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  • Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 April 2014

    I ask this question to our Museum Studies Masters students every year, and last month put it to our new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences students. Despite the difference in the age, background and interests of these two groups, the reaction is the same – anger and horror. I am playing devil’s advocate in these debates, but my own opinion is yes, there are circumstances when everyone benefits from museums lying.

    The lectures I discuss this in focus on object interpretation, and I use a tiger skull as a prop for discussing how to decide what information to include in labels. The choice of a tiger isn’t important – I just need something to use as an example I can attached real facts about natural history and conservation to, but I spend the two hours talking about tigers.

    Lion (left) and tiger (right) skulls. Or is it the other way round? LDUCZ-Z1644 and LDUCZ-Z396

    Lion (left) and tiger (right) skulls. Or is it the other way round? LDUCZ-Z1644 and LDUCZ-Z396

    At the end of the lecture I reveal that the skull is in fact from a lion. Everything else I told them about tigers is true. Did it matter that I lied? (more…)

    Why Twitter is good for museums – making discoveries

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 April 2014

    Using Twitter as a way of building a community of support, engaging people in content and shedding light on life behind the scenes in museums (that we don’t just dust stuff) is too obviously demonstrated by the real world to be spending too much time discussing. Not to mention the power to market events and exhibitions quickly and cheaply – assuming don’t over-use social media as a marketing tool.

    On Monday I conducted two pieces of “research” on our collection which sprung up out of the blue and would have been very difficult to solve without turning to our Twitter followers to tap their collective brain to find a quick answer. Both of them were on specimens that begin with “H” and end with “Bill”. Weird.

    Tweeting Turtles

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177

    (more…)

    A gem of an idea

    By Rachael Sparks, on 26 February 2014

    Dramatically bearded gentleman shows off his classical headgear

    Dramatically bearded gentleman shows off his classical headgear.

    Every collection has its nooks and crannies, and it’s rare for curators to know the full scope of their domain. So every now and again we’ll take a quiet moment to sneak into our stores and explore that neglected corner or unfamiliar drawer, just to see what might be lurking.

    Late last year I was looking for some material for my new conservation volunteers to work on. I’d begun training them in the mysteries of plastazote cutting – that’s making snug little foam housing to hold objects safe – and I wanted some simple starter objects. You know the sort of thing: nice and flat on the underside, so there’s no tricky shaping of the mount to match the curve of the object, and not so fragile that the students get disheartened by accidentally breaking something. We’d already done a batch of cylinder seal impressions (straight rectangular lines, flat as a tack – lovely). But now I wanted to try them on something new.

    So I started to explore the stores in search of inspiration. Here’s what I found: (more…)

    Whose story is it anyway?

    By Alice M Salmon, on 31 January 2014

     This Wednesday, 29 January, UCL Museums and Collections, and UCL Library Special Collections, teamed up with the literary charity First Story to deliver our annual creative writing event. Around 90 students from local London secondary schools spent the afternoon exploring and writing about our collections.

    Students from Lambeth Academy absorbed in their work in The Rock Room, UCL

    Students from Lambeth Academy absorbed in their work in The Rock Room, UCL

    Events like these remind me of how lucky I am to work as an educator in museums. As museum professionals, we spend a long time thinking about how to tell stories (stories of our museums, stories of our collections, stories of our objects, stories of the people that owned said objects,  etc, etc…I could go on) but it is so refreshing to hand the role of the storyteller over to students, who can provide us with a totally fresh take on the collections we know so well.  The results were, quite simply, fantastic. Below is just one example of the quality of work produced from the visit:

    Jack Isaaz –La Grotteri, from King Solomon Academy, was inspired to think about his heaven and hell through  working with the UCL Library Special Collections and, in particular, by Botticelli’s  illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy:

     For it is All that I Need

     Sensations seldom felt grip the air.

     More stains of darker, saturated hues. But still

     All feels grey. Unlike once before, the silence

     Is now silent: sounds of death, dead

     Vibrations permeate the dust that you hear

     And breathe. I can’t bear the nothing that

     I never had. You don’t see for there is nothing

     To observe.

     

    She smiles again once more, though not one thing

     Could ever make one forget such a sight.

     The sun shines on the clouds and as it should,

     It does not shine on us. We are left with

     The fray of the familiar. The cold that embraces us is

     No foe, cooling our skin with its inviting breath.

     I imagine the park adjacent to the grass where I

     Lay down gazing at nothing because it is nothing that

     I’ve become accustomed to. The fun nothings I need.

     

     Raindrops now, stain the tar that bleaches the roads I’ve

     Walked upon my entire life. The buildings are calmed

     As their shadows find homes with the darkening

     Surface. There is no need for thought or speech for

     All is as it should be. I imagine

     Her smile.

     Jack Isaaz –La Grotteri, King Solomon Academy

    To find out more about the work that First Story do you can visit their website: http://www.firststory.org.uk/

    Alice Salmon is a Senior Access Officer in the Access and Learning Team for UCL’s Museums and Public Engagement Department.

    The Top Ten Grant Museum Blogs of 2013

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 January 2014

    Happy New Year!
    As well as looking forward to the exciting things we hope to do in the coming year, it is customary to look back at the past one. On Twitter over the past week I’ve been tweeting the best of 2013′s blog – the Top Ten most viewed Grant Museum posts of last year.

    I’ve announced those ranking at 10 to 2 in the charts, and exclusively revealing here that the most popular post of 2013 is…

    Will a museum studies degree help you get a job in a museum?

    Perhaps suggesting that there are many people interested in the incredibly amazing careers in museums, yet are aware of the fact that finding a way in is easier said than done.

    The Top Ten in full: (more…)

    The Great Darwin BUST UP

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 November 2013

    There are lots of good things about working in a university museum. The best is that there are thousands of people around us whose job it is to have ideas and then come up with a way of realising these ideas. In the museums we know a lot of academics from different fields who we can put in touch with each other when we spot complementary ideas to combine into exciting cross-disciplinary projects.

    A few weeks ago some of our colleagues from UCL’s Institute of Making arrived with someone from Structural and Molecular Biology saying that they wanted to 3D scan our plaster bust of Charles Darwin to create a copy to go in the Darwin Building where UCL’s biologists live (and where the Grant Museum used to be housed). From there a project spiraled into something very exciting.

    3D Scan of the Grant Museum's Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

    3D Scan of the Grant Museum’s Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

    The bust has a bit of history – it is part of the Grant Museum’s collection, and as such when we moved into our current home in 2011 we took him with us (you might have spotted him peeking out a window on Gower Street). The biologists in the Darwin Building were very sorry to see him go. This project will create a new Darwin for them, and will also result in an unusual exhibition, through a competition. (more…)

    Passionate enthusiastic scientists – just another way of saying Geek?

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 November 2013

    Last week I went to a presentation at the Zoological Society of London about the impact on museum visitors of meeting real scientists. The speaker, Amy Seakins, is just finishing a PhD which examines this topic, specifically on visitors to the Natural History Museum (NHM) who encounter real scientists through the excellent Nature Live programme.

    Among the many interesting findings were her results on how the visitors’ concepts of what “scientists” are like changed after seeing them speak. Seakins asked them to describe what they think of scientists before and after the events.

    Scientists are Geeks
    Before, the common theme from the answers was that scientists are socially awkward boring geeks fixated on their single topic. These are obviously negative constructions. If this really is how the average person (who is engaged enough in science to visit a museum about it) sees us then there is a problem. Thankfully it’s a problem that formats like the NHM’s Nature Live can fix… (more…)

    Away daze – or how to make workshop training work for you

    By Rachael Sparks, on 12 November 2013

    UCL Museums and Collections 2007

    UCL Museums and Collections staff enjoying an Away Day at Kew Gardens. No post-it notes were harmed in the making of this photograph.

    Last week, I attended a Collections Trust training event aimed at developing my managerial skills. It was a slick, well-run affair, which I enjoyed despite being in the throes of a terrible cold.

    Now I’m a bit of a training junkie, and go to a lot of these sorts of things. Past highlights of my training calendar include courses on dealing with contentious subjects, museum mount-making, digital photography, and record and archive management, not to mention away days visiting countless museums I’d never previously heard of.

    Something of a gestalt has developed out of all this, and I think I’m beginning to see a pattern emerging in the culture that is the museum workshop event. So here’s my take on the five key ways in which training works for the museum sector, and makes us better and happier employees. (more…)

    From the vollies: Loose ends and key information

    By Mark Carnall, on 31 October 2013

    This is a guest blog from one of the Grant Museum’s volunteers, Geoffrey Waller. Geoffrey has been volunteering for the Museum for a number of years undertaking the diligent collections care work that helps us to function as a museum and make the most of our collections here. Recently, Geoffrey has been going through one of our many series of card indices cross-referencing information with our current catalogue, enriching  data we have about our specimens which make them significantly more useful for teaching and research. Here are some of the highlights.

    For the last 18 months I have been working on a long-term cataloguing project at the Grant Museum. The project has involved sorting a large collection of some 1500 hand-written record cards into appropriate categories and numerical order. Each card (known technically as an MDA card*) bears the specimen’s accession number – the unique identifying number given to specimens on the Grant Museum collections database. It is therefore possible to cross-check the specimen data on the MDA card with the data already held on the database.

    Image of examples of MDA cards from the Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

    Three of the 1500 MDA cards now added to the collection catalogue.

    Mining the Data

    During this cross-checking, I could add any new information recorded on the MDA cards to the existing database entries, making it available to anyone accessing the records. (more…)

    Looking Through the Eyes of an Orangutan

    By Alice M Salmon, on 25 October 2013

    I am going to start this blog off by openly admitting that I am breaking social media convention by blogging about an event that took place nine months ago. *audible gasps*. Yes, I do really mean nine months ago. However, there is good reason for this. In February this year, UCL’s Museums and Collections, and the Library Special Collections, worked in collaboration with the UCL English Department and literary charity First Story, to deliver a creative writing day  for 100 students from local non selective secondary schools.  Today, the schools’ poetry anthologies have landed on my desk and they are definitely worth blogging about.

    A selection of poetry anthologies by The First Story Group

    The anthologies by First Story Group that are happily sitting on my desk.

    (more…)