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  • Agriculture and War : Seeds and Death -what does it all mean ?

    By Helen Pike, on 24 November 2015

    In our continuing series to document the process behind next year’s exhibition in the Octagon, Mark Peter Wright and Helena Hunter  were chosen to work with curators and academic researchers from UCL on this new exhibition led by Helen Pike, Public Programmer at The Petrie Museum. Mark is an artist and researcher working across sound, video, assemblage and performance and Helena’s practice spans performance, text and moving image. The blog offers a chance for ideas to be presented and hopefully engage comment and conversation !


    “Is there a form of theory that can acknowledge a certain ‘thing-power’, that is, the irreducibility of objects to the human meanings or agendas they also embody?”

    Jane Bennett, Agency, Nature and Emergent Properties: An Interview with Jane Bennett. Contemporary Political Theory 8, 90-105 (February 2009).



    Throughout October and early November we did a tour of curators and their collections. First up was Alice Stevenson, curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archeology. We discussed the agricultural tools and equipment dating back thousands of years on display and how such items evidence the development of mechanistic technologies that began to enter and change landscapes and civilizations, both physically and psychologically. We’re interested in tracing cartographies around such material cultures: extending an appreciation of the “thing” outwards, towards broader relationships and speculative assemblages, and their political and ecological consequences. Interestingly, Petrie himself produced a book called “Tools and Weapons”, a detailed analysis of items from an Egyptian expedition in 1916 and which nests agriculture and war, seeds and death in close proximity.

    Next was Prof. Simon Lewis from UCL Geography department. Simon is at the cutting edge of Anthropocene debates and with Prof. Mark Maslin co-authored the recent paper “Defining the Anthropocene” (March 2015, N. 519) for the influential Nature Journal. We discussed the difficulty of pinning this contingent epoch to a specific start time. Our conversations focused upon two of the “Golden Spikes” that Lewis and Maslin identify as geological specificities, or points of “origin”. One being 1610 at the point of the collision of old and new worlds by way of colonialism and trade, the other being 1964 as a result of increased levels of radioactivity produced through nuclear weapons testing.


    Our heads now spinning, we visited Nick Booth, curator of the Geology collections. We were interested in drawing out connections between the earth and technology, primarily through rare earth minerals. These physical elements, mined from the earth, make up parts of our so-called “immaterial” culture such as phones and laptops. Along with rare earths and a host of other items including a Chirotherium fossil footprint and Sir William Ramsay’s original set of discharge tubes, we were drawn to a collection of micro fossils and the deceptively large impact they have in relation to oil exploration.

    Microfossil Image_Miracle_UCL-2

    Close up of a micro fossil credit UCL Geology 

    Our final visit of the day took us to Paolo Viscardi, curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology. If the desire for energy drives the Anthropocene then it seems petroleum oil/plastics are one the central material actors within this story. Stemming from such materialities are the consequences on species such as the giant tortoises of the Galapagos. These animals were exploited for their oil rich bodies in addition to suffering from the clearance of their natural habitat for agricultural purposes. Like the microfossils these museum artefacts (in this case, giant shells) project a powerful grafting of non-humans and humans, technology and the earth, extinctions and possible futures.


    To conclude this post, and in response to Jane Bennett’s opening quote at the top of this blog, we would say that although “thing-power” may productively recognize the intensities of material things in and of themselves, we are more interested in mixing vibrant matter with their geopolitical contexts: to drawn a cartography of consequences rather than a type of material awe.







    Specimen of the week 215: the sparrowhawk taxidermy

    By Will J Richard, on 23 November 2015

    Hello zoo-fans. Will Richard here, throwing words at the page to bring you this specimen of the week. And what a specimen I’ve chosen. Graceful, elegant, deadly and now stuffed. Slightly wonkily. Case 17’s finest…

    LDUCZ-Y1549 female sparrowhawk taxidermy

    LDUCZ-Y1549 female sparrowhawk taxidermy

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Some More Favourite PanoptiCam Views

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 19 November 2015

    My last ‘Favourite PanoptiCam Views‘ blog post was way back in June, so an update is long overdue.

    Summer is usually a quiet time for the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. There are less staff and students around and, although he does receive a regular stream of visitors, summer is often a time to pause and take stock of the past academic year. Infact it is very easy to forget just how busy UCL can be when the students return, however when the new academic year starts again…

    'Looking at me, looking at you' - one regular summer visitor to the auto-icon gets into the spirit of the PanoptiCam Project.

    ‘Looking at me, looking at you’ – one regular summer visitor to the auto-icon gets into the spirit of the PanoptiCam Project.

    The start of term witnessed some long queues for registration...

    The start of term witnessed some long queues for registration…

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Specimen of Week 214: Fossil Vertebrae

    By Tannis Davidson, on 16 November 2015

    LDUCZ-X1111 Dimetrodon vertebrae

    LDUCZ-X1111 Dimetrodon sp.vertebrae

    In the spotlight this week is a specimen that is currently experiencing it’s ‘busy season’. The Grant Museum collection is widely used in teaching at UCL and the Museum is home to many specimen-based practicals. For example, during term 1 in 2014, there were 34 practicals using over 600 specimens by 1400 students.

    Amidst this flurry of activity, certain specimens catch the eye. Is it that they are finally freed from the safe-keeping of their fossil drawers and have their moment to shine? Could it be that they are used over and over and over again to illustrate a turning point in evolution so critical that repeat viewings are essential? Or is it that the specimen is quite simply, an attractive object in itself, perhaps a worthy contestant in a specimen beauty contest?

    This week’s Specimen of the Week is… Read the rest of this entry »

    Where are we now?

    By Helen Pike, on 10 November 2015

    Mark Peter Wright and Helena Hunter were chosen to work with curators and academic researchers from UCL on this new exhibition project. Mark is an artist and researcher working across sound, video, assemblage and performance and Helena’s practice spans performance, text and moving image. In this series of blogs running from now until the exhibition opens, the two will discuss how they are finding the process of research and discuss the ideas that are emerging.  The blog will stand in as the space of thinking for the exhibition

    Helen Pike – Public Programmer

     ‘The fossils of the future are the ones we live among’.

    Jussi Parikka, A Geology of Media, 2015, p.123

    By Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright


    As part of our research for the forthcoming Octagon exhibition we visited neuroscientists Aman Saleem and Matteo Carandini and at The Institute of Ophthalmology. We were introduced to methods and practices from their research that focused upon navigation and cognitive mapping. The main content of our discussions centred upon the ‘hippocampus’ – a region deep within the brain that  resembles a seahorse.  It plays a vital role in how both humans and mammals navigate through space, in addition to both short and long term memory function. As a multi-sensual area of the brain it differs from the visual cortex that has a more singular visual pursuit, offering a reception for sensory input that gives recognition but not clarity as to what we are seeing. The hippocampus is a plural, multi-sensory region in the brain accommodating a dualistic appreciation of place: the point we are physically located in and the place we may be relating to at a distance. Like the blue dot on Google maps, it resembles a pulsing area where the process and production of where we are, or think we are in the present is activated.

    But where are we now?Hippocampus_small[1] This deceptively simple question has opened up many trajectories for us. Where are we in terms of physical space? Political or ecological contexts? Subjective and collective identities? What happens between the here and there when binaries collapse? What errors, frictions and fictions may emerge?

    The Anthropocence is the current condition that underwrites such broad questioning of ‘where are we now?’ The term, coined by scientists, marks out a new geological epoch. It is an umbrella within which to describe how the human (antropos) has become irrecoverably grafted into every aspect of global-techno-animal life. Its consequences are read primarily through the current climate and ecological crisis. It also speaks towards the impact of advanced capitalism and our relationship to non-human agents – from animals to rocks. It is debated that we have been in this “now” since the industrial revolution, perhaps even further back. (See: Parikka, 2015). Alternative hybrid formations of the term, pinning specific areas of inquiry, have also been proposed (See: Braidotti ‘Capitaloscene’; Haraway ‘Chthulucene’; Parikka ‘Anthrobscene’).Seahorse Fossil

    [1] We are reluctant to speak of a “we” in terms of one homogenised collection of (human) people. When “we” is evoked we are therefore talking from our subjective and relational positions firstly, but also wish to extend a sense of collectivity and agency to non-human others.


    Who turned out the lights on Jeremy Bentham?

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 9 November 2015

    The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham is 183 years old and counting. Over this time it has attended parties and UCL council meetings, had its heads (wax and mummified) stolen by students, twice visited Germany and also taken a ride in a red Morris Marina. It’s fair to say that Jeremy Bentham has led an active after life, and UCL Museums are committed to ensuring that it survives for another 183 years and more.

    Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon.

    Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon.

    During recent conservation work it has become apparent that although the auto-icon appears safe and secure it is actually subject to a very damaging environmental factor – high light levels (Cue dramatic sounds and possibly someone screaming in the distance).

    Ok so actually of all the risks the auto-icon faces this doesn’t sound like a particularly bad one, especially compared to fires, wars, insect infestation and the afore mentioned head thefts (all of these the auto-icon has survived at one point in its life). But high light levels are a huge danger to the auto-icon, and can cause irreparable damage.

    Read the rest of this entry »

    Specimen of the Week 213: The Enigmatic Gibbon

    By Rachel H Bray, on 9 November 2015

    Hello Grant Museum blog readers and zoology enthusiasts, it’s Rachel Bray here. You may be wondering who I am, unless you saw a Specimen of the Week blog by me back in May when I temporarily joined the Museum for my MA placement. I am very lucky to be back at the Grant until Christmas to work with the Museum’s wonderful learning and events programme. As part of my return I’m pleased to be getting back into the Specimen of the Week swing of things by researching this week’s candidate which is…

    Photograph of the grey gibbon specimen

    LDUCZ-Z475 Hylobates sp.

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    Hello! I’m the new Grant Museum Curator

    By Paolo W Viscardi, on 6 November 2015

    My name is Paolo Viscardi and I’m the new Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL.


    I have a background in biomechanics and comparative anatomy, with a particular fondness for bones, which I’ve been writing about since July 2009 on my personal blog Zygoma. In my spare time I am Chair of the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and I run the science communication event Science in the Pub (or PubSci for short). My passion for communicating science also keeps me busy giving talks and getting involved in all sorts of events and performances, from immersive theatre to providing a scientist’s response to art. Read the rest of this entry »

    The Unbelievable Truth about Sir Francis Galton

    By Subhadra Das, on 5 November 2015

    I have a motto: If at a loss, take inspiration from a tried and tested Radio 4 format.

    This week it’s The Unbelievable Truth, the panel show built on truth and lies. Each panellist presents a short lecture on a chosen subject and scores points for how many truths they can smuggle past the other players. Panellists win points for spotting truths, and lose points if they mistake a lie for a truth. Seeing as I’m the only one presenting, the lecture is longer than normal and contains 15 truths rather than the usual 5. In the interest of investing in a civilised society, I will be trusting you to keep your own score.

    This week, my subject is Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist and statistician who propounded the term eugenics.

    I've been doing my homework...

    I’ve been doing my homework…

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    Glass delusions from the ancient Egyptian world

    By Alice E Stevenson, on 4 November 2015

    This post is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    We often visualize ancient Egypt in sandy hues against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, or the watery Nile framed by green vegetation. Yet there was a much wider palette of colours used in the adornment of palaces, temples and decorative objects. The Egypt world was brightly, sometime garishly, vibrant with colour. Glass was one of the luxury materials that came to be used for decoration during the period Egyptologists call the New Kingdom, around 1500 BC.

    Armana glass rods on display in Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of Zoology. 18th Dynasty, Amarna, UC22911 - UC22920

    Armana glass rods on display in Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
    18th Dynasty, Amarna, From the Petrie Museum collection (UC22911 – UC22920)

    Read the rest of this entry »