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Museums & Collections Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for October, 2011

Listening to what objects say

RachaelSparks31 October 2011

The university term is now in full swing and lecturers are starting to prowl around the Institute of Archaeology Collections looking for a few nice objects to keep their students awake once winter sets in. So it’s been a busy couple of weeks down in the artefact store, getting material ready for handling classes.

Cuneiform tabletsI like to teach with objects. No, let me correct that – I absolutely love it. Even the most hardened student shows a spark of interest when faced with some small but significant piece of the past. That’s ancient dirt, right there. The ghost of another era. You know you want to touch it, go on, have a go …

So here’s some of the object handling classes that have been going on behind closed doors of late: (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Three

Emma-LouiseNicholls31 October 2011

Specimen of the Week: Week ThreeFirstly, HAPPY HALLOWEEN EVERYONE!!!!


This week’s specimen of the week is a scary creature of the deep that uses deception and cunning to survive in a hostile world. The specimen of the week is… (more…)

England Looking Outwards

NinaPearlman28 October 2011

Our regular readers will by now be familiar with the delight we take in talking about our Pop-Up Exhibitions. The reason we like talking about them is because this simple low tech platform offers huge possibility for new ideas to emerge. Research is a strange beast. It’s origins never singular. An argument can develop out of a hunch or a passion and upon occasion even an obsession. Mix in a welcome happenstance or two, and you are on your way to a great idea! The colour mauve wasn’t discovered by someone who was looking for a colour, and photosynthesis was discovered by someone who was not a botanist at the time – he simply went on holiday to a country house to escape the grind of his day job (which if my memory serves me correctly had something to do with the chicken pox vaccine (?)).

Anyway…. as I ramble on…the bottom line here really is that research doesn’t come from nowhere, and neither do interdisciplinary collaborations, so you really need an environment that is conducive to this type of thinking. The Pop-Up set up offers just that. To our guest curators we say – bring your passion or even your research driven agenda to our rich and vast collections of print and drawings and see what happens!

Our recent Pop-Up exhibition by Professor Helen Hackett was all about cultural promiscuity. Yes, the hybrid, the appropriation of images and ideas in support of often competing ideologies… all this was present hundreds of years ago, way back in the Early Modern Period. We didn’t invent it. Helen’s Pop-Up impressed further  these ideas, starting with the Albrecht Dürer’s Whore of Babylon. It’s relevance to issues confronting contemporary British politics was recently highlighted in this blog by Lara Carim (Editor, UCL News). I hope you enjoy the read.

Alex Sampson’s Pop-Up exhibition is on Tuesday 15th November 1-2pm.

Pop-In for 10min or more!



A minute’s silence for the Vietnamese Javan rhino

Emma-LouiseNicholls25 October 2011

Skull of a Javan rhinoDear readers,

It is with a very heavy heart that I bring you the news that the second subspecies of Javan rhino, the Vietnamese Javan rhino, has been driven to extinction thanks to poachers. The third subspecies, the Indonesian Javan rhino, is now the last remaining representative of this entire species. The loss of the population in Vietnam is called a local extinction for the species and means that Vietnam has now lost all of its rhinos. A sad loss of heritage for the people.

The last individual was found dead, with a bullet hole in its leg and its horn removed.

Rhino horn is used in Traditional Chinese Medicine. However, it is made of keratin, the same material as your finger nails and has been repeatedly scientifically proven to have no medicinal value whatsoever. The rhinos are dying for nothing. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week two

Emma-LouiseNicholls24 October 2011

Scary MonkeyThis week I have selected one of the most beautiful creatures I have seen. You absolutely have to see images of these animals because they are stunning!

As one of the most beautiful species we have on our planet, the specimen of the week is… (more…)

Egypt around London

Debbie JChallis23 October 2011

One of the occasional events that the Petrie Museum runs from April to October are lectures or walking talks exploring Ancient Egypt in London through Egyptianizing architecture and other monuments. Under the heading ‘Out and About with the Petrie Museum’ we have so far gone to Cleopatra’s Needle, looked at sphinxes in Crystal Palace Park, explored factories such as the Carreras Building in Mornington Crescent and the Hoover Factory in Perivale, as well as Kensal Green and West Norwood Cemeteries, and more besides. These tours are given by an expert in Egyptianizing architecture Cathie Bryan and on occasion, when about the Victorian period, by myself.

Twickenham Bridge

This summer Cathie proposed going to the west of London and exploring Egypt in Richmond. My colleague at the Museum of Richmond, Phillippa Heath, agreed to do a joint event as part of National Archaeology Week on 16 July 2010. Cathie’s programme was as ever ambitious and involved the various obelisks in Richmond and Richmond Park, a factory in St Margarets, and Twickenham Bridge. In May, Phillippa and myself joined Cathie for a reccie to check timings and so we could publicise the event properly. (more…)

Hidden gems of the Grant Museum: Introducing ‘Specimen of the week’!

Emma-LouiseNicholls17 October 2011

The woolly monkey with the manic grinThis story is not about adoptions, but that is where it begins…


Being majorly involved in our stupendously popular adoption scheme, I get to speak to a lot of our new members and potentials about their specimen choice. A phrase I hear a lot from people who have just arrived is “everything has already gone!” Oh so how untrue my friends. You see, the asset which endows the Grant Museum with its astounding atmospheric ambiance, is the Victorian ‘squeeze as many specimens in as possible’ display method. As a result, although we are approximately the size of 1/6th of a football pitch (apparently?) compared to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington which probably covers around 9000 football pitches, we have the same number of specimens on display to the public. Yes! I’m not making that up! (Except the 9000 football pitches… possibly…) So, is everything already adopted? Of COURSE not! Yes most of the very large articulated skeletons have gone but we have around 6,800 specimens on display and currently 201 adopters caring for a total of 213 adoptids. That leaves 6,587 orphans, and that is only counting the ones on display. There are a further 61,200 orphans back stage that us Grant Museum staff have to cater to the emotions for. What people are sadly missing in their excitement are the hidden gems of the Grant Museum. Of which, there are literally thousands. You just have to look more closely… (more…)

After the flood – this month’s New Scientist blog

JackAshby14 October 2011

This time last year two of the museum storerooms flooded. A loose pipe meant that when the mains water supply was switched on in the floor above, high pressure water jetted into our space, soaking the cabinets that contained some 40,000 of the museum’s objects.

To add to our frustration, the storerooms had only been built a few months earlier. It had taken us two months to install the collection, carefully replacing the specimens’ old locations with their new ones in our database so that nothing would be lost. It took two hours to evacuate all the specimens, and there was no time to document them in our frantic rush to get them to dry land. In this flood, the animals certainly went in far greater numbers than two by two.

This is the start of my latest New Scientist Big Wide World blog post. It’s about the flood recovery, why no natural history museums know what they have in their collections, and things being misidentified in museums. Read the rest of it here: http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/bigwideworld/2011/10/lost-information-and-misidentified-opossums-recovering-from-the-flood.html

National Fossil Day 2011

MarkCarnall12 October 2011

As you all know, Wednesday is National Fossil Day in America, not that a national day is needed to wax lyrical about the brilliant things that are fossils of course. If we’re celebrating it doesn’t that make it International Fossil Day? In celebration of one of the better National Days I’ve decided to write about my favourite fossil at the Grant Museum.

Although it is a zoology collection first and foremost, the collection does contain a number of fossil specimens and at one point was lauded by the Lancet in 1835 for being “almost the only comprehensive and accessible source of information in this subject in the English language” after Grant introduced ‘fossil zoology’ to courses at UCL. Presumably, this meant that at one point, the collection contained an excellent fossil series but they were presumably transferred to other institutions or lost because the current collection is a real mix and the fossil collection is on my “to curate properly” list. Big acquisitions in the 80s and 90s as well as the relatively liberal movement of material in between institutions in the past has meant that the fossil collection needs a large amount or sorting; the kind of slow, methodical and satisfying work that I often end up delegating to volunteers to do. In the past we have had some super star volunteers recruited form UCL Earth Sciences including a certain Emma-Louise Nicholls who documented the fossil fish collection and Debi Linton who went through our marine reptile collection, both of whom went on to hold posts at the Museum..

Until our fossil collection is fully explored, identified, catalogued and added to our online database I’d like to highlight my favourite fossil specimen at the Grant Museum.

Image of a fossil dragonfly from the Grant Museum of Zoology

LDUCZ-L54 Protolindenia wittei

My first role at the Grant Museum, despite being trained as a palaeobiologist was to document the entomology collection. Whilst in this role, I came across this lovely specimen of Protolindenia wittei from the Solnhofen Plattenkalk Lagerstätte (a Lagerstätte is a fossil deposit that shows extraordinary fossil preservation), a locality I was fortunate enough to excavate at during my undergraduate degree. The reason why I love this specimen so much is because it sums up why I decided to study palaeobiology.

At a glance this beautiful fossil is easily identifiable as a flying insect despite being around 150 million years old. We are fortunate that this specimen even exists, the chances of this particular dragonfly dying and being preserved in such exquisite detail are astronomical.

This insect already beat the odds by making it to an adult. As an egg it could have been eaten by a passing fish or washed away into waters that would have dissolved it or blown away to dry out on a riverank, never fulfilling its potential. As a nymph any number of creatures, amphibians, fish or other insects could have eaten our dragonfly. Even after it left the water and took to the air as an adult it could have been snapped up by a Jurassic predator (Archaeopteryx perhaps?) and perished. Upon death this insect could have been scavenged by ants, decomposed by bacteria or fungus or simply have fallen to pieces and been dispersed by the wind and rain.

Soft tissue rarely preserves in the fossil record because in a number of minutes, once living tissue starts to degrade and decompose. The preservation of the fine wing veins seen in this specimen indicate to us that this dragonfly must have been sealed in a preserving environment very near to or even before the point of death. This organism defied chance by being preserved in such good condition in the first place but even rarer still has survived millions of years of Earth history. If this insect had been preserved at a different place the rock it was preserved in could have been exposed and weathered away, destroyed by volcanic activity, stretched or squeezed into an amorphous smear or subducted back into the core of the Earth through the movement of the tectonic plates. As if that wasn’t enough once fossilised it was then subsequently excavated in one piece, perhaps by a fossil hunter or quarryman and fortunately not destroyed by a pick axe, hammer or pneumatic drill or misplaced or destroyed after its discovery.

You can see that the probability of that tiny egg hatching, the larva reaching adulthood and then being perfectly captured in the rock record, excavated and eventually ending up on display at the Grant Museum is statistically so slim as to be impossible. For me this is what makes every fossil, from the complete skeletons of dinosaurs through to a humble dragonfly, truly remarkable. That we know what we know about the history of Earth and the life on it from the scientific study of fossils really is working with miracles.

Someone told me it’s all happening at the zoo…

SubhadraDas7 October 2011

Any researcher will tell you that for every ‘Eureka!’ moment, there is a seemingly impossible amount of long, hard, tedious and unrewarding slog.

Baroque Drawing by Mary Adshead

Monkey business. Were these animals drawn from life?

We at UCL Art Museum are no strangers to the joys of the research process, so when Pippa Connolly – a postgraduate student at the Slade School of Fine Art – dropped by the other week on a mission, we were excited, but pragmatic in our approach.

Pippa is researching a particular period in the history of the Slade when, for a select few years between the wars, students were able to observe and draw animals at London Zoo from a viewing studio, specially built for the purpose.