At the top of Time Out’s list of recommended museum destinations in London this autumn is University College’s Grant Museum of Zoology and its exhibition ‘The Museum of Ordinary Animals’. The theme of the exhibition is “the mundane creatures in our everyday lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice”, and how these animals have, through their relationship with humans, “changed the world”: a very important theme, especially at the start of an academic year, when it may help to advise a new body of zoology students how to view their subject. Whether the advice implied in the exhibition is altogether good advice is another matter.
The Museum itself comprises one fine galleried room in the enormous 1920s Rockefeller Building, part of University College London’s medical school in Gower Street. Most of the room is taken up by a permanent collection: skeletons, whole and partial animals preserved in jars, and other remnants of the world’s zoology, themselves part of a much larger collection made by former administrations but still in use for teaching purposes. Being mostly (and very wisely) unmodernized, the room is a period piece. It looks, on its smaller scale, much as Oxford University’s Museum must have looked in the 1870s when John Ruskin gave his lectures there and angrily spoke against that collection as “the confused pillage of the continents of the world”. Ruskin hated its emphasis on the exotic and the dead, and he told the students “I could fill all this museum with studies of a duck and a drake, and a hen and chickens, and it should be more educationally useful than it is now.”
So the Grant Museum’s current exhibition, fitted in among these more traditional exhibits, may be thought of as making, at least temporarily, just the correction that Ruskin had proposed. There’s a showcase about chickens (illustrated with a stuffed hen) and other farmed animals. Another one follows the human-related migrations of feral rats. There’s a sad account of the imported domestic cat and its destruction of Australia’s wild-life. And two or three videos, as well as a display of snails inhabiting a log, show animals in the live state.
One showcase is labelled ‘Ordinary animals and medicine: the Brown Dog Affair’, and tells that story, illustrated with a picture of the original “very contentious statue” [see post for 7 August 2015]. Inside the case is a respirator for keeping such dogs alive “during vivisection”. It’s an ugly exhibit, or perhaps just an ugly idea; at any rate, here and elsewhere, the exhibition strives to be candid and impartial, positivist in the scientific sense, neither giving nor taking ground on the subject of what we’re entitled to do to these “ordinary” animals. Thus a case showing examples of dissection acknowledges that the practice is becoming less popular in schools “because of changing perceptions by many students and teachers about whether dissection is right”, but the word perceptions (being nowadays used to mean thinking rather than seeing) indicates that it’s a sociological rather than a moral point that’s being made.
All the same, illuminating as it is, the exhibition doesn’t really present a dis-interested account of the subject. In details, and in more general ways, its world-view is plainly and conservatively anthropocentric. That stuffed hen, for instance (incidentally a modern piece of work), is glowingly clean and alert-looking, with a roomy glass case to itself. The plinth is simply labelled ‘chicken’, as if this glossy hen stands for all her kind, but the theme of the case is given as ‘The genetics of battery farming’. It amounts to a consoling lie. No battery-farmed chicken could look like this. A single photograph of ‘battery farming’ would have shown what in practice it means to a chicken’s health and appearance to “yield” (that’s the verb used in the exhibition) eggs or meat on the scale required.
And there’s a larger and stranger misrepresentation. Of these species that we “encounter every day on our plates, on our laps and on our streets”, by far the most familiar and ubiquitous, on our streets at any rate, is simply omitted, except as the reference-point for everything else. Anyone visiting the exhibition must feel this anomaly, having just been part of the herds of humans surging this way and that between UCL’s different buildings, and hunted off the roads by competing surges of the motorized sub-species. What the cat has done to Australia is a little thing compared to what humans have done there and everywhere else in the world. But I could find no confirmation in the exhibition that humans are even animals at all. In this room where the names of UCL life-science worthies are inscribed in gold on the ceiling brackets, the exhibition discourses as if the evolution of species has yet to be accepted in the university.
Then there’s the humour. Time Out’s review of the Grant Museum show is predictably flippant: “They’re playing a cat-and-mouse game with a show dedicated to all creatures ‘mundane’.” That’s how some journalists like to write. More dismaying is that the several curators of the show, some or all of whom are academic scientists, are infected with the same waggishness. “Most museums are too chicken to celebrate ‘boring beasts’ – but we’re not”, they announce on the more or less scholarly web-site ‘The Conversation’. And it’s there in the exhibition too. The text about cats in Australia is headed ‘CATastrophe’. The one about rats following human settlements is headed ‘Rat race’. Professor Steve Jones enlivens his display of Cepaea snails with a quip about the science of genetics having until recently moved at a snail’s pace.
This is fun science, I suppose (one of the associated events is a ‘comedy night’), but it’s instructive to compare the ‘Ordinary Animals’ show with another UCL exhibition a short distance away in the main building, entitled ‘What Does it Mean to be Human? Curating Heads at UCL’. This is a straight and wholly unjocular review of its subject, which is human attitudes and practices in relation to human death and the dead human body. It includes the preserved head of Jeremy Bentham, one of the founders of UCL. Bentham first bequeathed his own body to medical study in a will made when he was aged 21. Later he specified that it should afterwards be preserved and set up as an ‘auto-icon’ in the college – where indeed it may still be seen, in a cabinet stationed a few yards from this exhibition, though with a wax model for the head. Partly, Bentham wished to support scientific education, but he also, as a secularist, wished to de-mystify the human body, to rank it thus with the thousands of deserted casings of other species later to be kept in the college and visible in the Grant Museum. (For the ethical dimension to this egalitarianism, see the quotation from Bentham on the banner shown at the top of this page.) But evidently UCL hasn’t yet caught up with Bentham’s serene impartiality: the quite properly respectful, even wary, tone in the wordage to this exhibition is very different from the jauntiness at the Grant Museum. This, after all, is about us; over the road, it’s only about them.
UCL isn’t alone in this, of course. When the Oxford University Museum hosted a conference earlier this year with a similar theme, ‘Chickens and People: Past, Present and Future’, it did have a definite ideological aim: to consider “the consequences of our consumer demands [i.e. for “cheap protein”] on global human and animal health”. It hoped also to recover or at least recall, on the chickens’ behalf, something of the prestige which the species enjoyed in pre-modern times as one of the “special animals”. Even so, the event was presented with the same familiar winks and puns. “Why did the chicken cross the globe?” asked the University’s News and Events web-page, introducing the conference. The running narrative of the event on twitter was tirelessly joky: “Registration table ready!” “Flocking to take seats at the chicken conference.” “Cracking!” Someone tweeted a sign which they’d noticed outside an Oxford fast-food restaurant, advertising “our latest special Cluckosaurus Rex: it’s a clucking beast of a burger!” Noticed it with indignation and sorrow? Not at all, for in fact a highlight of the conference scene was a giant model chicken, placed alongside the Museum’s skeleton-cast of Tyrannosaurus rex and itself named ‘Dinnersaurus rex’. As the University’s web-site explains, “With chickens now being selectively bred to grow so large, so quickly, it won’t be too many decades before they reach dino-size.” It’s true that this model was part of a school project linked to the conference, and led by an official artist/comedian (wearing, hilariously, a papier-mâché chicken head), but that just makes the remorseless jocularity authoritative and prescribed. It would have been more in accord with the expressed purpose of the conference to teach or show children how to take animals seriously. I feel sure that most children would naturally prefer to do so.
The question is whether these adults take animals seriously. Perhaps they can’t really afford to, except as academic raw material; it would make using them for that or any other purpose so much more problematic. In her novel Hackenfeller’s Ape [see post for 11 October 2015], Brigid Brophy writes about a research monkey called Percy, and “the facetious spirit which had given the animal its name”. Mocking animals in this way, however mildly, has a function; it keeps them at a distance, makes their status more malleable. For after all, at the same time as boosting the chicken’s proper dignity with this conference, or proposing to do so, Oxford University had been conducting ‘procedures’ on real chickens as part of an extended study of their mating and reproductive characteristics (using red junglefowl or Gallus gallus, chief ancestor of the farmed chicken). This was partly a study in evolution, but it also aimed to illuminate “reductions in performance amongst domestic chickens and resultant impact on the poultry industry”. Such work presupposes and accepts the complete subjugation of the species, and supports it. I won’t detail the devices and techniques used to intervene in the animals’ sex acts, but neither they nor their commercial reference will have done anything to advance the status of this wretchedly abused species.
Like Oxford, UCL is always somewhere in the top three or four consumers of research animals among British universities. The uncertainty of attitude characterizing the events at these two institutions, their unscientific speciesism, the habitual smirk with which the non-human animals are patronized, all these are symptoms of a divided mentality. As humans, we know that these animals are fellow-creatures, homogeneous with us in origin and mode of being, but so long as in practice we exploit them as objects, we cannot think and speak of them with the rationality of a good conscience, and it shows.
Notes and references:
The Grant Museum exhibition (on until 22 December) is introduced online at https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/projects/museum-ordinary-animals
Quotations about it are from the online text, or from the booklet issued at the Museum, unless otherwise stated. The exhibition is free, and the place is hospitable and well worth visiting anyway. The photograph of the hen is made available on the Grant Museum web-site. I should add that the taxidermist in this instance, Jazmine Miles-Long, quite reasonably calls her taxidermy “ethical”, in that she does not accept work upon animals which have been killed for that purpose.
The piece in Time Out, selecting London’s top ten museum exhibitions, was posted on 25 September here: https://www.timeout.com/london/things-to-do/museum-shows-to-fall-for-this-autumn
The exhibition ‘What Does it Mean to be Human?’ (on until 28 February 2018) is in the Octagon of the main Wilkins Building of UCL.
John Ruskin’s words come from lecture 4 in the series ‘Readings in Modern Painters’, delivered in the University Museum in Michaelmas Term 1877 (see Works, ed. Cook and Wedderburn, vol.22, p.520).
The Oxford conference took place on 27-8 January 2017, as presented on the University’s web-site here: http://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2017-01-25-chickens-and-people-past-present-and-future-oxford-conference-research-findings and as variously reported on @Chicken_project.
The particular junglefowl study quoted is Borziac, K., et al, ‘The seminal fluid proteome of the polyandrous Red junglefowl offers insights into the molecular basis of fertility, reproductive ageing and domestication’, published in Scientific Reports 6, 2016. This was one of several publications arising from a research project at the University’s John Krebs Field Station.