the preservation arts. The kind of gallery that director Jean Pierre Jeunet would produce if he was in the business of fitting-out museums. It has a rare quagga (zebra-like, horse relative), a dodo (half-a-dodo to be precise, which was found in a drawer during the move in 2011 - like a toffee down the sofa). A pterosaur which staff assumed was plaster-cast, turned out to be both genuine and 160 million years old. As interesting as the collection is, the stories surrounding the items are more so. The abrasions on the inside of the giant tortoise shell, suggest it was added to the cooking pot on a long voyage - possibly The Beagle, accompanied by Charles Darwin - but so far, unproven.
It's free, surrounded by many places worthy of your time and above all, memorable. Some images you may wish to un-remember, after they revisit, uninvited in the early hours of the morning, but... such is the price of an education.
The Grant Museum of Zoology reopens. By the BBC, streamed from YouTube.
The museum is open: Monday to Friday 1-5pm.
Also open for group and research visits on weekday mornings 10am-1pm, when advance booking is required.
The Grant Museum of Zoology, Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE
Nearest Tube: Euston Square, Warren Street or Goodge Street.
Call: 020 3108 2052