Mark Carnall on the Grant Museum’s remarkable Micrarium; a stunning display of microscopic animals
As part of University College London’s collections review between 2007 and 2009, by taking the time to count the number of objects in the collection I discovered that the Grant Museum held more than 20,000 microscope slides in the collection.
I knew there was a sizeable collection secreted around the museum in slide boxes and cabinets, but wasn’t aware that they made up about a third of the collection here.
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Microscope slides are one of those particular types of objects: obsolete in teaching, limited for research use, poorly documented if at all, difficult to display, a nightmare to interpret and impossible to handle.
At the same time, they can be beautiful objects within their own right, represent preparation skills that are now virtually extinct and contain specimens it would be impossible to collect. The label information acts as a who’s who of the zoological research community that worked at the College and beyond.
A Micrarium is a place for tiny things, and what we did is turn an old tiny office space into a walk-in light box with thousands of slides lining the walls. A mirrored ceiling gives the impression that the collection continues to infinity.
The display of 2,323 slides in the Micrarium is our way of showing these problematic and hidden collections, as well as displaying the weird and wonderful diversity of the invertebrates.
“The density of objects hints towards the vast and hard to comprehend diversity of life”
The Micrarium mirrors the displays of the well-known and charismatic macroscopic animals in the rest of the museum displays.
Visitors may not be able to identify every single specimen. The scribbled, often unintelligible handwritten labels on the slides are the only interpretation inside the space. But it seems that visitors are leaving with a sense of wonder.
With the rest of the museum display collection, the sheer number and density of objects hints towards the vast and hard to comprehend diversity of life.
In particular, the Micrarium highlights the animals that we’re less aware of in popular culture. They really make up the numbers of species.
It’s personally very fulfilling to see an installation of a collection which was earmarked as problematic and difficult to work with capture the imagination of our visitors and, hopefully, colleagues in other natural history museums who may be looking for inspiration to get these kinds of collections used.
This article was first published in 2015. Read Mark Carnall’s blog at fistfulofcinctans.wordpress.com