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  • 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…)

    The Mystery of the Giant Golden Mole Skull

    By Elizabeth K Pursey, on 16 February 2016

    A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

    A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

    Crawling blindly through tunnels under layers of dead leaves in the coastal forests of South Africa lives the giant golden mole. Most people don’t know it is there, and neither did I until I was presented with the skull of one this October. As this species lives exclusively in a tiny region on the Eastern Cape – most people have definitely never seen one! Who would have guessed that identifying this skull would be the start of my newfound love for these unlikely animals. (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…)

    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…)