Recently I was accepted onto the Travel and Nature Writing MA at Bath Spa University, which I’ll be starting later this month. In preparation for this exciting new challenge, I signed up for a travel writing workshop run by Peter Carty, who regularly writes for publications such as The Guardian. Although my focus will definitely be more on the nature half of my MA, there is a lot of overlap with travel and I would love to develop my portfolio in this area.
Peter’s workshop was extremely useful, especially the postcard exercise. Over lunch, we were let loose into London with a blank postcard. The challenge was to find a new and intriguing place and write a short travel piece about it on the postcard, including quotes from people we met along the way. As a wildlife writer I’ve had very little experience with interviews, so approaching strangers and getting quotes was daunting but rewarding. I decided to visit the Grant Museum of Zoology in Fitzrovia, which turned out to be a treasure trove of taxidermy and scientific specimens.
A jar of moles, a penis worm and a dissected rat. These are just some of the specimens on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology. But past the imposing elephant skulls and ominous, pickled jars is an intriguing display of alien-like creatures nobody would notice in the wild.
It’s said that 95% of known species of animals are smaller than a human thumb. The Grant Museum, named after British anatomist and zoologist Robert Edmond Grant, sheds light on the mysterious and microscopic in its Micrarium: a seemingly infinite display of backlit microscope slides that are creatively reflected in a mirror mounted on the ceiling. There are 20,000 slides in the whole museum, but the selection of 2000 in the Micrarium exhibit alone is impressive enough.
“It’s probably one of our more popular exhibits,” explained volunteer Margaret, “We get lots of people taking photos for Instagram.”
I can see why. Step inside this bizarre taxidermic phone box and you can observe minute insects and cross sections of tissues in astonishing and multicolour detail, painstakingly plastered across three walls. Among the specimens are the muscly leg of a flea and a whole squid measuring less than a centimetre long.
“While public displays very much focus on larger animals,” said Jack Ashby, manager of the Grant Museum, “Most natural history collections have thousands of very small specimens kept in their storerooms which are rarely shown to the public.”
Once used for research at UCL, the neighbouring university, the Micrarium now enthuses the general public instead, uncovering secrets of the miniature monsters that crawl well out of human sight. It’s not quite the blue whale at the Natural History Museum, but it’s an insight into 95% of animals on our planet, which definitely deserves a second look.