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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for September, 2011

Morbid Reflections

Rachael Sparks26 September 2011

My father-in-law recently died, and as the funeral approaches I find myself looking at archaeology’s preoccupation with death and burial with somewhat different eyes.

Roman Inscription 2010/207

I’ve faced the remnants of death before, while excavating ancient Near Eastern tombs, but its been an old, dusty, archaeological sort of death where the individual is reduced to a collection of different bones, carefully labelled and bagged. Their humanity is long gone, and any traces of personality linger only around the objects found in their grave.

The fact that this was someone else’s ancestor, somebody’s mother, father, sister, brother, daughter or son doesn’t really register, because after all, it’s nobody you know. It’s easy to retain a sense of scientific detachment when the past is far distant and geographically removed from your own personal sense of ancestry.


Scientists let loose at the Natural History Museum

Jack Ashby24 September 2011

Last night I was at the Natural History Museum’s Science Uncovered event and these are some things I learnt*:

  • Female paper natuiluses have been known to leave their shells to climb into ones covered in glitter.
  • The NHM has the youngest skin prepratation of a thylacine.
  • Slipper limpets mate for life, and do so permanently sat on top of each other.
  • Black smokers are mostly made of metal (well, rich ores).
  • There probably aren’t any soft tissue samples of Stella’s sea cow.
  • A virus has been physically reconstitued from its genetic code in a lab.
  • Volcanic Kimberlites have brought diamonds to the surface at tens of kilometres an hour from the mantle.

It was an absolutely fantastic night because it was a unique opportuntity (apart from the same night last year) for the Museum to turn itself inside out: to bring the thing that is best about our national natural history collection – the back of house scientists and collections – out into the galleries. (more…)

Happy World Rhino Day!!!!

Emma-Louise Nicholls22 September 2011

Indian one horned rhino. Jack Ashby, 2008Today is world rhino day everyone- wahooooo!!!! What does that mean?! It’s a day dedicated to celebrating our five species of rhinoceros! There are two species in Africa; the white rhino and the black rhino (though both confusingly only come in grey) and three in Asia; the Sumatran rhino (from Sumatra), the Javan rhino (from Java) and the Indian one horned rhino (from Brazil.) Just kidding. All rhinos are uber cool, though my favourite is the Sumatran rhino. It is the smallest of the five but it sports an awesome hairy coat. Not like a lion, or a wolf, more like a middle aged man who’s got a one way ticket to bald-land. The hair is, shall we say, thinned out, but they are definitely significantly hairier than their other rhino friends and, with their massively tufty ears, are subsequently ridiculously cute! (more…)

‘Racial Type’ Heads from Memphis, Egypt

Debbie J Challis21 September 2011

Last week the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology put about 50 of the ‘racial type’ heads that Flinders Petrie collected out on display for the first time as part of the exhibition Typecast: Flinders Petrie and Francis Galton. There are over 300 of these in the museum’s collection but this tray is actually labeled ‘racial heads’. They were part of Petrie’s ideas around race and identifying racial groups in archaeology. Petrie thought that these heads were expressly modeled by Greek artists of foreigners. He described them, in his publications as belonging to different ‘racial types’, such as this one UC48501 as being a ‘Kurd’:

UC48501 The Kurd (73) has the crossed turban which belongs to the Central Asian and Kurd race, but not to the Semitic peoples. Mr Hogarth informs me that the type of the face agrees to that of the modern Kurds, who were well known to the Greeks as the Karduchi. This is the finest piece of modelling among all the heads; the delicacy with which the features are worked, the detail of the ear being pressed forward by the turban, wrinkling it on the inner side, and the spirit of expression put this in the front rank.

Memphis II, 17

Petrie only collected the heads and paid for the workers for heads, which means that not only is there little evidence about the rest of the terracotta but that they may also have created fakes for Petrie. Sally-Ann Ashton, Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, argued at an event last Thursday that this head was a good example of a fake head.

A postgraduate student Katherine Aitchison attended Sally-Ann’ s talk last Thursday and has blogged about the event here. Do pop along to the Petrie Museum and take a look for yourselves!

Tweeting birds at the Grant Museum

Jack Ashby16 September 2011

The Grant Museum now has its very own Twitter stream: @GrantMuseum. We’ll be tweeting about things going on in the Museum, behind the scenes with the specimens, what’s on the blog, news and views about current events in the world of natural history and biology and other things you might expect of the most exciting zoology museum around. Please do follow us and show your support.

It’s also an easy way to get in touch and have your say about the Museum, ask questions and share information.

We will be continuing to use @UCLMuseums too, along with our colleagues at UCL’s other amazing museums and collections.

Hollywood Animals

Mark Carnall14 September 2011

Taxidermy Elephant shrew

Elephant who? Not Hollywood.

No. Not the animal stars of the silver screen but a term we use in the Grant Museum to describe a certain set of animals. Hollywood animals* are charismatic animals that are readily identifiable and although the simple classification system of “Hollywood” or “not” doesn’t refer to other taxonomic systems we can see that the possession of  some biological characteristics can significantly improve your chances. In museums, Hollywood animals tend to get used more in education and in exhibitions because they are more readily identifiable and interesting to look at. Hollywood animals also tend to get used more in wider popular culture, in branding for wildlife agencies and in many ways represent wildlife, nature and the rest of the animal kingdom. (more…)

Happy Thylacine Day: we haven’t learned – just look at the badgers

Jack Ashby7 September 2011

Thylacine at ZSL

Thylacine: A species that was alive within living memory

Picture this: an animal in a zoo dies of exposure one night because the door allowing it to return to the inside area of its enclosure was accidentally locked shut. It’s early Spring and southern Tasmania gets pretty cold – a wire and concrete cage is no place for a warm-blooded creature to be kept outside. Pretty awful, eh?

Well that’s what happened to the last known thylacine 75 years ago today. The neglect itself would be shocking for any individual, let alone the sole known member of a species – the only remaining taxon in an entire family of animals. That day, a whole branch of the tree of life fell off. Well, in truth it was cut off. (more…)

Does pickling animals get your goat?

Jack Ashby2 September 2011

Part of my job is to be responsible for our visitors’ experience in the Museum, and this includes any labels, marketing or online content. In the interest of accuracy, avoiding typos, and indeed making sure that one person’s opinions (mine) don’t come across as fact or institutional positions, I always ask a colleague to read anything of importance before I publish.

That person is often Mark our Curator. Even though I’ve been doing it throughout my career, six years of which have been alongside Mark, he has started objecting to certain phrases that I use. I’m interested to know what you think.

Is this deer pickled or preserved in fluid?

Is this deer pickled or preserved in fluid?

He doesn’t like it when I say a specimen is “pickled” instead of “preserved in fluid”. Nor is he keen on “stuffed” instead of “taxidermy” or “mounted skin preparation”. The reason I use them is that they flow off the tongue a bit better, are shorter (which is crucial when writing labels) and people know what they mean. Certainly fewer people would know what I meant by a “wet specimen” or a “spirit specimen” – two other names for objects preserved in alcohol-filled jars. (more…)