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  • It’s Australia v England, in battle over Stubbs masterpieces

    By Jack Ashby, on 8 November 2013

    In September I wrote a post about two paintings by George Stubbs – of a kangaroo and a dingo – which had been placed under an export bar to allow time for the National Maritime Museum to raise funds to save them for the nation. This was because they had been sold to an oversees buyer.

    This week we learned that the campaign was successful. Had it not been, the paintings would have been bought by the National Gallery of Australia. They are understandably disappointed. I was asked by The Conversation (“an independent source of news and views, sourced from the academic and research community”) to update my article for them, covering the Australian case for their acquisition. (more…)

    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…)

    Book Worm… Kangaroo by John Simons: A Review

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 April 2013

    Book Worm

    Book Worm – that’s Grant and a lugworm

    I’m writing this second review in the predictably punned “Book Worm” occasional series whilst in the desert town of Alice Springs. As I like to match my reading with my surroundings, I’m reviewing Kangaroo by John Simons, published in December as part of Reaktion’s Animal Series.

    What this book seems to attempt to do is tackle the kangaroo from a variety of angles – biological, ecolgical, historical and anthropological. It is extremely generously illustrated (on nearly every page). There is sometimes, however, no obvious connection between the image and the neighbouring text which can make things a bit confusing, particularly when he is describing a specific visual scene without providing the appropriate image. (more…)

    Happy 76th Thylacine day

    By Jack Ashby, on 7 September 2012

    Another year has passed since the last known thylacine – one of the greatest icons of extinction – died of exposure. That makes 76 years today.

    Thylacine at ZSL

    Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

    We have celebrated the thylacine here at the Grant Museum for some time. We have some fantastic specimens – including one of the only fluid preserved adults (with the added bonus of having been dissected by Victorian evolutionary giant Thomas Henry Huxley), and skeleton from the early 1800s, which belonged to Grant himself. The only recent thylacine-based activity that happened at the Museum was for all our thylacine-geek colleagues to watch The Hunter together, a film about a bounty-hunter hired to collect the last individual for an evil bio-tech company. It was brilliant.

    Here on this blog we have told tales of thylacine apparitions, potentially new specimens, the lessons of extinction and the thylacine’s own story, which ended so tragically on 7th September 1936. On 2012′s thylacine day I’m going to spread the net a little further. (more…)

    Animal record breaking

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 June 2012

    So far I’ve been very good at not linking activities at the Grant Museum to the Olympics. While I’m out here on ecological fieldwork in the remote northwest savannahs of northwest Australia, The Games have been very far from my mind. However, the phrase “new record” has been bandied about quite a lot here this month, and now I find myself writing a post that has nothing to do with the Olympics, but I’ve now already mentioned them three times. I appear to have jumped on the bandwagon of making a spurious link – something that everyone seems to be doing these days. Apologies.

    I’m currently working with a small team of ecologists catching animals on wildlife sanctuaries and cattle stations to monitor the effects of cattle and fire management on the ecosystem. This year we’ve caught a fair few animals in areas in which they’ve never been seen before. The excitement of being part of these new records is definitely personally valuable, but I’ve also been thinking about how these single pieces of data are potentially more valuable than all of the other single animals we catch.

    (more…)

    Catching dingoes in the dead of night

    By Jack Ashby, on 19 June 2012

    I spend lots of my holiday time volunteering for a charity in Australia which manages huge areas of land for conservation. The Australian Wildlife Conservancy is dedicated to undertaking in-depth ecological research to form the basis of the decisions on how to manage their sanctuaries. For the past three years I’ve been working with the team of ecologists which manage sanctuaries in northwest Australia, and right now I’m back in the central Kimberley.

    In the past I’ve written posts about pitfall, funnel and treadle-trapping for small mammals, lizards, snakes and frogs, and that’s what I’m doing most of the time at the moment, but on top of that I’ve also been involved with catching dingoes, which has been an intense and exciting experience. (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Twenty-Nine

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 30 April 2012

    Scary Monkey: Week Twenty-NineA favourite in my household when I was growing up, these South-Pacific mammals are pleasant once you get to known them despite their bad reputation, only really fight when it comes to women or food, and don’t reach maturity until they are almost middle aged. This week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

    Kangaroos cooked up by Cook / Strange Creatures

    By Jack Ashby, on 13 March 2012

    Seeing is believing, right? I’ve often looked at historic animal paintings and wondered “how come artists back in the day couldn’t draw animals?”. We’ve all seen images of animals that are extremely inaccurate, and our recent “Strange Creatures” event had works from UCL Art Museum pop-up in the Grant which included a poorly represented lion, simply because the artist had never seen one. This lack of first-hand inspiration is one reason that the paintings are unrealistic; artists were relying on written accounts by those who had seen the critters.

    UCL Art Museum EDC 4766 Anonymous (Dutch, late 17th Century), Lion in a Landscape, late 17th century Red chalk on paper

    A late 17th Century Dutch representation of a lion from UCL Art Museum. The opportunity to study lions from life in 17th-century Northern Europe was rare. Lions were kept at the Doge’s Palace in Venice and appear in Jacopo Bellini’s (1400–70/1) sketchbooks, but most Northern artists had to depend upon the accounts of other eye-witnesses.

    But reading these descriptions, another massive source of error is that those eye-witnesses are slaves to prior knowledge. When coming across new forms, unlike anything they’d seen before, many attempted to fit models of animals they already knew on top of what they saw. This is perfectly understandable, but in the end often unhelpful. It’s an interesting example of the brain over-riding the visual system and seeing what it thinks it should see.

    I’m reading Captain Cook’s account of his first voyage to the South Seas, on the Endeavour, which includes the first descriptions of kangaroos that he came across when he landed on the east coast of Australia, and he was particularly guilty of this: (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week Twenty-Two

    By Emma-Louise Nicholls, on 12 March 2012

    Scary Monkey: Week Twenty-TwoI want you to guess a location. If I say ‘marsupial’, you say…
    Australia?
    Survey says…
    ‘Eh ehhhh’.
    Modern marsupials are in fact also found in both North and South America. North America has only acquired one modern species but South America has plenty. To celebrate this exciting fact of the day, the specimen of the week this week is… (more…)

    Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 January 2012

    This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

    I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here. (more…)