Museums & Collections Blog
  •  
  •  
  • Categories

  •  
  • Tags

  •  
  • Archives

  • 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…)

    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…)

    Who turned out the lights on Jeremy Bentham?

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 9 November 2015

    The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham is 183 years old and counting. Over this time it has attended parties and UCL council meetings, had its heads (wax and mummified) stolen by students, twice visited Germany and also taken a ride in a red Morris Marina. It’s fair to say that Jeremy Bentham has led an active after life, and UCL Museums are committed to ensuring that it survives for another 183 years and more.

    Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon.

    Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon.

    During recent conservation work it has become apparent that although the auto-icon appears safe and secure it is actually subject to a very damaging environmental factor – high light levels (Cue dramatic sounds and possibly someone screaming in the distance).

    Ok so actually of all the risks the auto-icon faces this doesn’t sound like a particularly bad one, especially compared to fires, wars, insect infestation and the afore mentioned head thefts (all of these the auto-icon has survived at one point in its life). But high light levels are a huge danger to the auto-icon, and can cause irreparable damage.

    (more…)

    Hello! I’m the new Grant Museum Curator

    By Paolo W Viscardi, on 6 November 2015

    My name is Paolo Viscardi and I’m the new Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology at UCL.

    PV_Case19

    I have a background in biomechanics and comparative anatomy, with a particular fondness for bones, which I’ve been writing about since July 2009 on my personal blog Zygoma. In my spare time I am Chair of the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and I run the science communication event Science in the Pub (or PubSci for short). My passion for communicating science also keeps me busy giving talks and getting involved in all sorts of events and performances, from immersive theatre to providing a scientist’s response to art. (more…)

    JA Fleming – Discoveries From The Archive.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 24 July 2015

    This guest blog has been written by Kelsey Svaren, a placement student who has been working with us over the past few months. 

    A few weeks ago I spent some time in UCL Special Collections working my way through the 24 boxes of material that John Ambrose Fleming left to UCL. I was able to look at these boxes in the span of four days, and let me tell you that is not an easy feat! Although I spent more time on certain boxes and documents than others, I feel I got a good overall view of what Fleming wanted UCL to have in its possession and can understand how the University’s history is interwoven with that of Fleming’s. During this time, I have been able to make some generalised conclusions about this man; the one who gave us the technology for so many inventions that people find themselves dependent upon today.

    JA Fleming receiving the Kelvin medal. (Image provided by UCL Special Collections Library).

    JA Fleming receiving the Kelvin medal. (Image provided by UCL Special Collections Library).

    (more…)

    Finding meaning in the Thermionic valve

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 26 May 2015

    This guest blog has been written by Kelsey Svaren, a placement student who has been working with us over the past few months. 

    Hi, my name is Kelsey and I am current MA Museum Studies student here at UCL. As part of my program, I am required to undergo a placement where I work on a museum related project. I have spent the last month working closely with Nick Booth, curator of the Electrical Engineering Collections at UCL. I have spent this time researching the numerous thermionic valves in the collection.

    Before I started my placement, I had a vague idea of what a thermionic valve is. I knew that it could be used in technologies, such as radios and telephones, to receive and amplify radio signals. Other than that, I was pretty clueless. Since I have started my placement, I have learned more about thermionic valves than I ever thought I would!

    One of Flemings original experimental valves.

    One of Flemings original experimental valves.

    The thermionic valve is especially important to UCL, because it’s inventor, John Ambrose Fleming was a professor at UCL and helped to develop the Electrical Engineering Department that we see today.

    (more…)

    Is the auto-icon wearing underwear?

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 30 March 2015

    A year or so ago a colleague drew my attention to a Jeremy Bentham related sketch by the ever excellent Horrible Histories BBC programme. Amongst the many Bentham inventions it highlights (including words such as ‘maximise’, ‘minimise’, ‘international’ and appropriately enough ‘eccentric’) was one I’d never heard of before – Jeremy Bentham invented underpants.

    Jeremy Bentham's auto-icon.

    Jeremy Bentham’s auto-icon.

    As you can imagine, this is popular with school groups visiting the auto-icon, and along with his mummified head tends to be the fact school kids remember.

    (more…)

    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.

    (more…)

    Does a museum studies degree help you get a job in museums?

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 October 2014

    Despite the levels of pay and instability of the jobs at the lower rungs (at least) of this particular career ladder, working in the museum sector is incredibly competitive.

    As a result, aspiring museum workers often face the question of how to position themselves as the strongest candidate in the pool. Should they take the plunge and stump up thousands of pounds to do a Museum Studies masters degree? It’s worth taking a second to consider that even being able to ask that question is a non-starter for the majority of people, who can’t afford it. Those people shouldn’t be excluded for the museum sector.

    A real live collections management job requiring a Museum Studies Masters

    A real live collections management job requiring a Museum Studies Masters

    The Grant Museum Curator Mark Carnall (who has a Museum Studies degree) gave his opinion on this last year, and I thought I should offer my own personal perspective, as someone in a reasonably senior museum role who doesn’t have this degree.

    For me, there are very few circumstances when I would recommend someone did a Museum Studies degree. Obviously I am biased by own own experience, and so this is my own personal take on things. (more…)

    What do all of our Curators have in Common? On the Origin of Our Specimens

    By Jack Ashby, on 15 May 2014

    Over the past few months we have been investigating what we can learn about where our specimens came from by researching the history of the Museum’s thirteen previous Curators. This “On the Origin of Our Specimens” series has uncovered much about our collections and the people that have worked here over the past 187 years. In this final post in the series I’m going to share some of the unexpected threads that kept reappearing through this time.

    In answer to the question “What do all of our Curators have in common?” one thing that leaps out is a consistent failure to usefully identify which specimens they actually added to the collection. Professional documentation standards are a relatively new invention, and they have only recently been applied to our collection, mostly since we became a “proper museum” and not just a teaching collection and research repository.

    Besides that, there are four topics that keep reappearing through time… (more…)