University of Cambridge Museums

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Voyages of Discovery

My name is Sana and I am currently working at the Museum of Zoology (@ZoologyMuseum) as a trainee on the Strengthening Our Common Life (SOCL) programme delivered by Cultural Co-operation. The SOCL programme (@SOCLtweet) is in its third year and it has been promoting a strong message of diverse community engagement in museums and heritage organisations. Since October 2014 I have been completing work-based assessments with an aim to achieve a QCF Level 3 in Cultural Heritage. My role at the Museum of Zoology particularly supports the education and outreach programme of the Museum whilst it undergoes its massive 3-year HLF funded re-development.

My most recent venture was a radio show in which I was able to highlight the stories behind some star specimens which will be on display at the Museum of Zoology when it re-opens in 2016. Cultural Co-operation, in collaboration with DJ Ritu, presented all of the SOCL3 Trainees with the exciting and innovative opportunity to contribute to the radio series titled ‘Heritage at A World In London’ (@aworldinlondon). The trainees have used this platform to represent their host organisations and have showcased cultural narratives which have brought life to museum collections.

My live episode aired on 7 July and I thoroughly enjoyed the experience! I introduced the show with a summary of activities the Museum is undertaking to maintain its profile during the 3-year closure period whilst it undergoes a massive HLF-funded re-development. Throughout the course of the hour, I presented examples of three significant individuals who have contributed to the Museum’s collection of 4 million specimens that have been designated of national and international significance.


Charles Darwin was the first and most well-known individual. He was the English naturalist famous for the ground-breaking scientific theory of evolution. He was just 22 when he set sail on the HMS Beagle after graduating with his Bachelor’s degree at Cambridge University. Listen out for the story of his letter to John Stevens Henslow, his mentor in Cambridge, describing the camouflage mechanism he saw, which links to the octopuses within our collection. I also interviewed the Museum’s conservators, Natalie Jones (@nautilusnat) and Vicky Singleton (@vulturevicky), about their role in the preservation of the Museum’s four million specimens, in particular the fish collected by Darwin on the voyage of the HMS Beagle.

Alfred Russel Wallace developed his ideas about natural selection at around the same time as Darwin and both of their papers had been published at the same time. Therefore, Wallace is known as the co-founder of the theory of evolution through the process of natural selection. The Museum of Zoology have skins of the famous Birds of Paradise that Wallace had collected during his eight-year adventure in the Malay Archipelago. He was the first European to have seen the Birds of Paradise in the wild and to witness them display. I briefly discussed the process of sexual selection using the Birds of Paradise as an example.

I gave a quick mention of Hugh B. Cott to illustrate a contrast between Victorian and contemporary collectors. Cott conducted significant work in the conservation of the Nile crocodile population in Africa, which demonstrated the reformed attitude towards the ethics of collecting animal specimens and the increased significance of conservation science in the twentieth century and beyond.

The Museum of Zoology is part of a thriving teaching and research department within the University of Cambridge and these highlighted specimens, as well as the rest of our collection, are still studied and referenced by scientists and academics to test hypotheses and learn new information. We will also be presenting these specimens as part of our newly refurbished galleries and displays when the Museum re-opens in 2016!

I would like to thank the team at the Museum of Zoology for supporting me in the research I carried out about the collections and directing me to some very insightful accounts of Victorian expeditions around the world. Thank you to Roz Wade (@ZoologyRoz) for working with me on the content for the show, Mathew Lowe (@migratorymatt) for taking me behind the scenes to look at the specimens, Ann Charlton for pulling out information about Cott from the archives and Dr Adrian Friday for some great storytelling about Darwin’s experiences. I would also like to acknowledge the hard work of fellow SOCL3 Trainee, Melanie (@melaniecywong), and Cultural Co-operation (@cultural_co) in co-ordinating the logistics of the show and DJ Ritu (@djritu1) for being involved and giving me a great radio experience!

Listen to the radio show at:

Sana Khan, SOCL Trainee, Museum of Zoology

One comment on “Voyages of Discovery

  1. Pingback: The beginning of the end of SOCL3 | University of Cambridge Museums

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