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  • The earliest Strange Creatures: Europe’s first meetings with marsupials

    By Jack Ashby, on 5 May 2015

    There is a popular British colonial narrative in which Captain James Cook “discovered” Australia in 1770, as demonstrated by this Google autofill:

    Evidence that James Cook discovered Australia

    Evidence that James Cook indeed discovered Australia

    In reality, not even Cook thought this was true. Australia had been known by the French, Portuguese, Spanish and Dutch (hence its original European name “New Holland”, which Cook himself used) for at least two hundred years before Cook landed in the southeast of the country on his ship HMS Endeavour. Obviously Indigenous Australians and their neighbours also had been there for around 50,000 years.

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London*

    The Kongouro from New Holland (Kangaroo), George Stubbs (1772). ZBA5754 (L6685-001). National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

    Our current exhibition Strange Creatures: The Art of Unknown Animals explores how newly discovered animals are communicated to the public back home. It is is centred around a painting that resulted from that voyage of Cook’s – a kangaroo by George Stubbs. This is the first painting of an Australian animal in Western art. As I wrote in the exhibition text:

    This painting helped begin Europe’s relationship with Australian wildlife. Commissioned by legendary naturalist Joseph Banks, painted by celebrated animal artist George Stubbs, and based on findings from Captain Cook’s famous voyage, this kangaroo truly captured the country’s imagination.

    Stubbs’ image became the archetype for representations of kangaroos for decades – reproduced and refigured prolifically. It may not be anatomically perfect, but this is how Britain came to know the kangaroo.

    It is an emblem of the age of exploration at the historical threshold of the European occupation of Australia. Nothing was ever the same again.

    Here I’d like to explore some of the meetings between Europeans and Australiasian marsupials that preceded Cook’s visit. (more…)

    What do all of our Curators have in Common? On the Origin of Our Specimens

    By Jack Ashby, on 15 May 2014

    Over the past few months we have been investigating what we can learn about where our specimens came from by researching the history of the Museum’s thirteen previous Curators. This “On the Origin of Our Specimens” series has uncovered much about our collections and the people that have worked here over the past 187 years. In this final post in the series I’m going to share some of the unexpected threads that kept reappearing through this time.

    In answer to the question “What do all of our Curators have in common?” one thing that leaps out is a consistent failure to usefully identify which specimens they actually added to the collection. Professional documentation standards are a relatively new invention, and they have only recently been applied to our collection, mostly since we became a “proper museum” and not just a teaching collection and research repository.

    Besides that, there are four topics that keep reappearing through time… (more…)

    Egypt on the Stage: A Tale of two Queens

    By Edmund Connolly, on 20 April 2014

    Egypt has had many theatrical incarnations, one of the most famous, and my favourite, being Shakespeare’s epic The Tragedy of Anthony and Cleopatra, which forged a time defying reflection of Cleopatra Philopator, and Queen Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen.

    Most probably written around 1606 this play can be studied in conjunction with the preceding Macbeth as a play about monarchy, rulership and conquest. The two protagonists (Cleo. and Mac.) could be compared as a good and bad example of monarch; I like to think Cleopatra is definitely the paragon.

    Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 film. copyright 20th Century Fox, sourced www.imdb.com

    Elizabeth Taylor as Cleopatra in 1963 film. copyright 20th Century Fox, sourced www.imdb.com

    (more…)

    Reflections on Kevin Guyan’s work and Black Bloomsbury events at UCL Art Museum

    By Helen R Cobby, on 6 December 2013

    Kevin Guyan speaking with participants on his Bloomsbury walking tour, outside Paramount Court

    Kevin Guyan speaking with participants on his Bloomsbury walking tour, outside Paramount Court

    Throughout this term, Kevin Guyan, PhD candidate at the UCL history department, has been working with the Art Museum to create events that compliment the current ‘Black Bloomsbury’ exhibition. His own research has allowed him to take themes from the exhibition in thoughtful and unusual directions for these workshops at the Museum. His events have included interactive investigations around 1940s music and dance, and exploring ideological boundaries within the Bloomsbury area through a walking tour.

    Kevin’s own research explores how domestic spaces impacted upon the production and reproduction of masculinities in the post war period (c.1945 – 1966). Although this work focuses on a different time period to ‘Black Bloomsbury’, (1945-1966 rather than 1918-1948), he has drawn upon common themes running through both eras, including space and identity, and methodologies of how historians perceive and ‘see’ into the past. For a more detailed analysis of his research and its links to the ‘Black Bloomsbury’ exhibition, please see his article ‘Engaging with Black Bloomsbury’, published on the Student Engagers website here.

    Curious to hear more about his work and the way he thinks up – and thinks about – the nature of his events with the Art Museum, I asked him a few questions.  (more…)

    Remember, Remember, an event to Remember

    By Edmund Connolly, on 24 April 2013

    Guest Blogger: Chris Webb

    The 18th April saw another fascinating event in the Petrie Museum’s popular timekeeper series, hosted by our own timekeeper in residence, Cathy Haynes. We were asked; how easy do you find it to remember the details and order of past events? Many people through history have pondered on this… Indeed, when Mark Twain wanted to teach his children history he invented a new kind of 3-D timeline by plotting out historical events in his garden and walking them through it, oddly, this was based on the monarchs of England!

    (more…)

    Considering our History – the Good Times

    By Jack Ashby, on 24 March 2013

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Students taught in the Museum by E Ray Lankester in 1887

    Last week we launched six new permanent displays telling the story of the history of the Grant Museum, focusing on the story of how the teaching of zoology has evolved over the past 185 years of our existence. Like the life cycle of many species, there have been times of rapid diversification and broad niche occupancy, as well as population bottle-necks when extinction looms, before adaptations to changing climates result in a new lease of life.

    Today I’ll focus on our first century or so, when times were pretty darn good. The new displays combine some truly beautiful specimens from our stores – in typically Grant Museumy specimen-rich displays – combined with images from our archives and intricate anatomical drawings from early twentieth century student notebooks.

    Why are we here?
    Robert Grant (1793-1874), one of UCL’s founding professors, established the Museum in 1828 as a resource for students taking his Zoology and Comparative Anatomy lectures. Many of these students would have been medics as comparative anatomy was seen as a crucial element of medical theory. (more…)

    Race, Starkey and Remembering

    By Debbie J Challis, on 16 August 2011

    David Starkey’s comments that ‘whites have become black’ on the BBC2 programme Newsnight on Friday 12 August 2011 have been condemned in most of the media and by many politicians. There are a few who make the valid argument for freedom to say what we like, while others contend that Starkey was referring to a particular form of ‘black’ gangsta culture. The BBC has had over 700 complaints. The black MP for Tottenham David Lammy, whom Starkey described as sounding ‘white’, implied that Starkey should stick to Tudor history. The classicist Mary Beard has pointed out that any historian worth their salt should be able to apply their tools of critique to any period.  In this I concur.

    David Starkey on Newsnight

    Here I speak personally for myself and not for UCL or for any of my colleagues.

    Starkey’s generalisations uncomfortably reminded me of Francis Galton’s letter to The Times on 5 June 1873 advocating that the Chinese move into Africa and take over from the ‘inferior negro’. Galton wrote: (more…)