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  • Dead to me!

    By Pia K Edqvist, on 12 July 2016

    Human remains at the Petrie Museum. It’s time to come out of storage!
    Death is part of life, and for me, death is very much a part of work since I am currently rehousing the human remains at the museum. In February, I attended a seminar at the Institute of Archaeology (IoA), PASSING ENCOUNTERS: The dead body and the public realm, the purpose of this was to stimulate discussion about death in an open and frank manner. I joined to learn more about how human remains are portrayed in social media and to gather people’s opinions on death. But, I learned much more than that; how a body decays, what different stages of decay smells like (See Fig.1.), and how death and the body have been portrayed throughout history

    Image showing presentation slide, do’s and don’ts when ‘smelling death’

    Image showing presentation slide, do’s and don’ts when ‘smelling death’

    . (more…)

    Frostbitten Fingertips Get A New Look

    By Emilia L Kingham, on 17 March 2016

    Frostbitten fingers attached to wax hand with peeling paint and yellowed fluid

    I was recently contacted by the National Army Museum to consult and treat a fluid preserved specimen that is due to be displayed in their newly renovated museum.  The specimen is the frostbitten, severed fingertips from Major Michael Patrick ‘Bronco’ Lane.  Bronco Lane summitted Mount Everest in 1976, but during this expedition, ran into bad weather and was forced to remove his glove to attach an oxygen bottle to his face mask.  An hour after he removed his glove, he found his hand had frozen. The fingertips were removed on his return to the UK.

    (more…)

    Putting human remains on display – people as animals

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 February 2016

    Last week we added a human specimen to our display of animal brains. Why wouldn’t we?

    The real question is why hadn’t we. And the answer is that we weren’t allowed to. The Human Tissues Act (2004) controls how human bodies, organs and tissues are used. Different licenses are required to store, teach with or display human specimens. Until recently, we didn’t have any of these licences for the Grant Museum, which affected what we could include to represent Homo sapiens in our displays.

    A human specimen (centre) has been added to the Grant Museum's brain comparative anatomy display

    A human specimen (centre) has been added to the Grant Museum’s brain comparative anatomy display

    How museums display humans

    There are many ways in which a human might find themself in a museum after they died. (more…)

    A Conservation inspection of Jeremy Bentham’s Mummified head

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 6 September 2015

    I’ve wanted to write blog specifically about Jeremy Bentham’s head for a while now. ‘Can I see the head?’ is one of the most common questions I get asked. I’m not sure why it has such fascination for people – perhaps as our manager of the Grant Museum recently tweeted when he met him, ‘Face to face with one of the world’s greatest philosophers’, how often do you get to say that? Is it that we want to be able to look someone famous in the face, even if they’re dead? Or is it just that a mummified head is unusual?

    Side view of the head of Jeremy Bentham.

    Side view of the head of Jeremy Bentham.

    Last week Bentham’s head came out from the safe it is usually stored in for a full inspection by one of our conservators, Emilia Kingham. We regularly inspect the head, to ensure it remains stable. It’s survival for the future is our main concern! The inspection (and Buzzfeed story) generated a lot of interest and questions. For the story Emilia and I were sent a list of questions, which I thought were all very interesting and worth posting on our blog. The answers are from us both.

    Enjoy! (more…)

    What remains to talk about? Human bodies on display

    By Alice E Stevenson, on 24 July 2014

    I’ve recently returned from holiday in Cascais, near Lisbon in Portugal, which was for the most part a fairly relaxing break. For the most part. There was the small matter of a rather lengthy complaint furiously scribbled into a comments book at one particular museum we visited and my husband being subjected to an in-depth critique of ethical museum display practice – for several hours. So what got me so agitated? The display of three mummies: two Peruvian and one Egyptian in the Museu Aqueológico do Carmo, Lisbon.

    All blue skies?

    All blue skies? Outside the Museu Aqueológico do Carmo, Lisbon.

    (more…)

    The Legend of Petrie’s Head: A Personal Response

    By Debbie J Challis, on 9 October 2013

    In a recent article for the journal Interdisciplinary Science Reviews, Sara Perry and I explored the myths around the fact that the head of archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie (1853-1942) is a specimen in the collections of the Royal College of Surgeons. We tried to understand the context in which Petrie donated his head to science – his eugenic ideas, his focus on the face, his pedagogical collecting and curation practices – and along the way confronted many of the legends hatboxthat have grown up around Petrie’s head. One of the most famous, that Hilda Petrie brought back her husband’s head in a hat box from Jerusalem after World War Two, was repeated in the recent BBC4 television documentary The Man Who Discovered Egypt. In fact, letters in the Petrie Museum archive illustrate that that ‘romantic’ legend is just not true (romantic arguably as it has some parallels with wives such as Mary Shelley retaining their loved one’s body parts).

    Second only to the legends about how it got to England are the stories about who has seen Petrie’s head, many of which are true, some of which we chronicled in the article. Petrie’s head became a talking point for archaeologists in ‘the know’ until the publication of Margaret Drower’s 1985 biography which explicitly states where Petrie’s head is. I have not seen Petrie’s head and have no desire to do so while it is locked away in its current state (fully fleshed) in a cupboard. Personally I feel that to gain access just for the sake of seeing the head and saying that I have seen it would be merely titillating and serve no real educational or research purpose for myself or anyone else. (more…)

    From the vollies: A humbling collection of hominin casts

    By Mark Carnall, on 20 September 2012

    Volunteers are very much the spine and vital organs of museums and we are eternally grateful for all the work and support they give to museums. Anthropologist Rebecca Davenport has been working on the Grant Museum collection of fossil human casts and models. Over to Rebecca…

    Most of us have no problem distinguishing between ourselves and other animals. Whilst the Grant Museum’s main attractions inspire reactions ranging from disgust to awe, I’d wager that gazing upon a jar of moles or the bones of an extinct quagga fails to arouse feelings of commonality or a sense of shared identity. After all, these specimens look completely alien and lack any element of we might consider “humanness”. (more…)

    Scribbles and skulls

    By Rachael Sparks, on 31 March 2011

    From a public perspective, objects are what a museum is all about. Yet behind every object is a story, built up from a range of sources and evidence, that enables us to contextualise that artefact and give it some form of meaning. This meaning may change as scholarship advances or audiences diversify. But without that level of research, we would have little more than a lot of nice ‘stuff’ on display.

    A crucial link in this chain of information comes from archival sources. The Institute of Archaeology is fortunate in having a range of original field records to support its collections, allowing us to learn more about the circumstances in which material was originally excavated. These also provide a window into the methods and practices of seminal figures in the development of archaeology as a discipline. The tomb cards written by Flinders Petrie and his staff are a classic example.
    (more…)