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  • Europe’s First Kangaroo and the Grant Museum: Save our Stubbs

    By Jack Ashby, on 4 September 2013

    James Cook’s landing in Australia in 1770 changed the political, social and natural world. With regards to the latter, the animals the expedition discovered, described and exported have had profound effects on people’s experience and understanding of zoology.

    Whilst I believe that the descriptions of Cook’s party’s early encounters with kangaroos were ridiculous, it was these encounters that began Europe’s relationship with Australasian wildlife.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs; oil on panel, signed and dated 1772. Private collection courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs; oil on panel, signed and dated 1772. Private collection courtesy of Nevill Keating Pictures

    A few marsupials in the Americas (opossums) were already known by this point, but a whole continent with entire ecosystems based around them, and including 6 foot kangaroos questions the very nature of mammals. What else could be left unknown? American opossums, with their pouches, would have been interesting discoveries among scientific communities, but they must have been nothing compared to the sensation of the kangaroo in the eyes of the public. (more…)

    Grant Museum Objects on Tour: Lost Labels

    By Mark Carnall, on 1 August 2013

    Lost labels from the Grant Museum.

    Lost labels from the Grant Museum.

    Last week, the exhibition Nature Reserves opened at GV Art, London a group exhibition examining the relationship between how humans interpret and archive the natural environment. Tom Jeffreys, the curator of the show, contacted the Grant Museum to discuss some ideas about how natural history museums archive and organise specimens and these discussions lead to us lending a collection of orphaned labels, that cause me great personal anguish whenever I have to add to this sub collection, to the show.
    (more…)

    Curating the Octagon Exhibition

    By Claire S Ross, on 14 June 2013

    colourfull case object numbers scattered on the floor

    Trying to find the correct object numbers

    Most of the last couple of weeks I have been busy installing the new Octagon Gallery Exhibition, ‘Digital Frontiers: Smart, Connected and Participatory’. It’s been a brilliant experience and I have learnt a lot so I thought I’d talk a bit about the process of creating an exhibition from a first time curator!

    The exhibition opened at the beginning of June 2013.   But it all first started when I applied to exhibit in the new Octagon space.  UCL Museums invited proposals on a theme (in this instance the theme was ‘frontiers’) from across the UCL community.  The proposals were judged by a panel and my application on the theme of ‘Digital Frontiers’ was successful.   The proposal focused on key research areas from UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH) and the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA).  It felt quite strange deciding on a theme without being fully aware of all the potential objects, but it paved the way for an exciting challenge to see how I could fit as many of UCL’s 18 disparate collections into my exhibition theme.

    The first full meeting happened in January when I got together with all the curators and collections managers from the different UCL Museums and Collections and I explained my broad themes and plans for the exhibition.  We had an initial brain storm and I was bit overwhelmed with all the information on objects that could potentially fit the exhibition concept.  I then had one to one meetings with all the individual curators to discuss exhibition ideas and view possible objects, before going away and coming up with a really long list of potential objects.
    (more…)

    Installing the Octagon Exhibition

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 6 June 2013

    Most of last week I was busy installing the new Octagon Gallery Exhibition, ‘Digital Frontiers: Smart, Connected and Participatory’, curated by Claire Ross from the UCL Centre for Digital Humanities. The exhibition features a huge range of objects, from a tweeting doorstop (the ‘sheep-pig’) to a drawer of pinned beetles, however most of the objects have come from the UCL Engineering Collections. This is one of the collections I look after, so I thought I’d talk a little bit about what goes into the process of putting together one of UCL’s Octagon exhibitions.

    Exhibition poster showing one of the Engineering objects.

    Exhibition poster showing one of the Engineering objects.

    The exhibition opened on Wednesday 5th June. However the first meeting happened back in September when all the curators and collections managers from the different UCL Museums and Collections get together with Claire to hear about her plans for the exhibition, and to initially brain storm about what we have in our collections that fit with the exhibition subject. This was harder for some collections than others, but happily was relatively easy for me.

    After this initial meeting Claire met all the curators individually to discuss the exhibition and view possible objects, before going away and coming up with a long list of what she wants. In the case of the Engineering Collections it was a very long list…which is great! However this also means that there was a lot of work for me, and others, to do.

    (more…)

    Sculpture Season opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 June 2013

    Today at the Grant Museum, not only have we flung the doors open to the public (as we do six days a week), but we have opened the doors to the Museum – and the museum cabinets – to thirteen emerging artists, inviting them to rethink our collection. Today, Sculpture Season begins.

    We’re consistently thinking how to use our collections in different ways, and while the team here is a creative one (otherwise – boast boast – we wouldn’t keep winning awards) we can definitely benefit from completely different eyes and minds looking at our collection.

    Sculpture Season does just that – thirteen sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL were invited to create works in response to the Museum’s spaces, specimens, science and history. The results are fantastic. Alongside the Museum’s historic skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in jars, the new works engage with animal/human encounters through re-animated flesh, tunnelling rats and mice, giant worms and body bags.

    The artists have created music technologies, phantom occupations of the Museum’s iPad apps, hand-knitted internal organs and explorations of the excessive masculinity of giant deer antlers. Specimens have been re-ordered, re-labelled and re-imagined. (more…)

    Tomb Raiders: Ancient Egypt in Modern Art

    By Edmund Connolly, on 17 May 2013

     Guest blogger: Kholood Al-Fahad

    How can Ancient art be brought to life by contemporary art? Is there a connection between ancient and new?

    Tomb Raiders is the place were such questions should have an answer.

    Florence's temporal balloons

    Florence’s temporal balloons

    (more…)

    Culture Vulture: Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum

    By Mark Carnall, on 8 May 2013

    Culture Vulture: A vulture skull in UCL Art Museum

    Culture Vulture: A vulture skull in UCL Art Museum

    This is the second of our Culture Vulture exhibition reviews (the first is here) As I mentioned in an earlier article about whether a degree in museum studies was worth it it’s very important for museum professionals in all kinds of roles to not just act as guardians of material culture but also to go out and consume it. Visiting exhibitions is a great way to ummm ‘borrow’ ideas in exhibition design and if an exhibition is doing its job well then you’ll come away with a mind full of new thoughts and ideas.

    I’ve been along to Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum and was excited to see how the museum would interpret a narrative which is equal parts natural history, archaeology and art history. When it comes to academia it seems that humans love to find ways of boxing in disciplines and practices rather than accept that they are all interconnected. This can be seen in the names of departments, museums and the conferences that we attend but in my opinion it’s cross disciplinary interactions that can be the most interesting. Two big camps, traditionally pitched as antagonists are ‘Art’ and ‘Science’. Does Ice Age Art cater for both of these audiences or has one group (you have to carry a card) had more of a say? (more…)

    Remember, Remember, an event to Remember

    By Edmund Connolly, on 24 April 2013

    Guest Blogger: Chris Webb

    The 18th April saw another fascinating event in the Petrie Museum’s popular timekeeper series, hosted by our own timekeeper in residence, Cathy Haynes. We were asked; how easy do you find it to remember the details and order of past events? Many people through history have pondered on this… Indeed, when Mark Twain wanted to teach his children history he invented a new kind of 3-D timeline by plotting out historical events in his garden and walking them through it, oddly, this was based on the monarchs of England!

    (more…)

    Owning up to authorship

    By Sally Macdonald, on 4 April 2013

    Bentham panel

    Museums are full of objects, but they are usually just as full – too full, often – of text.  With a combination of object labels, introductory panels and interactive exhibits, a single display space can feature thousands of words. 

    Yet almost all of this writing is anonymous; it is very rare to find any kind of label or exhibition authored by a member of museum staff.  Instead the ‘voice of the museum’ is presented as objective truth.  As those of us who work in museums are well aware, most displays – while they might represent a collective effort on the part of a number of people – are the result of a series of individual decisions. We choose the objects to display, choose where they go and choose what we say about them.  We will almost certainly argue with each other about some of these decisions, but the end result will be presented as a single authoritative selection and voice.  Often, a ‘house style’ is adopted for text, which – while it may well make displays clearer to understand – will also help to paper over differences of opinion or approach.  Even the V&A’s excellent gallery text guidelines,  which encourage museum staff to ‘bring in the human element’ and ‘write as you would speak’, stop short of suggesting that you should say who you are. 

      (more…)

    Considering our History – the Good Times

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 March 2013

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Last week we launched six new permanent displays telling the story of the history of the Grant Museum, focusing on the story of how the teaching of zoology has evolved over the past 185 years of our existence. Like the life cycle of many species, there have been times of rapid diversification and broad niche occupancy, as well as population bottle-necks when extinction looms, before adaptations to changing climates result in a new lease of life.

    Today I’ll focus on our first century or so, when times were pretty darn good. The new displays combine some truly beautiful specimens from our stores – in typically Grant Museumy specimen-rich displays – combined with images from our archives and intricate anatomical drawings from early twentieth century student notebooks.

    Why are we here?
    Robert Grant (1793-1874), one of UCL’s founding professors, established the Museum in 1828 as a resource for students taking his Zoology and Comparative Anatomy lectures. Many of these students would have been medics as comparative anatomy was seen as a crucial element of medical theory. (more…)