UCL Museums & Collections Blog
  •  
  •  
  • Categories

  •  
  • Tags

  •  
  • Archives

  • The Glass Delusion

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 17 December 2014

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher's Physica Subterranea, 1669.

    Frontispiece of Johann Becher’s Physica Subterranea.

    ‘Man, like all animals, is glass and can return to glass’ writes the German alchemist Johann Becher in his work Physica Subterranea published in 1669. Becher claimed that he had found the secret of turning dead bodies into transparent glass, so that we could surround ourselves with beautiful vases formed of our ancestors (preferable, he writes, to ‘hideous and disgusting cadavers’).

    The glass of each animal and plant has its own particular colour – that of plants is green, while glass made from humans, he writes, is a milky white colour with ‘a slight tinge of narcissus’.

    Becher, unfortunately, was wrong. Trace amounts of silicon, the element that is used in forming glass,* do exist in the human body through our diet (beer is one particularly good source) and may improve the health of bones – but it’s unclear exactly how it does this, or whether it’s biologically essential.** However, this hasn’t stopped a proliferation of claims for the benefits of silica supplements to make our teeth, hair, nails and skin stronger and more glassily beautiful.

    Silicon is essential to some plants and animals, though, in particular those erose earlier in the evolution of life such as glass sponges, which use silica to grow their interlocking needle-like spicules.

    As artist in residence here at the Grant Museum I’ve been focusing on the sponge collection and the ways in which a material can be both organic and inorganic – combining to form both a living animal and a glass jar. One aspect that particularly interests me is the history of humans believing that they are made of glass, a belief which spread amongst European scholars during the 15th to 17th century.

    For Johann Becher, this fueled his desire to create glass vases from dead bodies. For others, however, it was a debilitating disorder known as ‘The Glass Delusion’. Sufferers believed that they were made from glass and would shatter at just one touch. It mainly afflicted wealthy men, and the most famous sufferer was perhaps King Charles VI of France who believed himself made entirely from glass and wore protective clothing to prevent being smashed to pieces.

    For other sufferers it was mainly their head or buttocks that concerned them, so they avoided sitting down, or always carried a soft cushion. Why this belief spread during this period is unclear, but it had disappeared by the end of the 17th century, coinciding with the gradual replacement of alchemy with the emergence of modern chemistry.

    However, as the current interest in silica supplements suggests, it seems there’s still a belief that glass may combine with and enhance the human body – not to shatter us, but to make us glow with a glassy transparency.

     

    Image source: ‘The Magic and Myth of Alchemy’, Lloyd Library and Museum, 2011. www.lloydlibrary.org/exhibits/alchemy/alchemists.html. Accessed 12.12.2014.

    * Silicon is an element that likes to share – in particular with oxygen. Rather than existing in its pure state, it tends to gives away or share its electrons with other elements, and this creates compounds. One of these compounds is silica, also known as silicon dioxide, which exists in sand – this is the stuff that is used to create glass.

    ** See R. Jugdaohsingh, ‘Silicon and bone health’, Journal of Nutritional Health and Aging. 11(2), Mar-Apr, 2007. 99-110.

    Eleanor Morgan is Artist in Residence at the Grant Museum of Zoology

    Through the Looking Glass Sponge

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 18 November 2014

    Since joining the Museum as artist in residence last month, I’ve spent a lot of time looking through glass. I’ve looked through the plate glass cabinets protecting the specimens, the thickly blown glass of the specimen jars, and finally the specimens themselves: glass sponges. These creatures are 90% silica, formed of threads of glass spicules. They are usually found in the dark depths of the ocean, but up in the spotlights of the Museum they glow – a bright shelf of organic glass. Their structure is so intricate that I have to use even more layers of glass to be able to see them: reading glasses, magnifying glasses, and my recently acquired endoscope (excellent for getting round those awkward sponge corners). With all these layers of glass, reflection becomes an issue – in photographs, my face or the camera lens can appear, and viewed at certain angles even the specimen seems to be looking at its own reflection within the glass jar.

    Last week I put together a pinhole camera for one of the specimens. Pinhole cameras are made of a light-sealed box with photosensitive paper inside, and a small pinhole on the opposite side. The pinhole acts like the shutter of a camera – you aim the pinhole at whatever you want to capture and the light travels through the pinhole to the photosensitive paper inside the box, which is then developed in the darkroom and the image appears. I wanted to try putting the specimen inside the pinhole camera, with photosensitive paper surrounding it. I hoped that by doing this I would get a 360 degrees photogram of the glass sponge. However, the glass sponge and its jar had other ideas.

    Here are some photograms I took of the Museum’s Walteria leuckarti. (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…)

    First day with the sponges

    By Eleanor Morgan, on 1 October 2014

    Close up of Venus' flower basket glass sponge. LDUCZ-B39

    Close up of Venus’ flower basket glass sponge. LDUCZ-B39

    Today I begin an artist-in-residency position at the Grant Museum of Zoology, funded by The Leverhulme Trust. I’ll be working with the Museum’s collection of deep-sea sponges, focusing in particular on their calcareous and glass sponges. These extraordinary animals (not plants, as the Museum’s founder Robert Grant discovered back in the nineteenth century) are composed of calcium carbonate and silica – limestone and glass.

    I will be spending the next ten months here studying the sponge collection with the aim of creating art from the same materials that the sponges use to build themselves. (more…)

    Reflections on Time-Based Media Exhibition at UCL Art Museum

    By Helen R Cobby, on 27 February 2014

    1 – 5pm Monday to Friday, until Friday 28th March

    I am unique and so is everyone else (video still)This exhibition gathers together some of the most prolific time-based work from UCL Art Museum’s growing collection, which centre around the dependence upon and manipulation of technology with respect to time. The artists exhibiting are graduates from the Slade School and have each been awarded the annual William Coldstream Memorial Prize that selects outstanding achievements over the whole academic year. This accounts for the diverse collections of artwork on display, illustrating the eclectic variety of contemporary time-based media works.

    It is a refreshing and new type of exhibition for the UCL Art Museum, completely immersed in technology, conceptual installations and time-based media techniques. You will be greeted by many television screens that allow for a sense of unity to the works and for you to make comparisons between the way some of the themes are expressed. The screens are also placed with enough distance for each piece to be absorbed in contemplative isolation. Intriguing sounds also drift around the gallery, enticing you to follow your senses and discover and explore their source.  (more…)