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Curious specimens

The scientist in me cannot help but get excited about this exhibition. The Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London has opened The Micrarium, a space housing more than 2,300 microscope slides containing specimens such as tortoise mites, sea spiders and squid that are only millimetres in length. The display area, which museum manager Jack Ashby has described as a “backlit cave”, was previously a storage room. “The specimens are exquisite works of art, and this intentionally aesthetic installation aims to inspire awe at both biological diversity and human technical skill in their preparation,” he added.

So how can this be seen as ‘art’? Well, extensive research was carried out regarding how previous museums have displayed these sorts of materials. The Grant Museum has around 20,000 microscope slides yet not one was on display for the public. Is there even an interest from the public to see these types of materials? With a survey carried out on natural history collections in the country, The Grant Museum explored how this compared across the sector. This is what they found:

  • Lots of museums have thousands of zoological microscope slides.
    Few have any on display.
  • Those that do only display a few, or at most tens of slides.
  • Slide boxes are displayed as exhibition props, set dressing for illustrating the office or work place of a scientist.
  • Some museums have put a few under a fixed microscope, and some have tried display close up images of them.

In truth, microscope slides are really problematic for museums, and it’s no wonder the sector has struggled to know what to do with them. For one, they are not very useful anymore. The main reason they have so many is because microscopy used to be an integral part of biological study and research. The Museum has therefore decided to put these slides to use, and this exhibition is an experiment…

” the intention isn’t for visitors to get specific insights into individual specimens or species, but to appreciate the sheer vastness of invertebrate diversity…These specimens are exquisite works of art, and this intentionally aesthetic installation aims to inspire awe at both biological diversity and human technical skill in their preparation…Visitors don’t have to be versed in worm taxonomy or the finer points of flea anatomy to appreciate what they are looking at.”

I feel that the beauty of science can be conveyed in such a way, to make this a worthwhile exhibition. The way these objects are displayed will invite curiosity and inspire people to look at the wonders of the earth. I, for one, love science AND art, therefore this type of exhibition really appeals to me. The visual aspect of science, to understand the intricacies of the natural world, has always excited me. I have had a miscrosope from a very early age and spent many years studying plant life. To get so close to the beautiful cells of such complex pieces of this world, is truly magical. I have always considered science and art to have a close relationship and The Grant Museum is able to unite the two fantastically.

The Micrarium was supported by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport/Wolfson Museums and Galleries Improvement Fund.

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