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Museums & Collections Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for November, 2011

How to Get a Head

JackAshby30 November 2011

Last night Curator Mark and I went back to the Grant Museum’s historic roots as a proper teaching collection and got out about 100 specimens to run a workshop called How to Get a Head: A Hands-On History of the Skull.

Everyday, university students use our collection as part of their courses, but we’ve never run an actual class with objects for members of the public teaching proper old school zoology. We’ll certainly be doing it again (Get a Grip: A Hands-On History of Hands is now open for bookings for February).

Here’s an impartial write up from one of the people who came along, and some of the things she picked up… http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2011/11/30/how-to-get-a-head-or-what-your-skull-is-saying-about-you/

Food Junctions and Roman Banquets

Debbie JChallis28 November 2011

In April and May 2010 there was a massive food festival about all things edible – cooking, growing, history – inCamleyStreetNaturalPark, an oasis of green calm a few minutes walk behind St Pancras. Various people fromUCL Museumsand Collections took part in this foodie festival. For example, Mark  Carnall, Curator of theGrantMuseum, spoke about eating cats and I cooked some Roman food for a demonstration to dispel the perception that Roman cusine was all about stuffed dormice and vomitariums.

Cover of Food Junctions Cookbook

A year later there is a rather wonderful cookbook collating Mark’s and my efforts and much more besides. It is downloadable free online or a hard copy is only £14 from Amazon. If you are looking for Christmas presents people who care about food, I recommend it. I bought it for a friend of mine who is a chef and exponent of the slow food movement where she works up in the Scottish Highlands – she loves it!

The recipe I choose for the book was one of many that I tried for my house warming party earlier this year. My emphasis was on trying to cook the ‘bog standard’ Roman fare that was found at bars rather than fancy banquets. This meant barley based dishes, fennel and lemon salad, different breads and dips, roasted meats with a kind of pickled egg and dried fruits in fish sauce sauce that smelt disgusting but was surprisingly edible. (I told everyone to try it at their peril; amazingly it tasted great and went very quickly). As well as stuffed dates cooked in wine with pepper and honey cakes covered in sesame seeds. One of my friends even provided a ham in pastry – a whole gammon covered in in pastry. This last item was more upmarket than the food I was attempting!

In cooking this food I noticed two main things. Much of the food was cooked in a way that it meant it was somehow preserved – whether through baking, roasting, using lots of salt or salty substances – which would of course be necessary for a world without fridge-freezers or artificial preservatives. The other was how ‘strange’ combinations of flavours worked, for example dates boiled in peppered wine.

Is domestication ethical?

JackAshby28 November 2011

Necessary or Unnatural?

Much of human society involves domesticated animals, from food and transport to pets and clothes. Is it wrong to breed individuals together to select for desirable traits? Should we be interfering in evolution? Does it matter what the reason is? Many domesticated animals are now unable to survive without human intervention. If domestication is unnatural, is it wrong? Necessary or Unnatural? display

This is the newest question we are asking our (online and actual) visitors as part of the QRator project, whose main presence is on the iPads in the Museum.

The specimens we’ve displayed along side it raise these points:

Wild boar are dangerous to hunt. However, in their domestic form, they provide a valuable source of food.

Dairy cows are selectively bred to produce as much milk as possible despite subsequent health problems.

Pekingese dogs can’t breathe properly and subsequently overheat due to their flattened faces, which are selectively bred for aesthetic reasons.

White tigers can only be produced in sufficient numbers for zoos by inbreeding. This causes serious defects and 80% infant mortality.

What do you think? Get involved in the conversation on the QRator website, and come and visit to see the display for yourself.

Specimen of the Week: Week Seven

Emma-LouiseNicholls28 November 2011

Scary MonkeyI am pretty excited about this week’s specimen as it is our first specimen suggestion that has come from a reader (who I don’t know personally.) (That is unless it’s someone I know acting under a pseudonym?) (But that’s probably improbable.)


It is an animal of Hollywood acclaim, is famed for its crazy antics, is thought by many to be the second most venomous vertebrate in the world, and two individuals of unknown species once saved the life of our museum assistant. The specimen of the week is… (more…)

In spod we trust

JackAshby25 November 2011

Today I would like to celebrate the spod. There are a couple of definitions for this term relating to over-users of online chat-rooms, but the spods I’m referring to here are those that Urban Dictionary defines as:

“A derogatory term used to indicate someone with one of the following:
1) A penchant for academic study, above and beyond the call of duty
2) Higher than average intellectual capabilities
See also swot, nerd, geek.
“You’ve already done your history homework? Dude, you’re a spod!”
“I hate that kid, he’s a bit of a spod!”

My aim is to dispel these derogatory connotations and praise them for their gumption, rejection of the norm and dedication to something that is important. I use here terms like geek and nerd to which I attach no negatives – and have to a great extent be “reclaimed” by people like myself, who do belong in these categories. Geek-chic is cool these days, as we all know, but I’m not actually talking about the fashion for being a geek-wannabe. Just dressing like what you think a geek dresses like doesn’t make you a geek. (more…)

Zoology and Mythology – Looking at Angels, Fairies and Dragons

JackAshby25 November 2011

Last week was the Grant Museum’s 15th Annual Robert Edmond Grant Lecture, in which the superb Professor Roger Wotton explored the world of mythical creatures. He applied Grant’s own science of comparative anatomy to see whether things like angels, fairies and demons could actually fly, biologically speaking.

The science was solid, and – SPOILER ALERT – the answer was no. UCL Events blog reviewed the event in full, so you can read all about it there.

Roger’s original article on the topic can be found here in the Telegraph


MarkCarnall23 November 2011

Friends of the Grant Museum will know that the last year was a tough year for the museum. Not only did we have to move the museum but our stores were plagued with floods. This has meant that our stored collections have been out of action for over a year. The turmoil hasn’t quite ended but recently the stored material became a little bit more accessible so myself and our new documentation assistant have been working through the stored collection reacquainting ourselves with objects and occasionally discovering material for the first time. The reason why we have material in stores  in the first place is partly because the collection is too large to put on display (currently, only about 5% of the collection is on display) and also because some material isn’t appropriate for display either because it isn’t Hollywood enough or because it is material that is better suited for research use. Being a university museum  a fair proportion of the collection was created for use in research. In this occasional series I hope to highlight some of the objects in our stores starting with these lovely objects I found last week. (more…)

Under the skin

JackAshby23 November 2011

As visitors to the Museum will know, we have a load of iPads (we were only the second museum in the world to incorporate them into displays) asking our visitors to engage in some controversial or complicated conversations that we are genuinely interested in the answer to. These conversations can all also be found and joined online at www.qrator.org.

We’re starting to change all the questions over, the newest one is:

Do you find skeletons, taxidermy or specimens in fluid more interesting?

When we design our displays, we have to decide what type of specimen should tell the story we want to tell. Should it be a skeleton, a taxidermy mount, or something preserved in a jar? How does your interest differ between them? Does each option mean something different to you?

So what do you think? Get involved in this conversation on the QRator site, or on your next visit. You can also download the free Android and iPhone app “Tales of Things” and find the conversations there.

All the past conversation will be kept live online at www.qrator.org/past-questions

The whole QRator project is a ground-breaking process of visitor engagement, run in partnership with the wonderful UCL Digital Humanities and UCL Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis.

Specimen of the Week: Week Six

Emma-LouiseNicholls21 November 2011

Scary MonkeyThis week’s specimen is beautiful but deadly, squishy but complex, and not entirely what it seems. This week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

In the Shadow of the Pyramids – Flinders Petrie exhibition in Copenhagen

Debbie JChallis18 November 2011

Some readers may remember that I visited Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek at Copenhagen in June to see curator Tine Bagh’s preparation for an exhibition of material excavated by Flinders Petrie. The exhibition opened last week and I asked Jan Picton, Secretary of the Friends, to give me some feedback on the exhibition. Jan writes:

View of the exhibition showing the excavation site showcases.

View of the exhibition showing the excavation site showcases.

“Twenty eager Friends of the Petrie Museum let loose to explore the Egyptian collections of Copenhagen– best not to get in their way! It helps when the Curator of the exhibition ‘In the Shadow of the Pyramids’ at the Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Tine Bagh, is both a fan of Petrie and a Friend of the Petrie Museum. Tine invited us to the Private View of the exhibition and the Reception in the fabulous Winter Garden and then gave us a guided tour of the exhibition and the collection the following day. She also facilitated our visits to the National Museum and to Thorvaldsen’s Museum. We are very grateful for her kindness when she was so busy with the exhibition. (more…)