Orla Foster

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Sheffield’s Curiosity Cabinet

The world of science can seem like a scary and indecipherable place. For those of us who never made it past GCSE Double Award, just the sight of a textbook is enough to make us quake. All those equations! The terminology! The lessons when you would have to prop open your eyelids with a wood spill just to concentrate on the teacher’s voice...

Since it’s become increasingly clear that I’m not going to be shaking hands over a Nobel Prize any time soon, I set my sights on the Alfred Denny Museum - an awe-inspiring assortment of natural history artefacts owned by the University of Sheffield. Originally housed in Firth Court, the collection was put together by Alfred Denny, the University’s very first Professor of Biology. During his 41 year tenure as professor, Denny collected hundreds of wildlife specimens, 600 of which still remain. Now, following a successful run at last year’s Festival Of The Mind, the collection is finally open to the public.

Though he was a keen photographer, Denny never produced much formal documentation of his subject. Instead, he preferred to broach it in a much more direct way. By transporting the natural world to the classroom, Denny brought an injection of life to his botany and zoology lectures that couldn’t be matched by any scientific diagram or Latin glossary. Eager to introduce his students to the sinew and gristle of the subjects they were learning about, he introduced a generation of scholars to nature at close range; with items ranging from serrated fangs to cod gills and dormouse knuckles. Rather than piece together the lifecycle of a salamander from a textbook, for example, Denny’s students were able to examine its whole development played out before their eyes: inanimate specimens pinned into painstaking rows of evolutionary order.

The result is a real Victorian curiosity cabinet of a place, with its meticulously-labelled miscellany and drawers of bizarre artefacts. Picture that same lurking sense of surprise and delight you get from an antique shop, but with rows of of sinister (hungry?) faces staring back at you. There’s plenty to stare back at too. Pickled amphibians line the shelves, tiny pustule-like turtles cower in brine. A sheep foetus becomes a grinning, fragile dinosaur, suspended mid-leap. The skull of a gigantic prehistoric eagle gawps out, warningly, at all those rash enough to cross its path. The frond-like legs of an ex-octopus, covered in sucker pads, curl around its own head. (Reluctantly, you picture it affixed to your shower wall.) There are even cross-sections of animals, including a half-pig whose organs and entrails are bared up for our delectation.

Immersed in this bouillabaisse of planetary life, you can’t help but feel grateful for the glass in those cabinets, splitting you and the flesh-eating critters mercifully asunder. Where, outside of the trashiest horror films, have you ever seen beasts like this? Sure, some of the smaller sea creatures have a taint of 1970s fruit salad about them, but for the most part these aren’t creatures you’d like to let loose.

In an exhibition so stunningly, almost grotesquely visual, you almost forget that the museum was intended as a resource for zoology students anxiously memorising facts for their degrees, and instead relish being a casual visitor, gazing, awestruck, at frogs that look just about ready to break into the electric boogaloo.

By way of knocking us back into line, however, there are some letters from Charles Darwin also on display, dryly scientific in tone. One, addressed to Denny’s father, discusses the defining characteristics of lice. ‘Will you excuse me asking you to inform me whether the Chiloe pediculi form a distinct species or well-marked variety?’ it asks. Charles, I only wish I knew.

The museum currently opens between 9am and 6pm on the first Saturday of every month, and is well worth a visit. Especially those of us who were never too hot on biology. You’ll be surprised.

2012. Commission for Article Magazine