The first time I went to the Grant Museum I thought quite seriously about asking a nine-year-old boy out for a drink. I found him by the dugong skeleton just after his mother had taken a photo of him grinning beside it for a school project, all gappy-toothed and thumbs-up. I was nearby reading an A4 sheet of paper, wondering if I’d always known that dugongs were the source of the mermaid myth or if I’d only just learnt it then.
“Do you know the difference between a manatee and a dugong?” the boy asked me while his distracted mother frisked the museum attendant for information booklets.
“Uh, no. Do you?”
“Of course. Want me to tell you?”
“Go on then.”
“Well, you see his snout here? Manatees have much snubbier ones. And did you know that manatees and dugongs are more closely related to elephants than to other mammals in the sea?”
I did not. Nor did I know that dugongs and their ilk experience some sort of heavy bone-thickening in the ribs, which helps keep them bobbing along just below the surface of the water. I didn’t know any of this stuff, but this little guy did. He told me all about it as we both stared wide-eyed at a grey infant manatee in a jar.
The massive dugong used to be the first thing you saw when you entered the Grant Museum in its old home at UCL on Gower Street. After attempting entry through at least three wrong doors and then being directed around the back by the flailing limbs and exaggerated mouthings of whoever happened to see your faced pressed forlornly against the glass, you would be waved through electronic gates and roundly ignored by reception guards with their noses in newspapers. Just as you thought you were definitely lost in a strange-smelling labyrinthine world of double-doors and green linoleum you would turn a corner and see the mammalian sea creature, centre-stage, surrounded by a precarious Jenga-tower of a collection. It was a museum’s worth of zoological specimens wedged wherever they would fit in a windowless backroom, as if hoarded by some mad Victorian collector. An infant chimpanzee, hunched over like a battered old man with a walking stick, stood between the enormous feet of a white rhinoceros. It would have made for an iconic poster image for bravery or trust had both creatures been less dead. Even without a shred of skin on him, the little chimp looked anxious.
In the centre of the room sat an old lady, very much alive with her long silver hair in a loose bun, carefully sketching the veins of a spider monkey in alizarin crimson. “I’ve been here so long,” she said, “I think I’ll just end up being part of the collection.”
The Grant Museum was one of my favourite places in the world, housed on the street where Charles Darwin once lived. It never occurred to me that Darwin had a teacher, which I know probably sounds ridiculous. He’s just always been there in a sort of chicken/egg continuum – like celebrities you never think of as having an age, or grandpas ever being young enough to be a student. One of his teachers was Robert Edmund Grant, the first chair of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy in the country, and one of the first to teach evolution having adopted the ideas of a French guy called Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire. Grant’s work also served as a very useful Exhibit A for Saint-Hilaire when he was trying to convince a bunch of other scientists that the fundamentally odd platypus laid eggs, which I only mention because this museum boasts the finest collection of badly stuffed platypi I’ve ever seen, and I can’t imagine them convincing anyone of anything. They very nearly beat the couch-stuffed glory of the walrus in the Horniman Museum in South London, the work of overzealous taxidermists who were presented with the skin of the animal and nothing more. Never having seen a walrus, they weren’t quite sure what they were aiming for. They stuffed him until they could stuff no more. He is a drum-tight beanbag and looks eternally uncomfortable.
The museum’s collection is mostly comprised of stuff Grant used to teach his classes, which means you’re peering through the same glass at the same leathery aardvark as Darwin did. I like to think that I could take away an idea so groundbreaking as to turn the world on its head, but mostly, like everyone, I will just stand and gape at the baseball bat walrus penis bone – that’s right, penis bone – and keep it in the filing cabinet of my brain as a possible weapon in caveman Cluedo.
The museum closed its doors last summer so that every bone and bottled specimen could be bubble-wrapped in preparation for the journey to their new home, an Edwardian former library across the street. I was there on opening night.
Rounding the corner of the block you’re given a sneak peak through the dimly lit windows: varnished wooden cabinets, wrought-iron banisters, vast shelves of leather-bound books, and four up-lit skeletons peering over the landing – two sapien, two simian. The first thing to greet you through the ubiquitous double-doors is a Hammer Horror set of bottled brains and a cupboard full of hearts. Beneath the tiny Tunnock’s Teacake brain of a tiger only a few hours old, sits the mammoth beach ball of blue-grey Brain Coral. The label reads: This is not a brain.
A giraffe heart is hidden behind those of a dozen other creatures, and two penguin wings float criss-crossed in clear fluid like boomerangs in stasis. A jar of moles, the museum’s most famous and bizarre feature, looks like a hundred Mickey Mouse gloves in a black void.
Past the knee-weakening expanse of an extinct giant deer’s antlers you can find the skeletal remains of the long gone. A dodo, ancient and brown, hidden in a drawer for decades and only rediscovered in the move, is joined by two plastic miniatures of itself following each other around the bones in a jolly caucus-race. Elephant tusks sliced in two reveal embedded bullets, and the remains of a dissected thylacine in a massive jar are lumped wetly at the bottom like a rumpled coat. A bottle of Central Rock Rats from Australia, twice declared extinct, are apparently doing okay as of 2010 according to the label so maybe it’s not so bad after all, and then you see it: the most prized piece in the museum – the quagga, a zebra-like creature hunted out of existence in the 1880s.
The quagga skeleton is one of only seven, making it the rarest in the world – far rarer than the dodo she keeps at her feet, of which she has exactly three. “Where’s her other leg?” I asked the museum attendant, who shrugged in embarrassment as if he personally had misplaced the thing. “There’s, uh, a few theories about that,” he said, “Um.”
The most likely story is that the leg was on loan to the Hunterian Museum down the road during WWII, which was famously and catastrophically bombed in the Blitz. Much of the collection was destroyed, as was, or so theory has it, the quagga’s hind limb. The other most likely possibility is that it was left behind in Bangor when the collection was evacuated to Wales to avoid a similar fate as the Hunterian. “Those are the least embarrassing theories.”
Past the quagga the room opens wide – a dozen plastic fold-outs are arranged in the middle for the tired or Musical Chairs – and from there you can see several pangolins peering over shelves. Monkeys swing from the roof and a skeleton sloth hangs upside-down from a light-fitting. “To die from a skull fracture from a falling sloth skeleton would be an okay way to go,” you might think, planning the ending to your future Wikipedia entry. Another sloth in a cabinet lies lazily on its back, head dangling off the ledge like a teenager on a sofa, its limbs so mismatched and long it’s almost like he’s ended up with someone else’s.
A loggerhead turtle skull looks more like a Iron Man’s helmet than a skeleton, and the underneaths of other turtles slot together like Meccano. A spiny Slipper Lobster contrasts with the sad lump of a Fin Whale foetus. A cock-eyed long-eared owl looks at you or maybe he doesn’t. The insides of an aye-aye by no means prepare you for what it looks like when you eventually Google the thing, and high up on a shelf that can only be reached by an rickety old library ladder is the pointed end of a preserved shark face. I feel like I’m lying in a lap, looking up a nose. Tomb bats do the Batty Bat in glass boxes, and “a jar of macaque skulls” sounds like something onomatopoetic. A bottled lamprey is the multi-toothed sucking eel of my darkest nightmares, and a lock of Woolley Mammoth hair is a vision of my bathroom. An elephant shrew reminds me of Angelica Huston in The Witches, and a monkey’s paw makes me wonder if W. W. Jacobs had seen the very same one before rushing home to write his horror story.
For a small fee you can “adopt” a specimen as a way of keeping the museum alive and well. One of the most amazing things about this system is how the names of the adopter seem to match the adoptee: “If there’s a really gothy-looking guy in here his name is probably Oscar Lozada because he’s adopted the Gaboon Viper Skull,” said my friend, oblivious to the anaconda wound around a log behind him. Sea mice, glittering in gold, pink and green are bottled beside a tag saying “Adopted by Hermione Spriggs” and the porcupine fish – the blown-up spiny government-issue football in Hell – is adopted by one Astrid Wingler. A perfectly spherical pufferfish with the frightened eyes of a shy shut-in is owned by someone vaguely Finnish, and Michele Slung, whose name is deliciously plummy in its collection of L’s and S’s, opted for the pangolin with its long tongue curling about it in amber liquid.
One of the things I liked most about the old museum was the way stuff was just left where it landed, as if the collection grew piece by piece and never had an overarching plan. Cabinets housed strange bedfellows who would never encounter each other in real life, and other specimens were wedged in between the top of a cabinet and the ceiling. From where you stood you might glimpse the tip of an ear, if you were lucky, and probably spend the rest of the afternoon wondering who it belonged to. Just when I thought this new place seemed a bit too organised with its iPads and live tweets propped up in front of bisected heads, I happened upon a discarded monkey skeleton cradling his own legs, shoved in a recess in a bench with only the peak of its rib cage visible from afar. Perhaps someone threw it in there ten minutes before the Grant re-opened. I bet you a fiver he stays there forever.
The new technological aspect of the museum was one I was dubious of when I first heard about it, but it’s fairly unobtrusive and doesn’t lessen the idea that Vincent Price might appear on the landing at any moment. It only seemed to heighten the peculiarity of old-timey scientists when I eventually located one of my favourite pieces: the elephant heart in the bell jar, labelled with cut-out paper arrows and microscopic hand-lettering. Any school assignments involving that level of arts and crafts invariably resulted in a family who could not rid the house of tiny pieces of paper, nor walk from room to room without collecting them on their feet.
It’s a collection of the insides of things, and the sources of myth – a colossal Asian elephant skull with a large central airway cavity looks almost exactly like a monocular eye socket in the skull of a Cyclops – and I spent most of the following day Googling the names of animals I’d written down just to see what they looked like with their clothes on.
Afterwards it felt only right to have a pint in the Jeremy Bentham, a pub named after the Godfather of the UCL, philosopher and campaigner for animal rights, all-round excellent sounding guy and the source of this famous quote on Utilitarianism: “The greatest happiness of the greatest numbers.” He taught John Stuart Mill. That’s right, John Stuart “The right to swing my fist” Mill had a teacher, too.
The most interesting thing about Jeremy Bentham is not what he did in his lifetime, but what he insisted on after his death. As requested, his body was dissected as part of a public anatomy lecture, and afterwards his preserved skeleton was dressed in his own clothes, padded out with hay and sat in a chair in a wooden cabinet. Atop his shoulders sits a wax model of his head, with the original version hidden deep within the vaults of the college. The Auto-Icon is wheeled out for college meetings and Bentham is recorded as being “present, but not voting.”
In my Last Will and Testament, which I wrote on nothing and dictated at a pub, I bequeathed my body to my amateur taxidermist friend Max, insisting that I be stuffed and mounted in the corner of his sitting room if I should I die before him. I’ve requested the same treatment as Gomez the ex-hamster, who now faces eternity with a mouth lined in red satin and eyesockets stuffed with rhinestones. From my perch I intend to cast mute judgements on his choice of waistcoat and he can read whatever he likes into my eternally arched eyebrow. That’s just the way he will have left it, after all.