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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Specimen of the Week: Week Thirteen

Emma-Louise Nicholls9 January 2012

Scary Monkey: Week ThirteenFor Christmas, besides a cuddly vulture with bright pink feet and a fantastic variety of different species of chocolate boxes, more than one family member demonstrated how well they know me as I received not one, but two copies of Frozen Planet- hoorah! I am now debating whether to swap one for something else or put two tvs side-by-side and see if I can watch it in stereo? Eitherway, inspired by this fantastic series (coincidentally mentioned in fact in a recent blog about the validity of such documentaries), this week’s specimen of the week is… (more…)

How to Get a Head

Jack Ashby30 November 2011

Last night Curator Mark and I went back to the Grant Museum’s historic roots as a proper teaching collection and got out about 100 specimens to run a workshop called How to Get a Head: A Hands-On History of the Skull.

Everyday, university students use our collection as part of their courses, but we’ve never run an actual class with objects for members of the public teaching proper old school zoology. We’ll certainly be doing it again (Get a Grip: A Hands-On History of Hands is now open for bookings for February).

Here’s an impartial write up from one of the people who came along, and some of the things she picked up… http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/events/2011/11/30/how-to-get-a-head-or-what-your-skull-is-saying-about-you/

In spod we trust

Jack Ashby25 November 2011

Today I would like to celebrate the spod. There are a couple of definitions for this term relating to over-users of online chat-rooms, but the spods I’m referring to here are those that Urban Dictionary defines as:

“A derogatory term used to indicate someone with one of the following:
1) A penchant for academic study, above and beyond the call of duty
2) Higher than average intellectual capabilities
See also swot, nerd, geek.
“You’ve already done your history homework? Dude, you’re a spod!”
“I hate that kid, he’s a bit of a spod!”

My aim is to dispel these derogatory connotations and praise them for their gumption, rejection of the norm and dedication to something that is important. I use here terms like geek and nerd to which I attach no negatives – and have to a great extent be “reclaimed” by people like myself, who do belong in these categories. Geek-chic is cool these days, as we all know, but I’m not actually talking about the fashion for being a geek-wannabe. Just dressing like what you think a geek dresses like doesn’t make you a geek. (more…)

A box, an object, several hundred conversations

Celine West11 November 2011

After months of design meetings, discussions about materials, worries about portability, and hiccups during fabrication, our new outreach “pod” is finished. The designers call it a portable gallery, and that’s probably the best description. As you can see from the photos here, it has a mirrored interior, creating the feel of an infinite space. It’s 2.2mx2.2m inside but does feel much bigger. At the same time, it does what we wanted and creates an intimate and immersive environment, where people come in and immediately forget what’s going on outside.


The Portability Question

Celine West26 August 2011

As I posted on here some time ago, we have a new way of doing outreach in development. A pop-up kind of kiosk that one or two people can visit at a time, with a member of museum staff and one object inside, with the aim of having a much more intense discussion about the object than in our usual outreach sessions, and, more so, issues connected to it. We’re calling it “The Thing Is…”

The kiosk (not the right word but I’m not sure what the right word is: in practice it’s a very large box, beautiful inside) is going to be a great space in which to work, and it will do its job creating an immersive environment in which people can experience something different from any other encounter with museum objects.

But, this week I’ve had worries, doubts and general collywobbles about its portability.


Rhinos, armed robbery and arsenic

Emma-Louise Nicholls23 August 2011

The Animal

White rhino and young. Photograph by Renaud FulconisLet’s call a spade a spade. If you look at a rhino I mean *really* look at it, go on don’t be shy there’s one right there, it’s a weird looking beast. Its great big head has tiny little eyes and its massive bulk makes it a formidable animal. The most rhino-y feature is of course the horn. A lot of animals have tusks, antlers, or maybe even horns, but no other species stumbling through evolution on a cold Pliocene day thought “I know, I’ll take this horn of mine and pop it onto my nose, hah haaah, that’ll impress the ladies”. No, they are unique. The rhino is a truly remarkable and remarkable looking animal.


So this horn, what’s it all about? Rhino horn is made of keratin. What’s that you say? Look down at the tips of your fingers (or toes if you’d prefer) and (hopefully) you will be looking at some keratin. Some of you may need to remove nail varnish before you can give your keratin a really good inspection. Yes rhino horn is made of the same stuff as finger nails. (more…)

666: Better when you know your devils

Emma-Louise Nicholls6 June 2011

Just after 6am this morning, on the 6th day of the 6th month, I received a panicked phone call from the security guard on night-watch at the museum. Evidently ‘strange noises’ had been coming from behind the locked doors and he had gone to check it out. Here is his statement… (more…)

Can we talk about jewellery?

Celine West11 May 2011

Conversation is an art, so they say. How to start a good one with someone you don’t know but want to? How to get going and increase momentum to the point where your partner in art starts butting in, can’t help it, has something they just have to say right now? “The thing is,” they say, “the thing is…” There we’ll leave them for now, in midflow, poised at the point of launching their urgent thoughts at you, about to spin you and them in a whirl of ideas and words.

We’re calling our new outreach experience “The thing is…” I’ve posted before about how we’re working with some excellent designers to create a space in which to engage people in conversations about an object. Recently I’ve been working with our curators to select objects around which we can have conversations with people.

First up is a bead necklace from Petrie’s Palestinian Collection, similar to the one pictured here.

Carnelian necklace, Institute of Archaeology Collections EVI.22/38











I have a lot to learn about the necklace we’ll be taking out to meet people. Some basics: it is from a tomb at Tell Fara, a site on the Wadi Gazzeh along the southern boundary of the region of Palestine known as Philistia. It was excavated by Petrie’s team in the 1920s. It is from the early Iron Age, making it over 3000 years old. Aesthetically it is eye-catching, made with beautiful carnelian beads.

There will be a lot more to say about this object and its history and my hope is that we will entice people into conversations around it. Conversations, debates, discussions about the history of the region where it was found and the history of its provenance, the history of personal adornment, being buried with your jewellery…the thing is, there is never just one way to look at anything, even a simple string of beads.

Ode to a Grecian box – some thoughts on the multiple histories of our Ancient Greek handling collection

Celine West11 April 2011

We have several boxes of stuff that we lend to schools. Not any old stuff of course, these are boxes containing some great objects from the collections, including one box that contains 15 objects from Ancient Greece that are part of our Archaeology Collections. There are metal animals and figurative pieces including a ceramic woman; there are decorated potsherds – broken pieces of pottery – as well as a couple of whole jugs.

These objects are roughly two and a half thousand years old and were used in a variety of domestic circumstances in different parts of the Grecian world, by people who we can imagine had not the slightest inkling of where that old jug that Daddy broke when he’d been at the retsina would end up.

The objects have this history, the history of their creation and use in their original context, and they have the history of their discovery and excavation, followed by their journey into our collection. They were brought together as a teaching collection about ten years ago, with the purpose of using them to help Primary School teachers when their class is learning the History topic What was life like in Ancient Greece?

Trapped in the desert – part four

Jack Ashby31 March 2011

A delayed account of zoological fieldwork in Australia – Part 10

From April 2010 I spent about five months undertaking several zoological field projects across Australia. I worked with government agencies, universities and NGOs on conservation and ecology studies ranging from Tasmanian devil facial tumour disease, the effect of fire, rain and introduced predators on desert ecology and how to poison cats. This series of blog posts is a delayed account of my time in the field.

Week Eleven

This week I’ll discuss something interesting and unexpected that happened on our way back out of the desert – some community engagement. (more…)