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  • Specimen of the Week 312: Hundreds of frogs’ legs

    By Jack Ashby, on 13 October 2017

    We have recently opened out biggest ever exhibition: The Museum of Ordinary Animals: The boring beasts that changed the world. It tells the stories of the mundane creatures in our everyday lives that have shaped our society, our science, our planet and even our own biology. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should. Don’t take my word for it though: it topped Time Out’s list of the best exhibitions in London this autumn*.

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    Hundreds of frogs legs, arranged into lefts and rights. LDUCZ-W270 and LDUCZ-W271

    We didn’t struggle too much with the issue of what counts as an “Ordinary Animal” – they are the species we find on our streets, in our labs, on our laps and on our plates. The ones that are really a commonplace part of human society and human culture (and we had to take the main geographic focus as our own European perspective). The vast majority are domesticated, but others have become Ordinary simply because of the way we consider them. There was one species that did cause me trouble, and it’s this week’s Specimen of the Week: (more…)

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals opens at the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 21 September 2017

    Throughout my career in museum zoology I have detected (and contributed to) a certain snobbery when it comes to some species of animal. It seems that as far as museum displays are concerned, not all animal specimens were created equally. Our new exhibition – opening today – seeks to address this.

    The Museum of Ordinary Animals tells the story of the boring beasts that have changed the world: the mundane creatures in our daily lives, including dogs, pigeons, cats, cows, chickens and mice. These animals are rarely represented in natural history museum displays. They are not special enough. Do we even need to go to a museum to see animals that we can find on our plates, on our laps and on our streets? People would rather see dinosaurs, dodos and giant whales.

    Domestic dog skulls. Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Domestic dog skulls. LDUCZ-Z1046 and LDUCZ-Z1338b
    Humans’ first domestication was that of dogs from wolves. Today humans have forced the descendants of wolves to become the most anatomically variable of all species.

    Nevertheless, this exhibition puts these everyday species front and centre. It investigates some of the profound impacts they have had on humanity and the natural world, how they were created, and the extraordinary things we have learned from them. (more…)

    Natural Creativity: Sex and Trickery opens at the Grant Museum

    By Jack Ashby, on 18 October 2016

    ‘Natural Creativity: Sex and Trickery’ is our new exhibition – opening tomorrow 19th October –  at the Grant Museum. It explores the myriad of elaborate shapes, sizes and crafty behavioural tactics some animals have evolved in order to survive, reproduce and pass on their genes.

    Through intricate drawings by the artist Clara Lacy, ‘Natural Creativity’ asks the question, why is the natural world so colourful and varied? Lacy has drawn species with highly unusual sexual behaviours or mechanisms for determining sex. It is commonly assumed that animals are born either male or female then reproduce as adults, but things can get much more interesting. Some species change sex over their lifetime, become a grandmother before giving birth, or trick others into thinking they belong to the opposite sex.

    Ocellated wrasse (C) Clara Lacy.

    Ocellated wrasse (C) Clara Lacy.
    The ocellated wrasse has an unusual mating system – different males use different strategies in the attempt to pass on their genes. The genetics of these strategies is being researched at UCL. “Nesting males” are brightly coloured and work to court females, defend nests and care for their young. These males attract the most females, but other males have evolved different routes to mating success.
    Small males become “Sneakers”. They surreptitiously approach Nesting males and females while they are mating, and then release their own sperm into the water.
    Medium-sized “Satellite males” cooperate with a Nesting male, helping them chase Sneakers from the nest. This means that they are tolerated by Nesting males, and spawn while the Nesting male is mating.

    (more…)

    Skullpture at the Grant Museum opens today

    By Jack Ashby, on 26 May 2016

    For our newest exhibition – Skullpture at the Grant Museum – twelve sculpture students from UCL’s Slade School of Fine Art have been invited to develop works in response to the Museum’s collections, science and history.

    The new artworks – which relate to death and decay, extinction, cloning, and animal behaviour – have been placed among the Museum’s own skeletons, skulls and specimens preserved in fluid. The exhibition engages with animal and human encounters and transforms the historic zoological museum in ways that will leave visitors questioning whether some of the installations are playful or serious.

    Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher's window.

    Dead as a Dodo © Will Spratley. A collection of rubber-chicken like dodo models, strung up as if in a butcher’s window.

    (more…)

    Look Again…UV Been Mistaken: A Case of Collection Mis-labelling

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 4 February 2016

    This is a guest blog by Felicity Winkley, one of the student engagers who work with UCL Museums. To find out more about the student engagers project please visit their website. 

    Last term, the UCL Student Engagers used objects from across the UCL collections to curate a six week exhibition at the North Lodge, called Stress: Approaches to the First World War.

    The project, as we’ve discussed previously on our own blog, was an interdisciplinary, co-curated effort, approaching the topic of the First World War through four interpretive themes: physical stress, mental stress, cultural or societal stress, and stress on the landscape.

    One of the objects we chose to highlight the mental stresses caused by the conflict and, by association, the improvements in the way mental health was approached by the end of the war, was a ‘strobe machine’. As part of the physiology collections, catalogued alongside objects like an auditory acuity tester and a set of keys for tapping multiple-choice responses, it was assumed that this light had similarly been used in psychiatric experiments to test participant responses. From our point of view, it also helped that it looked good.

    Physio-40: labelled ‘Strobe Machine’

    Physio-40: labelled ‘Strobe Machine’

    For several weeks of the exhibition’s run, the object was a successful talking point. (more…)

    Revolution under a King: French Prints 1789-92

    By Jenny M Wedgbury, on 15 January 2016

    Louis Seize lightbox print

    Detail from the light box outside UCL Art Museum of Jean-Michel Moreau after Noël Le Mire, Louis Seize: Bonnett des Jacobins Donne au roi, le 6 Juin 1792, Copper Engraving, UCL Art Museum

    Our exhibition Revolution under a King opened with the start of term at UCL on Monday 11 January. The exhibition features a selection of prints from the early, highly volatile years of the French Revolution, curated by Emeritus Professor David Bindman and Dr Richard Taws, in collaboration between UCL Art Museum and UCL History of Art. Is already attracting visitor numbers that we have grown to be accustomed to since the Museum’s refurbishment – on average 80 visitors per day and on average visitors can be found spending between 30-45min in the museum. It has been wonderful working on this exhibition, as it really highlights the complexity of curatorial practice with researchers, which is highly collaborative and unites multiple, sometimes competing, agendas. I’m really pleased with the outcome.

    (more…)

    Glass delusions from the ancient Egyptian world

    By Alice E Stevenson, on 4 November 2015

    This post is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    We often visualize ancient Egypt in sandy hues against the backdrop of a clear blue sky, or the watery Nile framed by green vegetation. Yet there was a much wider palette of colours used in the adornment of palaces, temples and decorative objects. The Egypt world was brightly, sometime garishly, vibrant with colour. Glass was one of the luxury materials that came to be used for decoration during the period Egyptologists call the New Kingdom, around 1500 BC.

    Armana glass rods on display in Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of Zoology. 18th Dynasty, Amarna, UC22911 - UC22920

    Armana glass rods on display in Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of Zoology.
    18th Dynasty, Amarna, From the Petrie Museum collection (UC22911 – UC22920)

    (more…)

    How to make a diamond

    By Jack Ashby, on 28 October 2015

    This is a guest post from our artist in residence Eleanor Morgan. It is part of a series exploring the exhibition Glass Delusions at the Grant Museum of  Zoology.

    Diamonds made from the dead creatures of the River Thames (c) David Dobson

    Diamonds made from the dead creatures of the River Thames (c) David Dobson

    This year, on Thursday the 30th of July, I made a diamond. Only a few weeks before, this diamond had been floating around the River Thames in the form of dead plants and animals. It had taken a few hours, high pressure and temperature and most importantly a lot of help from UCL chemists and geologists to transform the dead creatures of the River Thames into tiny diamonds. These can now be seen at the Grant Museum as part of my exhibition Glass Delusions, along with a booklet ‘How to make a diamond’ which describes the process. (more…)

    Rock Room Slade School Takeover – Part 3

    By Nicholas J Booth, on 5 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…)

    What kind of animal is a Yoshi?

    By Mark Carnall, on 15 April 2015

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals features images, specimens and objects all related to how animals are represented through time. The exhibition is centered around George Stubbs’ painting of a kangaroo, an iconic image despite the fact that he never saw a kangaroo first hand. From dodgy taxidermy, dinosaur toys, glass models and wildly inaccurate images of animals which were claimed to have been studied from life, the exhibition explores how we make sense of a newly discovered animal species from first encounters with living animals through to reconstructions made from written accounts and sketches. Initial encounters with kangaroos drew comparisons with more familiar mammals such as jerboas, greyhounds, mice and deer, the creature so strange to European explorers it didn’t fit within existing classifications.

    What happens if we start from an animal that we only know from a reconstruction? In the past (and today) mermaids, unicorns, giants, cyclopses, goatsuckers and deathworms have all been speculatively described either due to pervasive myths, hoaxes, delusions or confusion with other animals. To help with the process of working out how we identify animals we know from reconstructions alone, let’s see if we can work out how we’d classify a well known fictional animal, Nintendo character Mario’s companion and steed Yoshi*, this one acquired in a Happy Meal and currently on display in our exhibition.

    (more…)