Interview with Jack Ashby
Jack Ashby, Manager of the grant Museum at UCL, answers our questions…
Describe your career path
As the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL (since 2011) I have strategic overview of our varied activities – developing the Museum as both a valuable academic resource and an excellent public venue, while caring for our collections responsibly. As well as a wide public events programme the collection is used in teaching almost daily. We are constantly developing new strategies to be a gateway for the University to engage with local communities, through co-curated exhibitions and research programmes.
My childhood enthusiasm for natural history led me to study for a Zoology degree at Cambridge University. After graduating in 2003 I started my career in Science Communication at the hands-on science centre At-Bristol, running workshops in the Learning Department.
I originally joined the Grant Museum in 2004 as the Learning and Access Manager, using the Museum’s fabulous specimens to establish a Learning and Access Programme. My role there began with the task of developing the museum spaces and services to be accessible to non-academic audiences for the first time, including schools, families and adults, as well as strengthening our ties with UCL Departments.
From 2009-10 I worked as the Head of Learning and Access for all of UCL Museums & Collections as maternity cover. It allowed me to explore object-based learning and museum learning in a broader context, and work more widely with various parts of the University. My role was to have a strategic overview of learning and access activities in the museums and collections, as well as marketing and audiences, and to coordinate public engagement programmes that work across different units in the Department.
What have the next 12 months got in store for you?
The biggest project I’ll be working on over the coming year is to curate our next big exhibition “The Museum of Ordinary Animals” which will look at the boring beasts that have changed the world – mice, cats, rats, dogs, pigs, chickens, worms and pigeons, for example. We’ll be looking at a wide range of stories from across the disciplines – art history, ecology, archaeology to name a few. Obviously museums tend to display their more exotic specimens, but we have mountains of more mundane animals in storage. We’re looking forward to putting all 4500 of a collection of mice skeletons on display
What Museum (other than your own) would you like to be locked in overnight?
The Biologiska Museet in Stockholm makes me very happy every time I go out there, for a reason I can’t really explain as it’s impossibly old-fashioned. It’s a single wooden building from the 1890s with one huge diorama running around the inside of the whole building (it’s more or less the only thing in there), over two stories high. You go up a wrought iron staircase through the middle. As you walk round the wall, each of the Nordic biomes are represented with all their animals in an original diorama setting. Over 60% of the taxidermy dates from its opening in 1893. There’s no interpretation except for a type-written piece of paper with a list of every species (hundreds) visible from each numbered pane of glass.
What’s the most encouraging thing a visitor has ever said to you?
We get this quite a lot, but it’s always nice to hear: “This is exactly what a museum should look like”.
If you could highlight one Museum Object, either in your own museum or elsewhere, what would it be?
I once argued that the dry head of a dodo – the only soft tissue of the species still in existence – was the most important natural history specimen in the world. It’s at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The Oxford dodo is famous for having been thrown on a fire by museum staff, except it most definitely wasn’t. I wrote a blog about it (and my other contenders for the best natural history specimens) here.
What would you have been if you hadn’t been a Museum Manager?
I spent a couple of months a year supporting wildlife NGOs and universities with conservation agendas on fieldwork in Australia, trapping small mammals, reptiles and frogs. It’s probably an even more competitive field that the museum sector, but I could see myself doing that full time if museums didn’t exist.