Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Mummies, Dodos and a Dead Philosopher

How would you like a peek at the world’s oldest gynaecological papyrus? What about a long extinct dodo? Care to commune with a dead philosopher? All this and more is waiting for the intrepid visitor to the collections of University College London with a free afternoon and a sense of adventure.

University College London (UCL) was founded 180 years ago to provide higher education to anyone not served by Oxford and Cambridge, which in those days meant anyone who was not male, prosperous and a member of the Church of England. Over the years, the UCL has amassed more than half a million artefacts and specimens. Much of this material is available to the public and all the collections are free of charge. NoCrowds spent an afternoon at UCL recently and now ranks the collections as one of the top undervalued attractions for visitors to London.

The first stop on our self-guided tour was the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. After navigating a building site, signing-in with security and dodging a student here and there, we made our way up a flight of stairs and through a study area to emerge into a gloomy room filled with crowded cabinets. It took a while for our modern sensibilities to click into this old fashioned way of displaying antiquities, not to mention the run-down state of the facilities, but half way around the first room we were hooked.

What makes the Petrie so interesting is the way the “stuff” of daily life in the Nile Valley sit alongside some of the greatest finds of Egyptian archaeology. Funny drawing on small chips of limestone, think of scratch paper, can be found near a fragment of Egypt’s oldest calendar. The museum includes both the world’s oldest dress and the world’s largest collection of Roman period mummy portraits. Despite the fact that only a portion of the 80,000 objects are on display and that the facilities are atmospheric but decidedly shabby, we were nevertheless able to imagine daily life in Egypt in a new and exciting way.

While the quality of the Petrie collection compares favourably with the Cairo and British Museums, unlike those immensely popular institutions, the Petrie was completely empty for the duration of our hour-long visit. Plans are underway to move the collection to purpose built galleries in a new University building which will do much to improve the Petrie’s profile and accessibility so if you want to see mummies without kiddies, get over to the Petrie sooner as opposed to later.

After the Petrie, we backtracked through the building site, around the corner and into the Grant Museum of Zoology. It’s the kind of place that if you hate asking people for directions, you’ll probably never find it. Go on and ask because you really don’t want to miss this Victorian time capsule. Crammed into a space not much bigger than your kitchen, the Grant is a crazy, Noah’s Ark collection of pickled, preserved and mounted creatures. Weird looking lungfish that can breathe air, a huge elephant’s heart, rare dodo bones and approximately 55,000 specimens all vie for your attention.

The last remaining zoological museum in London, over the years the place has been flooded, bombed and threatened with closure but on the day of our visit, a class of art students were intently working on drawing specimens and it added to the experience that the museum was still being used for research and teaching. In fact, we were the only tourists there which meant the volunteer guide was delighted to explain everything to us in colourful detail.

Saving the best for last, after the Grant Museum we headed for UCL’s main building where the weird and wonderfully preserved body of Jeremy Bentham sits in a cabinet prominently displayed in the main hall. The philosopher, Jeremy Bentham, one of UCL’s spiritual founders best known as the father of utilitarianism, had stipulated in his will that his body be preserved for posterity. In 1852, the glass fronted cabinet with Bentham’s “auto-icon” (his terminology) was donated to UCL.

Many stories surround what UCL describes as its “most famous possession”. One story goes that Bentham is regularly wheeled in to attend meetings of the College Council and that his attendance is always recorded as “present but not voting”. Another version of the story claims that Bentham does vote in cases where the Council vote is split, in which case, Bentham invariably votes for the motion. Another legend states that King’s College London stole the head and used it as a football. The truth of the matter is that Kings did steal the head but returned it after a ransom of £10 had been paid to the charity, Shelter. After the incident, the head was moved to the college’s vault. Are these stories true? We hope so. In any event, we now are of the opinion that no university worth attending should be without a dead spiritual founder in the front hall. In a word, awesome!

For London visitors with big appetites for the unusual and undiscovered, the collections of University College London deliver on so many levels. They’re fun, free, atmospheric, uncrowded and perfect for anyone of any age. Get there quick before the rest of the world figures it out.

Useful Addresses

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology
UCL Malet Place
London, WC1e 6BT
Tues-Fri 1-5pm & Sat 10-1pm
Tel: 020 7679 2884
Fax: 020 7679 2886
Email: petrie.museum@ucl.ac.uk

Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy
Darwin Building, ground floor
UCL Gower Street
London WC1E 6BT
Mon-Fri 1-5pm
Tel: 020 7679 2647
Fax: 020 7679 7096

Jeremy Bentham’s Auto-Icon
UCL South Cloisters
Mon-Fri 7:30-6pm
Photo of Jeremy Bentham's Auto-Icon courtesy of the UCL Bentham Project website.


  1. Ah dear Bentham I knew ye well...
    You're a dead philospher ... for there's a difference ... Philosophy knows that this life is it (*). As for philosphers I know not what they mean. I only know that philosophers they are not!
    (*) w/o this knowledge there can be no philosophy, only religion & metaphysics & superstition.

    John Chypre

  2. How shaming, but also hilarious. Perhaps NoCrowds has been watching too much Burger TV. Thanks for proofreading and letting us know.