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  • Unpacking UCL’s Magic Lantern Slide Collections

    By Margaux Bricteux, on 9 July 2014

    Grant Museum magic lantern slide LDUCZ 299 showing craters on the lunar surface

    Grant Museum magic lantern slide LDUCZ-299 showing craters on the lunar surface

    The UCL Grant Museum and the Science and Engineering Collections currently have several thousand magic lantern slides that relate to subjects as diverse as telegraphy, astronomy or Australian coral reefs; but which for the most part have been consigned to gathering dust in splintering wooden boxes. I, however, have spent the last few weeks sorting, auditing and cleaning hundreds of these slides, and I am now rather well acquainted with these little glass squares.

    Example of a 19th century magic lantern slide projector from the UCL physics collection. This example was used as a sort of overhead projector but others were designed to project across a lecture theatre or hall

    Example of a 19th century magic lantern slide projector from the UCL physics collection. This example was used as a sort of overhead projector but others were designed to project across a lecture theatre or hall

    Magic lanterns were first developed in the 17th century as one of the earliest image projectors. While the device itself has evolved, the concept has remained the same: A combination of lenses and a light source are used to enlarge the images found on glass slides (each about the size of a Post-it) and project them onto a wall or screen. Magic lantern slides, hence, can be described as a kind of ancestor to the Kodachrome slides used in slide projectors, or even present-day PowerPoint slides. (more…)

    Animals in Art

    By Mark Carnall, on 23 May 2014

    One of the aspects of working in a museum that I most enjoy is ‘enquiries’. Normally this will be museum visitors bringing in or sending in photos of mysterious objects that they want identifying. Not only is the challenge of identifying a mystery object fun but it’s very satisfying to work out what the object is and most visitors are happy to have had their object identified (with the rare exception when a dragon/dinosaur egg turns out to be a large very spherical pebble). Occasionally however, I receive an enquiry from a colleague from another museum asking for help with identifying animals depicted in a work of art or archaeological object.

    From the earliest images made on the walls of caves through to today, animals have inspired many people and we see this throughout the history of humans. Animals can be depicted as a record of the animals that an artist readily comes into contact with but often they carry symbolic representations or are merely a visual representation of the idea of an animal not meant to depict a specific species or individual.

    (more…)

    War, Love and Coal: New Exhibition from UCL Museum Studies Students

    By Mark Carnall, on 8 May 2014

    Image of Voices of War Postcard

    Every year Museum Studies Masters students have to create an exhibition as part of their course. This is a guest post by Maya Makker and Sarah McKeon two of the curators of this year’s exhibition Voices of War: UCL in World War One opening in the Institute of Archaeology.

    This term, the UCL Museum Studies students have been developing an exhibition entitled “Voices of War: UCL in World War One”. We decided to ask the question: What was the involvement of UCL students and alumni in the First World War? Our goal was to profile UCL affiliates and use objects to tell their World War One stories. From the onset, one of our primary objectives for the exhibition was to include the voices of women who lived through the war. As we began researching, our content team quickly realised that numerous women at UCL made significant contributions to the war effort in an array of capacities. One such woman was Marie Stopes—scientist, activist, and UCL alumnus.

    (more…)

    When Two Tribes Go To War. Art & Science ‘curatorship’

    By Mark Carnall, on 30 April 2014

    The University of Cambridge museums and collections are currently running a project Curating Cambridge: our city, our stories, our stuff. Part of that project is looking at the art & science of curation asking curators what they think is meant by curation. My colleague Nick Booth has previously written about the problems with the word curator now becoming almost meaningless through overuse. I was inspired to write about the differences between “Art and Science” curation for the Art & Science of Curation website.

    When two tribes go to war, they communicate with each other, even if it is only through war cries and violence. However, when it comes to the two tribes of art and science curators, they occupy completely different niches. Even though both sets of professionals have a lot in common- they work in museums (many of which are public), they will have had training in general and fundamental principles of museums and they all work in the museum sector. (more…)

    Angels, fairies and dragons revisited: Did putti fly like bumblebees?

    By Jack Ashby, on 30 April 2014

    In 2011 our 15th Annual Robert Grant Lecture was given by UCL’s Professor Roger Wotton. It was called Zoology and mythology: looking at angels, fairies and dragons and explored the biological plausibility of these creatures based on their representations in art. Prof Wotton dissected (not literally, obviously) the anatomy that would be required for angels, fairies and dragons to fly. The lecture was amusing and illuminating – and we wrote about it at the time.

    Now, on his blog, Roger has returned to the subject to investigate something he couldn’t fit into the lecture – putti. Putti are the porky little naked boys with tiny wings. Many people might (inaccurately) call them cherubs. In his whimsical yet biological account, Wotton says…

    It is only possible to speculate on how putti fly, although their naked, often chubby bodies indicate that the generation of sufficient temperature is not a problem. (more…)

    Why Twitter is good for museums – making discoveries

    By Jack Ashby, on 9 April 2014

    Using Twitter as a way of building a community of support, engaging people in content and shedding light on life behind the scenes in museums (that we don’t just dust stuff) is too obviously demonstrated by the real world to be spending too much time discussing. Not to mention the power to market events and exhibitions quickly and cheaply – assuming don’t over-use social media as a marketing tool.

    On Monday I conducted two pieces of “research” on our collection which sprung up out of the blue and would have been very difficult to solve without turning to our Twitter followers to tap their collective brain to find a quick answer. Both of them were on specimens that begin with “H” and end with “Bill”. Weird.

    Tweeting Turtles

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177

    Hawksbill turtle showing his interesting eyes LDUCZ-X1177

    (more…)

    One of our dinosaurs, birds, crabs…. is missing

    By Mark Carnall, on 19 March 2014

    You may have figured from the title of this blog but I’m going to take a bit of time to talk about when specimens go missing from a museum collection. It can be a difficult thing for museums to talk about as most museums operate to care for the specimens and objects that are given in trust to them often for perpetuity, or more practically until the death of our part of the Universe. Currently a lot of my work here involves relocating our specimens following the move of the stores and museum a couple of years ago and trying to work out what happened to a missing specimen involves a bit of detective work, so I thought I’d offer an insight into the process.

    (more…)

    Human Evolution – The Story Of Us

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 27 February 2014

    Ever wanted to meet your ancestor?

    Ever wanted to meet your ancestor?

    On Friday 7th March the Rock Room (1st Floor Corridor, South Wing, UCL) will host a special pop-up exhibition featuring rarely seen objects from UCL’s Biological Anthropology Collection, and in particular their collection of early hominin fossil casts.

    UCL’s Biological Anthropology Collection is held by (unsurprisingly) the Biological Anthropology Section of the Anthropology Department. Biological anthropology focuses on the study of primate ecology and evolution, including the study of human evolution.

    In order to study and teach these subjects the department has built up a wonderful collection of over 2,000 bones, casts of bones and fossils, ancient tools and other types of objects (which I like to think of as ‘misc’). These are stored in the department and heavily used in teaching, helping students to bring the subject (back) to life.

    (more…)

    Darwin (or) Bust opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 12 February 2014

    Charles Darwin would be 205 today. Happy birthday to him. To mark the occasion our Darwin (or) Bust exhibition opens today, showing Darwin as you are unlikely to have seen him before. Darwins have been created out of ants, light, crochet, DNA, his own writings, chocolate and other unusual media, all imagined and made by members of UCL’s Institute of Making.

    The Museum’s historic plaster bust of Darwin was moved from UCL’s Darwin Building when our collection was relocated in 2011. The remaining inhabitants of the Darwin Building were sorry to lose him, and so asked the Institute of Making to help them make a new one, from 3D laser scanning. We already had the 3D data as our very own Mona Hess had scanned him for her PhD on scanning in museums, and an idea blossomed…

    3D Scan of the Grant Museum's Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

    3D Scan of the Grant Museum’s Darwin bust by Mona Hess (all rights reserved)

    Rather than just print off a new Darwin bust for the departments of Structural and Molecular Biology and Genetics, Evolution and Environment in the Darwin Building, we all decided to see what happened if we tapped the minds around us at UCL; asking the members of the Institute of Making how they would reinterpret the 3D data to make a new Darwin for the 21st Century. This multi-venue exhibition is the result. A previous post explains the origins of the exhibition more fully.

    The project somewhat snowballed. (more…)

    Is Archaeopteryx a bird or not?

    By Mark Carnall, on 23 January 2014

    Just before Christmas I was inspired by a post by Jon Tennant on his blog, To bird or not to bird… about whether anyone knows whether Archaeopteryx lithographica is a bird or not a bird. Amongst palaeobiologists and biologists Archaeopteryx is the poster organism for evolution and if you’ve ever been to a natural history museum you’ve undoubtedly walked past a cast or two, it is after all one of our Bingo! animals. It was the first fossil that really enshrined the ideas about evolutionary change. Ever since it’s discovery in 1861 (although Archaeopteryx fossils were discovered before then but not recognised as such) it’s almost a rite of passage for palaeontologists to have a ponder or even publish trying to work out the affinities of the animal. Is it a bird? It’s probably not a plane. Is it a reptile? Is it a dinosaur? (and yes smarty pants I know you can be all three).

    The scientific techniques used to work out the affinities of animals only known from fossil remains have developed greatly over the last 150 years yet the answer to this question still seems far from being resolved. (more…)