Curiosities

Curiosities --

The phrase ‘skeletons in the closet’ took on a double-edged meaning during my recent trip to the Ashworth Laboratories. Occupying the Zoology Building on the King’s Buildings Campus of Edinburgh University, it’s where Erica worked from 1959 to the mid-1960s and which today houses part of the Natural History Collection, one of the city’s best-kept secrets.

A few weeks ago while shooting in Edinburgh I made a detour to the Campus to shoot the exterior of the building. On an overcast Saturday the area was deserted so I took the chance to peer through the window of the ground floor laboratory and was intrigued by the sight of partial mammal skeletons and a row of backlit square glass jars, each containing some form of vegetal or bacterial growth.

After perusing the NHC website I contacted the Curator, Mark Blaxter, to explain my mission; a personal film about my late mother-in-law who arrived from London in 1959 to take up a research post at this same building. Could I possibly come and shoot? Yes, came Mark’s prompt reply, adding, did she know Aubrey Manning, Emeritus Professor of Natural History?

Indeed she did. Already possessing a degree in Zoology from Cambridge, in 1954 Erica moved to Somerville College, Oxford as a doctoral student of Ethology where she became one of the original members of Niko Tinbergen’s Behavioural Studies group. Among her contemporaries were Richard Dawkins, Desmond Morris and, as it happens, Aubrey Manning, so clearly there was a connection.

Several weeks later and five minutes early, I announce myself to a belligerent janitor who directs me to an upstairs office. Mounting the double-sweep staircase with its bronze sculpted finials depicting cats and monkeys, I’m pleased to see how the interior has remained largely intact; a fine example of Scottish Moderne built in 1928-29 funded partly by Carnegie and the Rockefeller Foundation.

Knocking at the door of Room 145, I’m disappointed to find no reply so I decide to run the gauntlet of the janny and gather my kit. Returning, I’m greeted by the Curator, Mark – casually attired and affable – who tells me that in addition to his curatorial duties, he’s a Zoologist involved in, among other things, genome research. As he leads me to the main laboratory on the ground floor we enter Professor Manning’s office to see if he’s around. He’s not. Part of me is relieved by his absence because while the Prof certainly knew Erica, I’ve no idea to what extent he recalls her and whether or not theirs was an amicable working relationship.

After a detour to a fine octagonal lecture theatre, we enter the laboratory, a large room with tall north-east facing windows lined with original wood and glass display cases, one containing a series of abstract plant-like forms built, Mark informs me, in the 1980s by a Manpower Services Commission project. Today the laboratory is very much a working space where the exhibits are used as teaching tools.

Built up over 300 years, the Natural History Collection ranges from the quotidian, e.g. the common mollusc, to the bizarre, e.g. a duck-billed platypus bearing scant resemblance to its former self, having been overstuffed by an Edinburgh taxidermist during the mid-nineteenth century who had plainly never seen such a creature.

Leading me up a narrow stair, Mark unlocks a door marked ‘The Aubrey Manning Gallery’. Inside the walls are lined with more wood and glass cabinets displaying models, skeletons and jars of formalin-preserved creatures. He invites me to sign the visitor’s book. ‘I’m sure you’ll find something in here that’ll become your favourite’, he says, prompting me to scan the room for a likely candidate. I quite fancy a small newt. By the time I'm propelled into an adjacent Curator’s Room containing even more displays, I’m reeling. As a parting shot, he hands me a lanyard with a set of keys. ‘Feel free to open any of the cabinets’, he says, ‘but make sure you don’t attract any Museum Beetles’.

Left to my own devices, I’m stunned, both by Mark’s trust and by the array of curiosities staring back at me. It’s a privilege to be granted access to otherwise closed spaces but to be handed the keys to a museum is a first, even for me. The best tactic, I decide, is to start in the lab, a difficult space to shoot in given the differing colour temperatures and reflective surfaces. Besides, I have less than two hours before a group of students is due to arrive so I get to down to work.

In choosing shots, my guiding principle is the script, specifically a scene involving Erica’s decision to end her academic career. Without divulging too much, it’s a poignant episode requiring not only the specimens - especially birds - but the very fabric and air of the building; its corridors, doors, stairwells and floors. Here I attract looks from the staff, students and inevitably, my janitorial nemesis whom I know has tipped off the building manager, who in turn approaches with the usual question – what are you doing here? – but who is soon defused by my explanation.

After four hours of shooting, I pack my kit and return the keys. Heading for the exit I wave cheerily at my accuser, ensconced in his wood-and-glass kiosk and looking for all the world like a disgruntled exhibit, an irony that makes me smile.

The above photo is a frame grab from my shoot at the Ashworth Laboratories showing the display created under the Manpower Services Commission project during the 1980s.

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