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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.







    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.


    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)


    A UCL Museums Murder Mystery

    By Dean W Veall, on 25 August 2015

    Dean Veall here. UCL Museums, comprising of UCL Art Museum, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology and the Teaching and Research Collections and us, teamed up for an evening of dark noir, intrigue and subterfuge in celebration of Museums at Night 2015. A crime had been committed on campus and with prizes to be won we invited visitors to solve this museum murder mystery.


    UCL Museums Student Events Team

    By Rachel H Bray, on 8 June 2015

    Rachel again…

    Back in February this year, UCL Museums ran a very special late night opening at the Grant Museum of Zoology around Valentine’s Day, called Animal Instincts: Sex and the Senses. Much fun and merriment was had by all with special lusty-themed cocktails, an animal photobooth, crafts and some particularly pungent ‘animal’ smelling boxes. Over the years UCL Museums have built up a reputation for putting on events such as these; however, for Animal Instincts, they handed over the reigns to the events programme to some of us UCL students.

    A shot of the busy bar at our event "Animal Instincts: Sex and the Senses".

    Farrah serving up a cocktail storm at the bar during the evening.


    The Museum is Where the People Are – vote for us now

    By Jenny M Wedgbury, on 29 April 2015

    PURE EVIL - Roberto Rossellini's Nighmare

    Roberto Rossellini’s Nightmare, Pure Evil


    Old master prints, drawings of flayed bodies, mysterious things in glass jars, extinct animal skeletons, glittery minerals and rocks, amulets and charms from ancient Egypt: UCL Museums and Collections are a treasure trove of the awe inspiring and unusual. But we don’t just think of ourselves as being a collection of objects fixed to one space and place, we believe that the Museum is where the people are and we want to take the spirit of our collections off site for the Museums at Night event on 30 and 31 October. (more…)

    Adventures in disposal: Sawdust & Threads

    By Subhadra Das, on 17 February 2015

    Today sees the opening of Sawdust & Threads: an exhibition, residency and art installation which will be based at UCL’s North Lodge on Gower Street for one week until Monday 23rd February 2015.

    Sawdust & Threads exhibition in the UCL North Lodge on Gower Street

    Sawdust & Threads exhibition in the UCL North Lodge on Gower Street

    Sawdust & Threads is an exhibition that takes objects disposed of from museum collections as its material. After drawing the objects, artist Caroline Wright will carefully deconstruct them, reducing them to their component parts. UCL Museums & Collections is one of three museums – along with Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery and the Polar Museum in Cambridge – collaborating with Caroline by contributing objects to this Arts Council Funded project. Her drawings will be on display in the North Lodge, and Caroline will be deconstructing the objects from UCL’s Teaching & Research and Ethnography collections in the North Lodge and at the Institute of Making from today.


    Do you need a PhD to be a curator?

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 25 November 2014

    During the ever excellent ‘Ask a Curator Day’ (search #AskACurator on twitter) I noticed a number of questions along the lines of ‘How do I become a curator’ / ‘what qualifications do I need to become a curator’. Many asked about whether a Masters in museum studies is sufficient. This is an ongoing debate on this blog and I suspect the question has no firm answer; however one response to this question from a national museum here in the UK caught my eye…

    ‘Museum Studies graduates do find curator jobs but increasingly employers are looking for PhD training in a speciality area.”

    A photo of a man in a suit and glasses blanacing one legged on a table

    Once upon a time this was
    the first Google Images result for ‘Curator’.

    This is an interesting answer, and I am sure it is correct for national museums (or that one in particular at least), however I do not believe that it is correct for many, or even most, jobs with ‘curator’ in the title. So I thought I would briefly go through my experiences of the word ‘curator’ and what I perceive it to mean in the different areas of the museum world.


    Focus on the Positive goes global and local

    By Dean W Veall, on 13 November 2014

    Guest blogger: Hilary Jackson

    An unseasonably warm October evening found the Focus on the Positive team returning to our favourite host venue, the Grant Museum of Zoology. But who would win the audience’s heart (and vote)?

    Grant Museum host Dean Veall and a devoted audience welcomed another four determined UCL researchers to pitch their ideas to make the world a better place.

    The audience came from across London to pick their favourite project to win a prize of £2000. But with four inspiring ideas to choose from, who would be the winner?


    Ask a Curator day 2014

    By Meg J Dobson, on 16 September 2014


    On Wednesday 17th September UCL Museums will be taking part in the Ask A Curator Day event on twitter. This event is growing year on year, and at the time of writing, this week’s event has 520 museums taking part from 36 countries. We know that asking a question in a museum can sometimes feel intimidating, and that we curators can sometimes be hard to track down. There’s so much to do that we aren’t always the most available group of people (though we really do try).  We are taking part in the day as part of our commitment to make our collections as accessible as possible.

    Ask A Curator works like this.  Anyone in the world with a twitter account can tweet a question with the #AskACurator hashtag, and it will be answered by any of the institutions taking part. If you have a specific question for us you can tweet it directly to us @UCLMuseums and one of our staff will do their best to answer you. The Grant Museum of Zoology is taking part using @GrantMuseum, as is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology on @PetrieMuseEgypt.

    In preparation for this I thought I would introduce you to our members of staff taking part…

    Jack Ashby – Jack is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology. He is responsible for the strategic direction of the Museum, as well as managing the Museum’s resources. Much of his time is spent on creating opportunities for the public to engage with research going on at UCL. A zoologist by training with a particular interest in Australian mammals, he still spends as much time as he can in the field. He’ll be taking questions via @GrantMuseum throughout the day and from the @UCLMuseums account from 12 – 1 pm. (more…)