A look at the Alfred Denny Museum of Zoology

(Click on images to enlarge.)

If you’re looking for somewhere to while away an hour in Sheffield, I can highly recommend this collection of biological specimens at the Department of Animal and Plant Sciences at Sheffield University.  It’s open to the public on the first Saturday of the month, when bookable hourly tours are run by student volunteers.  Our group of about 10 were given a brief introduction by Zoology students Chloe and Merryl, then allowed to wander and ask questions.


There was no chance of getting bored given the small scale of the collection and the huge variety of specimens. My family (a 10 year old, a 2nd year university student and 3 parents, one a natural history/museum nut) found plenty to keep us all thoroughly occupied, interested and drawn from one cabinet to the next. For some visitors half an hour was plenty, while we had to be politely edged out of the door with the lure of a look at the Sorby slides when the hour was up!


The collection includes fish, reptiles, amphibians, birds, mammals and arthropods, represented by skeletons, spirit specimens, taxidermy and pinned insects.  The specimens are arranged systematically by Phyla in the 15 cases and there’s a useful plan in the Museum Guide provided.


The room is not much longer than this, with cabinets around the walls too. These beautiful cabinets were transferred when the museum moved from its original location in Firth Court.


Photo: Heather Miles

‘Half-specimens’ show the animal’s inner workings.


Observational skills were encouraged.


Wonderful to see a Manitee skeleton.


Photo: Heather Miles

Part of the amazingly preserved and unique collection of slides of marine organisms prepared by Henry Clifton Sorby in the early 1900s.


Photo: Heather Miles

All the specimens are clearly identified by labels, but sadly we were told much of the information associated with them has been lost, so our guides couldn’t tell us much about where they came from, apart from a story about the porpoise being barrowed up from the fishmarket in Sheffield!

Although the museum was only opened to the public in 2012, it’s been a teaching resource for over 100 years and is used with undergraduate courses on biodiversity and evolution.  As with most museum collections, what’s on show is a fraction of the whole and we were told further displays are in development. The museum’s curator is Prof. Tim Birkhead.

The department also runs a ‘Be a Scientist for the Day’ programme.  This offers primary students the chance to work in the labs to find out what it’s like to be a real biologist and to explore the museum. There’s plenty of information about the collections on the Museum website, worth looking at before a visit.


‘Ugh! I don’t like the crinkly bits!’ Joe Young, age 10.









Developing a museum outreach collection


On my first day at Manchester Museum, I was intrigued by some large silver boxes.  Each held a selection of objects from a different gallery in the Museum, or an aspect of a collection.  Community organisations can host a visit from these ‘Museum Comes to You’ boxes with a member of the Museum staff.

So I was excited to be asked to develop a box based on the Nature’s Library gallery – but also a little overwhelmed!  This beautiful gallery opened in April 2013 and showcases an outstanding collection of preserved animals, plants and fossils, collected from around the world over the last 200 years.   As a starting point in choosing 8 or 9 specimens out of over 4 million, I went out with Kerry Beeston and Curator of Community Exhibitions, Andrea Winn,  to see how the objects were used.

Andrea and Kerry skilfully described objects from the Natural Science collections to members of Henshaw’s Society for the Blind and there were soon lots of conversations and questions flying – ‘What is it?’, ‘Where does it come from?’ and ‘How old is it?’.


Andrea and Kerry were praised for their engaging description of the objects.


These particular objects  had been chosen for their variety of texture, shape and colour.    They didn’t necessarily have much information associated with them, limiting their usefulness as a flexible resource for a range of groups.


A beautiful selection of shells from the Indian Ocean sparked lots of discussion and memories of distant lands.

Very positive feedback from this and two other groups asked for a greater variety of objects – Herbarium sheets were particularly mentioned, and staff wanted more information about objects.

Nature’s Library  ‘showcases objects from the collections, where they come from, how they are used for research and what they mean to people today’ with the overarching aim of inspiring a greater interest in the natural world, helping people think about their own relationship with the modern natural world and telling people about what the museum does.


The fruit of the Coco-de-mer – an endangered palm with the largest seed of any plant, weighing up to 30 kg. Its interesting shape has given rise to many legends!

A group of 8 or 9 objects was considered optimalThe objects musn’t be hazardous obviously, and they need to be robust enough or suitably packaged for transport/handling.  Objects were chosen to:

  • Reflect the range of the collections
  • Be amazing in their own right, visually, with interesting texture, aroma or sound
  • Have fascinating natural history
  • Provide lots of angles to talk about –  the history of their collection, their collectors and how their use today reflects the  museum’s teaching and research role as a part of the university.

People are also interested in curatorial aspects – the various forms of conservation and storage, how the museum keeps track of them and their associated information.


Apart from choosing the objects (liaising with the relevant curators), researching information was hugely enjoyable and hard to know when to stop.  But I had to remember that it can become a real memory test for those presenting the objects.  I aimed to provide enough variety of information that they could find something to connect with.  The objects are augmented by images of them in their natural habitat for use in the sessions.

I met members from the Engagement Team and Conservation Department to look at the final selection, to get their input from the presentational point of view and think about how people might engage with the objects, as well as flag up any handling issues.  Then the objects were left with the Conservation team to check their stability and to be mounted / packaged while pilot sessions are set up to try them out.

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This Whale Barnacle is my particular favourite.  This one is 6 cm across.  Not a mollusc, but a crustacean (like crabs etc).  They live almost exclusively on Hump-backed Whales.