I am back from a long hiatus due to ill health and unplanned hospital visits, but I thought what better way to dip my toe back into the blogosphere than to start a new feature. Welcome to Museums of the Month!
This museum has been on my radar since I was bought a ‘Weird Museum’ guidebook as a birthday present. I was meeting a friend from St Andrews who did her undergraduate degree in Zoology and thought this would be the perfect place to take her. I am slowly earning the reputation of ‘Museum Matcher.’ Got an obscure hobby or passion? Kate will find you a museum dedicated to it!
The Grant Museum of Zoology seemed to be half Zoology Museum half witch’s pantry, with a blend of bisected heads, skeletons, taxidermy and jars full of animals. It was great having a Zoologist friend with me, as she was so excited to see the specimens and gave detailed and enthusiastic descriptions of her favourites. However, the museum itself had great volunteers who really knew their stuff and were really friendly. My pretty basic question about the lifespan of bats led to a lovely discussion about one of my favourite animals.
The museum currently has an art installation called Agonism/Antagonism by Neus Torres Tamarit which explores the ‘genetic tug of war between the sexes.’ As well as being beautiful, the art was produced during an artist residency in the UCL Department of Genetics, Evolution and Environment. As someone who loves interdisciplinary approaches to science, I found this relationship between science and art really exciting.
- The Jar of Moles – What more can I say? The jar of moles is apparently one of the most popular specimens and it certainly won me over. It is equal parts odd and adorable.
- The African Rock Python –Seeing this specimen took our breath away. It’s huge! The snake previously lived in the London Zoo and was donated to the museum after its death in the 60s’. The snake was so long that the specimen was prepared on the roof of the Medawar Building at UCL!
- The Micrarium – This was possibly the best thing in the museum. So many museums focus on large specimens but this little cabinet featured microscopic slides. It was amazing to see the tiny specimens arranged in a really engaging way. I would love to see something similar in a pathology museum.
I have been wanting to visit the Wellcome Collection for years so I had to make it one of my first trips. I visited the Grant Museum and the Wellcome Collection on the same day and so it was my turn to be the tour guide and excitable enthusiast for my Zoologist friend. The Wellcome was getting ready for its new exhibition Living With Buildings, so I will have to pop back this month to see it.
One of my favourite things about the Wellcome is the way it looks at seemingly objective topics, such as medicine and wellness, and frames them within a wider cultural understanding. If our bodies exist in a society, then our understanding of and feelings towards those bodies will be reflective of that society. Seeing exhibits and sections of the Collection that played with that idea was amazing. The area on obesity was particularly interesting. I found the huge bookcase full of diet books especially profound. It made me think of the diet industry, which profits off people’s unhappiness with their bodies and it also made me question what is more common; a person changing their dietary habits in order to become healthier or a person determined to lose weight because they are unhappy with how they look? If fad diets and diet books make money, then it follows that those within that industry profit off the cyclical nature of yo-yo dieting. To me, that bookcase seemed to be dedicated to that exploitation and the dangerous conflation of thinness and health.
- The Vanitas – A vanitas is a piece of art meant to illustrate the transient nature of life and beauty and remind the viewer that vain (here meaning ‘worthlessness’) pleasures are a waste of your limited time. The style of vanitas at the Wellcome, a face split between life and death, is one of my favourite styles of Memento Mori art. I particularly loved the small details on this vanitas, especially the spindly spider on the skull.
- The Prosthetic Nose – Syphilis is one of my favourite illnesses of all time and I have
read about prosthetic or ‘false’ noses being used as a means to hide the damage of tertiary syphilis. It was exciting to finally see one. A nose prosthetic was used purely for aesthetic purposes, which I find to be very interesting. The act of wearing a false nose clearly shows others that you have damage to your actual nose, so in terms of hiding your illness, it isn’t really effective. So is a false nose more for the beholder? And what does that mean regarding venereal disease, visible illnesses and shame?
Not Quite A Museum of the Month…
The first historical place I visited when I moved to London was Highgate Cemetery. This is another place that I have been reading about for years, so it was so great to be able to finally visit.
Highgate Cemetery is a curious mix of styles, from modern graves (like that of Paul Caulfield or Douglas Adams) to dilapidated, broken Victorian graves and statues. It was great to see the personalities of the residents shine through in the gravestones which were often custom built.
I heard about Highgate Cemetery as a child. I can’t quite remember how I came across it, but I remember hearing about the “Highgate Vampire” and was both spooked and intrigued. But visiting as an adult, I found the place strikingly peaceful. I was particularly taken by the older graves which looked like they were being absorbed by the surrounding plants and trees. I live not too far away from the cemetery so I feel like I will be visiting again and again – I am interested in how Highgate Cemetery looks as the seasons change.