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Is Archaeopteryx a bird or not?

MarkCarnall23 January 2014

Just before Christmas I was inspired by a post by Jon Tennant on his blog, To bird or not to bird… about whether anyone knows whether Archaeopteryx lithographica is a bird or not a bird. Amongst palaeobiologists and biologists Archaeopteryx is the poster organism for evolution and if you’ve ever been to a natural history museum you’ve undoubtedly walked past a cast or two, it is after all one of our Bingo! animals. It was the first fossil that really enshrined the ideas about evolutionary change. Ever since it’s discovery in 1861 (although Archaeopteryx fossils were discovered before then but not recognised as such) it’s almost a rite of passage for palaeontologists to have a ponder or even publish trying to work out the affinities of the animal. Is it a bird? It’s probably not a plane. Is it a reptile? Is it a dinosaur? (and yes smarty pants I know you can be all three).

The scientific techniques used to work out the affinities of animals only known from fossil remains have developed greatly over the last 150 years yet the answer to this question still seems far from being resolved. (more…)

From the vollies: Loose ends and key information

MarkCarnall31 October 2013

This is a guest blog from one of the Grant Museum’s volunteers, Geoffrey Waller. Geoffrey has been volunteering for the Museum for a number of years undertaking the diligent collections care work that helps us to function as a museum and make the most of our collections here. Recently, Geoffrey has been going through one of our many series of card indices cross-referencing information with our current catalogue, enriching  data we have about our specimens which make them significantly more useful for teaching and research. Here are some of the highlights.

For the last 18 months I have been working on a long-term cataloguing project at the Grant Museum. The project has involved sorting a large collection of some 1500 hand-written record cards into appropriate categories and numerical order. Each card (known technically as an MDA card*) bears the specimen’s accession number – the unique identifying number given to specimens on the Grant Museum collections database. It is therefore possible to cross-check the specimen data on the MDA card with the data already held on the database.

Image of examples of MDA cards from the Grant Museum of Zoology UCL

Three of the 1500 MDA cards now added to the collection catalogue.

Mining the Data

During this cross-checking, I could add any new information recorded on the MDA cards to the existing database entries, making it available to anyone accessing the records. (more…)

Flinders Petrie: An Adventure in Transcription

RachaelSparks3 September 2013

What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

What could be nicer than to spend your day off measuring things with a stick?

Flinders Petrie began his autobiography by warning that “The affairs of a private person are seldom pertinent to the interests of others” [1]Fortunately for both us and his publisher this proved no impediment, and Petrie went on to write about himself, his thoughts and his life’s work at great length.

Petrie was a prolific writer, both in the public and private arena, and we are not short of material to help us learn about his life. But not everything he wrote was wordy. I’d like to introduce you today to a more unexpected side of his penmanship: his personal appointment diaries. (more…)

Happy 130th Quagga Day – Maybe more extinct than we thought

JackAshby12 August 2013

130 years ago today, 12th August 1883, the last ever quagga died.

As custodians of one of the only quagga skeletons in existence, we consider it our responsibility to commemorate the tragic passing of this, the least stripy of the zebras.

Given that we have marked quagga day annually, what can I tell you that regulars wont already know? Potentially, quite a lot – things that I’ve only found out today as I write. Before I get to that, for those who don’t come pre-quagga’ed:

  • Quaggas were a South African Zebra with a stripy front end and a brown back end.
  • Quagga skeletons are “the rarest skeletons in the world [1].
  • They were driven to extinction due to farmers killing them to stop them grazing the land they wanted for their livestock; and for their unusual pelts.
  • The last individual died in a zoo in Amsterdam, probably years after all of her wild relatives

This is our quagga:

Image of the Grant Museum Quagga skeleton

The Grant Museum quagga

(more…)

Time, Flies and the Origins of Crowdsourcing

MarkCarnall12 July 2013

Aside from jelly beans, the current Octagon Exhibition, Digital Frontiers, is dominated by objects from the Grant Museum of Zoology. Well, at least in terms of numbers because we’ve loaned this entomology drawer containing over 250 fly specimens. My colleague Nick Booth wrote about his experience of installing the objects from the collections he curates (and his experience was far more leg work than moving this single drawer was) and researching this drawer of flies in order to loan it revealed a lot of interesting information about this otherwise niche collection of insects: in natural history museums entomology collections are normally measured in the millions.

Fly specimens in drawer labelled 'From Small cabinet 3'  from the Grant Museum entomology collections

Fly specimens in drawer labelled ‘From Small cabinet 3’ from the Grant Museum entomology collections

(more…)

Life, Stilled

MarkCarnall9 July 2013

Conjure up in your mind, if you will, a natural history museum and you’ll probably be picturing skeletons, taxidermied animals and maybe specimens preserved in fluid. Recently, I spent some time with Rosina Down, the curator before the curator before me, having a look at some of the more unusual specimens we have here that were prepared on site at UCL in the 1980s.

Freeze dried mouse

Freeze dried mouse

(more…)

Science Research in a Science Museum?

MarkCarnall30 May 2013

As chance would have it at the same time as we received research interest from the Royal College of Art, colleague Dr Zerina Johanson, researcher in the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, had also contacted me about our paddlefish specimens. We have less than a dozen paddlefish specimens in the Grant Museum (fish is the family Polyodontidae, represented today by only two species the American paddlefish Polyodon spathula and the possibly-extinct Chinese paddlefish Psephurus gladius) and fortunately, one of these specimens, matched the specifications for research (in this article I wrote about how ‘usable’ specimens dwindle to tens from thousands depending on the type of research).

So for the second time in May I was on bodyguard duty to escort one of our specimens down to South Kensington for some scanning, this time for SCIENCE!

(more…)

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…)

Cleveite [not Clevite] and helium

Wendy LKirk11 January 2013

 

Specimen of cleveite

Curating one’s office always brings to light something interesting, and recently I came across an article written by one of our Geology graduates, Danny Howard, who stayed on for a period in Earth Sciences to work on the Johnston-Lavis collection of minerals and rocks.  However, he found time to write for UCL News “Private View”, a series of articles about objects in the UCL collections.  For the 2004 issue, he wrote about the specimen of cleveite in the labelled glass jar shown here.  I remember finding this specimen a year or two previously in the Geology sub-basement store – as you do – when burrowing through the collections with Jayne Dunn, currently the UCL Collections Manager.  Quite how it came to be there, I don’t know.  Many years previously – maybe a decade or  two – the store had belonged to the Chemistry department, but it had long been cleared out and shelved to receive geology specimens.  Nonetheless, there it was on a shelf that day, neither of us having knowingly seen it before. (more…)

When Ain’t An Anaconda An Anaconda?

MarkCarnall3 January 2013

Image of the Grant Museum 'Anaconda skeleton'Apologies for the use of the awful contraction ‘ain’t’ but the International Standards for Science Communication (ISSC) demand awful alliteration at almost all opportunities.

If you are reading this post then it is possible that you know of the Grant Museum and if you’ve visited then you’ve no doubt been impressed by our rather lovely articulated anaconda skeleton pictured here on the left. It’s a beautiful skeleton that grabs the attention and brings to mind questions like “How many ribs?” and “Who had the job of putting together what is surely one of the world’s most difficult jigsaws?”. It’s one of the specimens we list in our top ten objects you must see on a fleeting visit, it features in Kingdom in A Cabinet our guide to the Grant Museum and an image of this specimen was chosen for our postcard selection (available now from the Grant Museum).

Also, it umm, isn’t actually an anaconda… (more…)