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  • 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…)

    New Book Chapter: Enhancing Museum Naratives: Tales of Things and UCL’s Grant Museum

    By Mark Carnall, on 16 January 2014

    Image of the cover for The Mobile StoryEarlier this year a book chapter I co-authored with UCL colleagues, deep breath, Claire Ross (Centre for Digital Humanities), Andrew Hudson-Smith (Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis), Claire Warwick (Department of Information Studies), Melissa Terras (Centre for Digital Humanities) and Steven Gray (Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis)  was published in the volume The Mobile Story, Narrative Perspectives with Locative Technologies.

    The book covers all aspects of when stories meet locative technologies from apps to maps and from dancing with Twitter to haunting public spaces through mobile devices. Our chapter, Enhancing Museum Narratives Tales of Things and UCL’s Grant Museum, examines using mobile media for enhanced meaning making and narrative engagement in museum spaces. (more…)

    True and False Animals

    By Mark Carnall, on 10 January 2014

    When the language of biology meets common parlance there’s often a lot of confusion. Biological nomenclature (often called the scientific name, we are Homo sapiens sapiens* for example)  is by and large controlled using strict rules, format and notations but there aren’t quite so strict rules when it comes to the common names of animals or groups of animals. Some animals we refer to by their taxonomic name, for example; Tyrannosaurus rex, Hippopotamus, Octopus** and Bison. For other animals however, their common, useful to most people and widely understood names create all kinds of problems for the pedantic as I’ve written about before when is comes to sea stars vs starfish. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about when it comes to seals and sea lions. Consider also that a musk ox is a goat-antelope, horseshoe crabs aren’t crabs at all and the Grant Museum favourite: flying lemurs aren’t and don’t.

    The idea of ‘true’ and ‘false’ animals can also be misleading and a lot of pub discussions/arguments/bets come from animals which aren’t what they are often called or even named. How do some animals end up as the ‘true’ and ‘false’ versions of their group. Let’s have a look at some ‘true’ animals and see how the philosophical concepts of truth has ended up in our zoological lexicons.
    (more…)

    What’s the difference between seals and sea lions?

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 December 2013

    This is one of the easier spots in our “What’s the difference” series, but also one of the most commonly erred of all the picked nits. Zoologists are a pedantic bunch, and whilst correcting people just to demonstrate that you know more than them is not an effective engagement model, the world would be a better place* if more people landed on the right side of the seal vs sea lion dichotomy. The difference is, after all, at the same taxonomic level as otters and red pandas, and few would confuse them.

      Seals vs Sea lions: The taxonomy of seal-ish things

    All of these things are pinnipeds – a sub-group of the order Carnivora. Pinnipeds are split into three families – True Seals (Phocidae); Eared Seals (Otariidae) and the Walrus (the sole member of Odobenidae).
    Let’s dispatch with walruses – they are easy to spot with their tusks.

    True seals cannot raise their bodies onto their hind or fore limbs

    True seals cannot raise their bodies onto their hind or fore limbs


    True seals are the animals that look most like overweight tubes of toothpaste – all of the species we get around the UK are true seals (except for the occasional walrus). Grey seals, leopard seals, elephant seals, harp seals and ringed seals are among the 19 species of true seals.
    Eared seals are the 16 species that are commonly named sea lions – because of the males’ manes- and fur seals – because of their dense underfur (for which they were heavily persecuted).
    Only true seals are “seals”. Eared seals are not seals; they just look a lot like them.

    The two easiest characteristics to look out for when trying to work out whether an animal is a true seal or an eared seal (I expect you can guess what one of them is) are…
    Q: Can it walk? (more…)

    The Mullard Space Science Laboratory

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 17 December 2013

     

     

    The Mullard at night with teh comet Hale-Bopp in the sky.

    The MSSL with comet Hale-Bopp

    One of the things I enjoy most about my job is that I get to work with many different departments from across UCL. I meet people from a wide range of backgrounds and get to do some pretty interesting stuff with them. And of course being a curator I get to work with collections as well, which is in my opinion the best thing about working in museums.

    In the last few months I have had the good fortune to visit the Mullard Space Science Laboratory (MSSL). A part of UCL that very few people get to see, staffed by people who are extremely passionate about their jobs, and housing a whole new collection of objects that I didn’t know existed.

    The MSSL was opened in 1967, and is the largest university space research group in the UK. Not only that but its early date marks it as one of the earliest such centres in the world, and makes it an important part of the early history of the British Space Programme, now known as the UK Space Agency (yes we really do have one of those). The lab is located near (more…)

    Natural history under the hammer

    By Mark Carnall, on 4 December 2013

    Recently there have been a spate of high profile auctions of natural history specimens raising many issues about ownership, the value we should or shouldn’t put on natural history and the relationship between professional scientists, museums, amateurs and private collectors. My colleague Jack Ashby wrote about the recent dodo bones that were auctioned. Colleagues Dave Hone and Mark Graham give a balanced view of the recent sale of a Diplodocus skeleton over at the Guardian. The ‘duelling dinosaurs’ fossil was estimated to reach $9 million at auction in New York and last year the controversial proposed sale of an allegedly illicitly smuggled Tarbosaurus skeleton caused much debate.

    I thought I’d add my thoughts on the subject here, in particular about the relationship between collectors, museums and ethics. (more…)