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  • Writer's pictureDoug Chapman, MA

A Brief History of the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge

What is the Museum of Zoology?

The Museum of Zoology is a University museum at Cambridge that displays thousands of specimens spanning the entire animal kingdom.

Great ape skeletons at the museum of zoology

DeFacto, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Museum of Zoology History

This is one of the most popular museums in Cambridge, and it features one of the best zoological collections anywhere in the world. On display here are thousands of specimens from all over the planet assembled over the course of more than two centuries. The museum is part of the university’s Department of Zoology, and its collections are studied by researchers and students from the university and around the world.

The museum’s two core collections were derived from the Cambridge Philosophical Society and the Museum of Comparative Anatomy. They included significant contributions from some of the most famous zoologists in the world, including Charles Darwin. The oldest collection to be incorporated into the museum was that of Sir Busick Harwood, a late-18th-century professor of anatomy at the university, and included some of the first specimens to have reached Britain from Australia.

A building was constructed on the current site in 1865 to house and exhibit these items, and the museum quicky expanded its collection over the next half-century. Many contributions came from the great naturalist expeditions of the era and specimens from far-flung places across the globe found their way back to the intellectual epicentre that had produced so many of the great minds in this field. Highlights include one of the most complete dodo skeletons in Britain and specimens in the insect collection taken by Darwin from around Cambridge.

The original building was demolished in 1965 and its modern replacement was completed a decade later. A major refurbishment took place in 2013 that featured the addition of the glass entrance hall housing the famous Fin Whale specimen suspended overhead. The museum welcomes over 100,000 visitors annually and routinely features intriguing and esoteric highlights from its collection in temporary exhibitions.

The Museum's Early Foundations

The Museum of Zoology began as two distinct collections: the Museum of Comparative Anatomy and the collection of the Cambridge Philosophical Society. The latter was founded in 1819 by geologist Adam Sedgwick and botanist John Stevens Henslow as a platform for graduates of the University to discuss new scientific ideas and present their research. Over the years, the Society amassed a rich natural history collection. In 1865, due to the sale of the building housing the society, the collection was given to the University and incorporated into the new Museum of Zoology. For years, this collection was kept separate from the comparative anatomy collection until 1877 when it was integrated into the main hall.

Notable Figures and Contributions

Sir Busick Harwood, a pioneer of blood transfusions and a founding fellow of Downing College, was among the earliest contributors to the museum. His specimens, some of which he inherited from his predecessors, are still part of the museum's collection. William Clark helped develop the Museum of Comparative Anatomy, which later combined with the collections of the Cambridge Philosophical Society in 1877 to form the Museum of Zoology. Charles Darwin's mentors, Adam Sedgwick and John Henslow, played pivotal roles in ensuring much of Darwin’s collection found its way into the museum.

Modern Developments and Renovations

The original 1865 building was demolished in 1965 to make way for a new structure, designed by Philip Dowson, which opened in 1970 and was completed in 1974. Recognizing the outstanding nature of the collections, the museum was awarded Designated Status in June 1988. In 2013, the museum underwent a major refurbishment, which included the construction of a new glass entrance hall. This entrance now houses the iconic Fin Whale specimen. Today, the Museum of Zoology is situated in the renovated David Attenborough Building on the University’s New Museums Site. Sharing the building with the Cambridge Conservation Initiative (CCI), the museum showcases how efforts in Cambridge are contributing to sustaining biodiversity for future generations.

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