A veritable ark

Eleanor Mills, 18.07.2018
The reopened Museum of Zoology in Cambridge demystifies museum processes
The Museum of Zoology, which is run by the University of Cambridge, has reopened after a five-year dark period and a £4.2m revamp.

One of the main attractions, emulating London’s Natural History Museum, is the refurbishment of the 21-metre long fin whale skeleton the museum holds, which used to be on display outside. Now moved into the new “whale hall” as visitors enter the building, the skeleton has been masterfully restored and cleaned. As Jack Ashby, the museum manager, says, “45 years of pigeon poo were cleaned off that specimen to get it looking like it does now,” over the course of four years in storage.

On entering the main display space, different whale skeletons appear to swim around the perimeter of the ceiling, and while the mammals are visible downstairs from the central atrium, the ground floor concentrates on sea life – from fish, urchins, worms, shellfish, a hydrothermal vent chimney (very rare) to prehistoric specimens such as trilobites (ancient aquatic woodlice) and an ichthyosaur.

Also on the ground floor are airborne species, including well-known birds such as a flamingo and the common kingfisher, displayed alongside those less well-known, such as a golden pheasant and birds of paradise. Insects are also covered on this floor, though Darwin’s beetle collection is given separate treatment in a section about the voyage of HMS Beagle in 1831-6 and the other findings from his expedition to the Galapagos.

Interestingly, the museum has decided to display how skeletons and specimens are usually stored when not on public view to help demystify the processes involved. To the lay person, for instance, it may not be obvious that skeletons aren’t stored how we see them as assembled animals, but as vast collections of bones in boxes. This highlights the selection process, and also the difficulty of estimating the size and shape of those that curators decide to assemble and display, let alone the intricacy of actually slotting together all those loose bones.

One such conundrum must have been the tremendous, towering figure of the giant ground sloth, which rears its claws in mid-air downstairs on the floor devoted to mammals. The 40,000-year-old skeleton might actually be the only one of its kind in the UK, and is an incredibly visceral portrayal of the mega fauna that roamed the earth in prehistoric times. Now, most people will be familiar with woolly mammoths, saber-tooth tigers, maybe even the giant ground sloth, but I wonder who’s seen a Diprotodon, or giant wombat, skeleton before? Yes, this museum has a rare cast of its skeleton and it really is amazing.

Another innovative part of the displays downstairs is one that showcases up-to-date research about fish called cichlids in Lake Malawi. Researchers at the University of Cambridge have identified that what was originally only one species of fish has adapted into many sub-species to fill all the typical criteria of predator and prey of a much more complex ecosystem developed over a much longer time period. This fast adaptation is called “adaptive radiation”. For instance, the cichlids at the surface of the water are predators, but a sub-species of cichlid has learnt to lurk at the bottom of the lake and gain its sustenance from mud and vegetable matter.

The museum also highlights animals that are in particular plight, such as the highly endangered pangolin, which is horrifically “harvested” for its scales for use in Chinese medicine practices, and the endearing but endangered, ground-dwelling, flightless green parrot, the kakapo.

The new-look Museum of Zoology is not only enlightening, but a lesson in how to present soft-learning without bombarding the visitor with masses of text.