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  • The Rock Room is Getting a New Home

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 7 April 2016

    The Rock Room.

    The Rock Room.

    A Geology Museum has existed at UCL since 1855 (UCL was founded in 1826), 14 years after  the first professor of Geology, Thomas Webster, started at UCL. However geology has been collected for longer – the first recorded donation of geology specimens to UCL came in 1828 from a Mr. Davies Gilbert. Today the collection consists of over 100,000 specimens, from microfossils to large trace fossils, and ranging in age from c4.5 billion year old meteorites to relatively recent fossils (including my favourite fossil crab).

    The Rock Room has been in its present location since 1908, (more…)

    A Honey Pot for Springtime!

    By Susi Pancaldo, on 31 March 2016

    As a Conservator, I often think of how privileged I am to be able to handle and examine museum objects, up close and personal. Not all objects move me, but at the moment I am very pleased to be working on this one:

    UC65361, Ceramic bowl from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Height 7cm, diameter 10.5cm.

    UC65361, Ceramic bowl from the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, UCL. Height 7cm, diameter 10.5cm.

    (more…)

    Some favourite magic lantern slides

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 14 March 2016

    This is a guest blog written by Bethany Gugliemino, a Museum Studies MA Student on a work placement with the UCL Teaching and Research Collections. 

    Hello! My name is Bethany and I’m a museum studies student here at UCL. I’m currently completing my work placement with the UCL Science and Engineering Collections, specifically working on the collection of magic lantern slides held in the Electrical Engineering collection. You may remember reading about these slides before on the blog when a previous intern began cataloguing the collection. Since those posts covered what lantern slides are and how they’re made and an overview of the main contents of the collection, I thought I would give you some examples of my favourite slides I’ve found so far.

    Slide EE1497, Electric Light on Thames Embankment

    Slide EE1497, Electric Light on Thames Embankment

    This slide shows an illustration of spectators marvelling at the installation of electric lighting on Victoria Embankment. (more…)

    Conservation of Public Art in the UCL Wilkins Building

    By Susi Pancaldo, on 11 March 2016

    Have you ever noticed – as you hurry off to class, the library or an event – that UCL’s campus is filled with works of art?

    The Wilkins Building, at the heart of the UCL Bloomsbury campus’ main quad, is particularly rich in sculpture. Outside the building, of course, are the iconic lead athletes on the steps below the dome.

    Lead statues of the Capitoline Antinous and the Discophorus, Wilkings Building

    Lead statues: Capitoline Antinous and Discophorus, Wilkins Building

    These figures have a fascinating history and I will write more about them another time.

    Inside the Wilkins Building, there is an abundance of works on permanent display too. Adjacent to the Jeremy Bentham auto-icon are two large, ancient Egyptian limestone lions in excavated by Sir Wm.M.F. Petrie. There are a number of 19th and early 20th century sculptures on either side of the Octagon Gallery; wall paintings in the Whistler Room (soon to be opened to the public); and upstairs, within the library, a myriad of sculpture in and around the 1st floor Flaxman Gallery. (more…)

    A Curator’s Adventures in Documentation Land

    By Subhadra Das, on 25 February 2016

    We all know that museum catalogues lie. I have made it clear that I’m a firm advocate for the agency of museum practitioners. No element of museum practice happens magically by itself in a vacuum, it is enacted by those of us privileged to work with collections. When you start to look at how museum staff present information to each other and to our audiences, though, it becomes clear that our catalogues have been doing a lot of the talking for us. This begs the question, which speaks louder: curatorial actions or the words in digital catalogues? This week’s guest blogger, Ananda Rutherford, explores this question through the looking glass of the Galton Collection online catalogue.

    One of the most controversial collections at UCL is, of course, the Galton Collection. Francis Galton, with his notorious interest in improving humans by selective breeding, or eugenics – the term he coined – is a problematic figure, and preserving a collection of artifacts associated with him for posterity and within the context of the modern university, is troubling. Every element of the way in which he and his collection are presented requires careful consideration.

    Over the past year I have been working on the documentation of the collection with the curator, Subhadra Das. I selected the Galton Collection online catalogue as the focus of a case study for my doctoral research. Subhadra and I have been carrying out various practical tasks to improve the collection’s documentation – or filing as it is also known – and any number of other post-it based displacement activities under the guise of “creating order”. Luckily, we are both in agreement that stationery is the cornerstone of all great intellectual inquiry.

    The working title of my research topic has been “What’s missing (from museum object records)?” but inevitably the question has shifted and multiplied – why is information missing, what information about objects do we expect to see, what do museum documentation professionals record and why, if they know other things why don’t they reference them?

    (more…)

    Putting human remains on display – people as animals

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 February 2016

    Last week we added a human specimen to our display of animal brains. Why wouldn’t we?

    The real question is why hadn’t we. And the answer is that we weren’t allowed to. The Human Tissues Act (2004) controls how human bodies, organs and tissues are used. Different licenses are required to store, teach with or display human specimens. Until recently, we didn’t have any of these licences for the Grant Museum, which affected what we could include to represent Homo sapiens in our displays.

    A human specimen (centre) has been added to the Grant Museum's brain comparative anatomy display

    A human specimen (centre) has been added to the Grant Museum’s brain comparative anatomy display

    How museums display humans

    There are many ways in which a human might find themself in a museum after they died. (more…)

    Please don’t call us a Cabinet of Curiosity

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 February 2016

    Embryological wax model display at the Grant Museum. Top: Frogs; Middle: Arthropod, Echinoderm, Human; Bottom: Lanclet

    Embryological wax model display at the Grant Museum.
    Top: Frogs; Middle: Arthropod, Echinoderm, Human; Bottom: Lancelet

    “Isn’t the Grant Museum wonderful! It’s such a cabinet of curiosity!”

    This exclamation is clearly meant as a rich endorsement of the Grant Museum – it’s obviously intended as a compliment. Nevertheless, it makes me wince.

    Inspiring curiosity and wonder is surely among the highest ambitions a museum could ever have. It’s infinitely more important than making visitors learn something. Curiosity? I am a huge fan. Cabinets? We definitely have some nice ones. Cabinets of Curiosity? No thanks.

    For me, this term implies that our objects are nothing but curios – weird artefacts amassed by some eccentric collector. Erratically accumulated in another time; weird and wonderful titbits intended to impress; to show off the collector’s status and influence – “Gosh, Sir William! Where did you get that ghastly tenrec!?” (more…)

    Look Again…UV Been Mistaken: A Case of Collection Mis-labelling

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 4 February 2016

    This is a guest blog by Felicity Winkley, one of the student engagers who work with UCL Museums. To find out more about the student engagers project please visit their website. 

    Last term, the UCL Student Engagers used objects from across the UCL collections to curate a six week exhibition at the North Lodge, called Stress: Approaches to the First World War.

    The project, as we’ve discussed previously on our own blog, was an interdisciplinary, co-curated effort, approaching the topic of the First World War through four interpretive themes: physical stress, mental stress, cultural or societal stress, and stress on the landscape.

    One of the objects we chose to highlight the mental stresses caused by the conflict and, by association, the improvements in the way mental health was approached by the end of the war, was a ‘strobe machine’. As part of the physiology collections, catalogued alongside objects like an auditory acuity tester and a set of keys for tapping multiple-choice responses, it was assumed that this light had similarly been used in psychiatric experiments to test participant responses. From our point of view, it also helped that it looked good.

    Physio-40: labelled ‘Strobe Machine’

    Physio-40: labelled ‘Strobe Machine’

    For several weeks of the exhibition’s run, the object was a successful talking point. (more…)

    UCL students identify mystery specimens in the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 2 February 2016

    Mystery specimen displayHave you ever seen something in a museum and suspect that the curators have got it wrong? If so, I hope you haven’t been too shy to let the museum know. Speaking for the Grant Musuem at least, we love it when visitors add to our knowledge of the collection, and we don’t ask for “expert” credentials before hearing an opinion. Indeed, a 11 year boy spotted that a specimen labelled “marine iguana” was in fact a tuatara (a lizard-shaped reptile from New Zealand (that is in fact not a lizard)). And couple of years back, a visitor noticed that our famous anaconda skeleton was in fact an African rock python. Some museums might be embarrassed by the idea that some of their objects have been mis-identified, but not us.

    In fact every year we give our UCL bioscience students the chance to challenge our identification as part of the fantastic “Vertebrate Life and Evolution” module. We have just created a display of “mystery specimens” identified by these students.

    (more…)

    The Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks – what we know now.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 15 January 2016

    Cast of a murderer - Noel-34 - Irmscher. Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

    Cast of a murderer – Noel Head 34 – Irmscher.

    The Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks consists of 37 plaster casts made in Germany in the 19th Century. As the name suggests the plaster casts were taken of both the living and the dead, and were collected by Robert Noel (a distant relation of Ada Lovelace) to show the ‘truth’ of phrenology, which simply put was the study of the lumps and bumps in people skulls in the belief that this gave insight into a person’s character. In this blog I aim to tell the story of the collection (as we know it now) and gather links to the various blogs, videos, articles that are available online. Enjoy!

    When I started working at UCL 4-ish years ago we knew almost nothing about the Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks. In its life at UCL it had been on display in the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, the Slade School of Fine Art and (reportedly) at one point it’s been fished out of a skip. Now, thanks to the work of a number of UCL students, we know so much more – the names of the people represented in the collection, what Noel thought of them and the background to Noel himself. They have also been properly conserved and looked after, so they will survive for another 150 years or so. (more…)