This weekend my sister was visiting me, and we went around some free museums in London on Saturday afternoon. I like to do these kind of tourist activities when I have a visitor from home, it’s when I most enjoy exploring odd, curious corners of the city. Everywhere we went in central London was about 20% quieter than usual, obviously because of the corona-virus nonsense, but that suited us anyway.
We visited the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL, a pleasingly eccentric large room full of dead things in jars, our favourite. One of the first objets that we viewed (after the penis worm, which demanded our immediate attention) was a jar of moles.
A jar of moles. A large jar full of dead moles. A jar of – and I cannot stress this enough – moles.
I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since.
My sister turned around when I was looking at something else and said, ‘Oh, there’s a jar of moles.’ I looked and yes, there was a jar of moles. I don’t know what else I was expecting to see, but there it was.
The accompanying label simply says: ‘JAR OF MOLES’.
I guess there’s nothing else that needs to be said.
There was also a jar of lizards and one of ‘assorted snakes’, the caption for these intimates that these macabre jars were used to teach university students dissection skills. But why would they choose moles, which seems such an odd choice, and not mice or rats?
Where did they get the moles? Where did they come from? Did they catch them, or breed them? They all look to be the same age, size and shape, so were they selected specially or just created that way? How were they killed?
Who decided to put them in a jar? How did they end up not being used in dissection or whatever they were used for and become somehow useless? Were they in a random storage cupboard somewhere until someone discovered them? Who then decided to put them on display, thinking that the public needed to know about them?
And what about the jar itself? Was it made specially for the moles? Or was it just lying around? If it wasn’t made specially, were there excess moles that couldn’t fit or is it a coincidence that the moles all just fit perfectly inside?
And isn’t it pleasing that someone has adopted the mole jar for life? I like to imagine the conversation that may have led to that decision. But if it was an orphan, I would definitely have loved to adopt it.
I of course bought a postcard of the jar of moles, from the cash-only shop which cost 50p and was coincidentally the exact amount I had in my purse, one 50p coin that has been in there for weeks as I never usually carry or use cash. It felt eerily like it was pre-destined that I would spend that 50p on a postcard of a jar of moles.
It’s possible the jar of moles is the most successful artwork I’ve seen in a long time.
I’ve been quite depressed recently, as a result of being perennially broke, working uninspiring jobs and coming down off the MA high. The COVID-19 outbreak has added extra stress of the possibility of having my shifts cancelled at the last minute, which is likely as I am zero-hours casual for both employments and they don’t have to pay me, and would mean starving or going back to Glasgow to live in my parents’ spare room. All of my friends here are also hanging by a thread financially and/or full of dread for varying reasons.
But I did find myself feeling a bit cheerier after considering the jar of moles. It had a definite anti-depressant effect; and after I sent a picture of it to almost everyone I know, many friends said the same thing. Maybe the shock value, or its dark whimsy, or the insistent simplicity of its existence. Maybe it just makes you thankful that, no matter how bad life is, at least we are not dead moles in a jar full of other dead moles.
Native American folklore associates the mole with the underworld, as a guide to mysterious places and hidden treasures. Now we have months of social distancing in front of us, our worlds will become smaller, and we will turn more and more introspective, retreating into ourselves – like the mole burying deeper and deeper into the dark. At least the ones in the jar are not alone.