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…)
Have you ever seen something in a museum and suspect that the curators have got it wrong? If so, I hope you haven’t been too shy to let the museum know. Speaking for the Grant Musuem at least, we love it when visitors add to our knowledge of the collection, and we don’t ask for “expert” credentials before hearing an opinion. Indeed, a 11 year boy spotted that a specimen labelled “marine iguana” was in fact a tuatara (a lizard-shaped reptile from New Zealand (that is in fact not a lizard)). And couple of years back, a visitor noticed that our famous anaconda skeleton was in fact an African rock python. Some museums might be embarrassed by the idea that some of their objects have been mis-identified, but not us.
In fact every year we give our UCL bioscience students the chance to challenge our identification as part of the fantastic “Vertebrate Life and Evolution” module. We have just created a display of “mystery specimens” identified by these students.
The Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks consists of 37 plaster casts made in Germany in the 19th Century. As the name suggests the plaster casts were taken of both the living and the dead, and were collected by Robert Noel (a distant relation of Ada Lovelace) to show the ‘truth’ of phrenology, which simply put was the study of the lumps and bumps in people skulls in the belief that this gave insight into a person’s character. In this blog I aim to tell the story of the collection (as we know it now) and gather links to the various blogs, videos, articles that are available online. Enjoy!
When I started working at UCL 4-ish years ago we knew almost nothing about the Robert Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks. In its life at UCL it had been on display in the Galton Eugenics Laboratory, the Slade School of Fine Art and (reportedly) at one point it’s been fished out of a skip. Now, thanks to the work of a number of UCL students, we know so much more – the names of the people represented in the collection, what Noel thought of them and the background to Noel himself. They have also been properly conserved and looked after, so they will survive for another 150 years or so. (more…)
One of my favourite pastimes is to do a bit of research – on just about anything. I enjoy investigative work and the process of discovery. Luckily, the nature of my work at the Grant Museum ensures that there are plenty of opportunities to do museum-detective work. It could be a case of matching up an archival record with an unaccessioned specimen or figuring out a valid taxonomic name for a mysterious beast in a jar.
It is both a burden and a blessing to work with historic collections which have varying degrees of documentary information: while it would be preferable to have more/most/all information about an object, gaps in the data allow for additional research and new discoveries.
Recently I was doing some research on another Grant Museum Rhamphorhynchus specimen and one thing led to another…and another…and another. It turns out that there is a lot of history behind this week’s SOTW – and although it is ‘only’ a plaster cast – it is part of a famous lineage of one of the most famous fossil finds!
This week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)
Happy almost springtime! Longer days and brighter skies herald the coming of the change of season. This year the official start of Spring will be marked by a total solar eclipse on March 20 (get your eclipse glasses ready). When the sun re-emerges from behind the moon, both man and beast can rejoice in the return of the light and the promise of rejuvenation.
Here at the Museum, it is also time to clean the shelves, tidy the office, refresh the displays and present a brand-new exhibition. From 16 March to 27 June join us for Stange Creatures: The art of unknown animals and explore the world of animal representation.
While springtime has many different meanings and associations, including representative animals, one animal is perhaps most symbolic of this time of year. In honour of this most springy of selections, this week’s Specimen of the Week is… (more…)
The answer to that question is no, we can’t label everything. We’ve just installed 600 new labels in the Museum, as a result of visitor feedback. But have we got the balance right?
There are about 6000 animal specimens on display in the Grant Museum (which, incidentally, is more than is on display at the Natural History Museum), including about 2300 in the Micrarium. The room is only about 250m², and this means our displays are very densely packed. We are hugely keen on specimens at the Grant – providing close access to real objects is one of our biggest selling points. For this reason (and also because we don’t have a lot of storage space), we put as much out on display as is logistically possible.
Drawbacks of dense displays
As much as people tell us they think of the Grant Museum as a room crammed with amazing rare things creating with an atmosphere that promotes exploration, filling every spare gap with objects does have its downsides. Some people think that displays should give each object its own space to breathe, allowing people to concentrate on them, but we’ve made the decision to go in a different direction. Plenty of other museums use this sparse display philosophy – but if you want to be immersed in a real and different celebration of objects, come to the Grant Museum.
The major drawback of jam-packed cabinets is that there isn’t a lot of room for labeling. (more…)
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…)
I ask this question to our Museum Studies Masters students every year, and last month put it to our new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences students. Despite the difference in the age, background and interests of these two groups, the reaction is the same – anger and horror. I am playing devil’s advocate in these debates, but my own opinion is yes, there are circumstances when everyone benefits from museums lying.
The lectures I discuss this in focus on object interpretation, and I use a tiger skull as a prop for discussing how to decide what information to include in labels. The choice of a tiger isn’t important – I just need something to use as an example I can attached real facts about natural history and conservation to, but I spend the two hours talking about tigers.
At the end of the lecture I reveal that the skull is in fact from a lion. Everything else I told them about tigers is true. Did it matter that I lied? (more…)
This Wednesday, 29 January, UCL Museums and Collections, and UCL Library Special Collections, teamed up with the literary charity First Story to deliver our annual creative writing event. Around 90 students from local London secondary schools spent the afternoon exploring and writing about our collections.
Events like these remind me of how lucky I am to work as an educator in museums. As museum professionals, we spend a long time thinking about how to tell stories (stories of our museums, stories of our collections, stories of our objects, stories of the people that owned said objects, etc, etc…I could go on) but it is so refreshing to hand the role of the storyteller over to students, who can provide us with a totally fresh take on the collections we know so well. The results were, quite simply, fantastic. Below is just one example of the quality of work produced from the visit:
Jack Isaaz –La Grotteri, from King Solomon Academy, was inspired to think about his heaven and hell through working with the UCL Library Special Collections and, in particular, by Botticelli’s illustrations of Dante’s Divine Comedy:
For it is All that I Need
Sensations seldom felt grip the air.
More stains of darker, saturated hues. But still
All feels grey. Unlike once before, the silence
Is now silent: sounds of death, dead
Vibrations permeate the dust that you hear
And breathe. I can’t bear the nothing that
I never had. You don’t see for there is nothing
She smiles again once more, though not one thing
Could ever make one forget such a sight.
The sun shines on the clouds and as it should,
It does not shine on us. We are left with
The fray of the familiar. The cold that embraces us is
No foe, cooling our skin with its inviting breath.
I imagine the park adjacent to the grass where I
Lay down gazing at nothing because it is nothing that
I’ve become accustomed to. The fun nothings I need.
Raindrops now, stain the tar that bleaches the roads I’ve
Walked upon my entire life. The buildings are calmed
As their shadows find homes with the darkening
Surface. There is no need for thought or speech for
All is as it should be. I imagine
Jack Isaaz –La Grotteri, King Solomon Academy
To find out more about the work that First Story do you can visit their website: http://www.firststory.org.uk/
Alice Salmon is a Senior Access Officer in the Access and Learning Team for UCL’s Museums and Public Engagement Department.
I am going to start this blog off by openly admitting that I am breaking social media convention by blogging about an event that took place nine months ago. *audible gasps*. Yes, I do really mean nine months ago. However, there is good reason for this. In February this year, UCL’s Museums and Collections, and the Library Special Collections, worked in collaboration with the UCL English Department and literary charity First Story, to deliver a creative writing day for 100 students from local non selective secondary schools. Today, the schools’ poetry anthologies have landed on my desk and they are definitely worth blogging about.(more…)