Tannis Davidson: Quaggas, dugongs and thylacines – and the heroic bulletproof elephant

Sep 23 2019

Tannis Davidson, curator at University College London, joins David Oakes in this episode of Trees A Crowd

David Oakes

David Oakes


Tannis Davidson


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About this episode:

Tannis Davidson is the curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at University College London. From unearthing the dismembered arms of mummies at archaeological digs in Egypt to searching for fossils in Beijing, Tannis has a rich history in researching and examining the stories of the once living. As one of the few people in the world who takes care of animals only once they’ve died, Tannis’ work has her looking after 68,000 specimens. One of the museum’s many accolades is that it houses one of only seven existing quagga skeletons in the world – a type of zebra that is now extinct. Other specimens include biological tissue from the Tasmanian tiger, an elephant tusk with an antique bullet encased within it, a gorilla skeleton which was once photographed hugging H.G.Wells… and a jar of moles!

David's thoughts:

Tannis Davidson, standing in front of the quagga skeleton holding the elephant tusk with the imbedded bullet

When I first moved to London in 2007, I remember how our nation’s capital still held a sense of childhood mystery for me. It was a place of wonder. A place where parents, uncles, grandparents, teachers and all my elders took me to spend days wandering the corridors of museums and galleries to learn and to be fascinated. As a result of this, in 2007, I set myself the challenge of visiting all of London’s 250+ museums…

…and on September the 10th, 2015 (in a bizarre coincidence, this is exactly four years ago to the day as I write this), on my first visit to The Grant Museum of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy, I recorded on Twitter:

There are museums so big that they need return visits to see all that they hold. There are galleries that change their exhibitions so frequently that return visits are mandatory to see what points they’re trying to make. And then there are the small ones, the perfectly formed ones, the ones you revisit because they have captured something that touches your soul; an essence of something that resonates deep within you. 

For me, Grant’s is such a place. Clad in polished teak, each surface is infused with deep-running narratives, its glass-fronted cabinets stuffed with inanimate delights. I return frequently. The smell of the place alone makes me smile. I have sketched there, stared at specimens there, and now I’ve even recorded interviews there.

Chalk and charcoal sketch of the skull of a four-horned antelope, drawn on a visit in 2015


The more I spoke with Tannis, the more it made me appreciate the role of a curator for a historic collection. So much work needs to be done to make everything accessible, and yet still so many mysteries remain clouded. 

If you haven’t listened to the two addendums to this episode – in particular Tannis’ joy at deciphering the origin of the rhamphorhynchoid fossil – then you’re missing much of what makes her so brilliant to talk to. 

You can hear it in her voice; when she gets excited by a story, or gets the faint smell of a puzzle to be solved, her grin widens, her eyes sparkling. There is a passion for exploration that bubbles up from deep within her.



To know that someone so passionately inquisitive is caring for Grant’s collection is wonderful, especially when taken in context to what Tannis refers to as the importance of “decolonising a collection”.

In this current age we are hyper-aware of how careful and compassionate we should be in order to support all viewpoints, especially of those who have been historically underrepresented. So, in curating the past for our present, it is vital that it is done with our futures in mind. 

This rings extra loud to me now that I am an uncle, a godparent, an example-setter, and responsible for introducing new generations to the awe-inspiring museums of London.

The exhibition, Displays of Power: A Natural History of Empire, is on at the Grant Museum of Zoology until March 7, 2020.



Tannis Davidson – https://twitter.com/tannis_davidson

Grant Museum of Zoology – https://twitter.com/GrantMuseum


Grant Museum of Zoology – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology

Elephant Tusk Bullet – https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2015/03/30/specimen-of-the-week-week-181/

Quagga leg restoration (Guardian article) – https://www.theguardian.com/science/2014/dec/30/quagga-skeleton-restoration-bone-idol-grant-museum-london

Valley of the Nobles, Luxor (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tombs_of_the_Nobles

Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology – https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/petrie-museum

Panjiayuan Market, Beijing (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beijing_Antique_Market

William Smith’s Geological Map of England and Wales – https://www.nhm.ac.uk/discover/first-geological-map-of-britain.html

Astronaut “Scat” Map – https://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2019/3/22/18236125/apollo-moon-poop-mars-science

Thylacine footage – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=odswge5onwY

Rhamphorhynchoid (Wikipedia) – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rhamphorhynchoidea

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