Museums and Heritage Awards 2014 – Award winners review: Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

The Micrarium – Highly Commended in the Project on a Limited Budget category

The Micrarium – a place for tiny things – was conceived to overcome two identified problems in museums with natural science collections. Firstly, that 95% of all known animal species are tiny – smaller than your thumb – yet nearly all specimens on display in natural history museums are large animals. As such, natural history museum galleries are deeply unrepresentative of the natural world – a disconnect that visitors rarely notice.

Secondly, most natural history museums have extensive microscope slide collections (the Grant Museum has 20,000) yet no one has ever developed a way of successfully using them in displays. Beginning in the 19th century, slides were used as a standard in biological research and teaching and were a vital resource up until the 1980s. They have become obsolete as reference tools in research and as illustrative tools in teaching because of modern imaging technologies. Their content and physical properties make them very difficult to display. As such microscope slides are largely considered effectively useless. The Micrarium has solved both of these issues.

As the concept of the Micrarium evolved, budgets began to affect how the displays looked. Initially the installation was to involve small box windows of slides and vials to display tiny animals, but this proved expensive. Instead, the entire space has been tiled in the microscope slides themselves which has proved even more effective.

Given the very limited space available, the concept was modified to fit into a converted storeroom where the slide housing structures could be fixed directly to the existing walls. The room has been designed to create a beautifully aesthetic immersive space which immediately communicates the breadth of global diversity of tiny animals – all with mimimal interpretation.

Curatorial staff have selected 2323 microscope slides which display tiny animals – either complete, sectioned or stained, from traditionally unrepresented parts of the animal kingdom – obscure groups of worms and crustaceans, jellyfish and minute molluscs, mites and sea spiders. A mirrored ceiling increases the immersive effect.

The outcome is a very modern, innovative space which houses historic and outmoded collections which can be viewed individually and collectively as objects of beauty. Although it is a tiny space (just 1.8m x 1.4m) it is impactful and has been achieved on a very limited budget. As well as pleasing visitors, the Micrarium is now bringing in income through merchandising in the form of wrapping paper and gift cards featuring Micrarium images.