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Museums & Collections Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for January, 2012

Sappho and LGBT History Month at UCL

Debbie JChallis31 January 2012

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology has celebrated LGBT History Month every year since 2008. It is a mark of interest in ideas about sexuality and Queer Studies around antiquity that our two events on Sappho and Antinous this year are fully booked (though there may be returns on the night – take your chances). UCL Equalities also runs a fantastic programme for Diversity Month at UCL and there is loads going on in Camden and Islington.

A few years ago I gave a talk on the reception of the ancient poet Sappho’s poems and this year Sophia Blackwell is doing her stand up performance Sappho in Sainsburys. It’s not as good as seeing Sophia perform live but Megan Price made a short film a few years ago – part of which she has put on You Tube for us to use. Guidance: It does contain references to sexual acts.


'Portrait' of sappho from Henry Wharton's translation c. 1885.

One of the rare facts about Sappho that we know with any certainty is that she was a poet. By the time of the Hellenistic period (c. second century BCE), the Alexandrian scholars had collected her remaining poems by metre in nine books and of these books we have 1 extant poem, several longer poems and about 200 fragments. We know that she composed and sang in the sixth century BCE and was probably born at Eresos on Lesbos in c.620 BCE. She was part of an aristocratic family and went into exile to Sicily for political reasons around 600 BCE. She had a daughter and was married, but to whom it is not certain. She had three brothers, one of whom traded in Naucratis in Egypt and, when not in exile, she lived most of her life at Mitylene, the main town of Lesbos.[1] Lesbos was an important island for trade and agriculture throughout antiquity but there is very little evidence for life on the island in the 6th century, or ‘Archaic’ period, of Greece. She signed herself as Psappho.

This is what we know of her life – derived in part from her poems and in part from what biographers have written. We also know that she was lyric poet, that is she sang her poems to a lyre and composed choral odes. Her poetry is rich and full, as Virginia Woolf puts it in ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, of ‘constellations of adjectives’.[2] It is also about love – mainly love for women – and invokes the fatal power of passion. Love in the Greek world was not a benign cuddly myth but a powerful force that wounded. She also wrote wedding songs and some poetry about her family. However, it was her expressive desire towards women that contributed to her ambiguous reputation, even in the ancient world, and various legends surrounding her were formed.

[1] Information from David A. Campbell (ed. and trans.) Greek Lyric I: Sappho and Alcaeus (Harvard University Press: London, 1990), pp. x – xiii.

[2] Virginia Woolf, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, Andrew McNeillie (ed.) The Essays of Virginia Woolf. Volume 4: 1925 – 1928 (London: Hogarth Press, 1994), pp. 38 – 53, p. 50. Originally published 1925.

Specimen of the Week: Week Sixteen

Emma-LouiseNicholls30 January 2012

Scary MonkeySo far in the specimen of the week, we have looked at a wide range of animals from across the zoological spectrum. We have seen invertebrates that look like flowers, fish that look like fisherman, monkeys that look like spiders. What we have, however, is a lack of feathered fun. Not one to discriminate or (purposefully) disappoint, this week’s specimen of the week is therefore one of our coolest (there’s a clue) feathery friends: (more…)

Early computer art at UCL Art Museum

KrisztinaLackoi27 January 2012

Over the past two weeks we’ve been helping a group of UCL Museum Studies students who are currently working on a research project as part of their Collections Curatorship module looking into early computer art at the Slade School of Fine Art in the 1970s, and in particular the work of Chris Crabtree. Very little is known by UCL Art Museum about this period in the Slade’s history, although the 1970s seem to have been something of a golden age for the Slade, with lots of pioneering work in what we would today call new media. Even less is known about Chris Crabtree, who started out at the Slade as a student in the Etching Department in 1972 and then went on to become first a technician and then a research assistant in printmaking.

What makes Chris Crabtree so fascinating (for me anyway) is that he combined a traditional training in printmaking techniques with an interest in computer programming at a time when computers were still massively clunky machines and difficult to access (mostly to be found in university scientific research labs). I like to speculate that Chris Crabtree may have been inspired by the highly influential exhibition Cybernetic Serendipity at the ICA in 1968 – this was one of the first exhibitions showcasing the work of digital artists such as Nam June Paik, Leslie Mezei, Georg Nees, A. Michael Noll, John Whitney and Charles Csuri. (more…)

Publication of ‘Heritage in Health’ best practice guide

LindaThomson27 January 2012

The publication, ‘Heritage in Health: A guide to using museum collections in hospitals and other healthcare settings’, has just been launched online by UCL Museums & Collections.  This illustrated 24-page guide offers thoughtful and practical solutions for taking museum objects out to adult audiences within healthcare settings and draws upon findings from the UCL and UCLH three year, ground-breaking research project, ‘Heritage in Hospitals’.

The project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) was carried out in conjunction with University College London Hospitals Arts programme. In facilitated sessions lasting about 40 minutes, 250 patients in chronic and acute care wards were invited to handle and discuss a selection of museum objects with a view to assessing the impact of this activity on health and wellbeing. (more…)

Finding and not finding the rarest museum specimens – Happy Australia Day

JackAshby26 January 2012

This is the tale of two non-discoveries. More accurately one non-discovery and one discovery of something not sought.

I often dream of thylacines and I often dream of the Grant Museum, but only once have I dreamt of both together, and that was this week which is apt as it’s Australia Day today. On this occasion in bed I jumped sharply into consciousness as it occurred to me that a specimen labelled as a brushtail possum baby could in fact be a mis-labelled thylacine. Possums, though wonderful creatures in the wild, are the ubiquitous pest of Australian towns, playing a similar role to racoons in the US. Thylacines, on the other hand, are a much celebrated (at least by us) extinct marsupial carnivore – the difference in rarity of the two in museum collections is stark. I developed an image in my mind of the specimen in question and convinced myself that it had been mis-identified. The image in my mind was in fact a mental blurring of the famous pup at the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, and the specimen at the Grant Museum, pictured here. (more…)

Could 1950s marine biologists speak underwater?

JackAshby25 January 2012

Under the Caribbean (1954) on the Big ScreenLast week we kicked off the Grant Museum’s Humnanimals Season with one of our ever-popular film nights – Under the Caribbean (1954). Humanimals Season is all about the interactions between the lives of animals and humans, investigating human concepts in the animal world, and animals venturing into the human world. Dr Joe Cain, the stalwart presenter of GMZ film nights (and Head of UCL Science and Technology) had been insisting that we showed this 1950s underwater documentary for years.

I must admit, I hadn’t watched it, but my gut reaction was that our audience relies on us to show classic films, with a link to natural history that they will enjoy watching – many people enjoy the camp, slightly ridiculous productions like Tarzan and The Blob. “An out-dated documentary is surely a bit dry?”, I would say to Joe. He would tell me that it was ground-breaking for the genre and had heaps of never-before seen footage. “Hmmm”, I would say, “it’s just doesn’t sound silly enough”.

Boy, was I wrong. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Fifteen

Emma-LouiseNicholls23 January 2012

Scary Monkey: Week FourteenWe have discovered a wide range of animal groups thus far in our specimen of the week journey. Now I feel it is time for something big, furry and ferocious. The thing I like the most about these animals is that whilst they are clever, speedy, voracious, and formidable, they tend to prefer to just turn up and throw their weight around in order to get what they want. It’s not that they don’t have the skills, they just prefer not to use them. The specimen of the week this week is: (more…)

Outreach Image is a Winner

CelineWest18 January 2012


This great photo of our outreach pod has just won Runner Up in the UCL Graduate School ‘Research Images as Art / Art Images as Research’ competition.




Every year the Graduate School asks students to submit images associated with their research that have aesthetic appeal and an exhibition is held in UCL in January. This photo was taken by Chee-Kit Lai of Mobile Studio, the designers of the outreach pod, who are also tutors at the Bartlett School of Architecture.

In case you haven’t read about it before, this special space for hosting conversations about a single object is called “The Thing Is…” and was launched at the end of October. We have used it with general public audiences and in UCL and have had many great conversations so far.

In this photo, you can see a remarkably happy group of people considering it was the end of a 10 hour day at the Bloomsbury Festival in Russell Square. The museum staff offered everyone a playing card with a question on it and we were discussing “What does the word ‘Philistine’ mean to you?” in connection with a Bronze Age necklace from UCL’s Archaeology Collections.

The ongoing saga at the Grant Museum

MarkCarnall17 January 2012

If you’re anything like me the most infuriating thing about a delayed or cancelled bus, train or plane is not knowing why said mode of transport was delayed. If my bus was cancelled because a wheel was about to fall off then, hey, I’m happy to wait a bit longer if it means I won’t be getting on a bus that might tip over. But if it’s cancelled because somebody hadn’t realised that four buses were sent out at exactly the same time then, well I’d still be annoyed but less so than just standing in the cold for forty minutes with no explanation. So I’d like to take the opportunity to explain why the Grant Museum still isn’t fully accessible yet.

As you may know we had an extended closure period over Christmas. This was to install glass to the cases around the wall and lighting inside the cases. We’d originally had this planned for the opening in March but due to truly tragic circumstances this didn’t come to pass so we went with PLAN B which was to cover the cases with perspex. This wasn’t an ideal interim situation as it looked a bit unsightly, attracted dust and was inconvenient to get in and out of. Fortunately, our visitors didn’t seemed to mind too much but it was a situation we were keen to improve for access to specimens, security and also for aesthetics. So this is now the second attempt to install glass doors in the museum. It is not an easy space to work with, there are listing considerations and every single alcove in the museum is a slightly different width and height so each door is bespoke to a single alcove. We hate to inconvenience visitors to the museum and planned with all the contractors involved to close for the shortest amount of time possible- hence the prolonged Christmas closure. However, due to circumstances beyond our control the work was delayed by one set of contractors by a week. We’re always looking to turn challenges into opportunities so rather than close the museum for an extra week we opened with everything out on the floor giving visitors the opportunity to see the museum in a slightly different way and as a compromise for not being able to offer the full museum experience. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Fourteen

Emma-LouiseNicholls16 January 2012

Scary MonkeyThere has been lots to discover at the museum this week due to a renovation project that saw us decanting nearly a thousand specimens from the wall cabinets and making a mosaic carpet of organisms on the floor in the middle of the museum. (Read more here).


The new scenery was a welcome change for most specimens, however there was one left bitter by the whole affair. Normally he enjoys a view of the museum from a high shelf, shared with no-one. Until he was put on the floor. Now I assure you he was placed there with delicate loving care. However, what we neglected to do was face him in the right direction. So instead of a sea of both new and familiar animal faces to amuse him, he had a brown cupboard door, about an inch away from his nose. For two weeks. Whoops.


Feeling bad about this oversight (or subsequent undersight… as it were) I placated him by making him specimen of the week. The specimen of the week therefore is…  (more…)