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The Unsung Heroes of UCL Museums and Collections

ucwehlc6 July 2021

During 2020 and 2021 while UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from the Institute of Archaeology’s MA Museum Studies on our first-ever virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, provided opportunities for the students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.

This blog was written by Nicky Stitchman, UCL MA Museum Studies

As part of my MA in Museum Studies, I undertook a work placement with Hannah Cornish, Science Curator at UCL. My brief was to discover the different locations of UCL’s museums and teaching collections from the university’s origins in 1828. Ferreting out information from primary and secondary sources and finding maps that showed the movement of the various museums as the university expanded was fascinating, but I found myself drawn to people behind the museums. I am not talking here about the headliners – the Flinders Petries or Robert Grants of this world – but rather the curators, assistant curators and demonstrators who would have done most of the day-to-day tasks such as cataloguing, labelling, teaching, and physically moving the artefacts and objects within the collections. 

James Cossar Ewart at the Grant Museum 

J Cossar Ewart was the first professional, rather than professorial, curator of both the Anatomical Museum and Comparative Anatomy/Zoology Museum between 1875-1878. He was appointed after the retirement of William Sharpey (curator of the Anatomical Museum) and the death of Robert Grant (professor of comparative anatomy). In the official records, it was Professor Lankester, Grant’s successor, who refitted and rearranged the Museum of Zoology over this period but Ewart was instrumental in making the zoological preparations and was also known to have helped organise and take the subsequent practical classes that Lankester introduced to UCL. 

Black and white image of the head and shoulders of James Cossar Ewart

James Cossar Ewart worked at the Grant Museum 1875-1878. Image in public domain

After Ewart, there was a change in the running of the two largest museums at UCL at that time, with a separate curator appointed for the Museum of Anatomy, while the Zoological Museum (now the Grant Museum of Zoology) was titularly run by the Head of Department with a curatorial assistant.

Shattock and Stonham: Anatomy and Pathology

Mr Samuel Shattock succeeded Ewart as the Curator of the Anatomical and Pathological Museum. He had originally shown up in the records as a Mr Betty which caused me some confusion at the time, until I discovered that he had decided to change his name to prevent the extinction of the Shattock family name!  Shattock never qualified as a physician but dedicated his life to pathological medicine. He was responsible, alongside Dr Marcus Beck, for a descriptive catalogue of the surgical pathology preparations at UCL. His successor Charles Stonham also worked with Marcus Beck on Part II of this catalogue and then in 1890 produced another medical pathology catalogue, which can be found online at the Wellcome Collection. In the preface to this catalogue, Dr Barlow and Dr Money acknowledge the work of Charles Stonham, and state that it is ‘to him the preparation of this work is almost entirely due’.

Black and white image of Charles Stoneham in military uniform sitting on a wooden chair holding a riding crop

Charles Stonham Curator of the UCL Anatomical and Pathological Museum (copyright UCL CC By 3.0)

Stonham was also responsible for the division of the pathology from the anatomy collection and its rehousing within the museum. He is also remembered on the UCL Roll of Honour as not only was he an instrumental figure in the London Mounted Brigade Field Ambulance, but he volunteered as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps during WWI and died on service in January 1916 aged 58. 

Margaret Murray and the Petrie Museum

The dedication of many assistant curators at UCL is very clear. The redoubtable Margaret Murray (pictured here), who worked alongside Flinders Petrie for many years, was effectively in charge of the museum’s collections during Petrie’s many excavations in Egypt and the Levant. It should also be remembered that the Petrie Museum of Egyptology and the Department itself was founded on the collection and endowment of Mrs Amelia Edwards, who favoured UCL due to the early admission of women into the College.

Black and white image of Margret Murray wearing a lace shawl, seated and holding a book

Egyptologist Margaret Murray (Image in public domain)

 

Edith Goodyear and the Geology Museum

One of the first women to be involved in UCL’s museums was Edith Goodyear who was appointed as the Assistant in the Geology Museum in 1904 and subsequently remained in the department until the Second World War. Edith worked alongside Professor Edmund Garwood, reorganising the museum, teaching, and researching papers. A room in the Lewis Building was named for her, along with the First Year Student prize within Earth Sciences. It is also worth noting that in an age of inequality, the 1916/17 council minutes show Edith was paid £150, the same as her male colleague Dr J Elsden. 

Keeping it in the family: Mary and Geoffrey Hett

1917 also saw the appointment of Mary L Hett as Assistant in the Zoology Dept on the same salary of £150, where she remained until she took up the post as Professor of Biology at the Hardinge Medical College, Delhi.  She had followed her brother Geoffrey S Hett to UCL where he held the post of Curator of the Anatomical Museum from 1907-1910. Like his sister, he had a great interest in the natural world and was an authority on both British birds and on bats. Geoffrey became an ENT Specialist and during his time at UCL completed valuable research on the anatomy of the tonsils. Like his predecessor, Charles Stonham, he also served in World War I and used the skills learnt at UCL to treat head, and in particular, nasal injuries during this period. 

The stories of the men and women who studied and worked at UCL museums over the years are many and various, and these are just a sample of those whom I have met in my research for the Mapping UCL Museums Project. We may never be able to give the Curators and Assistant Curators the recognition that their work and dedication deserve but in introducing these few to you, I hope to have redressed the balance very slightly in their favour!  

Fun with Minerals 2: Back in the Habit

Subhadra Das15 September 2016

UCL Earth Sciences student and veteran of UCL Geology Collections curation Nadine Gabriel returns with another guest blog relating her work with the mineral collection over the summer. It’s great to have her back and to demonstrate that collections management is clearly habit forming.

Hello, it’s Nadine Gabriel again and I’ve been spending another summer working with UCL Geology Collections. Since the Rock Room will soon have another home, I’ve been removing minerals from display cabinets, auditing the collection and accessioning some new specimens. Once again I have seen thousands of minerals and one thing that always catches my eye is the wide variety of habits, so I thought this topic would make a great sequel to my first blog.

A mineral habit is the shape of a single crystal or group of crystals. This is dependent on a mineral’s crystallographic system (the atomic arrangement of a crystal) and its growing conditions. The basic habit classification is defined by how well-formed a crystal is. A mineral is euhedral if all faces are well-developed, which means it grew in uncrowded, optimal conditions. However, if a mineral grew in unsuitable conditions, it becomes subhedral (some faces present) or anhedral (no faces). Below are the more specific habit classifications.

First up is the massive habit which contains no visible crystal structures, but don’t assume that this doesn’t make them less eye catching! Many beautiful minerals such as deep blue lapis lazuli and vivid red (but poisonous) cinnabar have this habit.

Minerals with cubic habit

Cubic: pyrite, fluorite and galena (top). Hexagonal: quartz (middle left) and aragonite (middle right). Platy: biotite (bottom left) and talc (bottom right)

(more…)

The Slade Rock Room Takeover – ‘Poison’

Nick J Booth5 May 2016

For the past three years MA sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art have been involved in an experiment creating work influenced by the Rock Room, the Geology Collections and the Earth Science Department here at UCL. Every year the resultant one day pop-up event has been totally different from the last, you can read about previous events here and here. This year marks the fourth instalment of the project, and the last in the Rock Room’s current home.

The Rock Room Slade Takeover will be open to the public between 12.30 – 4pm on Friday 13th May, while special selection of museum objects and books from UCL Special Collections will be on display between 1 – 2 on Wednesday 11th.

Slade - art works in the mineral display.

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This year’s theme is ‘poison’, which came about as a result of a separate student led pop-up earlier in the year. For the first time this year’s take over will be preceded by a workshop in the Rock Room on the Wednesday before, with the aim of  bringing together researchers, staff and students around the ‘poison’ theme.

Slade - art work in the Rock Room.

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(more…)

The Rock Room is Getting a New Home

Nick J Booth7 April 2016

The Rock Room.

The Rock Room.

A Geology Museum has existed at UCL since 1855 (UCL was founded in 1826), 14 years after  the first professor of Geology, Thomas Webster, started at UCL. However geology has been collected for longer – the first recorded donation of geology specimens to UCL came in 1828 from a Mr. Davies Gilbert. Today the collection consists of over 100,000 specimens, from microfossils to large trace fossils, and ranging in age from c4.5 billion year old meteorites to relatively recent fossils (including my favourite fossil crab).

The Rock Room has been in its present location since 1908, (more…)

Behind the Scenes of the Cabinet

ucwehpi2 February 2016

In our continuing series to document the process behind the next exhibition in the Octagon, artists Mark Peter Wright and Helena Hunter who were chosen to work with curators and academic researchers from UCL led by Helen Pike, Public Programmer at The Petrie Museum give an update on their methodology. Mark is an artist and researcher working across sound, video, assemblage and performance and Helena’s practice spans performance, text and moving image. The blog offers a chance for ideas to be presented and hopefully engage comment and conversation!

BDA-UC1-0016

Over the last couple of months we have been developing a concept and method for material display entitled The Cabinets of Consequence for the forthcoming new Octagon exhibition. This is a reference and adaptation of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Originating from a 17th century European tradition, cabinets of curiosity were ramshackle rooms furnished with an abundance of objects of artistry, craftsmanship and relics. Wunderkammers as they were called, productively disturb taxonomic conventions of display, however, the emphasis on curiosity detaches objects from their ethical and social-political contexts.

We want to destabilize hierarchies of display but not at the expense of the entangled geo-political histories of archives and processes of asymmetrical extraction on which objects have been collected.

We intend therefore, to emphasize the multiple ecologies (Guattari, 2000) around such materials. The central challenge for us is to hold onto the vibrant materiality of objects, whilst simultaneously projecting matter into its ethico-political milieu: an aesthetics of display that not only works backwards through history, but also forwards, through the present and its possible futures.

‘A new metaphysics (materialism) is not restricted to a here and now, nor does it merely project an image of the future for us. It announces what we may call a “new tradition,” which simultaneously gives us a past, a present, and a future.’ Dolphijn, R & Van der Tuin, I.

Safe drinking water in Mexico: a project by EWB-UCL

Nick J Booth28 January 2016

On Friday 5th February the student society Engineers Without Borders UCL will be hosting a special event in the Rock Room focusing on one of their successful projects. Between 12.30 – 4.30pm members of the society will be on hand to talk to visitors, who will also get the opportunity to inspect museum specimens from the Grant Museum, UCL Art Museum and UCL Geology Collections which relate to the subject of their project – providing safe drinking water to a rural community in Mexico whose drinking water was contaminated with fluoride and arsenic.

Arsenic Sample. Photo from Wikipedia.

Arsenic Sample.
Photo from Wikipedia.

UCL Engineers Without Borders’ mission is to ‘facilitate human development through sharing engineering and technical expertise in the developing world’. It is open to everyone to join, not just those with an engineering background and in 2014-15 it was involved in nine development projects across the world.

I met the society’s president, Gabriela May Lagunes, last summer at UCL’s Spark Fest, (more…)

The Evils Of Helium Balloons…and why you shouldn’t use them this holiday season.

Nick J Booth3 December 2015

Tis the season to be Jolly! We’re into the time for celebrations, festive cheer and office parties, drinks, mince pies and holiday decorations. And yet using some of those decorations could have serious consequences for us in the future, I’m talking of course about the menace that is… helium filled balloons.

You'll thank me one day. "The Grinch (That Stole Christmas)". Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

You’ll thank me one day.
“The Grinch (That Stole Christmas)”.
Licensed under Fair use via Wikipedia.

Helium and UCL have a long and entwined history. Sir William Ramsay first identified it on earth on March 26th, 1895, in his UCL lab (now an artist’s studio in the Slade School of Art) and it was this, along with his discovery of argon, neon, krypton and xenon, that won him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1904. There’s a couple of labs named after him, and arguably without him our neighbouring area of Soho would look very different (as helium is used in ‘Neon’ signs).  (more…)

Fun with Minerals

Nick J Booth8 October 2015

This is a guest post by Nadine Gabriel, a UCL student and volunteer with UCL Museums. All photos by the author.

Hello there, I’m Nadine Gabriel and I’ve been working with the UCL Geology Collections for just over a year. Towards the end of the summer holidays, I was given the chance to audit the thousands of mineral specimens in the Rock Room to ensure that we have a record of what is (and isn’t) in the collection. While auditing the collection, I handled a wide variety of specimens and learnt about new minerals and their classification – I’ve come across so many minerals that I’ve never heard of, even after doing two years of geology. But the best thing about working with the collection was saying ‘ooh’ and ‘ahh’ every time I saw a nice shiny mineral.

Heart Minerals - calcite and malachite.

Heart Minerals – calcite and malachite.

When I first started working with the geological collections, my audits involved working with Excel spreadsheets and paper catalogues filled with entries from way before I was born. (more…)

Please can I see the Fossil Lady?

Celine West19 August 2015

This is a guest blog written by Alison South, volunteer for UCL Museums.

The dayroom on Ward 12 at UCH (University College Hospital) is bright and spacious with views west along the busy Euston Road. Here patients at the Teenage Cancer Trust Unit relax with their families and friends, putting aside illness, treatments, sickness and drugs for a while, chatting or enjoying a game or other activity. Over the last year I’ve become a regular visitor, bringing with me a bag of museum objects from the Touching Heritage handling collection at UCL Museums.

I vary my choice of 8-10 objects each week, but always include some fossils and rocks from the Geology collections, natural history specimens and Ancient Egyptian artefacts. Some on the ward refer to me as the ‘fossil lady’ or the ‘museum lady’ – I prefer to think of myself as a sort of therapeutic ‘bag lady’ holding tight my precious possessions. (more…)

Rock Room Slade School Takeover – Part 3

Nick J Booth5 May 2015

One of the art works from the  Slade event in the Rock Room.

One of the works from a previous Rock Room Slade event.

This Friday (May 8th) between 1 – 5pm the Rock Room will host its annual Slade School takeover. This is the third instalment of the joint UCL Museums and Slade School of Fine Art project (see a blog on the last one here) which has seen staff and students from the Slade install art works that include sculpture, painting and various mixed media (including cheese, fish and other foodstuffs) into the Rock Room.

As with past years I have no idea what the artists will be bringing to display in the Museum. (more…)