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News and musings from the UCL Culture team


The Curator’s Egg*

By Nick J Booth, on 5 December 2012

Those of you who are based around UCL will probably have noticed the opening of the Octagon Gallery, UCL’s brand new exhibition space and the first part of the University’s ‘master plan’.  If you haven’t been to see it I urge you to. The cases are brand new and look great in the space, and we have used touch screens and AV for all the interpretation, so there’s plenty to prod and poke and play with. The idea of the gallery is to act as a show case for UCL’s collections and current academic research, and there is a wide variety of different objects represented.

One of these objects  was recorded on our database simply as the ‘Big Egg’.

Photo shows a large white egg shaped object on a wooden stand.

Say what you see. It really is a Big Egg.

When I saw this on the database I was disproportionally excited, as it’s the punchline to one of my favourite jokes –

Q – What’s big and small at the same time?

A – A big egg’

(Armando Iannucci)

On my first visit to the Science and Engineering Collection store rooms this was the first object I looked for and, when I eventually found it and unwrapped it from its bubble wrap (a bit like Christmas) I wasn’t disappointed. As you can see it looks exactly like a big white egg, but it also opens up to reveal a strange red cross on the inside. It can even be taken apart to reveal a pair of matching crosses. Why?

Once I had found it the next trick was to identify it. Unfortunately unknown objects are all too common in museum collections. Often things will be saved for a reason, and then that reason will be forgotten, or the records relating to that object are lost, and as time goes on the name of the object is forgotten. Although I suspect this egg was saved because it’s an impressive (and heavy) object and people just couldn’t stand to throw it away. That happens a lot too.

Luckily for me, the guest curators of ‘Model Translations’, the first exhibition to be put on in the Octagon Gallery, were looking through UCL’s collections for potential exhibits and liked the egg. It was duly entered into the exhibition object list and photographed. It was also selected to be photographed in 360 degrees, something you can play with on the touch screen in the gallery.

The Big Egg’s inclusion in the exhibition was good not only because the gallery’s central location means that lots of people should be able to see it and (hopefully) maybe even recognise it, but it also meant that one of the curators would write a label for it. Even if we couldn’t identify it, the new label would then be added to the objects records for future curators and exhibition staff to ponder over. Even if you don’t know what an object is, using it in exhibitions and events can still add to its story, and perhaps help people to identify it in the future.

The crosses give the clue to what the Egg really is for.

With the Egg safely installed, the hoardings around the new cases were taken away and the exhibition had its ‘soft’ opening in the week leading up to the opening night. Breathlessly I sat by my inbox and awaited an identification e-mail…and within a few days one showed up! A member of staff from Earth Sciences contacted me to say that rather than being a mystery the purpose of the object was pretty obvious. It is in fact a demonstration model to show the optical indicatrix of a uniaxial positive crystal. Obviously.

Earlier this week I received another email, this time  from a member of the Electrical Engineering department, saying exactly the same thing. In fact both the academics that contacted me said they use either a similar model or a drawing in their lectures. So rather than this being an obsolete piece of teaching equipment the ‘Big Egg’ is actually a model demonstrating ideas and principles  that are still being taught in both Earth Science and Electrical Engineering modules.

Modern versions of the Egg, still used in teaching.

The challenge now is to ensure that interest in the object doesn’t wane now that it’s no longer a mystery, and to increase its use  now that we know what it is.

I’ll still probably refer to it as the ‘Big Egg’ though.


*The idea for the heading of this blog came from the @Curators_Egg twitter account (which is a play on this old joke – http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/163300.html). I just wanted to give credit where it’s due.

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