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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Buried on Campus has opened

By Jack Ashby, on 24 April 2012

Excavation in the QuadTwo years ago rumours spread quickly around UCL that builders working in the Main Quad on Gower Street had discovered human bones while they were digging an access trench. Lots of human bones. As would be expected, theories abound as to what the story behind such a discovery might be.

The police were immediately involved, and they consulted UCL’s own expert forensic anatomist, Dr Wendy Birch, and established that no foul play had taken place, and the remains were not of police interest. Since then, Dr Birch and her colleagues have been researching the remains and trying to piece together (often literally – many of the bones were highly fragmented) what they are and why they were buried.

This is the topic of the Grant Museum’s new exhibition, Buried on Campus, co-curated by Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, our immediate Rockefeller Building neighbours in the UCL Anatomy Lab. (more…)

The Grant Museum’s first birthday

By Jack Ashby, on 15 March 2012

The Grant Museum, technically, is about 185 years old, but one year ago today we opened the doors to our newest manifestation, in the Rockefeller Building’s former medical library; one of the grandest spaces at UCL. Here are some highlights from our first year.

The year in numbers
12884 visitors during normal opening hours
11010 participants in our events
6901 objects accessioned
3121 university students in museum classes
1719 school and FE students in museum classes
96 blog posts
22 specimens of the week
9 journal articles and book chapters published by staff
11 objects acquired
4 co-curated exhibitions
2 floods
Half a dodo went on display (really several bits of several dodos.) (more…)

Kangaroos cooked up by Cook / Strange Creatures

By Jack Ashby, on 13 March 2012

Seeing is believing, right? I’ve often looked at historic animal paintings and wondered “how come artists back in the day couldn’t draw animals?”. We’ve all seen images of animals that are extremely inaccurate, and our recent “Strange Creatures” event had works from UCL Art Museum pop-up in the Grant which included a poorly represented lion, simply because the artist had never seen one. This lack of first-hand inspiration is one reason that the paintings are unrealistic; artists were relying on written accounts by those who had seen the critters.

UCL Art Museum EDC 4766 Anonymous (Dutch, late 17th Century), Lion in a Landscape, late 17th century Red chalk on paper

A late 17th Century Dutch representation of a lion from UCL Art Museum. The opportunity to study lions from life in 17th-century Northern Europe was rare. Lions were kept at the Doge’s Palace in Venice and appear in Jacopo Bellini’s (1400–70/1) sketchbooks, but most Northern artists had to depend upon the accounts of other eye-witnesses.

But reading these descriptions, another massive source of error is that those eye-witnesses are slaves to prior knowledge. When coming across new forms, unlike anything they’d seen before, many attempted to fit models of animals they already knew on top of what they saw. This is perfectly understandable, but in the end often unhelpful. It’s an interesting example of the brain over-riding the visual system and seeing what it thinks it should see.

I’m reading Captain Cook’s account of his first voyage to the South Seas, on the Endeavour, which includes the first descriptions of kangaroos that he came across when he landed on the east coast of Australia, and he was particularly guilty of this: (more…)

Mice People: Cultures of Science

By Jack Ashby, on 12 March 2012

lab guinea pig

(This isn’t a mouse, or Gail Davies)

Last week, as part of this term’s Humanimals Season, we ran an event where Gail Davies, a kind of polymathic geographer working at the intersection of science and medicine, ethnography, bioethics, history, sociology and geography, was in conversation with former geneticist Steve Cross (now Head of Public Engagement at UCL). They chatted through Gail’s research on the culture of the scientists who work with lab mice, and the history of the field that everybody knows exists, but few know much about.

Clare Ryan from UCL Communications wrote up the evening for the UCL Events Blog. She begins…

Mice People: Cultures of Science

By Clare S Ryan, on 9 March 2012

Gail Davies (UCL Geography) travels around the world looking at laboratory mice, and the scientists who study them. To find out why a geographer would be spending her life doing this, I went to hear her in conversation with Steve Cross – Head of UCL’s Public Engagement Unit (and a closet geneticist) – at the event Mice People: Cultures of Science organised as part of the Humanimals season at the UCL Grant Museum of Zoology. (more…)

What will the world be like in 50 years?

By Jack Ashby, on 6 March 2012

What's around the corner?Last week, our Science Fiction; Science Futures event – organised by the wonderful UCL Science and Technology Studies was based around the concept of how we look at what’s around the corner. It included a fair bit of conversation about failed futures – those things that previous generations predicted would be here by now, like flying cars and invisibility cloaks (though apparently they’re not far off).

At the end of the event we asked the participants to make their own predictions for the world in fifty years time. This is what they said: (more…)

Get a Grip: A Hands on History of Hands

By Jack Ashby, on 9 February 2012

Following the success of How to Get a Head: A Hands on History of Skulls, Curator Mark and I put together a second “Hands on History” tackling the evolution of all things at the end of arms – hands, paws, hooves, wings, fins, flippers.

Piling the tables with limbs from koalas, badgers, frogs, turtles, platypuses, rabbits and more we worked through the story of where arms come from, and what we can learn from the strange lumps and bumps that different species have on their limbs. For example, rabbits have a massive projection out of the the back of their ulnas (the olecranon process) – we asked people to work out what it’s for. As with most things sticking out of bones, it’s a very big muscle attachment site for the rabbit tricep – they need strong muscles for bounding. Another leporine (rabbity) characteristic is that the two bones of the lower arm (radius and ulna) are nearly completely fused together. We asked why…
It means that rabbits can’t twist their wrists like we can (pronation and supination) – again because they need strong solid arms for bouncing – they don’t want their hands to face anyway but downwards and forwards.

The ever-wonderful UCL Events Blog did an impartial review of the event. It begins…

The UCL Grant Museum of Zoology is currently running its ‘Humanimals’ series, where it explores the relationships between ourselves and other animals.

Last week (2 February), I went along for A Hands On History of Hands; a whistlestop tour of the evolution of hands and forelimbs through the ages, stopping to look at some of the interesting examples along the way.

The guides on our tour were zoologist Jack Ashby and palaeontologist Mark Carnall, with a little help from Stan, the resident (replica) skeleton.

The Grant Museum was founded as a teaching collection, and it seems that the current crop of curators are keen to continue this legacy. This is the second night like this that they have run, and for a modern museum it seems to a pretty radical idea; not only can enthusiasts visit and explore the museum after hours, but we are actually given the chance to interact with some of the exhibits.

Read the whole thing here.

Please let us know if you have suggestions for other “Hands on History” event topics.

Art by Animals opens today

By Jack Ashby, on 1 February 2012

Art by Animals - Grant Museum - chimp - Saint Louis Zoo

“Digit Master” 2011, Bakhari the chimp, Saint Louis Zoo

Today the newest exhibition at the Grant Museum opens and it’s probably not something many people will have seen before. Art by Animals is an exhibition of paintings by orang-utans, a chimp, elephants and a gorilla, and to be honest, most of them are better than I could do.

When our co-curators Michael Tuck, a graduate from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, and artist Will Tuck, first approached me about a year ago I have to admit to being shocked at the elephant painting of a flower pot – it truly displays the incredible dexterity of the elephant’s trunk, but is it art?

Here’s a video about it. (more…)

Could 1950s marine biologists speak underwater?

By Jack Ashby, on 25 January 2012

Under the Caribbean (1954) on the Big ScreenLast week we kicked off the Grant Museum’s Humnanimals Season with one of our ever-popular film nights – Under the Caribbean (1954). Humanimals Season is all about the interactions between the lives of animals and humans, investigating human concepts in the animal world, and animals venturing into the human world. Dr Joe Cain, the stalwart presenter of GMZ film nights (and Head of UCL Science and Technology) had been insisting that we showed this 1950s underwater documentary for years.

I must admit, I hadn’t watched it, but my gut reaction was that our audience relies on us to show classic films, with a link to natural history that they will enjoy watching – many people enjoy the camp, slightly ridiculous productions like Tarzan and The Blob. “An out-dated documentary is surely a bit dry?”, I would say to Joe. He would tell me that it was ground-breaking for the genre and had heaps of never-before seen footage. “Hmmm”, I would say, “it’s just doesn’t sound silly enough”.

Boy, was I wrong. (more…)

The price of the pouch

By Jack Ashby, on 20 December 2011

I went to an absolutely excellent UCL Lunch Hour Lecture by a good friend of the Museum, Dr Anjali Goswami about how the way marsupials reproduce has impacted on their evolution. In any case, it’s my professional opinion that they are the best group of animals to have ever lived (take that dinosaurs).

The write-up of what she said, and the video of the whole lecture is on the UCL Events blog. It begins…

Every zoologist has their own favourite group of animals, and mine is marsupials. However, this group sometimes suffer a lot of stick from the more common type of zoologist who studies placental mammals. They say marsupials are boring, stupid, primitive, too few in number and are altogether inferior to “normal” mammals. I was hoping that the lunch hour lecture by Anjali Goswami (UCL Genetics, Evolution and the Environment and UCL Earth Sciences) would set some of these accusations straight.

Whenever I go to Australia to undertake ecological fieldwork I am struck with the diversity of the mammals there. You can travel 200km and find a different species of marsupial mouse doing a similar thing to the one you saw the day before, only in a slightly different environment. Go another 200km and you could find a third. However, the three species do look pretty similar. One of the major downsides of marsupials, from a biodiversity point of view, is that they haven’t evolved the range of forms that placental mammals have. While there is a semi-aquatic species of marsupial – the yapok – it could hardly be compared with a whale or a seal; there are gliding marsupials too, but they can’t do what bats can do. Marsupials and placentals have both been evolving for the same length of time – 125 million years – why did flying, swimming or event galloping never arise in marsupials? Anjali put it down to methods of reproduction.

Read all of it here

It crawls…it creeps…it eats you alive

By Jack Ashby, on 16 December 2011

Last week we finished off Natural Mystery Season with a screening of what must be the gooiest monster movie of all time: The Blob (1958). These classic film screenings have become one of the highlights of our ever growing public events programme. The masterful Dr Joe Cain has now introduced 21 of these films, from The Lost World (1925) and King Kong (1933) to Inherit the Wind (1960).

It must be admitted that with our two films this term, The Blob and War of the Worlds (1953) we may have strayed a little far from natural history – we hope our visitors don’t mind. It’s definitely science, and mainly life science, so I suspect few people noticed. Next term we’ll be back to our roots with two very different must-sees: Under the Caribbean (1954) which I’ve described as a serious ground-breaking documentary that is very hard to take seriously (the ridiculous 1950s English dubbing, and the pretense that they try and make us believe they can talk to each other underwater reminds me of a cross between Eurotrash and Monty Python); and we finish the Humanimals Season with the Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953). These and all of next term’s events can be seen on our what’s on page.

Back to The Blob: the UCL Events blog gave us a jolly review. It begins:

Without a doubt, Film Night at the Grant Museum was the most entertaining event that I’ve attended at UCL. On December 6, they screened the 1958 sci-fi/horror cult classic, The Blob.

Dr Joe Cain holds court. A senior lecturer at UCL by day, he is an avid film fan by night. And possibly by day at weekends.

This is the first ‘On The Big Screen’ event at UCL that I’ve attended, despite this being the 21st showing. However, it’s clear that the event attracts a regular following, and by the time I arrive the large Darwin lecture theatre is almost full. All ages are represented in the crowd, and the mood is both jovial and excited.

Read the rest here.