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Archive for the 'Museum Collections' Category

Embryological Wax Models

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 14 September 2017

The Grant Museum has a number of embryological wax models on display (Images 1, 2, 4, and 5 amongst others not shown here). These models, while often ignored by visitors, are actually quite remarkable as they showcase the brilliance and mystery of embryological development. They were created to help elucidate essential questions like: how do humans and other animals form? How are a bunch of seemingly insignificant cells, with no shape other than a ball, able to grow so much and in such detail to form intricate patterns like our eyes? How can one cell transform itself into such different tissues, from hard rock bone to the jelly like liver? In order to understand how a human body is formed it is vital to study the very first stages of its creation, i.e. when we are just a bunch of cells.

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

The very first cells that are formed after fertilization are called stem cells and they start with an unlimited capacity to form any type of cells. With time, they start to differentiate and mature into specialized cells with a limited lifetime. In this process, little by little they lose their unlimited capacity until they can only form cells that are similar in lineage. In this manner, totipotent stem cells can form any body part including extraembryonic tissue like the placenta. On the next level, pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells for example) are capable of forming any body part but have lost the capacity to form extraembryonic tissue. And finally, multipotent stem cells, much more restricted, can only form cells from a specific tissue or organ.

This may appear as a straightforward process, but the development of an animal is a deeply specific, delicate, and sophisticated interplay of signals and coordinated transitions. Think of it as an orchestrated dance of on and off switches leading to specialisation and exponential growth. In fact, it is so complex that we still don’t understand it entirely.

Although not all human, the wax models display the first stages of development of vertebrates and closely related animals. First, one cell divides symmetrically into two, then four, then eight and so on (Image 1 and front models of Image 2). Afterwards, cells start organizing themselves answering to chemical and physical signals and different patterns start to appear (Image 2 models in the back). Eventually, an axis emerges on which cells migrate along which will give rise to the head on one side and the body and limbs on the other (Image 4). 

Slowly but surely, we all go from looking like little worms to fully grown animals (Image 3). It is important to note that in this initial period most embryos have a very similar appearance, at least between vertebrates. These similarities tell us that a lot of the genes that govern this initial growth haven’t changed between species over time. It’s like nature is saying, “well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and so these mechanisms have been conserved in different animals.

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

These early stages are crucial moments because if one little element of the spatial/temporal organization is out of place, improper organization can lead to lifelong malformations, diseases, or even the termination of the embryo. Hence the importance of understanding how this process works. We know that even in adult life, there are still stem cells proliferating and forming new tissue to a certain degree. Some organs, like the skin, have a lot of stem cells to replace old cells when they die or get injured. But other organs like the brain, have a very limited capacity to grow new cells—one of the reasons why a brain is much more difficult to fix.

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

So can we get back all the limitless capacity there once was in the developing embryo? Even though the genetic and molecular mechanisms governing all these changes are still somewhat elusive, researchers are using stem cells and powerful genetic tools to answer this question and decipher every single step of how a human is formed in the womb. Moreover, if we can understand the process, then we can recreate and modify it in the lab, and this is exactly what the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is trying to do. Imagine having the capacity to grow new organs to be used for transplantation or drug testing. How about growing a brand new functioning leg or arm for amputees? Or studying the mechanisms of diseases like Parkinson’s, leukaemia, diabetes, amongst others. The benefits of harnessing the regenerative potential of cells are far-reaching.

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

The exciting field of stem cells and regenerative medicine has come a long way, more than a century has passed from the first time the term stem cells was used in 1906 up until the creation of genetically modified human embryos in 2017. The embryological wax models represent initial efforts of identifying how changes give rise to specific structures and ultimately how an animal comes into existence. Furthermore, the future still holds exciting breakthroughs, there is still a lot to understand about human development and the wax models are a fantastic resource to portray the morphogenetic changes we all once went through.

 

Resources:

Gilbert SF. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000. Comparative Embryology. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

http://www.labonline.com.au/content/life-science-clinical-diagnostics-instruments/article/why-do-all-animal-embryos-look-the-same–236915402

Who wants to adopt a parasite? Or, terror and disgust in the Grant Museum. 

By Niall Sreenan, on 12 July 2017

Of all the creatures, critters, beasts, birds, and baleens in UCL’s Grant Museum, few organisms are as ignored and maligned as the parasites. Visitors tend to skirt their north-easterly facing cabinet, either because they have begun their journey around the opposite side of the museum’s horseshoe layout or to bathe in the light of the museum’s “micrarium”; either way, they are not stopping to dwell for long in front of the roundworms, flatworms, or flukes. Likewise, these “helminths” are amongst the least popular candidates for adoption, which allows visitors to have their name displayed beside their specimen of choice in exchange for a contribution to the museum’s conservation, renovation, and documentation projects. There is a gruesome irony here, since tapeworms can also dwell in the gastrointestinal tract of a human museum visitor for two decades completely unnoticed – and grow up to 55 feet long.

This fact might go some way to explaining why visitors seem to prefer more orthodox – and straightforwardly threatening – specimens. They seem to have little problem with, are even fascinated by, lions, sharks, jellyfish, scorpions, and other animals whose attacks can be painfully and violently fatal to humans. But parasites, whose methods are comparatively insidious, seem implicitly to repel. Visitors to the Grant Museum seem to prefer, therefore, threats which are visible and whose assault we can see coming, rather than incursions upon our safety from an invisible and undetectable enemy. They are not alone in this, of course: the fear of that which cannot be seen, or refuses to be revealed, is not merely an expedient workaround for low-budget horror films, but permeates folk-tales, fairy-tales, and mythology, across the world.

Nevertheless, our revulsion of parasites in particular – and not merely of what is invisible – must itself have a less visible cause, because parasites themselves are not always hidden. Organisms like the tick and the leech feed off and derive nutrients at the expense of their host, and are certainly not invisible as they do so. An infamous scene from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Stand by Me acts as a testament to the terror the latter species seems to evoke.

Perhaps, then, it is less what is invisible or visible and more a political economic fear – a question of ownership. After all, the parasite yields profit from our bodies, without offering anything in exchange, and often without having the good grace to let us know. Can we even claim to own our own bodies, if they are so easily exploited by these organisms? One man, Dimitri Tsafendas, was certain that a parasite had taken ownership not only of his body but his mind when in 1966 he assassinated the prime minister of South Africa, Henrik Verwoerd. Tsafendas was convinced a tapeworm he had as a boy was still present in his system, and was dictating his every action.

This killing represents an uncanny reversal. Verwoerd is known today for his role as the “architect of apartheid” and the discourses and justifications of racism have often drawn upon the notion of “the other” as a parasite, whose incursion on the body politic represents the threat of impurity, disease, and the loss of national ownership. Verwoerd himself became the victim of such a delusion, albeit on the personal, individual scale. Tsafendas, despite his claims, was deemed criminally insane.

Ornithodoros sanguinis-cameli, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Ticks, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Other theories also allow us to speculate why the parasite exerts such a hold upon the human psyche. The French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu argues in his The Skin Ego (Le Moi Peau) that the biological protection offered by the bodily ‘wrapping’ of our skin is doubled by a psychic defense mechanism which guards against penetrations of and assaults upon our identity sense of self-unity. To feel revulsion or horror at the sight of a tick burrowing itself into one’s arm, therefore, is not merely because it represents a threat to our biological well-being; our disproportionate terror is a result of the sense of being attacked on a deeper, existential level, an infiltration of the very boundaries that allow us to constitute ourselves as sovereign, unified psychic beings.

This theory complements another psychoanalytic theory, Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection. She contends in The Powers of Horror that our revulsion at the abject is in fact a way of shoring up the very self-identity, unity, and sense of psychic wholeness that it appears to threaten. This is achieved by “abjection”, the sense of relief and pleasure at ejecting from the body that which is perceived to be impure of dangerous. In this way, she argues, we not only resist assimilating what appears to us as an assault on our being, in doing so ‘I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself.

Parasites, then, for all that we seem to want to ignore, are for that very reason integral to understanding who we believe we are as human beings. They are what we believe we are not. We are honest; we are visible; we do not take without giving back; we own and control ourselves and in turn respect the self-ownership of others, as long as they too remain in control of themselves. But we do not need the exemplar, historical context, and outcome of Dimitri Tsafendas and Henrik Verwoerd to know that these self-descriptions are often self-deceptions. Perhaps it is time to properly regard the parasite.

The Grossest (Coolest) Things in the Grant

By Cerys Bradley, on 23 June 2017

The female Surinam Toad grows her young in small sacks on her back. To impregnate her, her male partner will inseminate her eggs and then lob (not the technical term) those eggs into her back cavities where they hatch. Her young will develop to toadlets before bursting out and going about their life. In the Grant Museum there is a Surinam Toad specimen caught after her toadlets (young toads) have vacated but before she has shed her skin to prepare for the next reproductive cycle. The result is a display of dimples that will make your skin crawl if you have trypophobia – an irrational fear of seeing an irregular pattern of holes in places you wouldn’t expect to see them. I think the Surinam Toad is really gross and, when asked by visitors “what is the most disgusting thing you have here?” this is the specimen I show them. But, whilst they are being weirded out by its back, I explain its back story and truly fascinating reproductive habits because, even though I don’t want to look at the toad, I do want to learn about it.

The underside of a Surinam Toad (W332) with its gross back hidden from view. Click here to see examples of its back sacks, if you dare.

There are a lot of objects in the Grant Museum that are equal parts disgusting and interesting. That is very much to be expected when your collection centres around objects used to study anatomy and collected by Victorian scientists for whom “squeamish” was something that happened to other people. Of course, not everyone thinks that the objects in the Grant Museum are gross, some people do only see scientific objects of historical importance. I am not one of those people, but I still love working in the Grant and sharing its objects with visitors. Even the ones I don’t like looking at, or rather, especially the ones that I don’t like looking at because they are all valuable objects with interesting histories that tell us something incredible about the world. For this blog post, I have chosen my top five (only five!) grossest objects from the Grant Museum so that I can explain why I also think they are remarkable.

  1. The Surinam Toad, which we have already covered, though I would also like to point out that the male toad embeds the female’s eggs on her back whilst she is doing somersaults so, on top of everything else, this species has pretty good aim.
  2. The Jar of Assorted Lizards – you may be familiar with the Jar of Moles but, one shelf down, there are some assorted lizards which I think are cooler but they don’t get as much attention because they don’t have as good of a PR guy. There are a lot of jars containing multiple specimens in the museum, which may seem odd because you can’t really get a good look at the things inside them. This technique was used, however, because putting things in jars can be expensive and, having lots of jars requires a lot of storage space. So, if you were storing your specimens, not because you wanted to look at them but, because you wanted to study them you could be a bit more practical and put them all in the same jar. Jars of multiple specimens would have been used to conduct repeat experiments or for class demonstrations or practicals (take one and pass it on). I like these objects because they are a great example of how the Museum collection was originally a teaching collection, even if the thought of ever reaching my hand into a jar is not one I enjoy dwelling on.

    Jar of Assorted Lizards (X1286). How many lizards can you count? (There are no prizes.)

  3. The Exploded Skulls – when I first started working at the museum, I thought these were art pieces (which is not a bad guess as the Museum often displays pieces of art inspired by the collection). They look very CSI and it is a tad unnerving to see a skull displayed so that it looks as though it has been ripped to pieces. But, these are actually examples of an ingenious technique designed to solve a teaching problem. Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to teach your students about horse skulls. You could bring a horse skull to show them but it might be difficult to demonstrate that the skull is comprised of individual bones. Instead, you could bring your students a little pile of horse skull bones and they could examine the individual pieces but they then might struggle to work out which piece was which or imagine the skull as a whole. Beauchene was a technique developed in the 19thC in France where the skull is taken a part and then fixed back together using wires producing what looks like a skull mid way through and explosion. It allows you to see the skull as a whole and as being comprised of separate pieces simultaneously and even to remove single pieces of skull. These skulls look like Halloween ornaments but are also ingenious teaching tools. 

    An exploded cod skull (V1486). Learn how to make one here.

  4. The Negus Collection – this collection draws quite a lot of attention and I find it interesting to listen in on visitor conversations as they work out what each of the animal heads are. The specimens in the collection are really good examples of things that you don’t want to look at but can’t tear yourself away from. They contain so much information and allow you to see and incredible amount of detail, but I really can’t get over how meaty they look. Victor Negus, the doctor who prepared these specimens used them to study the throat, in doing so he discovered cures for a number of diseases and also understood, for the first time, the evolution of the larynx and how it enabled us to produce speech. Some people, particularly children, find the display a bit upsetting (there is a bunny rabbit in the collection, after all) as, of all the objects in the Museum, this one does seem to be the clearest reminder that this science was conducted on a lot of dead animals. But, it is also a good example of how important this collection was to science and medicine at the time. I like to explain Negus’s discoveries to visitors because it starts a conversation about how these objects were once used and the scientific learning they facilitated.

    An example of a crocodile head from the Negus Collection (X1211). Is it laughing at you? Only in your nightmares.

  5. The Flying Squirrel – this specimen, to be quite frank, looks like a tiny, shrivelled alien. Unfortunately, the preserving fluid in this specimen is running very low and serves as a vivid reminder that all of the specimens in the Museum require a lot of care. Currently the Grant is undergoing a long term project, called Project Pickle, to conserve the wet specimens in need of a top up. But, until this specimen’s jar is topped up he is going to look a bit sad and cold to me.

So, those are what I consider to be the grossest objects in the Grant. They are also some of my favourite objects as they each tell us a lot of nature or the historical context of the collection, or how the collection is studied now. There are many other objects in the Grant that are bit unsettling, why don’t you tweet us your favourites with the hashtag #grossestthinginthegrant and we will send you back an interesting fact about them.

Of “Poetry” and poetry: Wordsworth’s skates and other objects

By Niall Sreenan, on 1 June 2017

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the encounter with death that visitors to any museum must face. Paintings, sculpture, artefacts from the past, even biological specimens: something living in these things is irretrievably lost as soon as they become museal; that is, framed or mounted, put on display for the consumption or consideration of an audience. In a museum, neither the fullness of an object’s historical life nor the vital potential of an artwork shorn from its context can be communicated, as long as the logics of museum display tend towards, as Adorno puts it, historical ‘reification’ or ‘the neutralisation of culture’.

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney seeks to offer a different account of the encounter between a museum visitor and an artefact on display in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates”. Here, mirroring Adorno, Heaney ruminates briefly on the incapacity of museal objects from the artist’s life – the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s ice skates, in this instance – to call up and materialise the authentic vitality of his life and work.

What could achieve this? Certainly ‘Not his bootless runners’ lying ‘In dust in a display case / Their bindings perished’. For Heaney, these heavy, steel-shod shoes are mere secondary instruments of a poetic life in both its aesthetic and biographical senses; objects that in mediating our relation to Wordsworth’s writing and history obscure the ‘reel of them on frozen Windermere / As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored’.

Wordsworth's Skates - via "Trails of the Unexpected"

Wordsworth’s Skates – via “Trails of the Unexpected”

 

However, reading this poem in this way has its limits. Even if Heaney is indulging in a critique of dusty museums, their capacity to drain life from the objects they seek to elevate, it is a critique that fails. The poem itself emphasises this artefact’s capacity as a symbolic entity to point to other literary, historical, cultural contexts – sometimes called “indexicality”. In that ‘Not’ which precedes ‘the bootless runners’, Heaney sets up a relation to the object, albeit a negative one, which implies that while this object does not provide us with an authentic experience of Wordsworth’s life or poetry, it does nevertheless relate to or index certain contexts, histories, and texts drawn from the viewer’s own experience or to which one can be guided. Those lines in Heaney’s poem, composed upon the occasion of contemplating a pair of weathered looking skates, guide us back to the stanza in Wordsworth’s monumental Prelude, where the poet describes himself ‘Proud and exulting like an untired horse […] hissed along the polished ice’. So not only does the poem emphasise the museum object’s indexical capacity to point to texts, contexts, histories, or even feelings outside its immediate physical boundaries. This poem is itself a response to that, to the failure of this object in one sense and, in another, an actual example of the productive power of objects on display.

Here then, is a museum object – pathetic in its obsolescence and in comparison with sublimity of the life and poetry it seeks to evoke – that nevertheless points Heaney and us to the material of that very life and instigates the creation of yet more poetic art. This echoes Ben Lerner’s formulation in The Hatred of Poetry, that there are in fact two types of poetry: “Poetry”, the sublime, transcendent aesthetic object, inaccessible (if ever) except in moments of brief and irretrievable illumination; and actually existing poetry, the text or material of the artwork, which always fails us in its attempt to communicate the timeless sublime. For Lerner, this is the source of his (loving) hatred of poetry, as well as poetry’s animating force. We might glimpse the heavenly through poetry, through text, much like a skater uses steel to slide with seemingly impossible ease over ice, but that frictionless grace, that flash of illumination, is either imagined or simply too fleeting to grasp. However, it is the desire for a lasting sublimity which animates this movement and it persists precisely because its object – the finality of the sublime – is unachievable.

Similarly, instead of lamenting the incapacity of the object as a mediator of “the thing in itself”, Heaney’s poem seems unconcerned with inaccessible transcendence and celebrates the existence of object in-between. He has form for this, of course: consider the metaphor of shovel as pen in another of his poems, “Digging”: a quotidian and unwieldy object that nevertheless achieves something significant, breaking the surface of the earth, excavating, making a mark.

That’s poetry, then. But what of museums and museum objects? And what of the objects in UCL’s Museums?

Consider the specimens in the Grant Museum – say, the preserved thylacine, once dissected by a man called “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley, whose own scientific work and theorising was and still is greatly influential, and whose fame extends to his grandsons, Aldous and Julian Huxley, each of whom respectively made hugely significant contributions to literature and evolutionary science.

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

That the thylacine itself is not merely dead, but its species entirely extinct, emphasises the folly of indicting museum objects on display for being unable to recuperate authentic historical (or any other form of) life. What the thylacine specimen does achieve – the only thing it can achieve – is to point its viewers towards something else, some other context or text or idea. In my experience, this was that Huxleyean lineage of major scientists and authors, whose works on human evolution, the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetic science, and Utopian/Dystopian futures, have become central to my research on the relationship between literature and science. For all of its viewers, however, the thylacine points to its own death, brings the question of its own extinction to the foreground. This is encouraged by the Grant Museum, who display beside the thylacine a picture of the last one ever to exist.

Museum objects can never be what Lerner calls “Poetry”, and they will never communicate to us a timeless sublime or authentic historical life. But they can be poetry, in the materialist sense that Heaney’s poem brings to light: for it is precisely in their failure to be fully alive, as opposed to only being dead, that they function as relational objects which point us towards other places, ideas, texts, histories, or feelings and, perhaps, even towards poetic inspiration.

Question of the Week: Why do brains have wrinkles?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 27 April 2017

The brains displayed at the entrance of the Grant Museum are mostly mammal’s brains but we can observe differences in sizes and in how smooth or wrinkly they are. The folds of a brain are called gyri and the grooves are called sulci. These morphological features are produced by the folding of the cortex, the part of our brain responsible for higher cognitive processes like memories, language and consciousness. During development, all brains start off with a smooth surface and as they grow, gyrification (the development of the gyri and sulci) occurs. It is interesting to note that the major folds are very consistent amongst individuals, meaning that development is similar sometimes even amongst species.

c_ucl_gmz_matt_clayton020

The brain collection on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology (Image credit Grant Museum of Zoology).

 

It has been assumed that the wrinkles in brains correlate with an animal’s intelligence. The reasoning behind this is that a bigger brain, and hence more neurons, need more space. The folds allow the cortex to increase its area while being packed in a confined space like our cranium. There are several factors and hypothesis of how gyrification occurs. Recently, researchers at Harvard developed a 3D gel model based on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) images to understand how this process occurs. They found out that it all boils down to the mechanical properties of the cortex. While neuronal cells grow and divide, the increasingly bigger brain leads to a compression of the cortex and to the formation of the folds. The researchers were able to mimic the folds of the cortex and were stunned at how similar their gel model looked to a real human brain.

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Gel model of a foetal brain (Image credit: Mahadevan Lab/Harvard SEAS).

 

Even though most of the brains on display in the Grant museum have gyri and sulci, in nature, most animals have smooth brains. In general, larger brains have folds while smaller brains do not, even small mammals like rats or mice have smooth brains. In humans, a lissencephalic brain is one without gyri and sulci and is a result of a rare disorder that is characterised by mental abnormalities. From the collection of brains in the Grant Museum, there is only one lissencephalic brain—next time you visit the museum see if you can spot it. Additionally, try to find the brain coral. Because of its intricate maze–like pattern, Diploria labyrinthiformis has very similar ridges and grooves as a brain, and so is referred to as brain coral. Overall, I find looking at brains and their grooves fascinating, each species with their own pattern and each groove in a specific place. Makes me wonder how brain coral gets its patterns.

brain coral 3

Diploria labyrinthiformis also known as brain coral(Grant Museum C1084).

 

References:

Roth, G. and Dicke, U., 2005. Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Trends in cognitive sciences9(5), pp.250-257.

Ronan, L. and Fletcher, P.C., 2015. From genes to folds: a review of cortical gyrification theory. Brain Structure and Function220(5), pp.2475-2483.

Manger, P.R., Prowse, M., Haagensen, M. and Hemingway, J., 2012. Quantitative analysis of neocortical gyrencephaly in African elephants (Loxodonta africana) and six species of cetaceans: comparison with other mammals. Journal of Comparative Neurology520(11), pp.2430-2439.

 

Question of the Week: What’s that zigzag on your skull?

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 April 2017

Stan hangs out in a corner of the Grant Museum amid cases filled with insect exoskeletons and bisected animal heads. Standing at around two meters, he keeps watch through empty sockets over the animal bones, taxidermy, and jar specimens.

“Can I hold his hand?” I’ve been asked more than once. “Is he real?” comes the hesitant question. As a matter of fact, Stan is a model skeleton, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in any biology classroom. Although he’s resin and missing a joint or two he’s still a remarkably good way to explain what we’re made of once you strip all our clothes, skin, and muscles away.

One of Stan’s characteristics is a zigzagging line arching its way across his skull. Surprised by the mark, a visitor wanted to know why Stan bears this line. She might have been surprised to know that she has one too. It’s actually a feature all human skulls have. Known as the coronal suture, it’s an immovable joint that runs transverse across the skull, separating the frontal bone from the parietal bones.

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford's Children Health Hospital)

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford’s Children Health Hospital)

At birth, the various bones of the skull don’t quite join up, making it easier for the infant to fit through the birth canal; following the birth, the gap persists for a while and the coronal suture reflects where that separation once was. There can be “premature closing” of the suture if the bones fuse too soon and people will develop conditions such as oxycephaly—where the skull is lengthened—or plagiocephaly—where the skull is flattened.

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the "Peking man" but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the “Peking man” but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

If you take an “exploded skull” view then you can see how the various parts of your head all join up. We can see these sutures in other skulls than just modern humans as these skulls are formed in similar ways.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Stan has a few friends at the Grant Museum. There’s a Neanderthal skull alongside Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus afarensis. There’s also a human skeleton that oversees the museum up on a balcony accompanied by an orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee—all bearing these sutures.

Next time you see a human skull in a museum, see if you can spot the coronal suture. While knowing its name may not win you any prizes in a pub quiz, it’ll certainly impress Stan. He’ll be waiting to say hi.

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

By Niall Sreenan, on 30 March 2017

It will not be lost upon anybody that visits the Grant Museum of Zoology or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL that these are places of death. Both are a kind of necropolis, containing preserved remains. The remains of the biologically dead, in the former; in the latter, the preserved remains – biological and cultural – of the long deceased people of ancient North African civilisations, many of which are themselves vessels or tokens designed to smooth the passage of the dead to another, immaterial realm.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The morbid nature of these museums and the objects they house would not be lost on the 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. The word “museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses”, a fact which emphasises the supposedly inspirational nature of these cultural institutions. But for Adorno, the creativity-inspiring significance of the museum had in contemporary Western society been eclipsed by its material and cultural function. In his essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno dwells upon the macabre nature of the museum, and the art gallery. The German term museal (“museum-like), he tells us, is a suggestively pejorative one used to describe the character of certain artefacts: objects to which the observer or museum-goer ‘no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying’. We come close to this in the English language when, by saying something or someone “belongs in a museum”, we describe people, technologies, institutions, or ideas that have far exceeded their sell-by date and have become decrepit.

Adorno’s observation is literally true in many cases. Walk through the atria of the Science Museum in South Kensington and you will see installed behind glass a host of superannuated but undeniably contemporary artefacts – Bakelite telephones, Atari computers, horsehair toothbrushes, and so forth. We are being told: by virtue of being useless, these objects are displayed in this museum. Or perhaps: by installing these objects in a museum, these objects should now be considered obsolete (even if they are still technically useful).

The same could be said about art. Once installed in a museum or gallery, a painting, print, or sculpture becomes a commodity whose value is defined primarily by its capacity to create profit – for the museum, the artist, the collector, or the dealer. The life of that artwork – its social, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic value outside that of commerce or “cultural capital” – has been destroyed by the same process of display operative in the Science Museum, which by selecting and displaying objects consigns them to the grave. Art is on display because it is monetarily valuable; being in a museum ascribes monetary value to art. Forget the muses, Adorno says: ‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’

This conception of the museum as mausoleum can illuminate two apparently divergent kinds of museum display, both of which can be understood to drain the life from the objects they seek to exhibit. First, any attempt to place works of art in so-called “authentic”, historical settings is not only a shabby form of nostalgia. Such a move, in a desperate attempt to claw back an irretrievable cultural tradition, reduces to a form of historical citation the artwork it seeks to celebrate. This can lead only to melancholy. For such a purely referential and reverential effort to recuperate the past will always fail, leaving us to lament uselessly the passing of historical time. We resign ourselves to the fact that the historical context that gave life to the artwork is lost to us; and that, therefore, the artwork is itself dead.

The seemingly contrasting practice of deliberately wrenching art from its historical and aesthetic context – such as in the contemporary fashion for “white cube” galleries – can be understood as equally unsatisfactory and inauthentic, since this form of exhibition strips art of its history altogether. Historical nostalgia might at lead us, at least, to a despairing and therefore critical conception of the impossibility of grasping the life of art in undistorted historical context. Decontextualisation wears inauthenticity as a badge of honour. The false trappings of tradition and the over-serious officiousness of the desire for authenticity of which it is symptomatic squeezes the life from art entirely. Willing dilettantism denies us the opportunity of understanding the historical nature of art — however incomplete that understanding might be.

This double bind is a useful way of understanding the objects we see in the Grant Museum in UCL. Adorno’s analysis in “Valery Proust Museum” is aimed at art and art museums primarily. But reading in this way, for example, the literally dead animals in a museum of zoology can illuminate how, through being displayed, they have become museal. How does one display a dead animal? In a mock-up of its original habitat – a tawdry and macabre mirror of the attempt to display art in “authentic” context? Or should we simply display it in a glass box, stripped of context – continuing the violent logic of ecological, geographical displacement that resulted in that animal’s death and preservation?

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew (Z2789)

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew, The Grant Museum (Z2789)

The former, at least, by offering us a glimpse into the original habitat of a species might offer us an unintended critique of how in British museums of zoology many of the species on display are relics of a violent colonial past: animals whose death and passage to Britain was made possible by an imperial infrastructure of scientists, surgeons, and interested amateurs, scattered across British dominions. However, even the act of preservation itself is a false kind of de-contextualisation. While the skeletons, preserved, and stuffed species that line the walls of the Grant Museum were intended first for scientific education and research, as a spectacle they take on a distinctly melancholy aspect. This is especially true for the display of extinct species; thylacine parts, dodo bones, a quagga skeleton: these are embodiments of a desire to preserve what is dead, to recuperate – through entirely artificial means – what is irretrievably lost.

Could we not apply a similar logic to the objects in the Petrie Museum? How do we display the remains of a dead civilisation, and in what way a do we render them historically or immediately lifeless? The set of Fayum mummy portraits housed in this museum pose a suggestive example of just such a problem. Excavated by Flinders Petrie in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, these strikingly naturalist portraits were ‘part of the funerary equipment needed for entry into the afterlife’ for elite members of the Fayum people who lived in Egypt under Roman rule. Such information, we might think, animates these portraits; they are a record of the funerary practices of an ancient people, bringing to life the death-rituals of the past. However, the manner in which these portraits are displayed now and were displayed originally suggests something else.

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Today, these panels sit alongside each other in a row: a set of faces painted in Greco-Roman style lined up in sequence, like the photo album of an ancient family. And Petrie himself first displayed these as if they were European art portraits, set upon the walls of a London room in 1889. Crucially, these two forms of display are made possible by the fact that these portraits are torn out from their funerary and material contexts. Each portrait was literally cut from the mummy to which they belonged. These portraits exist in a museum only by virtue of an act of violent de-contextualisation, which no amount of historical or cultural context can reverse or palliate. What was alive for the dead in the past, has been exhumed for the living today and in turn made museal.

Adorno’s reflections on “the museal” raise important questions about how we display objects in museums, the forms of contextualisation and de-contextualisation to which we submit these objects, and the historical and cultural forces their display reflects. It also mirrors long-running debates in the Humanities about how we should interpret all forms of cultural production. Rita Felski puts it this way: ‘Critics […] find themselves zigzagging between dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art.’ Scholars in the humanities simply do not agree about whether we should stick primarily to interpreting the objects themselves, or whether we need to focus on the social, political, linguistic, and historical contexts that gave rise to those objects.

This essay will not attempt to resolve these problems, but instead has attempted to draw attention to the way in which objects in a museum are involved in a seemingly irresolvable tension. What is easy to ignore, however, is how visitors to museums themselves respond to objects in ways that go beyond the pinched contestations of academic critique. Over four years of engaging with visitors across UCL’s three public museums, I have seen people respond the museum collections in ways that categorisation and critique cannot always account for. Visitors to the Grant Museum respond with both intellectual wonder and personal revulsion to the often grotesque preserved remains of 19th century science’s subjects; in the Petrie museum I have talked with people reflecting upon a divided sense of historical vertigo, ruminating upon the impossibility of knowing the lives of Ancient Egyptians, while at the same time marvelling at the uncanny sense of intimacy evoked by one’s proximity to the hair combs, sandals, and kohl pots of ordinary ancients. Responses to objects in UCL’s museums are never absolutely historically critical nor completely naïve. They are complex aggregates of both; mixtures or compounds of thinking, feeling, scepticism, and wonder. If I have learned anything from working in these museums it is that the necessary but sometimes leaden abstractions of academic criticism must always return to the organic complexity of living responses to museum objects.

Museum Audio Guide Project

By Cerys Bradley, on 21 March 2017

I have been a student engager for almost a year now and the more time I spend in each of the museums, the more I come to realise that there’s an incredible amount to learn about them. Obviously, a museum with 30,000+ objects in it contains a lot of knowledge, but, even beyond that, there are so many more ways of studying and thinking about each object and collection than I ever imagined. Each museum is bursting with questions about not only the objects they house but their histories and the lives of the people who made and worked in them. So, after each of my shifts, I have been writing down all of the questions that I have been asked by visitors or thought of myself whilst wandering around and I have done my best to answer them. The resulting catalogue of information is enormous. It is too much knowledge to fit on traditional, tiny museum placards and too much for any one student engager to learn and recite for visitors (not least because each of the museums is only open for four hours at a time). Thus, the UCL Museum Audio Guide Project was born.

This project, funded and encouraged by UCL Culture, will produce three sets of podcasts, one for each of the museums, to act as audio tour guides. They will be free, downloadable from your usual podcasting app, and tailorable to your visit. Each museum will have a short tour of only an hour, and an extended cut closer to two and a half hours (which is still the tip of iceberg, really) as well as a number of themed tours. For example, the Grant Museum will have an evolutionary biology themed tour which will tell listeners all about the history of evolutionary theory and the role the Grant played in its development.

Now, I am not an expert in Evolutionary Biology, nor in Egyptology, Anatomy or Art. Luckily, I have had a lot of help making the audio guides and, so far, have interviewed a number of researchers and members of staff at each of the museums. I have spoken to Jon Thompson of the Slade School of Fine Art; Debbie Challis at the Petrie Museum;  Stacy Hackner, Max Pinarello and Alice Stevenson from the Institute of Archeology; Professor Joe Cain, Head of Science and Technology Studies at UCL; and Sarah Doherty from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Each of their interviews will make it into the audio guides along with many others so that listeners will get to learn about the objects from world leaders and experts.

Planning and recording the interviews has been excellent and I have learnt a lot about each of the museums already. Just this week, I spoke to Sarah Doherty, a Ceramicist and Archaeologist, for over an hour and a half just about pots. I did not realise there was so much to learn about pots. As it turns out, shards of pottery can be used to understand almost every aspect of Ancient Egyptian life from their diets to their lifestyles to their technological advancements. I have also learnt that you can do an entire PhD on the tibia bone because it, too, can tell archaeologists incredible things about the lives of people thousands of years ago.

Learning about the fascinating museum collections has been the best bit of the audio guide project (which is easy to say because editing is boring and takes ages) but I still have a way to go. The collections at UCL are enormous and so, even with the restrictive time limit of two and a half hours of material, I have many more interviews scheduled and planned. Unfortunately, the first audio guide isn’t likely to be ready for another few months but this does mean there is still plenty of time for you to get involved.

Do you have a question about the museums? And, I mean any question, from “How old is this object?” to “Why are these things all in this cabinet together?” to “Who found this?”, then tweet me (@hashtagcerys) and we’ll put your question (and its answer) into the audio guide.

When tasked to find a photo, I thought I’d find the specimen with the biggest ears (for listening).

Mermaids, Dugongs, and the “hand of evolution”

By Rita Dal Martello, on 1 March 2017

Rita

by Rita Dal Martello

The other day while I was at the Grant Museum for my weekly engagement session, a visitor stopped me while I was passing by the full skeleton of an adult male dugong.

“Is this real?!” he asked me in awe. The reason for his stupefaction is quite understandable when looking closely at the skeleton of this large marine mammal. Dugongs have a hand-like structure hidden in their flippers, which make their skeletons look like as if they have human arms attached to their torso.

Grant Museum, Z33

Grant Museum, Z33

Dugong is a Malay word meaning “lady of the sea”; they belong to the order Sirenia, which also includes manatees. The word manatee comes from Latin manatus, which means “having hands”. They are collectively called sea-cows as they feed primary from sea-grass grazed on the bottom of the sea.

Dugongs and manatee are responsible for the birth of the legend on the existence of the most inspiring mythical creatures: the mermaids.

European explorers sighted them in tropical waters during their travels both to the Americas and to Australia. Similar to how humans turn their heads to look behind them, so do dugongs, potentially causing the sailors to mistake the sea-cows for humans. But mermaids’ legends started long before the European colonialist travels around the world. 5000-year-old Neolithic cave paintings depicting dugongs have been found at the Tambun Cave in Ipoh, Malaysia.

The Sirens by Gustave Moreau (1985). License: Wikimedia commons

The Sirens by Gustave Moreau (1885). License: Wikimedia commons

Interestingly, the hand structure in the fins of sirenians is often taken as one piece of evidence for species evolution. About 350 millions years ago amphibians evolved on earth. The terrestrial fingers and toes in the amphibians come from structures already present in the fins of fishes, and the same structure continued evolving in later reptiles, birds, and eventually mammals. The limb structure seen in dugongs is shared among all mammals, including dolphins, and humans.

Dugongs were once distributed along the tropical warm waters between the East African Coast, the Indian Ocean and the Australian coasts. They were hunted for meat and oil for centuries, and can now be found only at the Great Barrier Reef in North Australia and South of New Guinea. They are listed as vulnerable to extinction by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

If you don’t want to travel quite so far, you can find the Grant Museum’s Dugong just past the front desk, in the right corner of the main room.

The Stories Behind Objects

By Hannah L Wills, on 14 February 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

During my most recent engagement session at the Petrie Museum, I got the chance to take a look at their new exhibition ‘Exporting Egypt: Where? Why? Whose?’. This fascinating exhibition charts the journeys of some of the objects from British excavations in Egypt, conducted between the 1880s and 1980s, following these objects from the sites where they were found, to institutions around the globe. As this exhibition reveals, each and every object we encounter in a museum has a history, a past life, shaped by the circumstances of its acquisition, and an often complex mesh of politics, agendas and negotiations.

Taking a look around the exhibition got me thinking about my own research, which examines the work of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), secretary to the Royal Society under the presidency of Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Joseph Banks made his name by taking part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage aboard HMS Endeavour, which lasted from 1768 until 1771, visiting Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. During the voyage, Banks and his team, comprised of naturalists and artists, collected specimens including fish, crustaceans, birds and plants, which were described and preserved on board the ship. These collections, when they returned to England, were taken directly to Banks’s own home in New Burlington Street, and were to form the basis of his own collection later stored in his residence at 32 Soho Square.[i]

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), photo credit: Wikipedia

Having made his name on board the Endeavour voyage, Banks also played a central role in organising other expeditions, providing specific instructions for what was to be collected. Cook’s subsequent two voyages resulted in the collection of many more specimens, which, despite Banks not participating directly in the voyages, all passed through Banks as a kind of ‘hub’ for the dispersal of material. These specimens were subsequently to end up in institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons, the Linnean Society and the British Museum.[ii]

Charles Blagden, the key figure in my research, also collected natural history specimens, which, as the historian Reginald Howe has suggested, may also have ended up in the British Museum. Whilst serving as a surgeon aboard a hospital ship during the American War of Independence, Blagden was asked to collect a number of specimens from America for his friend and fellow naturalist Daines Barrington, to be given to his friend Sir Ashton Lever for display in his museum.[iii] Perhaps not wanting to slight his friend and patron Joseph Banks, Blagden decided to send his collection, comprised of preserved animals collected from Rhode Island, jointly to both Barrington and Banks. The specimens, preserved in kegs of rum and transported aboard the Brigantine Betsy, a navy victualing ship, were to be shared “six kegs apiece” between the two men, and either kept or disposed of as each saw fit.[iv]

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever's Museum in Leicester Square, London March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, London, March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Some of the ways in which animal specimens made it back to Britain from far-flung shores in the eighteenth century are described in the Short directions for collecting, preserving and transporting, all kinds of natural history curiosities, published by the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1771. “All Quadrupeds of a great bulk”, Forster wrote, were to be “skinned” and “washed or brushed over with a liquor” made of Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride), water and mercury, before a complex procedure of stuffing and drying. “Small Quadrupeds”, on the other hand, were to be “plunged into a keg of brandy, rack or rum, and thus sent over”. For birds, to be prepared in a similar way, Forster was keen to note that the shot used to kill the animal should be “proportioned to their size”, and that “Young birds… must not be taken”.[v]

The Petrie Museum’s new exhibition is great for getting visitors to think about questions of ownership, collecting and transport—the things that I’ll often forget about as I wander through a museum admiring beautiful or intriguing objects. In the Grant Museum too, it can be easy to forget that each and every specimen has its own journey, a story to tell about who collected it and why, as well as the more gruesome tale of its preparation, storage and transport. The historian Samuel Alberti has written about the notion of object biographies in relation to museum artefacts, arguing that museums serve as a “vessel for the bundle of relationships enacted through each of the thousands of specimens on display and in store”.[vi] But the story of the object does not end when it enters the collection, as Alberti notes. As viewers we react to objects in a range of different ways, according to our memories, associations, and feelings.[vii] By hearing the reactions of visitors in UCL’s museums, I enjoy seeing how these ‘object stories’ continue to develop.

 

‘Exporting Egypt: where, why, whose?’ is on at the Petrie Museum from Tuesday 31 January to Saturday 29 April 2017, Tues-Sat 1-5pm.

[i] David Philip Miller, “Joseph Banks, Empire and ‘Centres of Calculation’ in Late Hanoverian London,” in Visions of Empire : Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 29-30.

[iii] Reginald Heber Howe, “Sir Charles Blagden, Earliest of Rhode Island Ornithologists,” The American Naturalist 39, no. 462 (1905), 398.

[iv] Letter from Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 28 Oct 1777, quoted in Howe “Sir Charles Blagden”, 398.

[v] Johann Reinhold Forster, A Catalogue of the Animals of North America. Containing, an Enumeration of the Known Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles, Fish, Insects, Crustaceous and Testaceous Animals; Many of Which Are New, and Never Described Before. To Which Are Added, Short Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting, All Kinds of Natural History Curiosities (London: B. White, 1771), 35-37.

[vi] Samuel Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96, no. 4 (2005): 561.

[vii] Ibid., 569.