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  • Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 16 March 2015

    Imagine that you are in a place no-one from your country has ever been before. You have just set eyes on an animal incomparible to anything you’ve ever encountered – it might as well be an alien. Cameras haven’t been invented. It will take a year for you or anything you send to reach home. Your job is to communicate what you’ve discovered to the people back home.

    The artistic outcomes of scenarios like this are the basis for much of our exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals, which opens today.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    The natural history of art; the art history of nature

    By examining the world of animal representations, the exhibition explores how imagery has been used to bring newly discovered animals into the public eye. From the earliest days of exploration, visual depictions in artworks, books, the media and even toys have been essential in representing exotic species that are alien to people at home.

    Strange Creatures investigates what we can learn about art history by researching natural history, and what art history can contribute to natural history.

    Europe’s first kangaroo

    Strange Creatures centres upon George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo (pictured above), which was created following Captain Cook’s first Pacific “Voyage of Discovery”. It is Europe’s first painting of an Australian animal and became the archetype for how people imagined this iconic species for decades. This painting was recently saved for the nation after it was initially sold to an overseas buyer. This resulted in a government export bar before Royal Museums Greenwich raised the funds to keep it in the UK (as I wrote in The Conversation at the time). This exhibition represents a chance to see the artwork among other animal depictions from the time of their earliest European encounters.

    Many of the artworks on display were created by people who had never seen these animals in the flesh, either working from explorers’ accounts, or copying (and potentially embellishing) images produced by others.

    Strange Creatures from many angles

    As a university museum one of our key jobs is to create opportunities for the public to engage with cutting-edge research that is taking place here at UCL (University College London). As such, most of the exhibition’s displays were developed by palaeontologists and by historians of science, exploration and art from the university. They have investigated the theme of animal representation from the perspective of their own disciplines, and developed sections of the exhibition around them.

    Modern mechanics and medieval manuscripts

    These researchers’ stories include medieval accounts of exotic creatures, art from the ages of exploration and empire, sailors who faked “dragon” specimens by manipulating dried fish, contemporary knitted craft taxidermy and twenty-first century reconstructions of dinosaurs. Together they explore how unknown animals are communicated to the wider public.

    I spend a lot of time in remote areas looking for animals (I’ve never officially discovered a new species, but I probably have caught animals that are yet to be described). As such, I wince at historic accounts of explorers briefly describing a fantastical animal they encounter, immediately followed by an account of what it tasted like. One of the researcher’s displays explains how food is unsurprisingly prioritised over science in these situations. To be fair, I don’t have to rely on ship’s biscuits or foraging (much) during my field trips, and I don’t spend months at sea to get there.

    Taxidermy and dinosaurs

    It’s not only historic artworks which mis-portrayed these amazing species. We have all seen taxidermy in museums that is less than perfect. [COUGH-Hornimanwalrus-COUGH]. Such specimens arose when skins were shipped back to Europe and fleshed-out to recreate the animal based on a few notes.
    Modern dinosaur toys are another example. We’ve known for some time that many dinosaurs were dynamic, warm blooded, intellgent animals, but popular culture is still full of traditional Godzilla-like tail tragging dullards.

    It’s been such a fascinating exhibition to pull together – being able to work with a group of historians, artists and scientists from such a diverse set of disciplines has allowed us to tell so many stories about the topic of animal representations. It’s also very exciting to see these incredible objects, like Stubbs’ kangaroo, prints and drawings from UCL Art Museum and Captain Cook’s handwritten voyage accounts (from UCL Library Special Collections), displayed alongside the Grant Museum’s animal specimens.

    Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, and curator of the Strange Creatures exhibition.

    Strange Creatures: The art of unknown animals’ runs from 16th March to 27th June 2015. The Grant Museum of Zoology is open from 1–5pm Monday to Saturday (but closes for a few days around Easter). Admission is free and there is no need to book.

    We have a fantastically packed programme  free events accompanies the exhibition, from drawing classes, open mic nights with performances from animal researchers, tours and Museum Lates to a screening of Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and a Knit-a-thon.

    Strange Creatures is part of Travellers’ Tails a collaboration between Royal Museums Greenwich and four partner museums to investigate the history of exploration, art and science. It is supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund and the Art Fund.

     

    Following Captain Cook, and How the Kangaroo Nearly Never Was

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 October 2014

    The Grant Museum is extremely excited to be a partner in the National Maritime Museum’s Travelers’ Tails project, which will involve this painting of a kangaroo by George Stubbs – the first ever western painting of Australian wildlife – coming to the Grant in March.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    Last month I was in Australia on zoological fieldwork. I decided to visit the places that Cook went on his first voyage of discovery, which resulted in Britain’s first kangaroo encounters and ultimately this painting being made. It very nearly didn’t happen, and Cook’s Australian expedition would have been a zoological disappointment.

    I wrote this post for the National Maritime Museum’s blog. It begins…

    The kangaroo painting that might never have been – following in Cook’s footsteps

    The painting of the kangaroo by George Stubbs would never have existed if it weren’t for an extraordinary bit of bad luck in a very dangerous situation. (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…)

    The Great Darwin BUST UP

    By Jack Ashby, on 27 November 2013

    There are lots of good things about working in a university museum. The best is that there are thousands of people around us whose job it is to have ideas and then come up with a way of realising these ideas. In the museums we know a lot of academics from different fields who we can put in touch with each other when we spot complementary ideas to combine into exciting cross-disciplinary projects.

    A few weeks ago some of our colleagues from UCL’s Institute of Making arrived with someone from Structural and Molecular Biology saying that they wanted to 3D scan our plaster bust of Charles Darwin to create a copy to go in the Darwin Building where UCL’s biologists live (and where the Grant Museum used to be housed). From there a project spiraled into something very exciting.

    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)

    The bust has a bit of history – it is part of the Grant Museum’s collection, and as such when we moved into our current home in 2011 we took him with us (you might have spotted him peeking out a window on Gower Street). The biologists in the Darwin Building were very sorry to see him go. This project will create a new Darwin for them, and will also result in an unusual exhibition, through a competition. (more…)

    Curating the Octagon Exhibition

    By Claire S Ross, on 14 June 2013

    colourfull case object numbers scattered on the floor

    Trying to find the correct object numbers

    Most of the last couple of weeks I have been busy installing the new Octagon Gallery Exhibition, ‘Digital Frontiers: Smart, Connected and Participatory’. It’s been a brilliant experience and I have learnt a lot so I thought I’d talk a bit about the process of creating an exhibition from a first time curator!

    The exhibition opened at the beginning of June 2013.   But it all first started when I applied to exhibit in the new Octagon space.  UCL Museums invited proposals on a theme (in this instance the theme was ‘frontiers’) from across the UCL community.  The proposals were judged by a panel and my application on the theme of ‘Digital Frontiers’ was successful.   The proposal focused on key research areas from UCL Centre for Digital Humanities (UCLDH) and the UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis (CASA).  It felt quite strange deciding on a theme without being fully aware of all the potential objects, but it paved the way for an exciting challenge to see how I could fit as many of UCL’s 18 disparate collections into my exhibition theme.

    The first full meeting happened in January when I got together with all the curators and collections managers from the different UCL Museums and Collections and I explained my broad themes and plans for the exhibition.  We had an initial brain storm and I was bit overwhelmed with all the information on objects that could potentially fit the exhibition concept.  I then had one to one meetings with all the individual curators to discuss exhibition ideas and view possible objects, before going away and coming up with a really long list of potential objects.
    (more…)

    Sculpture Season opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 June 2013

    Today at the Grant Museum, not only have we flung the doors open to the public (as we do six days a week), but we have opened the doors to the Museum – and the museum cabinets – to thirteen emerging artists, inviting them to rethink our collection. Today, Sculpture Season begins.

    We’re consistently thinking how to use our collections in different ways, and while the team here is a creative one (otherwise – boast boast – we wouldn’t keep winning awards) we can definitely benefit from completely different eyes and minds looking at our collection.

    Sculpture Season does just that – thirteen sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL were invited to create works in response to the Museum’s spaces, specimens, science and history. The results are fantastic. Alongside the Museum’s historic skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in jars, the new works engage with animal/human encounters through re-animated flesh, tunnelling rats and mice, giant worms and body bags.

    The artists have created music technologies, phantom occupations of the Museum’s iPad apps, hand-knitted internal organs and explorations of the excessive masculinity of giant deer antlers. Specimens have been re-ordered, re-labelled and re-imagined. (more…)

    Tomb Raiders: Ancient Egypt in Modern Art

    By Edmund Connolly, on 17 May 2013

     Guest blogger: Kholood Al-Fahad

    How can Ancient art be brought to life by contemporary art? Is there a connection between ancient and new?

    Tomb Raiders is the place were such questions should have an answer.

    Florence's temporal balloons

    Florence’s temporal balloons

    (more…)

    Diamonds are Forever

    By Edmund Connolly, on 1 May 2013

    by  Chris Webb

    Although a James Bond reference may be a tenuous link to the Petrie Museum, it is the literal, or rather chronological, duration of the shiny, super-hard compressed allotropes of carbon that had us titillated at the recent timekeeper event. On the evening of the 25th April, we welcomed back our resident Timekeeper Cathy Haynes who was joined by the Creative Director of the Institute of Making, Zoe Laughlin. The Institute is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world, and incidentally, our neighbours at UCL. The objective: to examine the material world of time and decay, and gain a better understanding of the way the world views time.

    (more…)

    Considering our History – the Good Times

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 March 2013

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Last week we launched six new permanent displays telling the story of the history of the Grant Museum, focusing on the story of how the teaching of zoology has evolved over the past 185 years of our existence. Like the life cycle of many species, there have been times of rapid diversification and broad niche occupancy, as well as population bottle-necks when extinction looms, before adaptations to changing climates result in a new lease of life.

    Today I’ll focus on our first century or so, when times were pretty darn good. The new displays combine some truly beautiful specimens from our stores – in typically Grant Museumy specimen-rich displays – combined with images from our archives and intricate anatomical drawings from early twentieth century student notebooks.

    Why are we here?
    Robert Grant (1793-1874), one of UCL’s founding professors, established the Museum in 1828 as a resource for students taking his Zoology and Comparative Anatomy lectures. Many of these students would have been medics as comparative anatomy was seen as a crucial element of medical theory. (more…)