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  • Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 March 2015

    Imagine that you are in a place no-one from your country has ever been before. You have just set eyes on an animal incomparible to anything you’ve ever encountered – it might as well be an alien. Cameras haven’t been invented. It will take a year for you or anything you send to reach home. Your job is to communicate what you’ve discovered to the people back home.

    The artistic outcomes of scenarios like this are the basis for much of our exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, which opens today.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    The natural history of art; the art history of nature

    By examining the world of animal representations, the exhibition explores how imagery has been used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye. From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic species that are alien to people at home.

    Strange Creatures investigates what we can learn about art history by researching natural history, and what art history can contribute to natural history.

    Europe’s first kangaroo

    Strange Creatures centres upon George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo (pictured above), which was created following Captain Cook’s first Pacific “Voyage of Discovery”. It is Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal and became the archetype for how people imagined this iconic species for decades. This painting was recently saved for the nation after it was initially sold to an overseas buyer. This resulted in a government export bar before Royal Museums Greenwich raised the funds to keep it in the UK (as I wrote in The Conversation at the time). This exhibition represents a chance to see the artwork among other animal depictions from the time of their earliest European encounters.

    Many of the artworks on display were created by people who had never seen these animals in the flesh, either working from explorers’ accounts, or copying (and potentially embellishing) images produced by others.

    Strange Creatures from many angles

    As a university museum one of our key jobs is to create opportunities for the public to engage with cutting-edge research that is taking place here at UCL (University College London). As such, most of the exhibition’s displays were developed by palaeontologists and by historians of science, exploration and art from the university. They have investigated the theme of animal representation from the perspective of their own disciplines, and developed sections of the exhibition around them.

    Modern mechanics and medieval manuscripts

    These researchers’ stories include medieval accounts of exotic creatures, art from the ages of exploration and empire, sailors who faked “dragon” specimens by manipulating dried fish, contemporary knitted craft taxidermy and twenty-first century reconstructions of dinosaurs. Together they explore how unknown animals are communicated to the wider public.

    I spend a lot of time in remote areas looking for animals (I’ve never officially discovered a new species, but I probably have caught animals that are yet to be described). As such, I wince at historic accounts of explorers briefly describing a fantastical animal they encounter, immediately followed by an account of what it tasted like. One of the researcher’s displays explains how food is unsurprisingly prioritised over science in these situations. To be fair, I don’t have to rely on ship’s biscuits or foraging (much) during my field trips, and I don’t spend months at sea to get there.

    Taxidermy and dinosaurs

    It’s not only historic artworks which mis-portrayed these amazing species. We have all seen taxidermy in museums that is less than perfect. [COUGH-Hornimanwalrus-COUGH]. Such specimens arose when skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes.
    Modern dinosaur toys are another example. We’ve known for some time that many dinosaurs were dynamic, warm blooded, intellgent animals, but popular culture is still full of traditional Godzilla-like tail tragging dullards.

    It’s been such a fascinating exhibition to pull together – being able to work with a group of historians, artists and scientists from such a diverse set of disciplines has allowed us to tell so many stories about the topic of animal representations. It’s also very exciting to see these incredible objects, like Stubbs’ kangaroo, prints and drawings from UCL Art Museum and Captain Cook’s handwritten voyage accounts (from UCL Library Special Collections), displayed alongside the Grant Museum’s animal specimens.

    Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, and curator of the Strange Creatures exhibition.

    Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ runs from 16th March to 27th June 2015. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday (but closes for a few days around Easter). Admission is free and there is no need to book.

    We have a fantastically packed programme  free events accompanies the exhibition, from drawing classes, open mic nights with performances from animal researchers, tours and Museum Lates to a screening of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and a Knit-a-thon.

    Strange Creatures is part of Travellers’ Tails a collaboration between Royal Museums Greenwich and four partner museums to investigate the history of exploration, art and science. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.

     

    Through the Looking Glass Sponge

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 18 November 2014

    Since joining the Museum as artist in residence last month, I’ve spent a lot of time looking through glass. I’ve looked through the plate glass cabinets protecting the specimens, the thickly blown glass of the specimen jars, and finally the specimens themselves: glass sponges. These creatures are 90% silica, formed of threads of glass spicules. They are usually found in the dark depths of the ocean, but up in the spotlights of the Museum they glow – a bright shelf of organic glass. Their structure is so intricate that I have to use even more layers of glass to be able to see them: reading glasses, magnifying glasses, and my recently acquired endoscope (excellent for getting round those awkward sponge corners). With all these layers of glass, reflection becomes an issue – in photographs, my face or the camera lens can appear, and viewed at certain angles even the specimen seems to be looking at its own reflection within the glass jar.

    Last week I put together a pinhole camera for one of the specimens. Pinhole cameras are made of a light-sealed box with photosensitive paper inside, and a small pinhole on the opposite side. The pinhole acts like the shutter of a camera – you aim the pinhole at whatever you want to capture and the light travels through the pinhole to the photosensitive paper inside the box, which is then developed in the darkroom and the image appears. I wanted to try putting the specimen inside the pinhole camera, with photosensitive paper surrounding it. I hoped that by doing this I would get a 360 degrees photogram of the glass sponge. However, the glass sponge and its jar had other ideas.

    Here are some photograms I took of the Museum’s Walteria leuckarti. (more…)

    Stunning prints for sale from Subnature Exhibition: Prices reduced

    By Jack Ashby, on 29 October 2014

    ALTED Hydrozoa by Lan Lan, 2014. From Subnature exhibition

    ALTED Hydrozoa by Lan Lan, 2014.
    From Subnature exhibition

    Back in May this year we opened the exhibition Subnature by the UCL Slade School of Fine Art’s Lan Lan. The highlight of the exhibition were a series of extremely high quality prints, generated by digitally manipulating photographs of sculptures the artist had created from fish bone.

    The resulting images resembled at once both marine creatures and galaxies.

    At the end of the exhibition the prints were offered for sale. We are now very pleased to announce that the artist has kindly allowed us to significantly reduce the prices to assist with our raising funds for our major conservation project to preserve 39 of our large skeletons, including the world’s rarest skeleton, the quagga.

    Details of the sale, and images of the stunning prints can be seen on the Subnature sale website.

    The prints are available for a limited time only, until 23rd December 2014.

    Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology

     

    Following Captain Cook, and How the Kangaroo Nearly Never Was

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 October 2014

    The Grant Museum is extremely excited to be a partner in the National Maritime Museum’s Travelers’ Tails project, which will involve this painting of a kangaroo by George Stubbs – the first ever western painting of Australian wildlife – coming to the Grant in March.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    Last month I was in Australia on zoological fieldwork. I decided to visit the places that Cook went on his first voyage of discovery, which resulted in Britain’s first kangaroo encounters and ultimately this painting being made. It very nearly didn’t happen, and Cook’s Australian expedition would have been a zoological disappointment.

    I wrote this post for the National Maritime Museum’s blog. It begins…

    The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps

    The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. (more…)

    Magic Assemblage: Magic Assembly

    By Edmund Connolly, on 8 September 2014

    By freelance journalist Rammy Elsaadany

     

    The premise of the exhibition was that a group of fresh and energetic Central Saint Martin students would create a piece that was to be an interpretation of each artists understanding of the museum objects and the theme of historic representation, as I hurriedly power walked to the museum ( I am perpetually late to events) my mind began to wonder about the infinite ways that this repository of ancient Egyptian objects ranging from art to every day things could generate creative pieces in the next generation of artists.

    Image (c) Veronika Neukirch

    Image (c) Veronika Neukirch

    (more…)

    Work Experience at UCL Art Museum

    By Martine Rouleau, on 14 July 2014

    This blog was written by Ellie who is in year 10 at Kingsmead School. She was on work experience at UCL for a week between 7th-11th July. She spent a day shadowing Dr Martine Rouleau, Learning and Access Officer at UCL Art Museum.

    LDUCS-2176_IMG1 - TurnerAs I’m on work experience here, I didn’t know anything about UCL Art Museum. I’ve been here for 2 days and I now know a lot of information about the history and collections at the art museum.

    I’ve learnt that there are over 10,000 pieces of art here created by a variety of artists, some that are very well known and some that aren’t. They’re very different and they all have different meanings and explanations of why they were produced. However, they have one thing in common and that is being under the same roof.

    UCL has the artwork of Turner, de Wint, Cox and Rowlandson. They also have work by students that have won competitions such as best art work in their year at University (the William Coldstream Memorial Prize).

    (more…)

    One Day in the City Festival

    By Helen R Cobby, on 12 June 2014

    One Day in the City Festival at UCL

    Balloons in the south cloisters UCLOne Day in the City Festival taking place on Friday 13th June brings together a celebration of literature, art, music and culture in London. The framework is broad. Nick Shepley, the founder and organiser of the festival, and Teaching Fellow in English Literature at UCL, acknowledges this and says he has not tried to narrow it down to specific themes: “It is about opening out and trying to bring people to something that is a simple celebration of the city, its literature and art, and its cultural richness.” These are areas people work on everyday across various departments at UCL with their own audiences. Nick wants to harness this, and “break down the potential separation of audiences with the One Day festival, encouraging a wider demographic to come along.”

    The festival’s centre will be in the UCL South Cloisters, decorated with a fun and artistic skyline created through lighting and architectural constructions. There will also be a multitude of balloons lining the Cloisters and leading the way to various events. These events will include a debate about taboo language with Inda Knight (journalist and author), Will Self (novelist) and Tim Clare (poet), a Caribbean carnival and seminars on topics related to creativity in London. In the UCL Art Museum there will be a talk by one of the Slade students, Helena Hunter, a poetry workshop and live performances as well as Slade students distributing prints of their work. For a full list, see the One Day website here.

    'Fonte' by Maxima Smith

    ‘Fonte’ by Maxima Smith

    The UCL Art Museum is located in the South Cloisters, so it will be at the hub of the festival’s activities. The remit of ‘One Day’ also links the artwork in the current exhibition at UCL Art Museum to the festival. This exhibition, called ‘Second Person Looking Out’, is the result of this year’s annual UCL Art Museum and Slade collaboration. It features an eclectic range of artwork from time-based media pieces to bronze sculpture and slate engravings. Have a look at my previous blog posts, reviewing the exhibition and talking to Ling the co-Curator, to find out more. (more…)

    ‘Second Person Looking Out’: The Sixth Annual Slade School of Fine Art / UCL Art Museum collaboration

    By Helen R Cobby, on 29 May 2014

    'Getting close but then again not close at all' by Olga Koroleva

    ‘Getting close but then again not close at all’ by Olga Koroleva

    The themes, materials and presentations of the annual collaborations have varied immensely, and this year there is a great diversity within the exhibition itself. The range of media is particularly striking, as is the way digital technologies have been used and portrayed to give new experiences of space – particularly the spaces of the UCL Art Museum itself.

    There are four time-based media works and one beautifully crafted light box installation, giving emphasis to technological media within the show. However, an array of oil paintings, intricate drawings, etchings and even a bronze cast are also part of this exhibition.

     

    'Entombment' by Lara Smithson

    ‘Entombment’ by Lara Smithson

    Glowing at the back of the UCL Art Museum, in between the cupboards storing prints, is one of the most enchanting works of all. This is the light box, which constitutes the installation entitled ‘Entombment’ by Lara Smithson. It cleverly depicts the somewhat hidden UCL Art Museum painting store, giving us a glimpse of the racks of paintings mostly by former Slade students. This image has been overlaid with a painting by the artist herself, which results in a merging of different types of artistic spaces and temporalities. ‘Entombment’ seems to reveal things behind the surface (most notably the UCL painting store), while also reflecting on the (literal) surface of painting and the material properties – or potentials – of glass.

    Another work that interrogates the materiality of its medium alongside its processes of production is a bronze cast work called ‘Fonte’ by Maxima Smith. This artwork achieves this using the word ‘fonte’ as both the subject matter and form of the work. In this way, the work prompts investigation into the etymology of the word ‘fonte’. The meanings include ‘to spring’ and ‘to pour’, actions that can be linked to the process and discourse of bronze casting itself.

    'Fonte' by Maxima Smith

    ‘Fonte’ by Maxima Smith

    A play with words is also immediately apparent in Katja Larsson’s hand carved slate, entitled ‘Hullmandel 4:3’. Here the artist has decontextualised a phrase she has taken from Charles Joseph Hullmandel’s 1835 lithography manual. Using this lithographic manual as a source is both a subtle and pertinent reference to the main body of the UCL Art Museum’s collection of artworks, which are prints. The artist’s chosen words are beautifully carved onto the slate – a process that mirrors the processes of printmaking. Using slate as the medium also reminds us of the lithographic process, being a traditional tool and material in lithographic production. This emphasis on process and action reflects one of the dominant themes in the entire exhibition.

    ‘Second Person Looking Out’ is on show at the UCL Art Museum weekdays 1-5pm until 13 June. On Friday 13 June the exhibition will become part of the One Day Festival in the City with several of the artists from the exhibition extending ideas from their work to engage visitors in interactive installations and other creative activities. More information on this to follow, so check this blog again soon. 

     

    Helen Cobby is a volunteer at UCL Art Museum and studying for an MA in the History of Art at UCL

    Animals in Art

    By Mark Carnall, on 23 May 2014

    One of the aspects of working in a museum that I most enjoy is ‘enquiries’. Normally this will be museum visitors bringing in or sending in photos of mysterious objects that they want identifying. Not only is the challenge of identifying a mystery object fun but it’s very satisfying to work out what the object is and most visitors are happy to have had their object identified (with the rare exception when a dragon/dinosaur egg turns out to be a large very spherical pebble). Occasionally however, I receive an enquiry from a colleague from another museum asking for help with identifying animals depicted in a work of art or archaeological object.

    From the earliest images made on the walls of caves through to today, animals have inspired many people and we see this throughout the history of humans. Animals can be depicted as a record of the animals that an artist readily comes into contact with but often they carry symbolic representations or are merely a visual representation of the idea of an animal not meant to depict a specific species or individual.

    (more…)

    Subnature exhibition opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 May 2014

    ALTED Hydrozoa by Lan Lan, 2014. From Subnature exhibitionToday an incredible exhibition of artworks based on digitally altered fish bone sculptures opens at the Grant Museum. Subnature features sculptures and prints by emerging artist Lan Lan (UCL Slade School of Fine Art), who through the manipulation of original fish bone sculptures creates contemporary phantom creatures.

    Set amongst the Museum’s historic collections of skeletons, skulls and specimens in jars, the exhibition establishes a dialogue between natural history and its contemporary interventions – intertwining a Victorian collection with 21st Century digital techniques.

    The fantastical works take the form of cosmic bodies and marine animals, with some installations imagining a fictional future where energy plants rely on the phantom creatures. There is a flickr album showcasing some of the works.

    (more…)