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Museums & Collections Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Archive for February, 2013

Conserve it! Part II – Research and Investigation

Nicholas JBooth27 February 2013

The second instalment of the Conserve it! blog, written by Miriam Orsini, details the research and analysis that conservators have to undertake before they even begin to work on objects. Particularly exciting for me is the photo towards the end of this post showing one of the X-Ray tubes glowing green under UV light! I had no idea they could do this…

Probably one of the most exciting things conservators must do before they start conserving an object is researching and analysing the object itself. This is the moment when the object starts to talk to you and tells you its story. In this post we are going to share some of the pretty amazing stories which these X-Ray tubes have told us.

We started with some preliminary research using the internet and academic literature to find out more about what kind of X-Ray tubes we were dealing with, and to try to understand their functioning and to date them. We realised that the tubes represented four stages in the history of the manufacture and design of X-Ray tubes, from  earlier examples to more modern models.

Example of a Jackson Tube (From UCL Medical Physics  Display)

Example of a Jackson Tube
(From UCL Medical Physics Display)

Advert for X-Ray tubes showing a Jackson Tube (centre)

Advert for X-Ray tubes showing a
Jackson Tube (centre)







My tube (above) is an early example of an X-Ray tube known as Jackson Tube or Focus Tube. This particular example was produced by a company based in London, Newton & Co. The presence of the company’s name and address, Fleet Street London, inscribed on the metal plate contained in the tube, led us to think that the tube was made before 1930, when the company moved from Fleet Street to Wigmore Street. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week Seventy-Two

Emma-LouiseNicholls25 February 2013

Scary MonkeyThere comes a time in everybody’s life when something inevitable happens. Be it a first kiss, suffering a horrible job interview, or making a fool of yourself at the Christmas party. Today, for me, is that day. There are a lot of ‘high profile specimens’ at the Grant Museum that are labelled with this level of importance and acquire the oodles of subsequent respect because they are scientifically important, like the quagga, or gosh darn impressive, like the walrus penis bone. But then, there are specimens, or rather *a* specimen, that is seemingly the object of everybody’s eye, the cream in everyone’s coffee, the Bella to everyone’s Edward (or Jacob, if you will). A day when we, as staff, go through an entire day without hearing this particular set of three short words is a day when we are closed for refurbishment and the builders are having a snow day. It seems therefore, that it was nothing short of inevitable that at some point or another, this specimen would feature in a Specimen of the Week. You (must) know them… you (apparently) love them… this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

Tempus Fugit

EdmundConnolly19 February 2013

Guest blogger: Chris Webb


Wednesday 12 February at The Petrie Museum, saw our first evening in a series of talks given by our Timekeeper in residence, artist-curator Cathy Haynes, www.cathyhaynes.org, as she took us on a tour of objects in the museum and wider world that give us different experiences of time. The sequence of events is designed to question how we perceive, measure and record time. With the engagement of our lively audience, the evening suggested some interesting interpretations. As Cathy herself said, this first event threw up more questions than answers!

Guided through a world of chronology, we were invited to consider how everyone from the ancient Egyptians to Facebook’s timeline observed, understood and recorded time. We then deliberated on the material culture and objects that shape out understanding of time. Examples from the Petrie’s collection included: concepts of dynasties, votive bowls, shadow clocks/sun-dials, a worn-out leather shoe, a water clock, and the large amount of stelai and memorialisation that represent permanent markers connected with death and the afterlife, not to mention Flinders Petrie’s own meticulous sequential dating of objects.

A Shadow Clock


Specimen of the Week: Week Seventy-One

Emma-LouiseNicholls18 February 2013

Scary MonkeyAt the Grant Museum of Zoology we pride ourselves on our accessibility, both in terms of the specimens and the staff. The staff office, for those of you who have yet to visit or are perhaps unobservant, is in the Museum itself. One of my favourite sentences that I use on a pretty regular basis (basically any time I can slip it in, I do) is “If you need me, I’ll be behind the rhino”.
We love fondling things at the Grant Museum and host numerous activities each term that allow hands-on sessions with the specimens. A fantastic facility that few other Museums are physically able to offer due to the spider web of red tape that we at UCL merrily skip passed as we form part of a university based teaching collection. However, handling specimens and allowing them to be handled by others comes with its drawbacks. Things can and sadly do get broken and on occasion, things go missing. Fortunately, in my two years of service I have only ever known laminated images of animals from the activity sheets to go missing and they have nearly always been located in the mouth of a small child. However one such animal that would presumably fit in your pocket is this one. This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

My life in a museum case

SubhadraDas15 February 2013

Only once in my life have I ever encountered an object in a museum display case which delivered such an emotional sucker-punch as to physically stop me breathing.

One of the fun things about objects in museum collections is the way in which you can appreciate them in the context of your own life, experiences, sometimes even your own body. For example, when looking at the gynaecology specimens in UCL’s pathology collections they are full of resonance for me because I’ve got similar (hopefully considerably less diseased) bits sitting inside me and because my mother was, for over four decades, a gynaecologist and obstetrician. [1] In the Galton Collection, I have classified my hair and eye colour according using the colour scales and devices which were used at the Galton Laboratory.[2]

The ivory chessmen on display at Nottingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image courtesy Ynys Crowston-Boaler.

The ivory chessmen on display at Nottingham Museum and Art Gallery. Image courtesy Ynys Crowston-Boaler.


I’ve also experienced those little moments of recognition for things which, even when you see them for the first time, are somehow immediately familiar and speak directly to you. The ones I remember best are the hugely spectacular – like the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel or the statue of Christ the Redeemer in Rio – and those that refer to memorable thoughts and experiences. On a visit to Nottingham, I was blown away by these ivory chessmen which sit in a case at Nottingham Museum and Art Gallery and are exactly like the ones described in my favourite novel. I stood gawping at those chessmen for much longer than any other exhibit in the museum, even the fancy modern artworks which were what I had actually gone to see. Running a close second on the same trip was the statue of Robin Hood at the bottom of the hill leading up to the castle, which featured in a documentary about Torvill and Dean, a recording of which I had watched repeatedly and obsessively as a five-year-old.[3]

Given that I am aware of the evocative power of objects, the emotional (and physical!) winding I mentioned at the start of this blog may have been a shock, but it wasn’t entirely a surprise. The object in question was this, in one of the more innocuous displays at the Design Museum in Copenhagen. Up until that point I had been happily strolling through the galleries taking pictures of chairs – of which they have an extensive typology, going ‘Oooh…!’ at the Japanese porcelain vessels and trying to work out why there was a bottle of Heineken in a case that otherwise only exclusively held antique silverware.

Then, suddenly, blithely sitting in a case, was this; my Dad’s CD player.


I Spy With My Little Eye*

MarkCarnall15 February 2013

It’s very much Micrarium week here at the Grant Museum. We’ve heard from Jack Ashby about what it’s all about, this month’s Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month can be found hidden amongst the other slides and museum assistant Emma-Louise Nicholls pays too much attention to my barnet.

Now it’s my turn and I’ve picked just some of the slides you might wish to try to find next time you are down at the Grant Museum. (more…)

Extinction: Not the End of the World? at the Natural History Museum, a Review

JackAshby14 February 2013

We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

Last week Curator Mark and I went to check out the new Extinction exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which tackles the often tackled but rarely dealt with topic of extinction.

Extinction, as a subject, is a tricky one. Firstly, natural history museums are full of it. We love it. 99% of species that have ever lived are extinct. [non-avian] Dinosaurs are extinct. Mammoths are extinct. Dodos are extinct. It’s bread and butter stuff. So much so that if we try and focus on it too much, it could be hard to make it special. Secondly, whatever museums/conservation organisations/David Attenborough say about modern extinctions, nothing ever changes. (more…)

Heck that’s cool

Emma-LouiseNicholls13 February 2013

Whilst you and I both work as hard as an ant running uphill carrying a dead fly three times its size at our jobs all day every day (right?), sometimes you can’t help but feel a little less Gandalf the Grey and a little more Freena the elf (remember him? Exactly.), than you may otherwise desire.


I get a lot of satisfaction out of a day at work, partly because I am easily amused by… myself, and partly because my job rocks. Not every day of course, some days I want to dart people with porcupine quills from the balcony, but that’s very rare (have no fear). However, more often than not I look at a project or piece of work, or reflect on a school visit, and I think “Yeah, that was super, I’m really pleased”. Getting nice feedback on my Specimen of the Week blog is one of my favourites for example (*cough*hint*cough*). One such moment of self admiration came due to a new project called the Micrarium.


Don’t overestimate my involvement in this project, I have merely spent several (thousand) hours pouring my liquified eyeballs over billions of microscope slides, selecting the sexiest ones and accessioning more thin sections than I have had individual days in my 31 years of life. I did not conceive the idea nor design, sadly did not carry out the building work (I like DIY), thankfully did not insert every slide into the nails-on-a-blackboard-infuriatingly-fiddly grooves on the walls, nor (even more thankfully) did I gain as many grey hairs as the curator. I did however, upon first looking at the completed Micrarium, like an actor seeing a completed film they’d spent months working on in disarticulated portions for the first time, subconsciously breathe aloud “Heck that’s cool.”

Underwhelming Fossil Fish of The Month: February

MarkCarnall12 February 2013

February, when the days of winter seem endless and no amount of wistful recollecting can bring back any air of summer. Author Shirley Jackson

Ahh February, the month of love. Valentine’s day, leap year proposals and an early pay day. However, there’s one group of animals who don’t care much for February and that’s fossil fish. They’re dead and fossilised. Even if they weren’t they lack a language processing centre in their brain and February wasn’t invented until 700BC. For a fossil fish things like February don’t matter. But what does matter is this month’s Underwhelming Fossil Fish of the Month and this month we’re selling out with some corporate sponsorship tie-in. (more…)

The Micrarium – a place for tiny things – opens

JackAshby11 February 2013

complete micrarium 2 whitenedHere at the Grant Museum we’re not afraid to try something big or something new. This time we’re doing just that with something small and something old, with a topic which has traditionally been problematic for natural history museums.

Last Thursday we opened the Micrarium – a place for tiny things. In what we believe is a first of its kind, we have converted an old storage room into a backlit cave displaying 2323 microscope slides and 252 lantern slides lining the walls on floor-to-ceiling light boxes and the effect is quite staggering. The slides mostly show whole small animals, or slices through whole small animals, a preparation technique which itself is amazing. Imagine taking a slice 1/10th of a millimetre thick through a fly, cutting through its antennae, its body, its head, the hairs on its head, its wings and its legs, all at once.
There were two main drivers behind the project…

1) Displays in natural history museums, while being obviously awesome, are deeply unrepresentative of nature. (more…)