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Meet the London museum curator who’s devoted her life to spiders

Written by
Rachael Funnell

Jan Beccaloni has been the Natural History Museum’s arachnid expert for more than 20 years: a job that’s seen her defending the reputation of spiders and handing a live tarantula to Prince William…

‘My passion for arachnida first began when I was a child. It was a species of jumping spider, the zebra spider, which made me realise how fascinated I was by them. My mum used to teach me about spiders and the more I learnt about them the more I thought: God, they’re awesome. I want to know more!

I  joined the Natural History Museum in 1990 to work at first on insects. In those days the museum only required O-levels and I had A-levels, so they considered me well qualified. A few years later I was told that the insect section had too many curators, so I chose to work on arachnids instead – and the rest is history.

Since I began I’ve completed two degrees and written a book on arachnida. I wanted to make the subject appealing to people who didn’t already know about arachnids, so I basically wrote the book that I wanted to read when I was starting out. It was a bit hardcore as I was working full time, but it’s amazing what you can achieve on the tube.

‘Thanks to my job, I was able to preserve my favourite pet in a jar’

I’ve kept many pet tarantulas, but my favourite is the Goliath birdeater – the largest spider in the world by mass. I had one called Tracey who unfortunately died, but thanks to my job I was able to preserve her in a jar of alcohol and I still get to see her on a regular basis.

I now own a burgundy Goliath birdeater, affectionately known as Mariah Hairy. I named her that because when I first brought her to the museum, so many volunteers appeared to look at her that she seemed like Mariah Carey with her entourage.

During my time at the museum, my responsibilities have ranged from administrative tasks like organising newly acquired collections to meeting the public and spreading the word about spiders. Occasionally I find myself doing some pretty odd things. Once I was sent a rotten banana in a Jiffy bag: the sender must have thought there was a spider on it for me to identify. I was also asked to help a dermatologist, whose patient claimed a spider had bitten him on the back. In reality the suspected spider couldn’t possibly have caused such a reaction. Spider bites rarely turn out to be genuine, but the poor things are always being blamed.

‘The Prince had sweaty palms as I passed him the tarantula’

My role as senior curator of arachnida even resulted in my handing a live tarantula to Prince William, when he visited the museum to open our newest space, the Darwin Centre, in 2009. There was a lot of toing and froing from the Palace, as they were concerned for the Prince’s safety, but I assured them that if the spider was dangerous I wouldn’t want to handle it myself, let alone hand it to a member of the royal family. There was a running joke that there would be a police marksman hidden somewhere with a rifle trained on the spider, and on the day the Prince was clearly a bit worried: he had very sweaty palms as I passed him the tarantula.

I consider myself to be in spider PR. I think the fear of spiders is often learnt from our parents and our peers, as we don’t have any highly venomous spiders in this country. False widows are given a lot of negative press but they’re not dangerous. In fact, spiders are great pest controllers, so keep them alive in the house and you’ll see the benefits.’

Interview by Rachael Funnell. 

See the exhibition ‘Venom: Killer and Cure’ is at the Natural History Museum until May 13.

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