Museum of Life Sciences, King’s College London

This afternoon I dropped into the Museum of Life Sciences, part of the Gordon Museum belonging to King’s College London. This is because it was open to the public as part of the Festival of Materials and Making organised by the Institute of Making.

The museum had a small exhibition on animal material, such as wool, silk, skin, feathers and honeycomb, and how humans make use of the materials. I had a go at writing with a quill pen (aka pheasant feather), and there were also displays on honey and making candles from beeswax.

But what caught my eye was a tortoise shell with some of the scales missing. What I hadn’t realised is that the patterned “shell” is actually scales of keratin overlaid on a structure of bone. The bone is also divided into plates and is slightly ridged, though not as much as the keratin – as you can see from the photo below.

When the museum staff heard about my interest in tortoises, they very kindly produced some more specimens from the cupboards, including a wonderfully patterned Testudo radiata from Madagascar.

They also had a couple of tortoise shells with parts of the skeleton still attached to the inside of the bony dome. Again, in my (extensive) ignorance of turtle anatomy, I didn’t know that the skeleton was actually connected to the shell. I suppose I assumed that the softer head and limbs were just joined to the shell by skin – which is pretty daft now I think about it!

The photo above isn’t great, due to reflections from the perspex box, but I hope you can see how the spine runs along the centre of the bony shell and how the bones of the limbs are connected to other bony protrusions.

I think I shall be returning with my sketchbook. The museum is normally open only to King’s College students and staff, but the curator Dr Gillian Sales told me that artists are very welcome it they make an appointment in advance. The museum has zoological and botanical collections, as well as dried medicinal specimens, microscope slides and various skulls.

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