Museum of Zoology, University of Cambridge

The Museum of Zoology is one of eight museums dotted around Cambridge, which, along with the Cambridge University Botanic Garden, form the University of Cambridge Museums. This network works together to open up the University’s research to the public and to encourage and allow everyone to learn from and enjoy these wonderful and varied collections. The Museum of Zoology is lucky enough to have been the recipient of a major, recent development with support from the National Lottery Heritage Fund; it opened its shiny, new doors in June 2018 and has been receiving hundreds of thousands of visitors ever since.

Despite having spent almost three years in Cambridge studying zoology, this gem of a Museum remained the only one of the consortium that I hadn’t managed to pay a visit, whilst also being the one I was most keen to explore. I frequently heard fond reminiscences of a large whale hanging outside the Museum’s entrance, but the building remained resolutely under scaffolding throughout my undergraduate degree as it enjoyed its makeover.

Fast-forward through the five years of redevelopment and the whale now hangs once more over the Museum’s entrance hall, welcoming visitors to explore the diversity of the animal kingdom, from Goliath beetles to giant ground sloths, and everything in between.

The Museum of Zoology sits just off Downing Street in central Cambridge. Despite its impressive glass entrance hall (complete with whale), it can be surprisingly tricky to find; pass through the stone archway just opposite Tennis Court Road and you’ll spot it on your right. The large, male fin whale specimen hung from the ceiling makes for a magnificent sight and serves as a tantalizing hint of other specimens, which lie deeper inside the galleries. Automatic glass doors slide open to allow visitors inside. On passing through, you immediately find yourself standing beneath the 21-metre-long mammal, which dives majestically through the air above you.

PHOTOGRAPH BY Museum of Zoology

This set-up is, of course, not to be confused with Hope, the female blue whale specimen which hangs in the entrance hall of London’s Natural History Museum. Fin whales, as opposed to blue whales, are slightly smaller, growing up to 27 metres in length and weighing about 80 tonnes. They can swim at 25 mph, regularly travelling up to 90 miles a day and diving to depths of 200 metres.

As well as providing a jaw-dropping and immediately engaging welcome to the Museum’s collections, this species serves as a poignant reminder of the threat biodiversity is currently facing, and what can be achieved once society decides an environmentally damaging practice should be ended. Fin whales suffered at the hands of whalers for decades, with 705,000 taken in just 70 years. Their population was depleted to just 38,000 by 1997. However, once the International Whaling Commission’s moratorium on commercial whaling came into force in 1982, fin whale populations were able to recover. This magnificent species is now up to a population of 120,000.

Proceeding out of the Whale Hall into the Museum’s main galleries, visitors walk past a wall of photographs, a colourful tapestry in which all sorts of beautiful creatures are represented. Heading into the Upper Gallery, you are greeted by more cetaceans, the groups of animals containing whales, dolphins and porpoises, suspended from the high ceiling. Immediately in front of you hangs a killer whale with an impressive set of teeth. Other suspended gems include a narwhal with two tusks – a true rarity, a Gray’s beaked whale, a pygmy right whale and a bottlenose whale – not to be confused with its better known relative, the bottlenose dolphin.

This Museum is clearly a purveyor of the philosophy ‘always look up’; don’t miss the ingeniously displayed birds also suspended from the ceiling, including local British birds such as the Eurasian jay, a kestrel and a pheasant, resplendent with immaculate plumage, and the cycling projection on the very highest central ceiling, which shows a variety of deep-sea scenes, including eerily drifting jellyfish and a human scuba diver emerging from the depths.

British birds gallery
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museum of Zoology

Several thousand specimens are displayed across two levels, the Upper Gallery and the Lower Gallery, but the Museum actually looks after over 2 million specimens, which are regularly used for teaching and research by scientists from all over the world. The high ceilings and open, light spaces – a gift of the recent development – are made good use of to display a huge range of animal species, from the very large to the very small.

Firm favourites with the visitors are the Japanese crab, which sits guarding the way down to the Lower Gallery, the okapi, who was stroked so much in the Museum’s previous display that she sports a small bald patch on her left shoulder, the extinct giant ground sloth, one of only two real specimens in Europe, and the male Asian elephant specimen, who had a starring role in Stanley Kubrick’s 1968 film, A Space Odyssey.

Diprotodon, an extinct marsupial relative of the wombat
PHOTOGRAPH BY Museum of Zoology

However, a personal favourite of mine is the echidna, which sits just opposite the stairs that take you between the galleries. Echidna are a type of mammal which lays eggs, called a monotreme, the only other surviving species being the platypus. Echidna look like less plump, longer-nosed hedgehogs, and live in New Guinea and Australia. This is one of a surprisingly small number of echidna specimens which has been correctly displayed. A common error is to have the back feet facing forwards. Forgivable though this mistake might be, echidnas’ back feet should actually point backwards. This allows them to employ their imaginative defence strategy of waggling their feet on the surface of the ground very quickly so that they sink into the soil, leaving just their spiny back above the surface.

So, whilst my undergraduate self might have been frustrated with the redevelopment process, my postgraduate self can definitively declare it a success. The shiny, new galleries are open, light and accessible, and are the perfect space to display such a varied and fascinating collection. The exhibitions are welcoming, engaging and fresh, and full of intriguing titbits of knowledge – did you know that the heaviest insect is thought to be the larva of a Goliath beetle? No more struggling for a conversation starter at that next cocktail party!

If this has whetted your insatiable appetite for knowledge, come and pay the Museum a visit! Entrance is free, as is the cloakroom, with lockers and space for buggies and wheelchairs. There is a charming Whale Café with spectacular views of… the obvious, and a full calendar of events with something for everyone, from toddlers to experts.


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Kate Howlett

Kate is a PhD student at the University of Cambridge, where she researches green space in UK primary schools and how this affects children's engagement with nature. She enjoys learning and spaces where this happens!