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  • 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…)

    New Year, New Resolutions: Museum Conservation Conversations on the UCL PACE Museums and Collections Blog!

    By Susi Pancaldo, on 12 January 2016

    The PACE Conservation Laboratory on UCL’s Bloomsbury Campus serves the needs of UCL’s diverse collections. The objects we have examined and treated in 2015 have ranged from fragile inorganic and organic archaeological materials, small sculpture and other works of art, dry- and fluid-preserved zoological specimens, all manner of scientific teaching models, an array of mechanical and electrical scientific instruments, and much, much more!!

    UC40989 faience shabti, during treatment: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology Museum; UCLAM10026 bronze medal of Prosper Sainton: UCL Art Museum; Z2978 mammoth tusk: Grant Museum of Zoology; Mathematical model: UCL Maths.

    Faience ‘shabti,’ during treatment: Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC20989); Bronze medal: UCL Art Museum (10026); Mammoth tusk: Grant Museum of Zoology (Z2978); Mathematical model: UCL Maths.

    These objects have come to our Conservation Lab from UCL’s collections for a variety of reasons. Some need to be cleaned or repaired ahead of use in teaching, research, loan or display. Some present mysteries which close examination and scientific analysis may help unravel. Others have been selected for treatment as part of ongoing programmes to improve the condition of collections currently in storage.

    Each object has a story to tell, and with the start of this New Year, we have made a resolution to share the work we do with our blog audiences. (more…)

    Petrie Museum Ceramics – Conservation Needs Survey

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 10 December 2015

    This is a guest blog written by our Senior Conservator Susi Pancaldo. 

    The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology houses one of the largest and most important collections of Egyptian materials in the UK. About 12,000 of the 80,000 objects are made of ceramic and, of these, roughly 3,400 are on display in the Pottery Gallery!

    Pottery inspection at the Petrie Museum.

    Pottery inspection at the Petrie Museum.

    (more…)

    Francis Galton and the History of Eugenics at UCL

    By Subhadra Das, on 22 October 2015

    The shadow of Sir Francis Galton looms large over UCL.

    Francis Galton is the most famous and influential Victorian scientist you’ve never heard of. He coined the term eugenics and endowed UCL with his personal collection and archive, along with a bequest which funded the country’s first professorial Chair of Eugenics. Mahmoud Arif, a UCL student who attended “Why isn’t my Professor black?” questioned why, by holding this material and naming a lecture theatre after him, UCL appears to celebrate a known racist . Another student, Adam Elliot-Cooper, began his speech at a student protest in the summer by pointing to the Galton Lecture Theatre, which itself was the venue for the first ‘UCL Faces Race’ event last year where Galton and his work featured prominently.

    Sir Francis Galton

    Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) British scientist, statistician and eugenicist.

    As Curator of the Galton Collection, I’ll admit that when I first heard that Galton had been name-checked in these discussions, my first response was “Oh, God, they’re going to want to burn the collection.” (Some Museum Studies degrees can include up to a whole module on ‘Curatorial Paranoia’.)

    (more…)

    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.

    (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…)

    What kind of animal is a Yoshi?

    By Mark Carnall, on 15 April 2015

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals features images, specimens and objects all related to how animals are represented through time. The exhibition is centered around George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, an iconic image despite the fact that he never saw a kangaroo first hand. From dodgy taxidermy, dinosaur toys, glass models and wildly inaccurate images of animals which were claimed to have been studied from life, the exhibition explores how we make sense of a newly discovered animal species from first encounters with living animals through to reconstructions made from written accounts and sketches. Initial encounters with kangaroos drew comparisons with more familiar mammals such as jerboas, greyhounds, mice and deer, the creature so strange to European explorers it didn’t fit within existing classifications.

    What happens if we start from an animal that we only know from a reconstruction? In the past (and today) mermaids, unicorns, giants, cyclopses, goatsuckers and deathworms have all been speculatively described either due to pervasive myths, hoaxes, delusions or confusion with other animals. To help with the process of working out how we identify animals we know from reconstructions alone, let’s see if we can work out how we’d classify a well known fictional animal, Nintendo character Mario’s companion and steed Yoshi*, this one acquired in a Happy Meal and currently on display in our exhibition.

    (more…)