Archive for the 'Museums etc.' Category

London Zoo


This review is a very long time coming given how many times I have visited this place over the years. In addition to many childhood trips, I worked as a volunteer keeper here at weekends for several years and as a result know the place fairly intimately. The lack of a review was largely down to not having any accessible photos during most of my blogging past, but a visit in April this year took care of that. In many ways it makes this summary all the more appropriate since a huge amount has changed in the last few years. Although London has always undergone upgrades and renovations, some of the most recent alterations have rather starkly changed the face of the zoo and the difference say between now and ten years ago is a world away to say the different between 1984 and 2004.


London historically has some major issues when it comes to these kinds of changes which makes the transformation all the more remarkable. Situated in Regent’s Park, it doesn’t actually own the land it is on and instead effectively enjoys rent-free tenancy from the crown, but it also means they can’t expand with public rights of way across the zoo, and the presence of both a road and canal through it, limit the footprint further and the locations of possible new builds or rebuilds. Many of the buildings are also old and creaking, making the costs of maintenance and upgrades very expensive, while prices in London for building work are obviously much greater than in many places. On top of that many of the buildings are historically important and have listed status, which means even minor changes, let alone major alterations or replacing the building, are often impossible. Put that all together with the funding crisis the zoo suffered for many years (staff were made redundant, buildings closed, animals moved on) and it’s incredible that not only are they still afloat, but have in fact been rejuvenated.

392065_n Some of the repurposing has been very intelligently done. Much of the Charles Clore Pavilion (effectively the small mammal house and nocturnal section) has been knocked together to form a single, large walk-through South American enclosure with birds, armadillos, sloths, tamandua, marmosets and others wandering freely, while the basement still houses the nocturnal animals, and the perimeter contains a series of other small critters like squirrels and tree shrews. It has totally changed the scope and style of the building, but without huge changes to the structure that would be costly, and allowing the fundamental purpose (small mammals) to remain the same (keeping staff and facilities in situ too).


This is still very much a city zoo, meaning it is generally small but packs a lot in. One major improvement (if originally most a money-saving effort) was the removal of most of the larger animals and the zoo no longer has the rhinos and elephants of before, while things like big cats and apes are fewer in number and have much larger enclosures. Even so, ‘traditional’ species like giraffe, (Asiatic) lions, gorilla and vultures are still in residence, but the focus has turned to smaller animals in many cases when it comes to things like large mammals and birds, though the presence of Komodo dragons, tigers, hunting dogs, okapi and llama hardly means that it is all ‘tiny’ species though these are in abundance.


For a long time it boasted the most diverse (in terms of species) collection in the UK, if not Europe, and while I don’t know if this is still the case, it must certainly come close. This is assisted by the presence of the Clore, insect house (the Millennium building), aquarium, reptile house and an aviary for small birds, and so there is a huge amount of species covered between these. While here too there are plenty of ‘traditional’ species that the public will hoover up, even to the jaded zoo go-er like me, seeing things like Congo pygmy goose, Philippines crocodile and frogmouths were all new and great to see. 198019857637_o

One can also get much closer to many animals than in many places. In addition to the Clore, the children’s zoo, two small aviaries, the giant Snowden aviary and butterfly house all had walk-through sections while new viewing platforms for the giraffe and well designed new set-ups for the tiger and gorillas give much better access (while still giving the animals privacy) than before. So although much of the zoo is still original in many ways (there are no shortage of bricks, concrete and historic buildings), and preserves its feel and tradition, it is no longer the stark and unfriendly place as it was so often portrayed in the bad old days.


While certainly I do have a bias in all of this with my connections to the zoo, it is hard not to consider it still one of the premier collections in the world. It is a modern flourishing zoo, and given that it has maintained its position as one of the top zoos for research and conservation work (it was originally founded as part of the Zoological Society which sits in the grounds) while reworking the grounds and facilities, and housing a vast collection of important species, it is hard to find any real flaw in the place these days. No matter your interest in zoos – interesting species, common species, research, education, conservation, history and design there is something important and compelling here. Sure there are things to improve and change, but one can say that of any zoo, however good it is, but if you are a zoo aficionado, London really is one of the places to visit.




Black Beauty

IMG_2084So here is one of the absolute classics of palaeontological mounts – the Tyrannosaurus specimen known as ‘Black Beauty’. Actually from a scientific perspective I don’t really like these panel mounts, they tend to cover up too much of the actual details of the bones, but to be fair, from the point of view of a visitor and the display aesthetics, they can be spectacular and this one certainly is.

IMG_2085Obviously a fair bit of this is not original and is reconstructed material or casts (I didn’t look close enough to check which) and most notably while there is a good skull it’s not stuck way up there. That’s obviously a good thing from a safety perspective, a fall would utterly destroy it, but what is odd is that while the skull is on display, it’s not next to the mount. Instead, it’s currently in the next gallery in the series and sits alone in a rather fetching ‘picture frame’ case with some of the museum’s other prized specimens.



Naturally those producing displays need to be mindful of a great many things and it’s understandable (if frustrating) that researchers are not closer to the top of that list. However, given the amount of Tyrannosaurus material available at the Tyrrell and just how good this looks, I have to admit, I’m pretty much giving this one a pass.

Tyrrell educational displays


These are almost the first things in the Tyrrell once you have made it past the opening tyrannosaurs, and it’s a great set-up for the main exhibitions. Obviously kids will want to run through and see the skeletons, but from the educator’s point of view, you do want to maximise their enjoyment and appreciation of the material, and well, if you can get them to learn something too that’s obviously a bonus. In this case these two stands are pretty simple in design, but obviously do their jobs well – they are clear and stark and use very obvious examples which should be easy to understand for young kids, and of course lean heavily on things featured in the galleries (tyrannosaurs and hadrosaurs are plentiful to say the least), but without resorting to huge numbers of primary colours and cartoon-like illustrations which I think can be rather unnecessary. In short, great stuff!


More Tyrrell Tyrannosaurs

As you might have already guessed, the Tyrrell is not short of tyrannosaurs and this blog is going to be heaving with them by the end. I mean, this is the second post and I’m still on all the life reconstructions! (and no, we’ve not got to the murals yet, let alone the actual mounts and specimens). First off is this great rendering which stands outside at the main entrance, and it’s one I really like and probably prefer to the set I covered in the last post. The pose is really cool and a colours are great (though perhaps a bit faded in the sun), but it really is a great way to welcome people to the museum and stands atop the Tyrrell logo which is, well, you guessed.


The second one is not easy to see as it’s in the education centre and so not always visible to the average visitor, which is a shame as it is absolutely great. It looks like a bronze statue from a distance, but in fact appears to be made of metal plates welded together, with the details picked out with blobs of metal that I assume were welded or soldered on. It’s mounted on a plinth with seats built into one side, and a glass case containing a partial skull on the other. While it’s a shame not everyone gets to see these, I’m sure it’s a real thrill for the kids that they get to see some bonus stuff the adults can’t and it’s a superb sculpt. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen anything quite like it, and welding can’t be the easiest medium, yet the result is brilliant.

IMG_2408Coming next? Oh, I don’t know. I still have several hundred images to sort through and much exam marking to complete. I’m sure I can find something exciting though. Probably with tyrannosaurs, whether I intend to or not.

Tyrrell tyrannosaurs

And so to the Tyrrell. Well, there’s really quite a lot to come here, from the setting of the buildings, the collections and of course the galleries. As with the Carnegie, it’s going to take quite some time, and so I really do hope people don’t get sick of it, but well, for those who have never been and may never go, I’m sure it’ll be something of a delight, and even those who know the museum well, I hope I can add some new thoughts.

Although there are life reconstructions outside the museum and various details of the building and so on, I’d though I’d begin with what is effectively the start of the museum and the entrance hall which contains four life sized reconstructions of various Albertan tyrannosaurines. They are certainly impressive, and rather appropriate, and the setting is rather well done, though I have to be picky and point that they all have rather odd heads, and given that these are (as far as I could tell) supposed to represent two or three different species, the fact that they are all the same colour and pattern is rather a disappointment.


Nitpicking aside, they really do dominate the room and are beautifully made. Everyone I saw who entered stopped to have a good look and the effect on the kids was obviously superb. They do have problems, but as an introduction to a dinosaur museum, I thought they were superb.


The Grant Museum of Zoology

For the last couple of months I’ve been doing some on-and-off work in the Grant Museum of Zoology in London. I had dropped into this place a few times before in the past, but recently the collection has moved (all of about 100 yards down the road) to a new and more spacious setting. The museum was started, and remains, a teaching collection for comparative anatomy and as such is devoted to zoology alone and retains a great many and varied specimens on display.

As with the traditions of older museums (like Oxford and Dublin for example), material is everywhere and there’s a lovely cluttered feel with every cabinet and shelf full of specimens. While it can be a nightmare to photograph in situ, each specimen can be see quite clearly so as a visitor it’s fine. A lot of the material is grouped taxonomically providing great opportunities for comparing details (and there are some fossils in there too), though there are small asides for relevant collections such as a case devoted to dissected heads, or one comparing different ways of preserving zoology specimens, or recently extinct taxa (featuring a quagga and thylacine skeleton, and a skin of the latter).

The vertebrates do especially well and there’s a super skeletal collection of the mammals in particular. There’s a nice line in having skeletons next to taxidermy or pickled specimens too which is great, and all manner of odd and unusual pieces that are rarely seen on displays. If you want to see a leopard seal skull, pickled baby aardvark or stuffed golden mole, this is the place for you. All in all this is a superb little museum and for those like me who do like their anatomy and simply want to see lots and lots of specimens, this really is a must.

Fighting zebras

On my recent trip to Marwell, I and my colleagues were treated to quite a number of interesting animal behaviours. One of these was a pair of zebras having quite a serious disagreement. The encounter lasted a good few minutes and with lots of kicking, biting and general jostling. All of us burned off plenty of frames on the cameras and we come out with some good shots, and here are the best of mine.

As usual though, there’s a little scope for me to mention dinosaurs and palaeobehaviour. While obviously some animals were better equipped than others to fight, pretty much all species engage in some form of intraspecific combat at some point. You don’t have to have horns or tusks or spikes to inflict some serious injuries on your opponent and while a zebra may be rather less well equipped to deal out damage than say a buffalo, that doesn’t mean it can’t injure or kill another zebra. Similarly, while I imagine the primary reaction of any hadrosaur to a serious predator would be to flee, I’m sure that a pair of edmontosaurs with enough to fight over would have bitten and stomped as far as possible and fights would doubtless have got nasty – it wouldn’t just be the ceratopsians that would have tried to defeat one another.

Incidentally, I can’t help suspect that ‘the fighting zebras’ is the name of some US college basketball team or some long forgotten infantry company. And if it isn’t, it really should be.

Horniman cabinets

Having muttered about the aquarium and some of the model archosaurs, it’s time to turn to the actual displays. I’ve mused a fair bit on the past on signs, displays and exhibitions in museums and generally advocated more information, more basics to biology and more attention to putting things in context. All of this is done superbly here (despite the rather venerable nature of much of it) and is put nicely in the context of diversity as a whole. So while there is a gallery devoted to diversity and classification, and cabinets that show key groups like parrots and carnivores, a lot of space is given to presenting fundamentals of biology.

This is done well though, so that not just the key point is made simply and effectively, but that more information is available if you delve into the details, and there is much to look at and enjoy, even if you don’t read a word. There are displays dedicated to sexual selection, convergence (spines in one case, moving in water for another), crypsis and display colours, flight and more. Below are some of these to give a flavour of the kind of thing that is on show, though a bit of the context is lost as several of these were part of a series, the point should be quite clear.

Dogs: A clear a simple display of skulls and heads (mostly cut off). Domestic animals are a great way to introduce ideas about variation and what can happen with selective breeding as they are so familiar, and in dogs you have perhaps the most familiar and most varied animal.

The embryological sequence is superb and mapped out from a single-celled zygote upwards, showing the whole pattern and process of vertebrate embryology.

Skulls: A nice display to show the number and diversity of bones in the skull and their consistency across many differnt groups.

More on skulls: this follows the previous display and shows more explicitly how certain changes occurred and clearly the coloured bones helps show the changing shapes and emphasise the positions of the fenestrae in the skull.

Evolution of the elephant: Mammoths aside, many people might not be aware of other fossil elephants. Here we see skulls, teeth (key characters for this clade), and life restorations.

Modifications: birds are highly derived animals specialised for flight, but here we see how penguins have reversed or modified some of these traits for swimming.

All in all this is superb stuff. There’s lots of little features here which will grab attention and answer questions and prompt thought – just the kind of thing you want from a museum. Moreover, the design is superb – in pretty much every case, a 5 second glance is enough to convey the really basic and essential message (skulls have the same bones but are different, you can breed lots of variety from a stock ancestor) but that taking time will unveil greater depth and detail.

The Horniman dinosaurs

The Horniman museum is rather bereft of dinosaur material. There are some Igunaodon vertebrae in rather poor condition, there’s some trackways hanging around, and though I missed it, I’m assured there is a Triceratops rib on display. Given the size of the museum vs the style of the collections that’s not a criticism, but no real natural history museum can really count as such without at least a token effort at some dinosaur display and this is no exception. There are several small life reconstruction models of dinosaurs dotted in the halls to illustrate various issues and here they are.

Yes, they are rather out of date to say the least, and it’s quite a surprise that there’s no theropod or sauropod at all, just ornithischians. Still, they are rather endearing and I really like them in terms of style, though obviously from an educational standpoint they could do with being a bit more up to date (and how long as Scolosaurus been sunk into Euoplocephalus?). The detail is nice too, though the Stegosaurus is probably the best (and appears to have walked straight off the set of King Kong) and I only find now that my photo is rather out of focus, sorry about that.

The Horniman Museum aquarium

I spent yesterday catching up with my old friend and colleague Paolo Viscardi (known to fans of mystery biological objects as Zygoma). He’s a curator at the Horniman Museum, a small site in southeast London and one of those old style museums split between three major collections –  archaeological artefacts, musical instruments and natural history. While the latter part is well worth talking about and I have a number of posts lined up on various parts (including some very retro dinosaurs) there is also a small, but well stocked, aquarium attached. Some important breeding programs go on behind the scenes including work on various corals, seahorses and recently some cuttlefish too. It’s been a while since I’ve managed to cram a decent number of living species into these pages, so here, have some fish (and a lobster).

Oh, and a frog.


Butterflies & moths

Another little display from the Carnegie I’ve had sat in my files for too long. OK so there’s nothing here that’s linked to archosaurs, or even evolution in general. But what it does do is address just the kind of question that often bugs people. I think a very big proportion of the public would recognise that moths and butterflies are close relatives and that they are different, but aside from the diurnal / nocturnal split and the fact that butterflies tend to be more colourful, they would probably struggle to say how you could tell them apart, or for that matter what linked them together.

My experiences with Ask A Biologist suggest this kind of thing is really common. People have bits of knowledge and part of the full picture, but don’t realise they have only part of the story and even if they did, don’t know how to go about filling in the gaps or putting their knowledge into context. In the case of AAB, someone has realised that don’t know the full picture, or has had their interest piqued by some incident.

In the case it’s actively prompting people – it’s easy to imagine someone looking at this and thinking “Oh yeah, what *is* the difference?”. The headline is a nice attention grabber and it’ll get people to read the short captions below and, hopefully, get them thinking a little more about taxonomy and diversity (if not in those terms) and the world around them. In short, neat idea, well done. I can easily see this being a nice series too – a line of panels of ‘What’s the difference between a shark and a fish?’ or frogs vs toads, newts vs salamanders, goats vs sheep and the like.

What is also nice about this is how much that is conveyed in such a small amount of space and few words. Maximum communication but without filling the place or making people struggle through dense text to get the message across, and all the time filling in other gaps in their knowledge with little extras like the addition of skippers or the relative numbers of species. Great stuff.

Variation and selection

Well hey, another little leftover from the Carnegie I should have mentioned before.

There are of course a multitude of ways of presenting ideas in museum exhibits. This one is not only well done (showing the natural variation present in a selection of specimens of one species alongside male and female differences and by extension a little of the diversity and variation seen between species) but has a little resonance for me as it combines two other displays I have seen and commented on before. Tokyo has a nice cabinet showing the diversity seen in a single species (mentioned here, but not shown I’m afraid) and Oxford commented on the diversity of beetles with this lovely effort.

In all three cases the message is simple, but a profoundly important part of biology as a whole and the mechanics of evolution specifically. Communicating that quickly, effectively, simply but with maximum impact and interest is a real challenge and whoever came up with these various cabinets deserves much credit for having done so.

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