See the World’s Most Ordinary Animals as You Never Have Before

Usually, the highlight of a visit to a natural history museum is a display featuring a fantastic creature—a giant whale, a threatening dinosaur, or an otherworldly mammoth. But at the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London, a new project is taking a closer look at what the museum calls “ordinary animals”—the chickens, mice, cows, cats, and dogs of the world.

Living in such closer proximity with these animals, we often don’t think of them as holding the same intrigue as their wild cousins. Yes, we love to watch their antics, but a cow rarely elicits the same wonder as a manatee.

This new “Museum of Ordinary Animals” suggests that by paying attention to the animals we’re most familiar and intimate with, we can notice again their strangeness and wonder. Atlas Obscura talked to curator Jack Ashby about the difficulty with frogs, the creepiness of cat mummies, and the allure of the animals we sometimes take for granted.

Cows are one of the largest species represented. UCL Grant Museum of Zoology/Oliver Siddons

What is an ordinary animal? What makes an animal ordinary?

It’s basically the boring beasts in our everyday lives, the animals we encounter in the streets, in our gardens, in our homes, and in scientific labs. The ones that are really a commonplace part of human society and human culture. In the main, that’s domesticated animals we’re talking about, but there are a couple of other species that aren’t so much domesticated but have come to live alongside us, like snails and pigeons.

Were there any edge cases?

Frogs were contentious.

What was contentious about the frogs?

The animals that people find in their gardens, for example, or that might have been used in university dissection classes, are identical to the ones that live proper wild lives in natural habitats. Frogs can be considered everyday, ordinary animals because they have crossed or do still cross paths with people in fairly human ways. But they are also wild animals. The same frogs in those human environments are essentially identical to the real wild animals.

This differs from most of the other ordinary animals that feature in the exhibition, which are on the whole domesticated. Cats and dogs and domestic mice and feral pigeons are all sort of manmade animals. But frogs are bit questionable.

Cats were mummified as grave goods, but the one on the left may have just wandered into a tomb. UCL Grant Museum of Zoology/Oliver Siddons

What can we learn from…

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