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The Anthropologist, the Anatomist, and the Highwayman: Stories from student research 2020/21

ucwehlc21 July 2021

Teaching with museum objects during a global pandemic has been something of a challenge, to say the least. You can read more about how the UCL Museums have tackled it in this previous blog.

One of the real success stories has been how UCL students have continued to research objects for their projects without being able to visit the objects in real life, and with reduced access to resources in other museums, libraries, and archives. Their perseverance and ingenuity this year has allowed them to uncover compelling stories of tragedy, prejudice, and redemption in the UCL Science Collections. As the academic year comes to an end, and I add their findings to our database, I thought I would share a few with you.

 

Eye Colour Gauge by Rudolf Martin: The Anthropologist’s Story

Museum Studies master’s students Karolina Pekala, Helena Smith Parucker, Ailsa Hendry and Emma McKean researched this object for their Collections Curatorship module. Before their project began, we knew that the eye gauge had been designed by someone called Rudolf Martin, and that it had been owned by either Francis Galton or Karl Pearson, both of whom were instrumental in establishing the world’s first Eugenics Department at UCL.

Black metal box containing 16 glass eyes of different colours set into an aluminium backing

Rudolf Martin’s Eye Colour Gauge LDUGC-365. Copyright UCL Culture

 

The object itself has an unsettling look to it, even before we consider its links to the history of eugenics. It was designed by Swiss anthropologist Rudolf Martin and manufactured between 1903 and 1907. The students examined Martin’s background and his views on the developing field of eugenics in the early 20th century. They concluded that Martin himself was not actively involved in eugenic research, being more interested in developing methods for accurately measuring humans. However, he was well aware what other researchers were using his methods and tools for, and he supported racially biased anthropological research.

This particular eye gauge was used by Karl Pearson and Margaret Moul in eugenic research on Jewish school boys in London in the 1920s. A later version of the eye gauge was used in German research in the Tarnów Ghetto in Poland in the 1930s.

This story has a tragic sting in the tail for the Martin family. Rudolf Martin died in 1925, so he did not live to see eugenics lead to the horrors of the Holocaust. His second wife Dr Stefanie Martin-Oppenheim survived him, but as she was Jewish, she was imprisoned in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, where she died in 1940.

You can read more about eugenics, anthropology, medicine, and the Holocaust in this United States Holocaust Memorial Museum online exhibition.

 

Obtaining Specimens for the UCL Anatomy Museum: The Anatomist’s Story

Museum Studies students at UCL complete a practical placement in a museum as part of their degree. As objects were off limits in 2020/21 our student placements this year were all about our digitised archives. Archival material has a reputation for being a little dull, but it is often the source of the most fascinating insights into our collections. Nicky Stitchman’s project tracked the development of the museums at UCL from 1826 to 1926 using the UCL calendars and committee meeting minutes.

When students visit the UCL Pathology Museum at the Royal Free Hospital we often discuss the ethics of keeping and using specimens of human remains for teaching and study. Nicky’s research demonstrates that this was not always a matter of concern in medical teaching. In 1854 the rules of University College Hospital stated that

“No specimens of disease removed from patients, or from persons who may die in the Hospital, may be taken from the Hospital until after consultation with the Curator of the Museum of the College, for the purpose of determining whether such specimens shall be preserved in the Museum of Anatomy.”

And it was the duty of Physicians’ Assistants and House-Surgeons

“To deliver to the Curator of the Museum of Anatomy of the College according to Regulation § 54, all specimens of disease removed from patients, whether living or deceased, in their respective departments, and to give him previous notice of all post-mortem examinations.”

So, doctors had to inform Professor Sharpey (the Curator of the Anatomy Museum) whenever they did a post-mortem just in case he wanted any specimens for the museum. No mention is made of patient consent or the ethics of displaying the dead.

 

Sepia image of the UCL Anatomy Museum in the 19th century

UCL Anatomy Museum when Professor Sharpey was the curator. Image courtesy of UCL Special Collections, ref: UCLCA/7

 

These days the UCL Pathology Museum no longer actively collects human remains, and institutions that do so have to adhere to the rules of the Human Tissue Authority, obtaining informed, written, witnessed consent from patients.

You can read more about Nicky’s discoveries in this blog where she shows a little love for Assistant Curators, the unsung heroes of the UCL Museums.

 

Phrenological Head Cast: The Highwayman’s Story

UCL is home to a truly remarkable collection of heads. These life and death masks were collected by Phrenologist Robert Noel in the 19th century to explore ideas of genius and criminality. Phrenology is the long-disproven idea that the shape of someone’s head reflects their intelligence and personality. It is fair to say that Robert Noel’s collection tells us at least as much about Victorian theories of race, class, gender, crime, and mental health as it does about the personalities of his subjects.

Bachelor of Arts and Sciences student Iris Perigaud-Grunfeld wrote her Object Lessons project on head number 41, Babinsky the highwayman. Robert Noel was convinced that Babinsky was a Robin Hood character who stole for good but misguided reasons, and concluded that his head was not of the ‘criminal type’. This cast was taken from life in Prague in 1845 when Babinsky was in prison for robbery. Later Babinsky was released for good behaviour and became a gardener at a monastery.

Plaster cast of a man's head. His eyes are closed an he is wearing a neck scarf.

Plaster life cast of Vaclav Babinsky’s head. LDUSC-Noel-41. Copyright UCL Culture

Iris’ research uncovered details that Robert Noel had missed, and filled in the gaps about what happened after Babinsky died. After his release from prison notorious highwayman Vaçlav Babinsky became a genuine folk hero in Bohemia and Germany, with songs and novels written about him. He even featured in a Czech TV show, and recently Radio Prague International produced an English language podcast about his life which is well worth a listen.

Black and white photograph of an elderly man with muttonchop whiskers

Vaclav Babinsky as an old man. Image in the public domain.

Knowing Babinsky’s full name has also allowed us to find out more about his crimes. He was convicted of attacking a government official, and there is some suggestion that this charge was for biting the town mayor, which makes for a suitably colourful episode in the life of a famous highwayman. However, he was also convicted of at least 2 violent robberies and involvement in a murder, which shows our folk hero in a very different light. Would Robert Noel have interpreted Babinsky’s head differently if Babinsky had been executed for his crimes and never had the chance to turn his life around?

 

Whether our students next year are working with objects in person, or if they are working with digitised archives, I cannot wait to see what they uncover in the collections.

Hannah Cornish is Curator of Science at UCL Culture

Location, Location, Location!

Andrea Fredericksen28 September 2020

During Spring/Summer 2020, when UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from the Institute of Archaeology’s MA Museum Studies on our first-ever virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, provided opportunities for the students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.

This blog was written by Elizabeth Indek, UCL MA Museum Studies.

As a MA Museum Studies student at the Institute of Archaeology, I had the opportunity to undertake a work placement. However, due to the very unexpected global pandemic, the placement had to be conducted remotely. This meant that I spent a majority of the placement at home in New York. It was not until the last two weeks of June that I was able to return to London and complete the job in my room in Islington instead of my room in Manhattan. My placement with UCL Art Museum was fruitful and interesting, and in this blog, I will share what I found to be the most fascinating part of my job!

Elizabeth’s workspace during virtual placement

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Specimen of the Week 345: The Pikermi Casts

Tannis Davidson1 June 2018

LDUCZ-Z3259 Amphimachariodus giganteus

LDUCZ-Z3259 Amphimachariodus giganteus

Back in January, this blog featured four specimens nicknamed ‘the fancy casts’ which were chosen by UCL Museum Studies students as a research project for their Collections Curatorship course. The casts are of extinct species of horse and sabre-toothed cat which lived in the Miocene – Pliocene epochs around 23-3 million years ago. These four casts are unique in the Grant Museum because they are beautifully detailed, hand-painted and mounted upon bespoke ceramic bases.

I’m pleased to report that the students discovered that the fancy casts are indeed rather special. Thanks to the brilliant efforts of Kayleigh Anstiss, Anna Fowler, Pamela Maldonado Rivera, Rachael Rogers and Hollie Withers, these casts are no longer such a mystery. Here they are again, this week’s newly titled Specimens of the Week are… (more…)

Specimen of the Week 291: Leech Embryo Models

Tannis Davidson12 May 2017

Back in January, this blog featured a set of 36 wax models which were chosen by UCL Museum Studies students as a research project for their Collections Curatorship course. At that time, the models were a complete mystery. They were unidentified, undocumented and unaccessioned.

I’m thrilled to report that we now have answers! Due to the brilliant efforts of students Nina Davies, Clare Drinkell and Alice Tofts the wax models are no longer a mystery. Here they are (again) – this week’s Specimens of the Week are the…

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The Mystery of the Giant Golden Mole Skull

zcbtekp16 February 2016

A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

A mystery skull in bag – ready to identify. LDUCZ-Z850

Crawling blindly through tunnels under layers of dead leaves in the coastal forests of South Africa lives the giant golden mole. Most people don’t know it is there, and neither did I until I was presented with the skull of one this October. As this species lives exclusively in a tiny region on the Eastern Cape – most people have definitely never seen one! Who would have guessed that identifying this skull would be the start of my newfound love for these unlikely animals. (more…)

All hands on deck: the Petrie team welcome term

uczcast9 October 2015

The rhythm of life in a University museum like the Petrie is set by the academic year. As of 28 September, with the return of large numbers of students, the tempo shifted up a notch. Several notches in fact. Needless to say it is all hands on deck.

There are lots of new faces to meet in the Petrie at the start of term.

There are lots of new faces to meet in the Petrie at the start of term.

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Please can I see the Fossil Lady?

Celine West19 August 2015

This is a guest blog written by Alison South, volunteer for UCL Museums.

The dayroom on Ward 12 at UCH (University College Hospital) is bright and spacious with views west along the busy Euston Road. Here patients at the Teenage Cancer Trust Unit relax with their families and friends, putting aside illness, treatments, sickness and drugs for a while, chatting or enjoying a game or other activity. Over the last year I’ve become a regular visitor, bringing with me a bag of museum objects from the Touching Heritage handling collection at UCL Museums.

I vary my choice of 8-10 objects each week, but always include some fossils and rocks from the Geology collections, natural history specimens and Ancient Egyptian artefacts. Some on the ward refer to me as the ‘fossil lady’ or the ‘museum lady’ – I prefer to think of myself as a sort of therapeutic ‘bag lady’ holding tight my precious possessions. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week 146

Dean W Veall28 July 2014

Scary Monkey

Dean Veall here. This week it is I who am bringing you specimen of the week and I have the great pleasure of bringing you specimen 146! Huzzah. But can it really have been seven whole weeks since I last shared a specimen with you?  In my role of Learning and Access Officer I have several hats I wear, (these hats pale in comparison to the hats worn by Joe Cain during our Film Nights) so more like caps then. Naturally they are of the flat variety, or as we call them back home Dai Caps, reflecting my heritage, politics and social status as a ‘working class hero’ (who works in the arts and cultural sector!?). When I take off my more showy Dai Cap I wear for our evening events for adults that showcase UCL research I put my more hardier Dai Cap I wear during the day for our Schools learning programme. This week’s specimen of the week is one that I use heavily in our sessions we run for primary schools here in the Museum. It is one that inspires a myriad of questions from the pupils, most frequent being that old favourite “Is it alive?”  and a new kid on the block “But why is it moving?”. To find out the answers to these questions and more read on. This week’s specimen of the week is……….

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To Display or not to display?

tcrnjmf8 July 2014

While undertaking my Museum Studies Masters at UCL this year, common themes that kept cropping up were the issues that arise when displaying certain subjects or indeed objects. During our Museums: A Critical Perspective class we covered ethnographic collections, ‘Dark Tourism’ and national memory and the debate over displaying human remains. With my interests lying with the history of science and medicine I wanted to find a topic I could sink my teeth into whilst also focusing on museums of science and their methods of display.

Brown Dog Statue, 1906 with the plaque reading: “Men and Women of England, how long shall these things be?”

Brown Dog Statue, 1906 with the plaque reading:
“Men and Women of England, how long shall these things be?”

In April a UCL Science Collections curator asked me if I would be interested in taking a look at a 1930s dog respirator as a starting point for a dissertation topic. I was informed that the object may have been used during animal experimentation and there were concerns about how to display it responsibly, considering its historic role in experiments to which so many have a negative responses. I researched the history of vivisection – live animal dissection – and discovered the story of the little brown dog. During the early 1900s protests and riots spread through London as anti-vivisectionists campaigned against experimentation on animals in response to the illegal dissection of a little brown dog. Anti-vivisectionists commissioned a bronze statue of the dog to be erected as a memorial, antagonising medical students or “anti-doggers” and resulting in the statue being removed under the cover of darkness. In 1985 another statue, commissioned by the National Anti-Vivisection Society, was erected in Battersea Park and remains there today. (more…)

Specimen of the Week: Week 143

zcqsrti7 July 2014

Scary Monkey

For this week, it’s my turn to step up to the ravenous hoard of knowledge-hungry blog followers (that’s you fantastic lot). But first, before I am ripped apart in a gladiator-esque fashion, I’d like to take this opportunity to introduce myself; Hi all, I am Rowan. I am currently acting as Visitor Services Assistant on a temporary basis, so my time with you shall be unfortunately short yet sweet. So do drop in and you can see me at the front desk fumbling around in childlike wonder at all the amazingly weird thingies the Grant Museum has to offer.

I’ve decided to choose a specimen who will always hold a special place in my heart, having been paired with this sullen looking creature during one of my zoological assignments this year (I’ve just finished the second year of my UCL Natural Sciences degree). One of us was tasked to identify the other, yet I’m still unsure as to who (between me and this fine critter) actually did any effective identification as I spent most of my time confusedly prodding and pestering this specimen; a scientific method which I can only professionally describe as “faffing around”.

Sadly, this specimen is a little lonely having been blessed with an underwhelming greyish-brown and mistakenly ugly appearance. Unfortunately, being tucked away in a quiet corner along with the rather garish cephalopods, annelids and tapeworms (I’m sure they make wonderful neighbours) doesn’t quite help their romantic situation either.

Without further ado, this specimen of the week is…. (more…)