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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Is Planet Dinosaur a Documentary?

Mark Carnall9 November 2011

Nearly three years ago I wrote a book chapter called Walking with dragons: CGIs in Wildlife ‘Documentaries’ the abstract can be found here. For one reason or another the book will only just be coming out someday soon, which means the content of the chapter went from state of the art, through to snapshot of thought in the noughties and is now practically an historical essay, such is the speed in which visual technologies change. The short summary of the chapter is that (chiming with Sir David Attenborough’s recent comments) CGI documentaries like Walking With Dinosaurs are a product of fact inspired fiction and presented as educational programmes. Ideally, this means that they should be as intellectually transparent as possible, the facts that inspire the fiction should be highlighted so audience members can get an idea of where porgramme makers have used artistic license to create an entertainment product. Can this be achieved in CGI documentaries without taking away from the spectacle of shows like Walking with Dinosaurs? This fact from which the fiction is derived can be called paradata and my book chapter examines how the paradata can be shown in these kinds of programmes. (more…)

Hidden gems of the Grant Museum: Introducing ‘Specimen of the week’!

Emma-Louise Nicholls17 October 2011

The woolly monkey with the manic grinThis story is not about adoptions, but that is where it begins…


Being majorly involved in our stupendously popular adoption scheme, I get to speak to a lot of our new members and potentials about their specimen choice. A phrase I hear a lot from people who have just arrived is “everything has already gone!” Oh so how untrue my friends. You see, the asset which endows the Grant Museum with its astounding atmospheric ambiance, is the Victorian ‘squeeze as many specimens in as possible’ display method. As a result, although we are approximately the size of 1/6th of a football pitch (apparently?) compared to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington which probably covers around 9000 football pitches, we have the same number of specimens on display to the public. Yes! I’m not making that up! (Except the 9000 football pitches… possibly…) So, is everything already adopted? Of COURSE not! Yes most of the very large articulated skeletons have gone but we have around 6,800 specimens on display and currently 201 adopters caring for a total of 213 adoptids. That leaves 6,587 orphans, and that is only counting the ones on display. There are a further 61,200 orphans back stage that us Grant Museum staff have to cater to the emotions for. What people are sadly missing in their excitement are the hidden gems of the Grant Museum. Of which, there are literally thousands. You just have to look more closely… (more…)

Hollywood Animals

Mark Carnall14 September 2011

Taxidermy Elephant shrew

Elephant who? Not Hollywood.

No. Not the animal stars of the silver screen but a term we use in the Grant Museum to describe a certain set of animals. Hollywood animals* are charismatic animals that are readily identifiable and although the simple classification system of “Hollywood” or “not” doesn’t refer to other taxonomic systems we can see that the possession of  some biological characteristics can significantly improve your chances. In museums, Hollywood animals tend to get used more in education and in exhibitions because they are more readily identifiable and interesting to look at. Hollywood animals also tend to get used more in wider popular culture, in branding for wildlife agencies and in many ways represent wildlife, nature and the rest of the animal kingdom. (more…)

Lost Things?

Mark Carnall4 August 2011

We interrupt normal service with this alternate history blog post. Author Bruno Hare, writer of Lost Kings has been writing a blog which is a fictional account of events surrounding a creature of legend, Felis serpentis, the snake cat. This article is part of that story. In his blog, which refers to events in the book, Bruno has visited the Grant Museum (and various other London museums) looking for remains of the creature – remains which seem to have mysteriously disappeared….

Keeping track of specimens in a collection as old as the Grant Museum can be incredibly difficult at times, especially as the collection started as a teaching collection. In the past, specimens were traded and borrowed on long term loans, the dugong skeleton in the museum had been traded for a “very large” manatee for example. This was well before museums had robust paperwork and concrete codes of ethics. Also, because the Grant Museum collection was a teaching collection, objects were only seen as useful for how they could be used in teaching zoology and comparative anatomy. Not too much care was taken to record the whos, hows, wheres and whys because the objects were seen as teaching aids primarily. (more…)

Say Hello To My Little Friends

Mark Carnall1 August 2011

Image of the new models of Quagga, Dodo and Thylacine in the Grant Museum

These three specimens are the latest addition to the Grant Museum collection. Before the museum moved, model maker Tom Payne came into the museum and asked if there were any models he could make for the museum.  After some discussion we decided that we’d like to have little life models made of three of our highlight specimens, the quagga, thylacine and dodo. We reference these three specimens a lot but unfortunately, to the untrained eye the skeletons look much like a horse, a dog and a box (now two boxes) of bones.  In particular the quagga and thylacine have interesting fur colouration so we wanted to display this and quagga and thylacine skins are in rather short supply these days. (more…)

C4’s Four Rooms: Fun but unethical

Jack Ashby4 July 2011

Is it acceptable to sell natural history objects?

Several months ago I had a number of phone and email conversations with a researcher developing a new TV programme in which people sell unusual possessions to art dealers in a Dragon’s Den style format. She wanted my help in finding objects or people with collections that could appear on the show to be sold. I shuddered.

I explained that, according the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics, museums selling their collections into private is very much frowned upon. She changed tack – she had hit upon the entirely correct notion that people who work in museum are themselves extremely fond of collecting. As I say – this is true – we are terrible at throwing things away, and what’s more, being expert curators in our fields, we know what things are worth keeping (and I don’t just mean financially). In the end I told her that none of UCL Museums would contemplate selling things in such a forum, but eventually agreed I would send her email on to my colleagues “in case they knew anyone who had something unusual in a cupboard at home”. (more…)

Starfish or Sea Star?

Mark Carnall10 June 2011

Last week a visitor asked whether starfish should be called starfish or sea stars. At the Grant Museum our asteroideans are labeled as starfish. Apparently, the confusing name is causing children and adults to identify starfish as fish rather than as echinoderms. Every now and then we get similar enquiries from visitors and students that arise when scientific pedantry meets commonly used names. For another example see our colleague from the Horniman Museum, Paolo Viscardi, clarify for once and for all that Apes are Monkeys, so deal with it.

A label from the Grant Museum that says that flying lemures are not lemurs and cannot fly

Life on Campus

Mark Carnall25 May 2011

There’s definitely an ebb and flow to university life that impacts the work of UCL’s Museums and Collections. During the teaching terms it is not uncommon to see curators carrying and trollying material about campus. Over the summer break, freed from the constraints of having to lecture students our academic staff switch to research mode and the number of researchers visiting the collections shoots up from undergraduates undertaking dissertation research through to professors working on papers, books and hypotheses. However, this isn’t my favourite time of the year. (more…)

Pop culture meets ancient icon

Rachael Sparks20 February 2011

Museum storerooms are by their very nature elusive creatures; the demands of finding space for the sixty-plus thousand objects in the Institute of Archaeology collections means that objects often lie cheek to jowl with one another fighting for both room and attention. For the curator, exploring a busy storeroom means that every now and again you will encounter the unfamiliar, the exciting, and sometimes the downright bizarre. Like this recently rediscovered object, known officially as 46.10/22.

I first met 46.10/22 in an overcrowded drawer, mixed in with pottery from former excavations at the site of Jericho, from the modern-day Palestinian Autonomous Authority. Jericho itself is the stuff of legend – notorious for its trumpet-sensitive walls in the Book of Joshua (Joshua 5 – 6), from which account we derive the desire to ‘wish someone to Jericho’. But it has taken on other resonances in modern culture: as a tourist destination, the theme of a song by legendary 70s band Stray, or reinvented for television as a spy thriller and now an American town at the centre of a post-apocalyptic drama. Its also been the home of a few archaeological ‘discussions’, including a rather entertaining debate in 1990 between Manchester Museum’s Piotr Bienkowski and biblical archaeologist Bryant G. Wood (“Jericho was Destroyed in the Middle Bronze Age, not the Late Bronze Age”, Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5, 45-6, and “Dating Jericho’s Destruction: Bienkowski is Wrong on all Counts”, Biblical Archaeology Review 16.5, 45-9). (more…)