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The Anthropologist, the Anatomist, and the Highwayman: Stories from student research 2020/21

ucwehlc21 July 2021

Teaching with museum objects during a global pandemic has been something of a challenge, to say the least. You can read more about how the UCL Museums have tackled it in this previous blog.

One of the real success stories has been how UCL students have continued to research objects for their projects without being able to visit the objects in real life, and with reduced access to resources in other museums, libraries, and archives. Their perseverance and ingenuity this year has allowed them to uncover compelling stories of tragedy, prejudice, and redemption in the UCL Science Collections. As the academic year comes to an end, and I add their findings to our database, I thought I would share a few with you.

 

Eye Colour Gauge by Rudolf Martin: The Anthropologist’s Story

Museum Studies master’s students Karolina Pekala, Helena Smith Parucker, Ailsa Hendry and Emma McKean researched this object for their Collections Curatorship module. Before their project began, we knew that the eye gauge had been designed by someone called Rudolf Martin, and that it had been owned by either Francis Galton or Karl Pearson, both of whom were instrumental in establishing the world’s first Eugenics Department at UCL.

Black metal box containing 16 glass eyes of different colours set into an aluminium backing

Rudolf Martin’s Eye Colour Gauge LDUGC-365. Copyright UCL Culture

 

The object itself has an unsettling look to it, even before we consider its links to the history of eugenics. It was designed by Swiss anthropologist Rudolf Martin and manufactured between 1903 and 1907. The students examined Martin’s background and his views on the developing field of eugenics in the early 20th century. They concluded that Martin himself was not actively involved in eugenic research, being more interested in developing methods for accurately measuring humans. However, he was well aware what other researchers were using his methods and tools for, and he supported racially biased anthropological research.

This particular eye gauge was used by Karl Pearson and Margaret Moul in eugenic research on Jewish school boys in London in the 1920s. A later version of the eye gauge was used in German research in the Tarnów Ghetto in Poland in the 1930s.

This story has a tragic sting in the tail for the Martin family. Rudolf Martin died in 1925, so he did not live to see eugenics lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. His second wife Dr Stefanie Martin-Oppenheim survived him, but as she was Jewish, she was imprisoned in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, where she died in 1940.

You can read more about eugenics, anthropology, medicine, and the Holocaust in this United States Holocaust Memorial Museum online exhibition.

 

Obtaining Specimens for the UCL Anatomy Museum: The Anatomist’s Story

Museum Studies students at UCL complete a practical placement in a museum as part of their degree. As objects were off limits in 2020/21 our student placements this year were all about our digitised archives. Archival material has a reputation for being a little dull, but it is often the source of the most fascinating insights into our collections. Nicky Stitchman’s project tracked the development of the museums at UCL from 1826 to 1926 using the UCL calendars and committee meeting minutes.

When students visit the UCL Pathology Museum at the Royal Free Hospital we often discuss the ethics of keeping and using specimens of human remains for teaching and study. Nicky’s research demonstrates that this was not always a matter of concern in medical teaching. In 1854 the rules of University College Hospital stated that

“No specimens of disease removed from patients, or from persons who may die in the Hospital, may be taken from the Hospital until after consultation with the Curator of the Museum of the College, for the purpose of determining whether such specimens shall be preserved in the Museum of Anatomy.”

And it was the duty of Physicians’ Assistants and House-Surgeons

“To deliver to the Curator of the Museum of Anatomy of the College according to Regulation § 54, all specimens of disease removed from patients, whether living or deceased, in their respective departments, and to give him previous notice of all post-mortem examinations.”

So, doctors had to inform Professor Sharpey (the Curator of the Anatomy Museum) whenever they did a post-mortem just in case he wanted any specimens for the museum. No mention is made of patient consent or the ethics of displaying the dead.

 

Sepia image of the UCL Anatomy Museum in the 19th century

UCL Anatomy Museum when Professor Sharpey was the curator. Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections, ref: UCLCA/7

 

These days the UCL Pathology Museum no longer actively collects human remains, and institutions that do so have to adhere to the rules of the Human Tissue Authority, obtaining informed, written, witnessed consent from patients.

You can read more about Nicky’s discoveries in this blog where she shows a little love for Assistant Curators, the unsung heroes of the UCL Museums.

 

Phrenological Head Cast: The Highwayman’s Story

UCL is home to a truly remarkable collection of heads. These life and death masks were collected by Phrenologist Robert Noel in the 19th century to explore ideas of genius and criminality. Phrenology is the long-disproven idea that the shape of someone’s head reflects their intelligence and personality. It is fair to say that Robert Noel’s collection tells us at least as much about Victorian theories of race, class, gender, crime, and mental health as it does about the personalities of his subjects.

Bachelor of Arts and Sciences student Iris Perigaud-Grunfeld wrote her Object Lessons project on head number 41, Babinsky the highwayman. Robert Noel was convinced that Babinsky was a Robin Hood character who stole for good but misguided reasons, and concluded that his head was not of the ‘criminal type’. This cast was taken from life in Prague in 1845 when Babinsky was in prison for robbery. Later Babinsky was released for good behaviour and became a gardener at a monastery.

Plaster cast of a man's head. His eyes are closed an he is wearing a neck scarf.

Plaster life cast of Vaclav Babinsky’s head. LDUSC-Noel-41. Copyright UCL Culture

Iris’ research uncovered details that Robert Noel had missed, and filled in the gaps about what happened after Babinsky died. After his release from prison notorious highwayman Vaçlav Babinsky became a genuine folk hero in Bohemia and Germany, with songs and novels written about him. He even featured in a Czech TV show, and recently Radio Prague International produced an English language podcast about his life which is well worth a listen.

Black and white photograph of an elderly man with muttonchop whiskers

Vaclav Babinsky as an old man. Image in the public domain.

Knowing Babinsky’s full name has also allowed us to find out more about his crimes. He was convicted of attacking a government official, and there is some suggestion that this charge was for biting the town mayor, which makes for a suitably colourful episode in the life of a famous highwayman. However, he was also convicted of at least 2 violent robberies and involvement in a murder, which shows our folk hero in a very different light. Would Robert Noel have interpreted Babinsky’s head differently if Babinsky had been executed for his crimes and never had the chance to turn his life around?

 

Whether our students next year are working with objects in person, or if they are working with digitised archives, I cannot wait to see what they uncover in the collections.

Hannah Cornish is Curator of Science at UCL Culture

Teaching with Collections during Covid-19

Tannis Davidson12 December 2020

Each year, UCL’s museums and collections are used in teaching practicals by university students on a wide range of courses including, but not limited to, archaeology, geography, history of art, political science and zoology. The use of collections have been at the heart of teaching at UCL since 1827 and Term 1 2020/2021 was no exception.

GMZ1

Grant Museum of Zoology ©David Bishop

In the months leading up to the beginning of term in September, museum staff worked with academic partners to develop digital teaching resources for online teaching (images of objects, pre-recorded lectures and virtual tours of the museums). Reoccupation and operations groups planned how to reopen the museums as covid-secure socially distanced teaching spaces. Curators developed face-to-face teaching options with module leaders and worked with departmental administrators to organise timetables for remote students as well as those planning to be on campus.

Overall, it has been a huge collaborative effort throughout the university to support students in this extraordinary year. UCL Culture museums and collections (Grant Museum of Zoology, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, Art Museum, Pathology Museum and Science Collections) all contributed towards the UCL-wide effort to continue to provide a rewarding learning experience despite the exceptionally difficult circumstances. While there have been plenty of challenges, the response has been overwhelmingly positive and there is much to celebrate.

UCL Biosciences students in the Vertebrate Life and Evolution module during a practical in the Grant Museum. ©David Bishop

While most teaching moved online, many modules with practical learning objectives were delivered through blended teaching – a mix of online tutorials and face-to-face labs or object-based sessions. UCL Culture staff delivered 51 face-to-face teaching practicals in the museums and Object-Based Learning Lab and also developed digital content (live and pre-recorded lectures and digital images of objects) for 42 online tutorials. In total, there have been over 2700 student uses of the museum collections in Term 1 teaching modules.

UCL History of Art students in Object Based Learning Lab taught by a group of PGTAs to introduce Y1 BA students to a variety of theoretical positions to which they need to be aware of during the course of their degree. Every year they hold bespoke sessions using UCL Art Museum collections.

There are also several ongoing virtual student placements ‘based’ in the museums and a 10-month Institute of Archaeology conservation placement student working on site with UCL Culture conservators and the museum collections. Student research visits have also continued throughout the term with students accessing the collections both remotely and on campus.

UCL Institute of Archaeology conservation placement student Hadas Misgav in Petrie Museum undertaking a condition survey of metal objects in the collection.

There have been many lessons learned, adaptive responses and also innovations borne from the current situation. Smaller socially distanced group sizes in museum teaching spaces have allowed for more intimate, focussed experiences during face-to-face practicals. Likewise, smaller online group chats and tutorials have provided the opportunity for students to interact with their classmates and contribute to discussions whether they are on campus, self-isolating or in a different country. Remote students taking Biosciences Vertebrate Life and Evolution module were sent a 3D printed mystery vertebrate skull in the post so that they would have a similar specimen-based identification exercise as the London-based students.

3D printed mystery specimens

 

Remote Vertebrate Life and Evolution student Shin Kang with 3D printed mystery specimen

At the cusp of a new year, new term and new challenges, we look forward to developing further opportunities to enrich our students’ learning experience and academic studies. We have been tremendously fortunate to have had the phenomenal support of the wider UCL community which has provided a safe and supportive environment and trusted us to welcome students back into the museums. Thank you!

 

Tannis Davidson is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology, UCL

 

 

 

Racism, eugenics and the domestication of humans

Subhadra Das25 October 2017

The Grant Museum’s current exhibition – The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The Boring Beasts that Changed the World ­­- explores the mundane creatures in our everyday lives. Here on the blog, we will be delving into some of the stories featured in the exhibition with the UCL researchers who helped put it together.

In December 1863, the scientist Francis Galton presented a paper to the Ethnological Society entitled ‘The Domestication of Animals’. In it, he outlined six characteristics necessary for an animal to be domesticated

  1. Hardiness: the ability to survive despite human neglect.
  2. Fondness for Man…notwithstanding occasional hard usage and frequent neglect.
  3. Desire of comfort…a motive which strongly attached certain animals to human habitation.
  4. Usefulness to Man.
  5. Breeding freely.
  6. Easy to tend…by which large numbers of them can be controlled by a few herdsmen…Gregariousness is such a quality.

It is worth noting that this paper was presented not to an audience of scientists who study animal behaviour but to ethnologists –  that is, scientists who study the difference between different groups of people – and that Galton’s main objective in outlining these traits was to demonstrate that domestication happened because certain species of animals were, by their inherent nature, domesticable.

Francis Galton and his albino Pekingese dog Wee-Ling, whose skull features in the exhibition. Wee Ling was the product of research into pedigree breeding by fellow eugenicist Karl Pearson.

Francis Galton and his albino Pekingese dog Wee-Ling, whose skull features in the exhibition. Wee Ling was the product of research into pedigree breeding by fellow eugenicist Karl Pearson.

Where a particular species does not have the traits to be brought under human control, he said, less civilised human societies, such as the reindeer herders of Lapland, are forced to live their lives to accommodate the animals in order to benefit from them. Galton gives examples from all over the world of how what he called the “rude races” had successfully brought animals under their control as pets, sacred animals and in zoos. In other words, it is easy to domesticate animals — even ‘savages’ can do it. (more…)

A Curator’s Adventures in Documentation Land

Subhadra Das25 February 2016

We all know that museum catalogues lie. I have made it clear that I’m a firm advocate for the agency of museum practitioners. No element of museum practice happens magically by itself in a vacuum, it is enacted by those of us privileged to work with collections. When you start to look at how museum staff present information to each other and to our audiences, though, it becomes clear that our catalogues have been doing a lot of the talking for us. This begs the question, which speaks louder: curatorial actions or the words in digital catalogues? This week’s guest blogger, Ananda Rutherford, explores this question through the looking glass of the Galton Collection online catalogue.

One of the most controversial collections at UCL is, of course, the Galton Collection. Francis Galton, with his notorious interest in improving humans by selective breeding, or eugenics – the term he coined – is a problematic figure, and preserving a collection of artifacts associated with him for posterity and within the context of the modern university, is troubling. Every element of the way in which he and his collection are presented requires careful consideration.

Over the past year I have been working on the documentation of the collection with the curator, Subhadra Das. I selected the Galton Collection online catalogue as the focus of a case study for my doctoral research. Subhadra and I have been carrying out various practical tasks to improve the collection’s documentation – or filing as it is also known – and any number of other post-it based displacement activities under the guise of “creating order”. Luckily, we are both in agreement that stationery is the cornerstone of all great intellectual inquiry.

The working title of my research topic has been “What’s missing (from museum object records)?” but inevitably the question has shifted and multiplied – why is information missing, what information about objects do we expect to see, what do museum documentation professionals record and why, if they know other things why don’t they reference them?

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The Unbelievable Truth about Sir Francis Galton

Subhadra Das5 November 2015

I have a motto: If at a loss, take inspiration from a tried and tested Radio 4 format.

This week it’s The Unbelievable Truth, the panel show built on truth and lies. Each panellist presents a short lecture on a chosen subject and scores points for how many truths they can smuggle past the other players. Panellists win points for spotting truths, and lose points if they mistake a lie for a truth. Seeing as I’m the only one presenting, the lecture is longer than normal and contains 15 truths rather than the usual 5. In the interest of investing in a civilised society, I will be trusting you to keep your own score.

This week, my subject is Sir Francis Galton, the Victorian scientist and statistician who propounded the term eugenics.

I've been doing my homework...

I’ve been doing my homework…

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Francis Galton and the History of Eugenics at UCL

Subhadra Das22 October 2015

The shadow of Sir Francis Galton looms large over UCL.

Francis Galton is the most famous and influential Victorian scientist you’ve never heard of. He coined the term eugenics and endowed UCL with his personal collection and archive, along with a bequest which funded the country’s first professorial Chair of Eugenics. Mahmoud Arif, a UCL student who attended “Why isn’t my Professor black?” questioned why, by holding this material and naming a lecture theatre after him, UCL appears to celebrate a known racist . Another student, Adam Elliot-Cooper, began his speech at a student protest in the summer by pointing to the Galton Lecture Theatre, which itself was the venue for the first ‘UCL Faces Race’ event last year where Galton and his work featured prominently.

Sir Francis Galton

Francis Galton (1822 – 1911) British scientist, statistician and eugenicist.

As Curator of the Galton Collection, I’ll admit that when I first heard that Galton had been name-checked in these discussions, my first response was “Oh, God, they’re going to want to burn the collection.” (Some Museum Studies degrees can include up to a whole module on ‘Curatorial Paranoia’.)

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Robert Noel and the ‘Science’ of Phrenology

Nick J Booth9 September 2015

This is a guest blog written by Dana Kovarik, a UCL student who has been volunteering with UCL Teaching and Research Collections over the summer holiday. 

1. A contemporary phrenological journal -  'Phrenology Made Easy'. Photo by author.

1. A contemporary phrenological journal –
‘Phrenology Made Easy’.
Photo by author.

Having been introduced to UCL’s collection of Robert Noel’s phrenological busts during a literature seminar on Victorian crime (e.g., The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde), I found there was still much work to be done in unravelling the mysteries of the collection.  While the heads have been catalogued and a book by Noel outlining the biographies of each specimen was found at the British Library, details about his life and career were slim.  Upon volunteering, I was tasked by Nick Booth of UCL Museums with conducting a literature review.  This involved finding articles by Noel and writings that reference his work throughout his career (roughly 1834-1880), in addition to mapping the developments of phrenology in Continental Europe during this time.

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The Museum is Where the People Are – vote for us now

Jenny M Wedgbury29 April 2015

PURE EVIL - Roberto Rossellini's Nighmare

Roberto Rossellini’s Nightmare, Pure Evil

VOTE NOW http://bit.ly/connectpureevil

Old master prints, drawings of flayed bodies, mysterious things in glass jars, extinct animal skeletons, glittery minerals and rocks, amulets and charms from ancient Egypt: UCL Museums and Collections are a treasure trove of the awe inspiring and unusual. But we don’t just think of ourselves as being a collection of objects fixed to one space and place, we believe that the Museum is where the people are and we want to take the spirit of our collections off site for the Museums at Night event on 30 and 31 October. (more…)

Ask a Curator day 2014

ucwemdo16 September 2014

 

On Wednesday 17th September UCL Museums will be taking part in the Ask A Curator Day event on twitter. This event is growing year on year, and at the time of writing, this week’s event has 520 museums taking part from 36 countries. We know that asking a question in a museum can sometimes feel intimidating, and that we curators can sometimes be hard to track down. There’s so much to do that we aren’t always the most available group of people (though we really do try).  We are taking part in the day as part of our commitment to make our collections as accessible as possible.

Ask A Curator works like this.  Anyone in the world with a twitter account can tweet a question with the #AskACurator hashtag, and it will be answered by any of the institutions taking part. If you have a specific question for us you can tweet it directly to us @UCLMuseums and one of our staff will do their best to answer you. The Grant Museum of Zoology is taking part using @GrantMuseum, as is the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology on @PetrieMuseEgypt.

In preparation for this I thought I would introduce you to our members of staff taking part…

Jack Ashby – Jack is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology. He is responsible for the strategic direction of the Museum, as well as managing the Museum’s resources. Much of his time is spent on creating opportunities for the public to engage with research going on at UCL. A zoologist by training with a particular interest in Australian mammals, he still spends as much time as he can in the field. He’ll be taking questions via @GrantMuseum throughout the day and from the @UCLMuseums account from 12 – 1 pm. (more…)

Museum Training for the World

Edmund Connolly7 March 2014

UCL is launching a new project with the British Council to help develop and teach new methods of Museum management. The Museum Training School opened this week and is aimed at mid-career professionals who are aspiring to be emerging leaders in the museum sector.

bc-ucl-mts-logo-black

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