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    Fun with Minerals

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 8 October 2015

    This is a guest post by Nadine Gabriel, a UCL student and volunteer with UCL Museums. All photos by the author.

    Hello there, I’m Nadine Gabriel and I’ve been working with the UCL Geology Collections for just over a year. Towards the end of the summer holidays, I was given the chance to audit the thousands of mineral specimens in the Rock Room to ensure that we have a record of what is (and isn’t) in the collection. While auditing the collection, I handled a wide variety of specimens and learnt about new minerals and their classification – I’ve come across so many minerals that I’ve never heard of, even after doing two years of geology. But the best thing about working with the collection was saying ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ every time I saw a nice shiny mineral.

    Heart Minerals - calcite and malachite.

    Heart Minerals – calcite and malachite.

    When I first started working with the geological collections, my audits involved working with Excel spreadsheets and paper catalogues filled with entries from way before I was born. (more…)

    Event – Staring at the Sky – Astronomy at the UCL Observatory

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 25 September 2015

    The Whirlpool Galaxy lies 30 million light-years away.   It was the first galaxy in which spiral structure was discovered in 1845.

    The Whirlpool Galaxy lies 30 million light-years away.
    It was the first galaxy in which spiral structure was discovered in 1845.

    UCL’s astronomical observatory was inaugurated in 1929, and it has been conducting research and teaching students ever since. On Friday 2nd October the Observatory and UCL Public and Cultural Engagement department will host a pop-up event which will feature staff and research students from the Observatory, and hopefully (if the weather behaves) give visitors the chance to make some solar observations with a specialised telescope.

    Astronomy was originally taught on the main UCL site, using equipment in the two domes in the front quad (built 1905-07) together with one on the roof of the Wilkins Building (destroyed during World War 2). However, the light pollution of central London began to cause issues and a new site was required.  A suburban site in Mill Hill site was chosen, in part because it was far away enough from London that the night sky could be observed without excessive pollution. Since then, London has grown, and the Observatory now sits well inside the M25; however it continues to be a great asset for teaching Physics and Astronomy students.

    The Observatory currently houses five telescopes: in order of when they were acquired, the Fry 8-inch refractor telescope (acquired 1930 but originally built in 1862), the Radcliffe telescope (acquired 1938, built 1901), the Allen 24-inch reflecting telescope (1974/75) and two modern, computer-controlled C14 telescopes (acquired 2006 and 2010).

    The 8-inch refractor Fry telescope.

    The 8-inch refractor Fry telescope.

    The Observatory made news recently when a team of students, being trained by Dr Steve Fossey, spotted a supernova (exploding star) in nearby galaxy Messier 82 (also known as the Cigar Galaxy). Images of the galaxy (with supernova) will be available on the day; they will also form part of an accompanying exhibition in the South Cloisters, of images taken at the Observatory, running from late September.

    The pop-up event will be open (rain or shine) between 11.30am – 4.30pm on Friday 2nd October, in the Wilkins North Observatory (in the front quad on campus).

    Nick Booth is curator of Teaching and Research Collections. 

    Robert Noel and the ‘Science’ of Phrenology

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 9 September 2015

    This is a guest blog written by Dana Kovarik, a UCL student who has been volunteering with UCL Teaching and Research Collections over the summer holiday. 

    1. A contemporary phrenological journal -  'Phrenology Made Easy'. Photo by author.

    1. A contemporary phrenological journal –
    ‘Phrenology Made Easy’.
    Photo by author.

    Having been introduced to UCL’s collection of Robert Noel’s phrenological busts during a literature seminar on Victorian crime (e.g., The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), I found there was still much work to be done in unravelling the mysteries of the collection.  While the heads have been catalogued and a book by Noel outlining the biographies of each specimen was found at the British Library, details about his life and career were slim.  Upon volunteering, I was tasked by Nick Booth of UCL Museums with conducting a literature review.  This involved finding articles by Noel and writings that reference his work throughout his career (roughly 1834-1880), in addition to mapping the developments of phrenology in Continental Europe during this time.


    Behind the Mask – Research into the Noel Collection

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 2 September 2015

    This is a guest blog written by Bryony Swain, a UCL Student Volunteer who spent most of the last academic year (2014/15) cataloguing the Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks.

    Hello, I’ve been volunteering with the UCL Museums and Collections department and loving it!

    Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.  Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

    Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.
    Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

    I have been cataloguing the excellent Robert Noel phrenological collection, which contains a large selection of plaster life and death masks from the mid 19th century. Phrenology studies the theory that skull configurations can determine character traits, and Noel made his collection to test and demonstrate the validity of this theory and wrote a book with measurements and biographical summaries to accompany them. Today, phrenology is considered a discredited pseudoscience, but in the 19th and early 20th century it was taken very seriously. Noel ordered the masks into different categories to prove that intellectual and moral individuals had a different skull shape to criminals and suicides.


    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…)

    Curt Herzstark and a remarkable machine.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 27 January 2015

    Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet soldiers. To mark this I thought I would discuss an object from UCL’s collections with a pretty remarkable story. This object not only saved the life of its inventor, but also allowed him to save the lives of others at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators. Image taken from

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators.
    Image from

    The Curta calculator is a wonderful machine. It’s was the world’s first handheld mechanical calculator and was used extensively from its invention until the digital calculator took over in the 1960s / 70s. Scientific American called it “the most ingenious calculating machine ever to grace an engineer’s hand” (£ link).

    The Curta calculator was invented by Curt Herzstark, born 1904 in Austria, whose family owned a company that made calculating machines and other precision instruments. (more…)

    Sunshine in Stratford

    By Meg J Dobson, on 22 October 2014

    Excited about Interstellar, the new sci-fi blockbuster by Christopher Nolan (who, incidentally, is an alumnus and honorary fellow of UCL)?

    To get you in the mood, we are holding an evening of space exploration on 28th October at 8pm at Stratford Picture House with a special screening of Danny Boyle’s sci-fi epic, Sunshine, which will be accompanied by a talk by solar researcher, Jamie Ryan, from UCL’s space research facility.

    Cillian Murphy in Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle.

    Sunshine, directed by Danny Boyle, starring Cillian Murphy.


    Celebrating Marvellous Maps!

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 9 October 2014

    Marvellous Maps Poster

    Marvellous Maps Poster

    Whenever I’m giving an introduction to the UCL Geology Collections there is one part of the collection that is pretty much guaranteed to get even the least engaged, non-geological undergrad at their 9am lecture on a Monday interested…our maps. There’s something about stopping what you are doing and exploring a map that just seems to interest people. Perhaps it’s the fact that with most maps the more you look the more you see; the more time you spend looking the more you are rewarded.

    The 13th – 19th October is International Earth Sciences Week, and Friday 17th is Geological Map Day, so with this in mind UCL Earth Sciences and UCL Museums invite you to a very special pop-up event…

    Marvellous Maps’ will be hosted in the Rock Room on Friday 17th October by UCL Earth Sciences, between 1 – 5pm.


    A Medical (School) Mystery

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 24 September 2014

    For most of the last two weeks of September I was working on a collections project aimed at auditing, repacking and photographing the UCL Physiology Collection. Although the collection itself consists of only 82 objects (for now), it shares its store room with a large number of additional objects, papers, books and other ‘misc’ material. It was quite a job, and took 5 of us the best part of two weeks to complete.

    Among the objects and papers we saw during the work were two 20th century dog respirators, half a door, papers relating to experiments on Everest and lots of framed portraits and photos.

    Included in this last lot was a particularly perplexing object, which caused us all to scratch our heads for a while.

    Medical Faculty 1957, with troll (middle back).

    A traoll (?) standing behind the class, holding an umbrella and tin helmet.

    A troll (?) standing behind the class,
    holding an umbrella and tin helmet.


    To Display or not to display?

    By Jenni M Fewery, on 8 July 2014

    While undertaking my Museum Studies Masters at UCL this year, common themes that kept cropping up were the issues that arise when displaying certain subjects or indeed objects. During our Museums: A Critical Perspective class we covered ethnographic collections, ‘Dark Tourism’ and national memory and the debate over displaying human remains. With my interests lying with the history of science and medicine I wanted to find a topic I could sink my teeth into whilst also focusing on museums of science and their methods of display.

    Brown Dog Statue, 1906 with the plaque reading: “Men and Women of England, how long shall these things be?”

    Brown Dog Statue, 1906 with the plaque reading:
    “Men and Women of England, how long shall these things be?”

    In April a UCL Science Collections curator asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at a 1930s dog respirator as a starting point for a dissertation topic. I was informed that the object may have been used during animal experimentation and there were concerns about how to display it responsibly, considering its historic role in experiments to which so many have a negative responses. I researched the history of vivisection – live animal dissection – and discovered the story of the little brown dog. During the early 1900s protests and riots spread through London as anti-vivisectionists campaigned against experimentation on animals in response to the illegal dissection of a little brown dog. Anti-vivisectionists commissioned a bronze statue of the dog to be erected as a memorial, antagonising medical students or “anti-doggers” and resulting in the statue being removed under the cover of darkness. In 1985 another statue, commissioned by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, was erected in Battersea Park and remains there today. (more…)