The Zoological Museum of Moscow University

The power a Zoological Museum has over children is a source of never-ending surprise for Mama, who proposed a trip to the one in Moscow without very high expectations given that we have trekked past what seems to her to be an endless number of stuffed animals so far in our short lives. Surely by now the fascination would have worn off?

Lizards in a Jat Moscow Zoological Museum

She had even lower expectations after I whinged all the way there. Well, really, Mama. If you will take us to Burger King first only to discover they had run out of the plastic tat we went there to claim AGAIN. And then double down on the disappointment by dragging us away from the soft play area after a mere half an hour in order to embark on a lengthy overheated Metro journey when we were dressed for Siberia.

But! She had definitely underestimated the restorative powers of dead animals and birds.

Toucan at the Moscow Zoological Museum

I cheered right up almost as soon as we stepped through the front doors of the Moscow Zoological Museum. It may have helped that we got to take off the padded over trousers, the heavy coat, the hat, the scarf, the gloves, and the extra jumper and put them into the ever-present cloakroom. Although Mama thinks that the giant mammoth mural in the entrance hall also helped.

You see, the Zoological Museum is in an old building. It’s actually not just any old Zoological Museum, but the original one attached to the original Moscow University, housed in the even more impressively classical mansion building next door. The actual work of educating the next generation is now in one of the Stalin skyscrapers on top of a hill overlooking the Moscow River far away. But they still retain their former premises, which are right next to Red Square and opposite the Kremlin.

Zoological Museum and the Kremlin

(That’s the Zoological Museum on the left, and the orangey building at the bottom of the street is the Kremlin. No, it’s not supposed to have onion domes).

Did I hear the sound of travellers with children everywhere sitting up and paying attention? Yes, there is indeed a guaranteed child-pleasing attraction within a very very short walk of the must-see sights of Russia’s capital city. And better yet, it’s good, but it’s not that extensive, so would make the perfect pit stop to refresh a small person’s soul before pushing on to more historically significant places. Assuming said small person’s interest in such heritage-heavy destinations has temporarily waned.

Of course, there’s always the giant child-themed department store up the road. But this more educational. And cheaper.

The most essential room is the one with the mammals and the birds. Mama, who is starting to consider herself a bit of a taxidermy connoisseur, was particularly delighted by the mammals. She thinks that there is a certain quirkiness in the stuffing. Take, for example, this seal.

A ferocious seal at the Moscow Zoological Museum

Not, Mama would suggest, the usual presentation of this beloved furry creature, albeit one which from a penguin’s point of view is probably quite accurate. Mama thinks that the ensuing cognitive dissonance might be good for kids, who are generally encouraged to anthropomorphise the natural world to an unhealthy degree.

Otter with a fish Zoological Museum Moscow

Of course, the stuffed birds will also be popular – it’s the colours of the plumage and the variety of beaks – but what’s even more guaranteed to please in the Moscow Zoological Museum is that the room has a high number of the larger and more impressive animals people usually go to zoos for. Mama has written before about weighing up the ethics of zoological museums like this one versus live animal experiences, and the fact that these were collected not for someone’s trophy cabinet but to educate generations at a time when you couldn’t just go out and make a high-resolution film of the creatures, well, she thinks that has some value.

Tigers at the Moscow Zoological Museum

Basically, if you want to study the natural world, it helps to know what it looks like, and if anyone is any doubt, they should go off to the Grant Museum in London and ask to see the sketches of kangaroos made by people who were relying purely on descriptions to make them. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University celebrated its 225th anniversary last year. You can see why someone thought it necessary to bring back all the big cats, and a polar bear, not to mention the bison, the bears, and the weird antelopes with the big noses, although Mama suspects that the really scientifically interesting collections are probably not actually out on display, and probably consist of seventy-two examples of the same species of dull brown rat. For, y’know, the purposes of comparison.

Bison Zoological Museum Moscow

That said, there is almost certainly no scientific justification for making the imperial double-headed eagle out of dead bugs. This just goes to show that Russians might not strictly speaking have been Victorian, but that people 150+ years ago were pretty much the same all over.

Russian Imperial eagle made out of bugs Moscow Zoological Museum

The other rooms consisted of things preserved in formaldehyde in glass jars, mostly anything you can’t really stuff, and the Skeleton Room, which for some reason really freaked me out. Possibly because it wasn’t bones of mythical dinosaurs but real creatures which might, y’know, rattle to life and come chasing me down the corridor. The dim lighting didn’t help either. I imagine this sort of thrill might actually be a draw for some people though. My Ghoulish Big Brother was certainly a fan.

Skeletons at the Moscow Zoological Museum

So my lack of enthusiasm brought the visit to a close, although not before Mama had bought herself a mug as a reward for discovering the place. I scored a rubber snake. My Ghoulish Big Brother got a magnet and a book about fish, which, much to Mama’s shock, he read steadily on the journey back and at home until it was finished. As a result, she’d have happily popped in and got the rest of the series too, if the shop (actually a small table – Mama does worry about the commercial arm of some of these Russian museums) wasn’t behind the ticket barrier. The Zoological Museum of Moscow University is reasonably priced, but not that cheap.

Oh dear, what a pity. We’ll have to go back in the not too distant future…

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The Zoological Museum of Moscow University is full of stuffed animals and birds large and small and things pickled in glass jars

More information.

The museum’s website (in English).

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about Hoover, the talking seal.

Address: 6 Bolshaya Nikitskaya, Moscow, 125009

Opening: Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 5pm with late night opening on Thursday to 9pm. CLOSED every Monday and the last Tuesday in every month.

Admission: 400 roubles for adults, 100 for kids over seven (the English version of the website is wrong on their pricing – it’s gone up a bit).

By public transport: The Zoological Museum is a short walk from either of the two red line stations of Okhotniy Ryad and Biblioteka Imeni Lenina and their connecting stations of Tverskaya (green line), Ploshad Revolutsii (dark blue line), Boroviskaya (grey line) and Arbatskaya (dark blue line).

By other means: If you live here and are looking for somewhere to amuse your offspring in the centre, I assume you already know where to park. Cos I don’t.

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Flying With A Baby

Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL, London

The first thing you see as you walk through the door of the Grant Museum of Zoology is a cabinet containing the strangely popular jar of moles, a large glass jar completely full of small pickled moles.

Well, you might as well start as you mean to go on.

The Grant Museum of Zoology is University College London’s collection of preserved dead animals, originally put together in order to provide students with instructive examples to enhance their studies, now also open to the public.

Grant Museum of Zoology

It’s a one room museum, albeit a fairly large room reminiscent of one of those libraries in the stately homes Mama is always dragging us round. And so if you are going there thinking you will be able to see the whole, the very whole, of the animal world stuffed and mounted, preserved in formaldehyde, or posed in skeleton form, you will be disappointed. You want the Darwin Museum in Moscow for that.

Brains at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Eclectic is probably the best way to describe it. Quite clearly while some items were indeed acquired or at least displayed purely with science in mind, others seem to have been added because of their yuk factor, their exoticism, or even their beauty. Wander round and see what you can find that catches your eye. They have specimens from all types of environment, in all different sizes, in all states of preservation. Complete animals, braaaaiiiiiiiiins, skins and, I dunno, toenail clippings or something. Mammals, reptiles, insects and squidgy things that used to live in the sea. Large animals and microscopic ones. Fluffy cute things and monsters that should never have seen the light of day in a properly ordered universe. There will be something, I assure you, that makes you want to stop and stare.

Pangolin at the Grant MMuseum f Zoology

Although if you are my height that might involve a bit of being lifted up. Many of the glass cases are not very accessible for the very short.

Take, for example, the case of badly stuffed animals, where visitors are invited to speculate on the problems past taxidermists had of recreating an animal they had never seen in real life, something which ties in nicely to their current temporary exhibition, Strange Creatures: the art of unknown animals. Or in other words, representations of newly discovered animals such as the kangaroo in the age before the explorer would have posed for a selfie with it on Instagram before the cries of ‘Great Scot what is that?’ had even died away.

Don’t miss the skeletons of primates arranged to, I dunno, provide a bit of light relief for students stressed out by being asked to do yet another exam in an education system which doesn’t exactly stint on tests, assessments and grading. Certainly amused us, and that’s nice given that we are failing to meet all sorts of educational targets because of Mama’s firm belief that days out at places like the Grant Museum are more entertaining than practising spellings or attempting to persuade me to loosen my fisted grip on the colouring pencils.

Then there is the micrarium, an alcove of slides showing the Grant Museum’s vast collection of microscopic organisms, which we enjoyed exploring with the handy magnifying glasses nearby, but which Mama enjoyed photographing because it is just so striking, visually speaking.

Micrarium at the Grant Museum of Zoology

Mama would also like to report that the Grant Museum also has some excellent mature pushbutton fun. This takes the form of a number of touch screens dotted about with genuinely knotty ethical dilemas related to the world of conservation and collecting for you to comment on and have tweeted out to the world. Literally a tad above my head, (they are mounted high up), they were still child friendly enough for my Fabulous Big Brother to keenly formulate some answers, and, obviously, if you know Mama and her delight in holding an opinion, you will be unsurprised that she really got into this. Last time we went they were off being tweaked and were unavailable, much to Mama’s disappointment, but I daresay they will be back again when you go.

What we smaller people like best about the place, though, is that in school holidays they get out stuff for us to handle, and a goodly range of the weird, the wonderful, the knobbly and the very very strokable it is too. Also, the staff on hand helping out patiently let my Fabulous Big Brother pour out all his love of the animal world, list the interesting facts he could remember about something on the table in front of him, and ask all the questions he liked. To which he got serious, well considered answers. It’s a great environment for a budding naturalist to hang out in.

They also have crafting sessions, which is even more my speed, and Mama thinks that their Easter egg trail is one of the best she’s come across as you do actually have to solve the reasonably challenging riddle to either find the animal which is propping up the lettered egg or, if you stumble across an egg by accident, decide where it should go in order to make up the (fairly unguessable) name of the final animal you have to find. Very clever. We enjoyed it. Two years running now. Mama thinks they should get new clues for our paschal visit next year. I think we should just go wild and see perhaps what they have us doing at Christmas or something .

Obviously as you are on UCL’s campus there isn’t a café as part of the Grant Museum – you even have to get a special door pass from the front desk to break into the the toilet area – and the surrounding area is not crammed full with child friendly eateries. But you are in central London here, so you don’t have far to go to get back on more touristy beaten paths.

It is near other museums such as the British Museum and UCL’s other repository of stuff gained through its studious activities, the Petrie Museum of Archaeology. But I recommend that if you want to make a day of it you leaven the educational portion of the trip out with a visit to Coram Fields and its playgrounds, live animals and waterplay. Or shopping if that’s what floats your boat, as Oxford Street is just down the road.

The Grant Museum of Zoology, then, is highly suitable for both the animal mad and those who like curiosities. Which pretty much describes my family to a T. You?

More information

The Grant Museum’s website.

This is what the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy has to say about cladistics.

Address: Rockefeller Building, University College London, 21 University Street, London WC1E 6DE

Opening:Monday – Saturday 1pm to 5pm

Admission: Free!

By tube/ train: The closest tube stations are Warren Street (Victoria and Northern lines) and Eaton Square (Bakerloo, Circle and Hammersmith and City lines). Euston rail and tube station (Victoria and Northern lines) is also well within walking distance.

By bus: Lots of buses serve UCL’s campus.

By car: Nope.