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Department of Zoology



As the Assistant Director of the University Museum of Zoology, alongside the Director I have a strategic and operational overview of our varied activities - developing the Museum as both a valuable academic resource and an excellent public venue, while caring for our collections responsibly. A key area of interest is the ways that the natural world is represented to the public, particularly through museums, and understanding how those representations can be biased in various ways.


My childhood enthusiasm for natural history led me to study for a Natural Sciences (Zoology) degree at the University of Cambridge, with a large amount of my teaching taking place here in the Museum. After graduating in 2003 I started my career in Science Communication at the hands-on science centre At-Bristol, running workshops in the Learning Department.

I joined the Grant Museum of Zoology at University College London in 2004 as the Learning and Access Manager, using the Museum’s specimens to establish a Learning and Access Programme. My role there began with the task of developing the museum spaces and services to be accessible to non-academic audiences for the first time, including schools, families and adults, as well as strengthening our ties with UCL Departments. I became Museum Manager there in 2011, and oversaw the development of the Museum into one of London's leading venues for engagement with the life sciences, curating several successful exhibitions at the interface of natural history, art and art history. I joined the University Museum of Zoology in Cambridge in 2018.

I am a trustee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, an Honorary Research Fellow in UCL Science and Technology Studies, and former Council-member of the Society for the History of Natural History.


My key zoological interest is in the natural history of Australia and its mammals, and the history of how the wider world came to understand and represent them. I regularly undertake ecological fieldwork with Australian wildlife NGOs and universities.

Much of my writing, exhibition, curation and public engagement activities focus on the role museums play in providing a window on the natural world. I see museum collections as a fantastic resource for the history of natural history, and as a means to explore concepts of authenticity in museum specimens, which are both person-made and “real” at the same time. I am particularly interested in the decolonisation of natural history museums. I am currently working on a new book with Penguin Press on the secrets of the world’s natural history museums, exploring the ways they go about representing nature, how their collections were made, and how they can help save the world, due out in early 2025.

From 2022-2023, I am undertaking a Headley Fellowship, supported by the Art Fund, exploring the colonial histories of the Australian mammal collections here at the Museum. The University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge, has an exceptional Australian collection, which has underpinned research into evolution and natural history, but the human social stories it can tell have yet to be explored. This project will uncover untold narratives of how colonial collectors worked, and who they worked with. It will shed light on the links between natural history and troubling colonial history. It will seek out those people who contributed so much expertise to the history of science and museums, but who were typically omitted from popular accounts of these histories, such as women and Indigenous collectors.

As well as enabling us to explore the key principles of evolution and natural history, museums also depict nature in certain ways that are not entirely scientific. A major focus are the (normally subconscious) biases in natural history museum displays. These two aspects of museums were the key focus of my 2017 book,  Animal Kingdom: A Natural History in 100 Objects. My 2022 book, Platypus Matters: The Extraordinary Story of Australian Mammals celebrates these wondeful animals, and details colonial influences in the ways Australian wildlife is represented to the wider world. It won the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales' 2022 Whitley Award for best natural book; and the Zoological Society of London's 2022 Clarivate Award for Communicating Zoology.


Key publications: 
  • Bailey-Ross, C., Gray, S., Ashby, J., Terras, M., Hudson-Smith, A., & Warwick, C., 2016. Engaging the museum space: Mobilizing visitor engagement with digital content creation. Digital Scholarship in the Humanities, fqw041. Available here.

  • Carnall, M., Ashby, J., & Ross, C., 2013. Natural history museums as provocateurs for dialogue and debate. Museum Management and Curatorship, 28 (1), 55-71. Available here.

  • Hohnen, R., Ashby, J., Tuft, K., & McGregor, H., 2012. Individual identification of northern quolls (Dasyurus hallucatus) using remote cameras. Australian Mammalogy. Available here.

  • Ashby, J., 2012. How Museums can Support Higher Education: Engaging Universities with Museums NatSCA News, 23, pp 21-24. Available here.

  • Ashby, J., 2011. Order from Chaos: The new Grant Museum of Zoology, University College London. NatSCA News, 21, pp. 89-93. Available here.

  • Macdonald, S., & Ashby, J., 2011. Museums: Campus treasures. Nature, 471 (7337), 164-165. Available here

  • Ashby, J. & Wood, C., 2010. Lessons in Learning: Primary schools, universities and museums. UCL, London. Available here

Other publications: 
  • Ashby, J., Fanshawe, J., Kingdon, J., 2019. Evolution as Inspiration: Jonathan Kingdon (exhibition catalogue). Cambridge Conservation Initiative & University Museum of Zoology, Cambridge

Assistant Director - Museum of Zoology

Contact Details

Museum G. 18
01223 (7)61344
Available for consultancy


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