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  • State of the Union! Natural History Museums 2014

    By Mark Carnall, on 29 August 2014

    Reposting of an article I wrote for the NatSCA website in my capacity on the #NatureData Coordinating Committee, summarising the ‘State of the Union’ for natural history museums following the SPNHC 2014 conference.

    At the end of June was a rather special event; the coming together of three subject specialist networks (SSN), the Society for the Preservation of Natural History Collections (SPNHC), the Natural Sciences Collections Association (NatSCA) and the Geological Curators’ Group (GCG) hosted by Amgueddfa Cymru National Museum Wales. Between them, these three networks represent a sizeable chunk of curators, conservators, directors and educators who work in and with natural history museums and collections. Each SSN has yearly meetings but a syzygy rarely happens.

    The full conference was a six day affair packed with field trips, stores tours, talks, workshops, demos, poster sessions and discussions attended by over 250 delegates from almost as many natural history institutions. This provided a great opportunity to catch up and meet friends, facilitated the catharsis in sharing frustrations unique to natural history museums and offered a rare chance to establish a sense of ‘the state of the union’ in natural history museums across Europe, North America and elsewhere.

    You can read the rest of this entry over at the NatSCA website at this link.

    Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology

    Specimen of the Week: Week 150

    By Pia K Edqvist, on 25 August 2014

    Scary MonkeyI did not really have a choice selecting the specimen of the week; this as a particular specimen was speaking to me in the corner of one of the display cases, I felt somewhat hypnotised. Firstly because the way it looks; it has an extraordinary appearance consisting of a lattice-like pattern in a somewhat geometric and architectural design, the specimen is very beautiful. Is it actually made of glass? Studying this specimen it has proven to have depth (it lives in the deep sea) but also breadth; its uses are many and its fascinating qualities are still investigated, this animal still raises more questions than provides answers.

    This week Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

    The Not So Beautiful Birds

    By Mark Carnall, on 13 August 2014

    Image of Grant Museum sparrow skeleton

    Grant Museum sparrow skeleton. Specimen LDUCZ-Y1595

    Recently this specimen and a number of other bird skeletons came back from our conservation lab. When I first started at UCL these nine skeletons were in the dreaded “curator’s cabinet” a cabinet of broken and miscellaneous specimens that  were presumably the bane of previous curator’s lives. These skeletons were fragmented, partially disarticulated and all the fragments mixed together. I gave these specimens to Gemma Aboe who was undertaking some conservation work for us and she managed to piece together a number of half skeletons from this mixed box. These specimens aren’t the kind of thing you normally encounter in a public natural history museum display as they aren’t ‘perfect’ but I couldn’t resist taking a few extra shots of these whilst documenting them as although they are incomplete and not ‘worthy’ of a spot on display they are still quite hauntingly beautiful.

    (more…)

    Specimen of the Week: Week 148

    By Rowan J J Tinker, on 11 August 2014

    Scary MonkeyZombies aren’t real… or are they? In the world of nature, pretty much anything you come up with already exists: What’s that, a lizard that shoots blood out of its eyes? Yup, that’s been done. What about a toad with babies that burst out its back? Nah, you have to be more creative than that!

    But zombies? Practically anything along the subject makes me prance around like a toddler, combine them with one of my other most favourite things in the world – insects -  and I’m a giddy puddle.

    Boy, this is a treat for you guys! It’s our first non-zoological specimen of the week. That is, if you don’t count the fact that there’s a dirty great big caterpillar stuck to it, and no, this isn’t a case of the mysterious battery-stuffing opossum maniac up to their usual museum antics again with the Pritt-Stick; the two are fused in a macabre display of harmony, mutual love and zombification.

    This specimen of the week is…

    (more…)

    Re-packing UCL´s Magic Lantern Slides

    By Margaux Bricteux, on 29 July 2014

    As my time working with UCL’s lantern slides draws to a close, I thought I’d reflect on some of the things I’ve discovered over the past few weeks. (To learn what lantern slides are, and why UCL has accumulated thousands of them, click here).

    Scan of slide EE703, showing a diagram of a Vreeland oscillator

    Slide EE703 – A Vreeland oscillator, 
    or just another electric circuit
    to the unaccustomed eye.

    The majority of  the slides in the UCL Science and Engineering collection are, unsurprisingly enough, about Engineering. Electrical Engineering to be precise. I must say that, having not had a single Physics lesson in the past six years, the prospect of cataloguing slide after slide of what looked like identical electric circuits was not exactly my cup of academic tea. But I soon learnt that there is a lot more to ElecEng (as it is apparently abbreviated) than alternators, resonators, oscillators and commutators. In particular, I became interested in UCL’s very own Sir John  Ambrose Fleming, founder of England’s first University Department of Electrical Technology, inventor of the thermionic valve and Pender Professor at UCL for three decades.

    (more…)

    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…)