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Digital Digging: Shedding New Light on the Petrie Museum’s Archive

Anna E Garnett20 May 2021

During 2020-2021, when 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 virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, continue to provide 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.

Since September 2020, Karolina Pekala and Timea Deak worked together on two virtual curatorial projects focusing on aspects of the Petrie Museum’s internationally important archive.

Karolina: Beginning a placement at the Petrie Museum was definitely out of my comfort zone. As someone with a predominantly art history background, approaching Egyptian history and objects seemed intimidating until I began to learn about the collection through the task of transcribing negative lists.

A page from the handwritten list of Petrie Museum negatives, written by volunteer Joan Merritt in the 1990s.

The Petrie Museum archive contains a detailed handwritten list describing the photographic negatives in the collection. The information on this long list, describing hundreds of individual negatives, is vital for our understanding of archaeological photography and the publication process for early excavations. This project is a good opportunity for us to contribute to the documentation, and improve the accessibility, of the Museum’s archive.

The handwritten pages contained many names of objects foreign to me, prompting many Google searches. A particular set of objects I found fascinating are the ostraca: small pieces of limestone or pottery used for writing, drawing, or sketching. I was learning something new page by page, and now that museums are slowly opening, I am excited to visit and put the objects to their names.

Despite this being a remote placement, this experience has been enriching. I was especially interested to learn about Joan Merritt, the Petrie Museum volunteer behind the handwritten pages. Knowing that the digitisation of these lists is contributing to a bigger project and legacy is incredibly rewarding.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1892.

Timea: Attempting to piece together the life of a man long gone can be a challenging endeavour at the best of times! Doing this from the writings of others only adds an extra dimension to the challenge. Yet, this was what we tried to do as we scoured trough the archives for information on Flinders Petrie.

The aim of this project was to find out more about how Petrie, and his excavations, were portrayed in the media. For this project, we drew upon our research skills to collect digital newspaper clippings which mention Flinders Petrie and produce a searchable list of these documents for future study, which will be an important addition to the Museum’s digital archive.

No great scandal was unravelled through this exercise; however, we did stumble upon articles from which we could glean aspects of Petrie’s humanity. A 1938 article in the Washington Post describes a bizarre discussion concerning the size of Petrie’s head. It seemed that the archaeologist indulged this discussion himself, perhaps even finding it humorous. Flinders Petrie revealed that, over the many decades of his life, his head had never seemed to stop growing, and seemingly struggled to find the perfect hat to fit him comfortably! Such gems reveal no great accomplishment or secret side to Petrie, but they remind us that he, too, was human.

In loving memory of Lisette Flinders Petrie

f.taylor28 April 2021

This blog was written by Stephen Quirke, Edwards Professor of Egyptian Archaeology and Philology, UCL Institute of Archaeology. We are sharing the tribute written by Professor Quirke, who first met Lisette during his time as Curator of the Petrie Museum.

Lisette Petrie

Lisette Petrie passed away on 5 April 2021 after a full life of dedication to family and friends and the world of learning.

Lisette gave her energetic support to study and learning, both in her own teaching for the Open University in astronomy, and in her practical impact in maintaining her family links to University College London, as well as to Flinders University in Adelaide. Her ties to UCL are through her grandfather, the archaeologist Flinders Petrie (1853-1942), whose Egyptian and Palestinian archaeological collections form such an important part of UCL museums and collections today.

Over many years, Lisette energetically supported us in our efforts to preserve and display the collections for a wider audience, joining us in 2007 at the opening of the SOAS Brunei Gallery exhibition A Future For The Past: Petrie’s Palestinian Collection, and in 2006 as guest of honour at the Fantasia fundraiser organised by the Friends of the Petrie Museum – where she wore the 20th century Egyptian galabiya of her grandmother Hilda Petrie, another outstanding woman of science. She also joined the Friends in their travels to Egypt, on one occasion delighting her audience with her skills as astronomer and teacher in decoding a 3,300 year old sky chart in the Valley of the Kings.

Her energy, liveliness and warmth, and her practical guidance will be sorely missed, not least in our continued quest for a safe and accessible building to house the ancient material and to welcome the widest range of visitors.

At her passing many of us relive our own vivid personal memories of her presence. We offer our deepest sympathy to Martha, Rachel and Susie, in their time of loss.

For a recent glimpse of Lisette closer to home, in her own words, and ever practical in support:  https://www.hospicestrail.co.uk/completer/lisette-petrie/

Violette Lafleur: Bombs, boxes and one brave lady

f.taylor25 February 2021

Image: Photograph of Violette Lafleur in her conservation lab

To celebrate International Women’s Day 2021, we want to share with you the story of an extraordinary woman who helped save the Petrie Museum Collection during World War Two, UCL conservation student and volunteer Violette Lafleur.

Only one tin of Ptolemaic funerary masks and thirty limestone tomb-wall fragments were deemed beyond repair following the bombing raids during the Second World War. It is remarkable that more was not lost. We owe this to one incredible lady who, through sheer determination, took up the challenge of packing and sorting the collection during this tumultuous time.

Against a backdrop of wartime austerity and danger, Violette Lafleur managed almost single-handedly to save the Petrie collection.

In 1938 the most fragile and most important objects in the Petrie collection began to be boxed up and moved to Blockley, Gloucestershire, home of a naval Captain George Spencer Churchill, a cousin of Winston Churchill. The bulk of the work was undertaken by Lafleur, with the occasional assistance of College porters and a former student. The remaining 160 cases stayed on campus in the South and Refectory Vaults.

On 18 September 1940, the College sustained bomb damage that destroyed the skylights, allowing water to drip onto a tray of funerary cones and wooden toys. Despite this close shave, Lafleur returned a few days later to continue her efforts at considerable personal risk: one day a bomb dropped nearby as she laboured over the collection.

It was arduous work, compounded by the lack of packing crates due to wood shortages, meaning Lafleur had to improvise with drawers and trays. Then in April 1941, the College suffered an almost direct bomb strike and, although artefacts were not directly damaged, water from the firemen’s hoses seeped into the basement leaving cases standing in water. The artefacts had to be unpacked, dried, treated and repacked once again.

Funders were eventually secured from College coffers to finish the last tranche of repacking and some 405 cases were transferred to Compton Wynyates in Warwickshire, where part of the British Museum collection was already safely housed.

As the bombs continued to rain down it was clear London was far from safe. The Ministry of Works arranged for a further 275 cases to be moved to Drayton Court in Northamptonshire, home of Colonel Stopford Sackville. By July 1943 some 14 tonnes of cases and crates had been transported by the Pall Mall Depositing and Forwarding Company in four separate van loads, all sorted and designated by Lafleur.

Her valiant efforts were noted at the time and then-Provost, David Pye, asked that an official letter of appreciation for her efforts be written. There were plans to further acknowledge her remarkable achievements with a plaque. This never materialised, and only a short speech was given at a UCL Fellows dinner in May 1951.

Lafleur had no formal academic qualifications and her professional status at UCL was something of an anomaly. With her extensive experience of collections care and management, she was eventually bestowed the title ‘honorary museum assistant’, a role that she held until her retirement in 1953. She never received a single penny for her work, nor was it ever commemorated in the way she deserved. Her commitment, however, is not forgotten.

You can read more about some of the extraordinary stories behind the Petrie Museum on our website and in the Petrie Museum Entrance Gallery.

 

This article is taken from Pike, H., (2015), ‘Violette Lafleur: bombs, boxes and one brave lady’, in Stevenson, A., (ed.), The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology: Characters and Collections, London: UCL Press (DOI: 10.14324/111.9781910634042)

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

 

 

 

Revealing the Characters behind the Petrie Museum Collection

Anna E Garnett28 September 2020

During Spring/Summer 2020, when 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 post was written by Giulia Marinos and Alexandra BakerUCL MA Museum Studies students. 

Margaret Murray when she received her honorary doctorate from UCL in 1927 (Petrie Museum Archive)

The Petrie Museum is named after the Egyptologist Flinders Petrie, but there are many other individuals whose work was also integral to the development of the Museum and its collection. As part of our summer placement project, we have designed object trails for each of these little-known ‘characters’, telling the story of their lives and work through objects that can be found in the Petrie. This project complements the recently redeveloped entrance gallery of the Petrie Museum that highlights several individuals that were involved in the collection and preservation of the museum.

Margaret Murray

 One of our object trails explores the fascinating life and work of the archaeologist, Egyptologist, feminist and centenarian Margaret Murray (1863–1963). One of Petrie’s first Egyptology students, Murray soon played a vital role in the development and running of UCL’s Department of Egyptology. Importantly, Murray took over Petrie’s teaching duties when he was away on excavation (which was for most of the year!). It is Murray who we should thank for training subsequent generations of successful UCL Egyptologists and archaeologists, including Gertrude Caton-Thompson, Veronica Seton-Williams and Robert Faulkner. Murray’s object trail sheds light on her important work, which has often been overshadowed by that of Petrie.

Ali Suefi

Ali Suefi (Petrie Museum Archive)

Another trail focuses on Ali Suefi, an Egyptian fisherman from Lahun who oversaw excavations in Egypt for over 30 years, and who Petrie called his ‘best lad’. The trail includes some of the objects that Ali Suefi is credited to have found. We are lucky to know as much as we do about Ali Suefi from the details documented in the Petrie Museum’s archives, but it is important to consider how many other people were involved and contributed to Petrie’s success and fame that do not get any recognition. This is due in part to the skewed biases of archives: what gets preserved and what is deemed important to record at the time. It is also likely due in part to the unequal power dynamics and systematic disenfranchisement of Egyptians in the fields of archaeology and Egyptology.

 Our research project—to recognize the many diverse voices and individuals involved in the Petrie Museum collection—reflects wider efforts within the fields of archaeology and Egyptology. Such disciplines historically focused on ‘heroic’ white-male figures at the exclusion and expense of the agencies of the many actors involved in the processes of excavation, collecting and museum work.

To learn more about the often-under-recognised individuals in the fields of Egyptology and Archaeology, we recommend Wendy Doyon’s 2017 chapter “The History of Archaeology through the Eyes of the Egyptians” and Alice Stevenson’s Scattered Finds, available as a free download from UCL Press.

Giulia Marinos and Alexandra Baker are MA Museum Studies students at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Their summer placement was designed and supported by Dr. Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology.

Improving object descriptions in UCL’s Object-Based Learning Lab

Anna E Garnett28 September 2020

During Spring/Summer 2020, when 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 post was written by Yanning Zhao and Giulia MarinosUCL MA Museum Studies students. 

UCL’s new Object-Based Learning Lab, located in the Wilkins Building, is a purpose-built space to support and promote object-based teaching in the university. A large permanent exhibition of hundreds of objects from UCL’s collections is now on display in the OBL lab, and many of these objects were in need of updated and improved object descriptions for our museum database and online catalogue. Here, Yanning Zhao and Giulia Marinos describe their work to update some of these object records for objects from the Petrie Museum collection.

What did you do for this project?

Yanning: We divided all the Petrie Museum objects in the OBL displays into two groups, so that we could each focus on updating half of the objects on display. The objects I researched were mainly comprised of Egyptian figurines, vessels and even fragments from statues. As most of the current descriptions for these objects are too short for readers to fully understand them, our responsibility was to review them and highlight key aspects about the objects concisely.

Giulia: In addition to revising the labels to make them more descriptive and accessible to a wider range of readers, we also researched the objects and looked for similar objects in other museum collections.

Did this project present any challenges?

Red breccia lion (UC15199)

Yanning: The biggest challenge for me was to describe the objects in an academic and concise style! I did not have much experience researching Egyptian artefacts, so I had to start from zero to learn how to write proper descriptions. Thankfully, Anna Garnett (Petrie Museum Curator) provided a lot of learning resources, but I still found it challenging to try to identify the features of the objects. We worked on this project remotely, so this might be because we were not able to access the objects to see them more closely in person.

Giulia: Initially, I did not expect it to be challenging to write visually descriptive labels for objects; however, I was surprised by how difficult it was to articulately and accurately describe some objects. This could be due to the complex nature of the objects, the limited views available from the online catalogue or my lack of familiarity with the objects. Although there is so much information available digitally about the objects and the Petrie Museum collection in general, there are limitations to strictly digital or online engagement. Perhaps that also shows how I miss seeing and interacting with collections in person!

Wooden boat model (UC75621)

Tell us some fun facts or interesting findings from the project!

Yanning: I would like to highlight this red breccia rock in the shape of a lion (UC15199, image above). Its current description does not clearly state whether it is a gaming piece or not, but by comparing it with other similar collections from other institutions, it is likely to be gaming piece for senet, a popular ancient Egyptian board game.

Giulia: I was impressed to learn how far and wide ancient Egyptian objects have been dispersed across collections around the world! In my research, I found how similar object types such as Predynastic pottery or wooden boat models can be spread over so many different institutions – from California to Italy for example (if you are interested to learn more on this, I recommend Alice Stevenson’s Scattered Finds, available as a free download from UCL Press).

Yanning Zhao and Giulia Marinos are MA Museum Studies students at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Their summer placement was designed and supported by Dr. Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology.

Stories from the Visitor Book: Petrie Museum Visitors in the mid-Twentieth Century

Anna E Garnett28 September 2020

During Spring/Summer 2020, when 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 post was written by Alexandra Baker and Yanning ZhaoUCL MA Museum Studies students. 

Petrie Museum Visitor Book

When thinking about the Petrie Museum, the first thing that might come to mind is its vast collection: from ancient Egyptian artefacts to Flinders Petrie’s own personal belongings. As visitors, we can always discover interesting facts about those objects. However, did you know that museum visitor books also tell a story about the past? They are more than simply a list of names and addresses.

During summer 2020, our team transcribed 82 pages from the Museum’s visitor book and made fascinating findings about museum visitors between 1937 and 1959.

Three fun facts about our visitors:

Made by Visme

  1. We had more international visitors than you might think!

You might think the Petrie Museum attracts more UCL staff and students than people from other parts of the world, but our findings show that international scholars regularly visited the museum in the last century (the orange sections on the map indicate where visitors came from). Many historical events happened between the 1930s and 1950s, but that did not stop people from all over the world visiting the museum. These international visitors travelled to London from Spain, France, and from even further afield including Chile and Japan.

  1. Most international visitors were from the United States

It seems that the majority of international visitors were from the US. Most of them recorded the cities and regions they came from, including New York, Phoenix and Boston.

  1. English is not the only language used by visitors

We have faced some challenges to translate the language that some visitors use into English. For example, one Japanese scholar used Japanese to record the name of his university. Another visitor from Berlin, surprisingly, used hieroglyphs to record their name as ‘Neferneferuaten Nefertiti’!

Famous Egyptologists also visited the Petrie Museum:

L to R: Hilda Petrie (Petrie Museum Archive); Olga Tufnell (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Olga_Tufnell); 
Sidney Smith (https://www.cambridge.org)

The visitor book also shows us that big names in Egyptology visited the Petrie Museum during this time, highlighting how the collection was, and still is, an important resource for the study of Egyptian Archaeology. Our famous visitors included:

A. F. Shore (Who was Who in Egyptology 5, p. 451)

  1. Hilda Petrie: Egyptologist and archaeologist
  2. Olga Tufnell: Archaeologist who worked on the excavation of the ancient city of Lachish in the 1930s
  3. Sidney Smith: Assyriologist who worked at the Iraq Museum, British Museum, UCL and King’s College London
  4. A. F. Shore: Scholar and Brunner Professor of Egyptology at the University of Liverpool

Many of our visitors were students!

The Petrie Museum’s visitor book also shows us how popular the museum was amongst students from UCL and beyond. Students visited the Museum from a range of disciplines, from archaeology to physics, and interestingly art students often visited it. Working closely with students and scholars from around the world is an important part of the museum’s work that continues today.

Alexandra Baker and Yanning Zhao are MA Museum Studies students at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Their summer placement was designed and supported by Dr. Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology.

 

How can you care for museum collections during lockdown?

f.taylor7 August 2020

This blog was written by Conservator Graeme McArthur from the UCL Culture Collections Management Team.

The closure of UCL’s campus during lockdown has provided new challenges for UCL Culture’s Collections Management team. We are responsible for taking care of the world-class collections of artworks, ancient artefacts, zoological and pathological specimens, instruments and scientific equipment held by the university. We make sure that these objects and specimens are available for use, study and exhibition by ensuring they are properly stored, handled, displayed and documented. But carrying out this important role usually requires us to be on site!

Usually we carry out regular programmes of cleaning, auditing and conservation as well as environmental monitoring and pest control. We work closely with our curatorial colleagues to agree new acquisitions and prepare objects for loan for exhibition in the UK and abroad. Our lovely team includes Collections Managers, Conservators and four Curatorial and Collections Assistants.

So how have we cared for our collections during lockdown? Well the very first thing we did was produce a risk register to highlight areas of concern when nobody is physically present in our museums and collection spaces. Here are some of the things we’ve been keeping an eye on.

Pests!

Some of UCL’s collections are an excellent food source for the larvae of insects such as beetles and moths. This is especially true of the feathers and fur that are prevalent in the Grant Museum of Zoology. It is vital to know if there has been a pest outbreak as soon as possible, by the time someone notices moths flying around there could already have been significant damage.


Image: A drawer full of feathers and other organic material in the Grant Museum, many pests would consider this to be a drawer full of food!

To this end we have sticky pest traps throughout all of our collection spaces. These will not remove a pest threat but enough will blunder onto them to give us an indication that there is a problem. Traps are placed on the edges of rooms where pests tend to run around as well as near particularly vulnerable materials. Of course to tell us anything these need to be checked regularly which became a problem once the UCL campus closed.


Image: Pest traps and the all-important grabber to position them behind furniture.

Environment

Understanding the environment in museums and object stores is vital to the long-term preservation of our collections. Extremes in light, temperature and humidity as well as rapid changes can all cause permanent damage. We have all seen what can happen to book spines if left next to a sunny window, but this can be stopped with something as simple as closing the blinds!

High humidity can promote mould growth and corrosion whereas low humidity can cause organic materials such as wood to shrink and crack. Knowledge of the materials in the collection allows us to make an informed choice on how we want to the environment to be, though it is not always possible to keep it that way.

Thankfully even though we have not been able to work on campus during this period we are lucky enough to have a system where data is sent to us remotely. We have sensors in all of our collection spaces and we can look at this data even whilst working from home. Without people in spaces and with lights off and the blinds closed the environment has been very stable. It is easier to keep objects safe when they are not seen or used for research, but then there wouldn’t be much point in having them!


Image: A day of environmental data from the Petrie Museum.

Flooding and leaks

Many of the UCL buildings are prone to the occasional leak. Most of the collections are well protected inside cases or cupboards, but even so if left for too long a leak can potentially cause damage. It is important to check the environmental data to look for an increase in humidity that could be caused by there being standing water in the room.

To reduce these risks, we have set up socially distanced fortnightly checks of all of our collections with two members of staff who can drive in to campus. This allows us to check all of the pest traps so any outbreaks can be discovered as soon as possible. Sometimes traps become so crowded that they need replacing so we can see what new pests have become stuck.


Image: Spiders caught in our pest traps

Unfortunately, the pests caught on traps tend to attract spiders who are actually very helpful in reducing pest numbers.

During our fortnightly visits we checked all the spaces, cupboards and drawers where objects are not visible to ensure there were no other problems.


Image: Revealing a beautiful papyrus from the Petrie Museum storage

Adapting our ways of working

Working from home is an unusual situation for our team as we don’t normally spend most of our time in front of a screen! We have had to refocus to other areas, however this has allowed us to work on projects that there would not normally be time for. One of these is improving the collections database that is used as the base for our online catalogue. Over many years data has been entered in an inconsistent manner with fields being used differently by individuals and throughout different collections. We have now standardised how the fields should be used and begun to ‘clean’ the old data to remove inconsistencies. Once this is complete it will be more useful for us, the researchers and general public who use the online catalogue.

The campus has been eerily quiet during the checks but we are looking forward to welcoming back UCL students, staff and the general public in the near future!


Image: UCL campus

Not all Fun and Games

f.taylor23 July 2020

This blog is written by escape room designer, museum freelancer and queer historian Sacha Coward. It explores gaming (then and now) and how playing games has always been about more than just having a good time.

Under lockdown games have become a welcome escape for so many of us. Just before typing this I was in the saccharine world of Animal Crossing sending virtual presents to a friend. Before that I was immersed in the gritty realism of The Last Of Us 2, a game which despite its exaggerated zombie apocalypse setting, can sometimes feel a little too close to home! I have been involved in online quizzes and boardgame marathons with friends over Zoom for months now. During a crisis, and particularly in times of hardship, games, as ever, are here to fill the void. But they go a bit deeper…

Photo Credit: Dan Vo, Videogame themed escape room built for the V&A by Sacha Coward, 2019

It’s worth saying that as an escape room designer, videogame fanatic and recently a dungeons and dragons Dungeon Master, in terms of gaming-nerdom I have got pretty good credentials! But I am also part of the LGBTQ+ community, a museum and heritage worker and I am outspoken about inclusion and diversity in arts and culture. This means I have a real fascination with games and gaming; Where they come from historically and how they are used by different people today and in the past.

Before lockdown I built a giant immersive game of Snakes and Ladders for the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology, so here I want to reflect on how and why I did it. Also I want to take a chance to briefly explore games, and look at some of the surprising things they can reveal about us. I want to think about the games we play today, the way they are evolving, and how you can see the seeds of this even in prehistory.

Floor vinyl created by Sheldon Goodman for ‘Snakes and Ladders’ takeover of The Grant Museum January 2020

To begin with, what is a game? It’s challenging to define exactly what a game is that includes everything that we lump under this broad category. It is more than just play (although that can be a part of it) it is a special kind of play, one that requires mutually understood rules, the presence of some kind of challenge to overcome, and an outcome or objective.

Such a description would fit equally well with Mario Kart, football, hide and seek and chess! With this definition in hand, humans have been playing games since the dawn of time. Although we don’t have physical material evidence for many games that might have been played through spoken word or action, we can still presume they were taking place. It is the ancient games with physical pieces, props and boards that we know the most about through the archeological record. The often cited oldest evidence of a game with materials associated, is the Egyptian game of Senet.

UC2320: An intact board game identified as Senet at The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology.

Senet dates back to at least 3100BCE. It represents the journey of a part of a person’s soul, known as their Ka, through the afterlife. it shows us something else that many games share; as well as being a fun way to pass the time, there is a central lesson or teaching goal that often applies to broader ideas of morality and society.

Even before Senet we can pretty much guarantee that games in some form or another have existed in human populations across the world since at least the dawn of modern human beings. In fact playing games is one of the defining traits that makes us human!

Great ape skulls, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Today we see a myriad of games existing, played by all ages and in all areas of society. These games tell us a lot about who we are, and where we come from. A classic example is the ever fought over Monopoly; A game based on an older form known as ‘The Landlord’s Game’ created back in 1904. This game was originally designed as a teaching aid, to show and explore how economic disparity and ‘land grabbing’ was harmful and unfair. The game has since become a symbol of capitalism used by all sides of the political spectrum to explain and defend their beliefs. Most recently it was the powerful centrepiece of a speech on the impact of oppression against black people, made by Kimberley Latrice Jones during the #BlackLivesMatters protests. Games are more than games, they are some of the earliest structures we use to understand the good and bad of the world we live in.

Even one of the most seemingly simple and ubiquitous childhood games ‘snakes and ladders’ has a fascinating story that shows it too had a powerful learning objective relating to the human soul and how one should live.

Moksha Pattam boards, Wikipedia Creative Commons

Snakes and Ladders is not a Western creation, in fact its presence in the UK and Europe (and in America as the slightly neutered version ‘Chutes and Ladders’) is a direct product of empire building. ‘Moksha Pattam’ was a game which began in the Indian Subcontinent, it was part of an entire family of games arguably dating back as far as 1500BCE. These games, much like Senet, and even Monopoly, demonstrated principles relating to human life, religion and philosophy. The snakes and ladders in the game represented the conflict between Karma and Kama, I.e. destiny versus desire. Simply put, the fact that you are constrained by the random roles of a dice demonstrates the random way one might experience good and bad outcomes in life. The Victorians took this game as part of an obsession with taking, borrowing and stealing Indian aesthetics and culture. They repackaged the game with Christian values: The snakes therefore became vices, and the ladders virtues.

Moksha Pattam boards, Wikipedia Creative Commons

The fascinating colonial history of this commonplace game, and that it is a fantastic way to illustrate unfairness and bias led me to run a collaboration with the Grant Museum at UCL. On the 30th of January 2020, just before lockdown, I developed a giant immersive game of snakes and ladders as part of an evening takeover of the Museum. Working with illustrator and tour guide Sheldon Goodman and UCL museum staff I produced a giant vinyl game of snakes and ladders that had visitors walk around the cabinets as playing pieces.

Character card created for ‘Snakes and Ladders’ takeover by Sheldon Goodman

We also created four different rule sets, each aligned to a different character archetype. These characters and rule sets aimed to get people to think how race, identity, sex, class and sexuality interplay in creating unfair advantages and disadvantages in real life. (This was part of the Grant Museum’s ‘Displays Of Power’ exhibition.) I felt like we were getting back to the roots of Snakes and Ladders, a tool created 3,500 years ago to teach about privilege.

Photo of board for the ‘Snakes and Ladders’ Takeover at the Grant Museum

Now in lockdown I am no longer building physical games, although I am creating digital escape rooms and online experiences. I am also playing a LOT of videogames; Boardgames are still alive and well but we have entered into a new world with the advent of digital gaming. Today the games we play are becoming more and more rich, complex and immersive with every iteration. Long ago this was seen as a safe space for only heterosexual cisgender male nerds, now games like every other artform are pushing for more diverse casts, and better storytelling. Mario saving Princess Peach from the castle is just not enough anymore!

Sacha runs videogame themed tours of the British Museum, where despite the lighthearted nature of the topic he covers themes of race, gender, colonisation and empire.

Even tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons and Dragons have started to realise that despite their fantastical setting, they need to mirror the lived experience of their players. Wizards of the Coast who produce the official rule sets for D&D have made a decision to remove ‘evil’ alignment from races in their series. They argue that in today’s climate talking about entire races as inherently bad or wrong is unhelpful. This is arguably in direct response to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Games, as ever, and just like their players, do not exist in a vacuum.

Sacha runs videogame themed tours of the British Museum, where despite the lighthearted nature of the topic he covers themes of race, gender, colonisation and empire.

There has definitely been pushback against these decisions by a vocal minority. The newly released Last Of Us 2 by Naughty Dog, features an incredibly diverse cast including a lesbian protagonist. This resulted in an orchestrated campaign of ‘review bombing’ before the game had even been released! Some gamers feel that gaming is becoming too ‘political’ that it should just be about ‘fun’. If anything, from my time building games, but even more from studying their history, I can see that games have always been hugely political. They have always had morals and were nearly always designed to teach us about real world principles.

Same-sex kiss from The Last Of Us 2, Copyright Naughty Dog

All in all, games are this strange cool byproduct of human brains! We have been making them since the dawn of humanity, and there is something beautiful and cool to think that there is a thread that links me, killing zombies on a TV screen with a kick-ass lesbian protagonist, directly to an ancient Verdic game used to teach the Hindu and Jainist concept of karma! We play games to escape, and to let off steam, but games are created by and for real people with their own ideas, and feelings, and objectives. Next time you boot up your console, roll the dice, or shuffle a deck of cards, spare a moment to think what those sometimes hidden messages might be. But don’t worry, it’s just a game…

Download our free virtual meeting backgrounds from UCL Culture

f.taylor22 June 2020

Like many people around the world, the UCL Culture team has spent the last few months collaborating with colleagues via Microsoft Teams. Now you can bring some of our amazing collections into your meetings. Click on the images below to see them at full size and then download them to your computer. You can then upload them to the virtual meeting platform of your choice. Enjoy!

Grant Museum of Zoology

The Grant Museum of Zoology is one of the oldest natural history collections in the UK and is the last remaining university natural history museum in London. Home to 68,000 zoological specimens, the collection is a unique window on the entire animal kingdom. The final image below is from our Micrarium, a beautiful back-lit cave of 2,300 microscope slides.

Grant Museum of Zoology

Grant Museum of Zoology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum contains over 80,000 objects and ranks among some of the world’s leading collections of Egyptian and Sudanese material. Below you can see our collection of Shabtis. They are small figures in adult male or female form created to carry out tasks in the afterlife.

Petrie Museum

Petrie Museum

UCL Art Museum

UCL Art Museum holds over 9,000 paintings, drawings, prints and sculptures dating from the 1490s to the present day. One of the the most important parts of the collection is the unique archive of works by staff and students from the Slade School of Fine Art.

UCL Art Museum

 

Bloomsbury Theatre

Bloomsbury Theatre and Studio is the home of home of cutting-edge performance in the heart of London. You can see our upcoming shows here.

Bloomsbury Theatre