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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Sculpture Season opens today

By Jack Ashby, on 5 June 2013

Today at the Grant Museum, not only have we flung the doors open to the public (as we do six days a week), but we have opened the doors to the Museum – and the museum cabinets – to thirteen emerging artists, inviting them to rethink our collection. Today, Sculpture Season begins.

We’re consistently thinking how to use our collections in different ways, and while the team here is a creative one (otherwise – boast boast – we wouldn’t keep winning awards) we can definitely benefit from completely different eyes and minds looking at our collection.

Sculpture Season does just that – thirteen sculpture students from the Slade School of Fine Art at UCL were invited to create works in response to the Museum’s spaces, specimens, science and history. The results are fantastic. Alongside the Museum’s historic skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in jars, the new works engage with animal/human encounters through re-animated flesh, tunnelling rats and mice, giant worms and body bags.

The artists have created music technologies, phantom occupations of the Museum’s iPad apps, hand-knitted internal organs and explorations of the excessive masculinity of giant deer antlers. Specimens have been re-ordered, re-labelled and re-imagined. (more…)

Rearranging the natural world

By Dean W Veall, on 9 May 2013

Isomorphological forms

Isomorphological forms

Here at the Grant Museum we display our objects taxonomically (and have done since Grant founded the collection in 1828), objects are grouped together to reflect their evolutionary relationship to each other. This method of viewing the natural world has been with us since the Swedish naturalist Carl Linneaus introduced his work that classified the natural world, Systema naturalis, in the 18th Century. This method of classification has changed over time to reflect and accommodate current thinking in science, but primarily the principle has remained unchanged, grouping animals based on shared characteristics.

Artist researcher Gemma Anderson and a group of the public took another view of our collection based on her concept of Isomorphology.


The Archaeology of Race

By Edmund Connolly, on 1 April 2013

guest blogger: Chris Webb


In recent history there are few contentious subjects that are as notorious as eugenics. There are not many areas of discussion that can illicit such heated debate. Indeed, even the simple task of blogging becomes a semantic minefield, my inclusion of the word ‘contentious’ above, inferring (erroneously) that there are two sides to ‘argue’. However, research into the concept of eugenics, its founding and articulation, is the focus of a new book by Dr Debbie Challis who asks ‘How much was archaeology founded on prejudice?’


Kings and Queens and the case of the pink hippo?

By Edmund Connolly, on 15 March 2013

Guest Blogger, Christopher Webb

On Tuesday the 26th February the Petrie Museum played host to a celebration of LGBT history month. The evening, ‘Every good thing’, saw Egyptologist John J Johnston in conversation, as he discussed items chosen from the Petrie’s collection of over 80,000 artefacts from ancient Egypt and Sudan, including figurines, mummy portraits and ceramic. Our special guests from the LGBT community carefully selected their personal choice of object and reflected on what it tells them about life, love and sexuality in the ancient world. The goal of the evening was to further our knowledge and insight into the LGBT experience in the ancient world.


Our first guest, comedian, writer and actor Tom Allen, chose a terracotta head of Alexander the Great, from Memphis. UC49881 (more…)

QR codes and “Tales of Things” at the Petrie Museum

By Edmund Connolly, on 13 March 2013

guest blogger Andie Byrnes

I was at an object-handling session on the 5th March 2013 and as I had arrived early I took the opportunity get out my phone and play with the QR codes set up next to selected objects.  A project called “Tales of Things” has been rolled out at a number of museums, and the Petrie is contributing. The “Tales of Things” project has been set up to explore the relationships that people form with objects.  So when you see a QR code in the Petrie with the words “Tales of Things” above it, you will know that it is part of the project, and you can participate.

QR Codes

QR Codes

QR (“Quick Response”) codes are two-dimensional bar codes.  Unlike the vertical row barcodes so familiar on books, CDs and groceries scanned through supermarket tills, QR codes are combinations of vertical and horizontal lines arranged in patterns contained within squares.  The one on the left links to an article in the Petrie Museum’s blog. The two major benefits of them are that a) QR codes can be generated by anyone using a standard web application and b) they can be scanned by users from print or screen by smart-phones and tablet computers.

Tempus Fugit

By Edmund Connolly, on 19 February 2013

Guest blogger: Chris Webb


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

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

A Shadow Clock


The Micrarium – a place for tiny things – opens

By Jack Ashby, on 11 February 2013

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

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

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

Engaging Research and Collections

By Jack Ashby, on 27 July 2012

When we go to museums we normally know the kind of information we’re going to be engaging with. In natural history museums it’s usually facts about species, minerals and environments; in social history museums it’s cultures and people; in archaeology it’s much like social history but older. At UCL Museums we’ve started an experiment that doesn’t fit this model.

We have employed a team of UCL post-graduate students to come to each of our spaces a couple of days a week to engage our visitors with their research. They have each found connections between our collections and their disciplines, but they aren’t necessarily what you’d expect. Their PhD’s range from epidemiology and the history of psychology to rhetoric – none of which spark an immediate link to zoology, for example, in most people. (more…)

It Came From The Stores: The live show

By Mark Carnall, on 26 July 2012

An image showing many specimens of mice from the stores

Last Tuesday the Grant Museum ran the event IT CAME FROM THE STORES, the live and expanded version of my occasional blog post series exploring material normally found in the Grant Museum stores. From tiny robotic fish from the future, through mysterious spheres to deliberately infected cow worms. We find that visitors to the museum are surprised to learn that only a small percentage of the collection is on display (only 5%, which is quite good going for a natural history museum) and you can see from the expressions on their faces they are picturing a storehouse a la Indiana Jones filled to the ceiling with relics and treasures of great power. My lecture sought to explain a bit about why we have stores in the first place, why some material will always be store-bound as well as to examine some of the weird and wonderful things that can be found down… down IN THE STORES DUN DUN DUN. (more…)

Walking with Gosse

By Jack Ashby, on 17 July 2012

Walking with GosseMany of you will remember Roger Wotton’s excellent Grant Lecture at the end of last year. On 3rd July, Roger chose the Grant Museum to launch his new book Walking With Gosse: Natural History, Creation and Religious Conflicts, which is to be published in August. Philip Henry Gosse was an eminent Victorian Natural Historian and Roger outlined his achievements and the importance of his profound Christian faith in all he did. Henry believed in the literal truth of The Bible and, in a book entitled Omphalos, he tried unsuccessfully to resolve the conflict between geological time and the account of Creation in Genesis. The book was not received well by either the scientific or religious communities and it should not overshadow Henry Gosse’s many other fine books.

Most people know about Henry as a person from his son Edmund Gosse’s Father and Son, which details the painful relationship between the two men. Edmund did not share the rigorous religious approach to all things that Henry felt was essential and this led, inevitably, to conflict. Of the two, Edmund is the better known and he was knighted for his services to the Arts, becoming very much part of the Establishment.

Walking With Gosse examines the many contributions to Natural History made by Henry Gosse and his story is interwoven with that of Edmund and with autobiography. The book concludes by discussing the ways in which the issues presented have relevance to debates which are taking place today: on creation and on problems with religious differences. However, it also stresses that we can all share in the wonders of Natural History, whatever our beliefs.

So why launch the book in the Grant Museum? One of the admirers of Henry Gosse’s work was E. Ray Lankester, who succeeded Robert Grant and who further built up the Museum of Zoology. It was Ray Lankester who asked Edmund Gosse to write the first biography of Henry Gosse, before he produced the much later Father and Son. Roger began his talk by making this connection and it brought the story of 150 years ago to life. It’s what the book achieves.

Please visit http://cliopublishing.org/category/natural-history/ to find out more.