5 min read

The everyday creatures celebrated in the Museum of Ordinary Animals

a photo of a series of mice skins

Lab strain mice skins (c.1960s) © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

When it comes to natural history museums, it’s probably safe to say that most people would rather see the remains of dodos and dinosaurs than those of more familiar animals such as rodents, dogs, cats and cows.

But at The Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, which houses around 68,000 natural history specimens covering the whole Animal Kingdom, they are telling the story of the world’s more mundane creatures – the seemingly boring beasts in our daily lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice – and how they have changed the world.

The Museum of Ordinary Animals investigates some of the profound impacts these everyday creatures have had on humanity and the natural world, looking at how they were created, and the extraordinary things we have learned from them.

Exhibits include a wall of 4,000 mice skeletons hand-collected from islands across the planet; famous animal-based artworks from UCL Art Museum’s collection; Egyptian cat mummies and what may be the world’s oldest veterinary text, both on loan from The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

a photo of a two jars full of small skeletal legs

Frogs legs. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

a photo of a cat preserved in a case with fluid

Preserved domestic cat. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

a photo of a small skeleton in small jars

House mice skeletons. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

One of the things that emerges from these everyday creatures is the way their natural history is not the same as the rest of the animal kingdom’s and, says Curator and Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby, “the more ordinary species, which are often the product of human intervention as much as evolution, also have incredible stories to tell us.”

“before humans, there were “no ordinary animals,” he says. “We created them, either physically, through the process of domestication; or conceptually, through the ways we consider common wild species. The Museum of Ordinary Animals gives these commonplace creatures a chance to tell their stories.”

These stories emerge courtesy of the work of a team of 18 researchers who have been delving into the cultural and scientific lives of everything from cats to chickens.

The latter were thought to have been first domesticated around 4,000-6,000 years ago from Asian red jungle fowl (Gallus gallus) which are thought to have been attracted to human villages in the Indus Valley in South Asia by waste from crop-processing and animal dung.

a close up of a chicken's face

Taxidermy chicken. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology Jazmine Miles-Long

a photo of a pair of skulls seen in side profile

Domestic dog skulls. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

a photo of two Egyptian cat mummies seen side-by-side

Egyptian cat mummies. © UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology & Oliver Siddons

Since their domestication our relationship with these birds has been complicated, with their cultural significance being more than just a source of Sunday roasts and Kentucky Fried Chicken and the exhibition explores everything from the Chinese zodiac and Christian iconography through to a Papal decree in the sixth century and the Victorian ‘entertainment’ of cock-fighting.

The exhibition also sees the debut of a brand new specimen from this humble food source and animal, which ranks as the most ubiquitous on the planet.

A recent death in the astounding 19 billion worldwide chicken population, Chickerina, the Grant’s ‘ethically sourced’ taxidermy chicken specimen, was until recently living out her old age at a free range poultry rescue farm in Brighton with other chickens and ducks – many of whom were rescued from battery farms.

When she died she was donated to ethical taxidermist Jazmine Miles-Long, who the Grant commissioned to create the new taxidermy for the exhibition. Chickerina joins an array of ordinary taxidermied specimens – including a domestic tabby cat preserved in specimen jar.

an engraving boy and a man with a pole with rats hanging off it

The Rat-Catcher, c.1654-55, Cornelis de Visscher (1629-1658) © UCL Art Museum & Oliver Siddons

a photo of two cow skulls side by side

Cow skulls. © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons

an egraved portrait of man with a dog

Gulielmus Hogarth, 1749, William Hogarth (1697-1764). © UCL Art Museum & Oliver Siddons

These ordinary animals may be everywhere but, adds Ashby, “the ways they interact with our lives are endless and varied”.

“We have invited them into our homes as pets; their role in our diets has changed us biologically; they are critical to modern medicine and they hold huge symbolic value in many cultures.

“This exhibition aims to shed light on the profound ways that these familiar creatures have changed both the human and natural worlds”.

The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The boring beasts that changed the world is at the Grant Museum of Zoology until December 22 2017. 

venue

Grant Museum of Zoology

London, Greater London

Dating back to 1828, the Museum houses a diverse Natural History collection covering the whole of the animal kingdom. Retaining an air of the avid Victorian collector, the Museum contains cases packed full of skeletons, mounted animals and specimens preserved in fluid.