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  • 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’.)


    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.


    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).


    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.


    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.


    Curt Herzstark and a remarkable machine.

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 27 January 2015

    Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and the 70th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau by Soviet soldiers. To mark this I thought I would discuss an object from UCL’s collections with a pretty remarkable story. This object not only saved the life of its inventor, but also allowed him to save the lives of others at Buchenwald Concentration Camp.

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators. Image taken from

    Curt Herzstark with one of his calculators.
    Image from

    The Curta calculator is a wonderful machine. It’s was the world’s first handheld mechanical calculator and was used extensively from its invention until the digital calculator took over in the 1960s / 70s. Scientific American called it “the most ingenious calculating machine ever to grace an engineer’s hand” (£ link).

    The Curta calculator was invented by Curt Herzstark, born 1904 in Austria, whose family owned a company that made calculating machines and other precision instruments. (more…)

    Mystery Blob Sponge: It crawls! It creeps! It eats you alive!

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 14 October 2014

    Day four of my sponge exploration (I’m here for ten months as the Museum’s Artist in Residence). There’s one specimen on the shelf that I’ve been saving as a particularly special treat… it looks like an onion, it’s not sealed in a jar, and it doesn’t have a label. It’s in the glass sponge cabinet, but it doesn’t look like the other specimens. Instead, it has a grey doughy appearance, covered in small holes, and it tapers at the top into a dark red spiral. I take it back to my desk for a closer look.

    The Mystery Sponge

    The Mystery Sponge


    One of the (many) great things about spending time in the Grant Museum is that I share a room with people who not only know a lot about zoology, but also want to keep finding out more. I like to distract them from their work with questions like, ‘How do things, erm, grow?’. They are very patient. But today, I had a new question: ‘What is this oniony pointy sponge that has no label?’ Was it, perhaps, the broken base of a glass rope sponge? No – a glass sponge is too thready. Was it a fossil?  No – a fossil would be heavier. Then we had a closer look at its pointy top: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 157 (an exciting rediscovery?)

    By Mark Carnall, on 13 October 2014

    Scary MonkeySegueing nicely on from Jack’s evolution of life on land specimens of the week last week, we’re sticking to specimens in our ‘MEET THE ANCESTORS’ case. This week’s specimen is a rather lovely fossil and whilst undertaking a bit of research for this blog post I uncovered a rather twisty turny series of clues that point to this specimen being a ‘type specimen‘.

    Type specimens are important specimens in biological classification that are the specimens which exemplify the characteristics of a new species of organism. In theory, together these specimens are the physical representations of the current understanding of the diversity of life on earth and accordingly are very important specimens in museums. It’s not 100% clear if this fossil is the type specimen hence all the cautious maybes, possibles and potentiallys but you can judge that for yourselves below. So with no further ado, this week’s specimen of the week is…


    A Medical (School) Mystery

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 24 September 2014

    For most of the last two weeks of September I was working on a collections project aimed at auditing, repacking and photographing the UCL Physiology Collection. Although the collection itself consists of only 82 objects (for now), it shares its store room with a large number of additional objects, papers, books and other ‘misc’ material. It was quite a job, and took 5 of us the best part of two weeks to complete.

    Among the objects and papers we saw during the work were two 20th century dog respirators, half a door, papers relating to experiments on Everest and lots of framed portraits and photos.

    Included in this last lot was a particularly perplexing object, which caused us all to scratch our heads for a while.

    Medical Faculty 1957, with troll (middle back).

    A traoll (?) standing behind the class, holding an umbrella and tin helmet.

    A troll (?) standing behind the class,
    holding an umbrella and tin helmet.


    One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

    By Mark Carnall, on 19 March 2014

    You may have figured from the title of this blog but I’m going to take a bit of time to talk about when specimens go missing from a museum collection. It can be a difficult thing for museums to talk about as most museums operate to care for the specimens and objects that are given in trust to them often for perpetuity, or more practically until the death of our part of the Universe. Currently a lot of my work here involves relocating our specimens following the move of the stores and museum a couple of years ago and trying to work out what happened to a missing specimen involves a bit of detective work, so I thought I’d offer an insight into the process.