By Natasha L Mcenroe, on 8 February 2011
Although my main role is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, one of my responsibilities is to act as Curator for the Galton Collection. Francis Galton (1822-1911) is best known today for being a pioneer of modern eugenics, a fingerprint enthusiast and a cousin of Charles Darwin. The collection consists of over 500 objects, largely made up of Galton’s personal belongings and scientific instruments. Although small, the Galton Collection provokes a great deal of interest from both researchers and artists, partly due to the relevance of many of the themes and questions it raises in terms of identify, race and human rights.
As the Galton is a small research collection that is available for viewing only by appointment, one of my main remits is to promote and facilitate loans to exhibitions taking place in other museums. In this way, as many people as possible get to access this material in a way that they wouldn’t do ordinarily. This is quite a time-consuming process, but the rewards are great – for example, the Wellcome Collection dedicated a large section of their excellent exhibition The Identity Project to Galton, meaning that nearly 80,000 people accessed a large chunk of the UCL Galton material in just a few months. It also means that the items can be seen by an international audience – I have just had loan of seven objects returned from the Hygiene Museum in Dresden.
What usually happens is that a researcher or curator will contact me to find out what material is at UCL (the catalogue is online here http://galtcat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/). The lead-in for museum loans is usually quite lengthly, and due to the amount of work needed, we usually ask for 12 months notice for a loan. I have to ensure that the security and environmental conditions of the loaning institution are adequate, and that their insurance is up to scratch. The people loaning are also responsible for transporting the objects we are loaning, which has to be done by professional museum handlers. If the objects are complicated or particularly fragile, I tend to courier them myself.
This object was displayed in the Matthew Bolton exhibition at Birmingham Museum in 2009. It took me and two professional packers nearly three hours to pack this to ensure it would be safe enough to transport, and I travelled to Birmingham to supervise its installation.
The remaining paperwork – loan forms, insurance and a full condition report has to be filled out for each object. Additionally, I have to approve both the context in which the material will be displayed and the text that will be displayed with the object. This is particularly important for the Galton Collection, due to the sensitivity of the history of eugenics and Galton’s long association with UCL.
Once the loan is in place, my work is almost done, unless the loaning institution wants me to speak at an event related to their exhibition. All that remains is to collect the object a the end of the loan, agree with the borrowing curator from the condition report that no damage has been done to the objects during the period of the loan, and to count the number of visitors that saw the objects whilst they were on loan from UCL.