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Improving object descriptions in UCL’s Object-Based Learning Lab

Anna E Garnett28 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 post was written by Yanning Zhao and Giulia MarinosUCL MA Museum Studies students. 

UCL’s new Object-Based Learning Lab, located in the Wilkins Building, is a purpose-built space to support and promote object-based teaching in the university. A large permanent exhibition of hundreds of objects from UCL’s collections is now on display in the OBL lab, and many of these objects were in need of updated and improved object descriptions for our museum database and online catalogue. Here, Yanning Zhao and Giulia Marinos describe their work to update some of these object records for objects from the Petrie Museum collection.

What did you do for this project?

Yanning: We divided all the Petrie Museum objects in the OBL displays into two groups, so that we could each focus on updating half of the objects on display. The objects I researched were mainly comprised of Egyptian figurines, vessels and even fragments from statues. As most of the current descriptions for these objects are too short for readers to fully understand them, our responsibility was to review them and highlight key aspects about the objects concisely.

Giulia: In addition to revising the labels to make them more descriptive and accessible to a wider range of readers, we also researched the objects and looked for similar objects in other museum collections.

Did this project present any challenges?

Red breccia lion (UC15199)

Yanning: The biggest challenge for me was to describe the objects in an academic and concise style! I did not have much experience researching Egyptian artefacts, so I had to start from zero to learn how to write proper descriptions. Thankfully, Anna Garnett (Petrie Museum Curator) provided a lot of learning resources, but I still found it challenging to try to identify the features of the objects. We worked on this project remotely, so this might be because we were not able to access the objects to see them more closely in person.

Giulia: Initially, I did not expect it to be challenging to write visually descriptive labels for objects; however, I was surprised by how difficult it was to articulately and accurately describe some objects. This could be due to the complex nature of the objects, the limited views available from the online catalogue or my lack of familiarity with the objects. Although there is so much information available digitally about the objects and the Petrie Museum collection in general, there are limitations to strictly digital or online engagement. Perhaps that also shows how I miss seeing and interacting with collections in person!

Wooden boat model (UC75621)

Tell us some fun facts or interesting findings from the project!

Yanning: I would like to highlight this red breccia rock in the shape of a lion (UC15199, image above). Its current description does not clearly state whether it is a gaming piece or not, but by comparing it with other similar collections from other institutions, it is likely to be gaming piece for senet, a popular ancient Egyptian board game.

Giulia: I was impressed to learn how far and wide ancient Egyptian objects have been dispersed across collections around the world! In my research, I found how similar object types such as Predynastic pottery or wooden boat models can be spread over so many different institutions – from California to Italy for example (if you are interested to learn more on this, I recommend Alice Stevenson’s Scattered Finds, available as a free download from UCL Press).

Yanning Zhao and Giulia Marinos are MA Museum Studies students at UCL’s Institute of Archaeology. Their summer placement was designed and supported by Dr. Anna Garnett, Curator of the Petrie Museum of Egyptian and Sudanese Archaeology.

Specimen of the Week 327: The Fancy Casts

Tannis Davidson26 January 2018

It’s that time of year when a very lucky specimen gets the research equivalent of the red-carpet treatment. Each January, students in UCL’s Collection Curatorship class (as part of their MA in Museum Studies) choose objects from across UCL’s collections to research in a practical project to introduce them to the core skills of a curator: to understand objects and how to research them.

Last year’s natural history group successfully cracked the mystery of the wax models and were able to not only identify them in their own right (as a developmental series of the freshwater leech Hemiclepsis marginata) but also revealed their place in the history of embryology as a rare surviving series made to illustrate Charles Otis Whitman’s 19th century pioneering work on cell lineage.

This year, the specimens chosen from the Grant Museum are a set of four beautifully-made painted plaster and ceramic casts which are unique in the Museum… (more…)

Dead to me!

Pia K Edqvist12 July 2016

Human remains at the Petrie Museum. It’s time to come out of storage!
Death is part of life, and for me, death is very much a part of work since I am currently rehousing the human remains at the museum. In February, I attended a seminar at the Institute of Archaeology (IoA), PASSING ENCOUNTERS: The dead body and the public realm, the purpose of this was to stimulate discussion about death in an open and frank manner. I joined to learn more about how human remains are portrayed in social media and to gather people’s opinions on death. But, I learned much more than that; how a body decays, what different stages of decay smells like (See Fig.1.), and how death and the body have been portrayed throughout history

Image showing presentation slide, do’s and don’ts when ‘smelling death’

Image showing presentation slide, do’s and don’ts when ‘smelling death’

. (more…)

Spotlight on the Slade – October 2015 update

Jenny M Wedgbury1 October 2015

Percy Wyndham Lewis, Stooping Nude Child, 1900, Black Chalk, UCL 6003 (The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis. By permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a Registered Charity)

Percy Wyndham Lewis, Stooping Nude Child, 1900, Black Chalk, UCL 6003 (The Estate of Mrs G.A. Wyndham Lewis. By permission of the Wyndham Lewis Memorial Trust (a Registered Charity)

Blog post by Helen Downes, Paul Mellon Centre Research Curator, UCL Art Museum

UCL Art Museum’s Spotlight on the Slade project is well underway with the first phase of the project: Full cataloguing of the collection of some 1,700 drawings.  Dating from the 1890s to the present day, this collection of largely prize-winning drawings offers a unique insight into student work and teaching methods at the Slade.  Current focus is on the late 19th, early 20th Century and is yielding some interesting findings. (more…)

Behind the Mask – Research into the Noel Collection

Nick J Booth2 September 2015

This is a guest blog written by Bryony Swain, a UCL Student Volunteer who spent most of the last academic year (2014/15) cataloguing the Noel Collection of Life and Death Masks.

Hello, I’ve been volunteering with the UCL Museums and Collections department and loving it!

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.  Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

Dr. August Friedrich Gunther.
Photo courtesy of Alan Taylor.

I have been cataloguing the excellent Robert Noel phrenological collection, which contains a large selection of plaster life and death masks from the mid 19th century. Phrenology studies the theory that skull configurations can determine character traits, and Noel made his collection to test and demonstrate the validity of this theory and wrote a book with measurements and biographical summaries to accompany them. Today, phrenology is considered a discredited pseudoscience, but in the 19th and early 20th century it was taken very seriously. Noel ordered the masks into different categories to prove that intellectual and moral individuals had a different skull shape to criminals and suicides.

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Specimen of the Week: Week 150

Pia K Edqvist25 August 2014

Scary MonkeyI did not really have a choice selecting the specimen of the week; this as a particular specimen was speaking to me in the corner of one of the display cases, I felt somewhat hypnotised. Firstly because the way it looks; it has an extraordinary appearance consisting of a lattice-like pattern in a somewhat geometric and architectural design, the specimen is very beautiful. Is it actually made of glass? Studying this specimen it has proven to have depth (it lives in the deep sea) but also breadth; its uses are many and its fascinating qualities are still investigated, this animal still raises more questions than provides answers.

This week Specimen of the Week is… (more…)

A gem of an idea

Rachael Sparks26 February 2014

Dramatically bearded gentleman shows off his classical headgear

Dramatically bearded gentleman shows off his classical headgear.

Every collection has its nooks and crannies, and it’s rare for curators to know the full scope of their domain. So every now and again we’ll take a quiet moment to sneak into our stores and explore that neglected corner or unfamiliar drawer, just to see what might be lurking.

Late last year I was looking for some material for my new conservation volunteers to work on. I’d begun training them in the mysteries of plastazote cutting – that’s making snug little foam housing to hold objects safe – and I wanted some simple starter objects. You know the sort of thing: nice and flat on the underside, so there’s no tricky shaping of the mount to match the curve of the object, and not so fragile that the students get disheartened by accidentally breaking something. We’d already done a batch of cylinder seal impressions (straight rectangular lines, flat as a tack – lovely). But now I wanted to try them on something new.

So I started to explore the stores in search of inspiration. Here’s what I found: (more…)

Do Dodo Bones Belong in a Museum?

Jack Ashby14 November 2013

This week the Daily Mail reported that two bones from a dodo were set to sell at auction for £30,000. This would be the first private sale of a dodo bone since 1934*. My first reaction was one of horror. Why is that?

These are two main reasons why I might deplore this sale:
1) It should be in a museum.
2) We shouldn’t put a value on natural history objects.

I’d like to explore why these might not be reasonable objections.

It Should be in a Museum: For Science
This is the reaction I got on Twitter when discussing this story, and it seems reasonable. Valuable natural history specimens that aren’t in museums are lost to science, as I have argued before when discussing Channel 4’s Four Rooms.

But are these two bones – a femur and partial pelvis – valuable natural history specimens? I’m not convinced. (more…)

Science Research in a Science Museum?

Mark Carnall30 May 2013

As chance would have it at the same time as we received research interest from the Royal College of Art, colleague Dr Zerina Johanson, researcher in the Earth Sciences Department at the Natural History Museum, had also contacted me about our paddlefish specimens. We have less than a dozen paddlefish specimens in the Grant Museum (fish is the family Polyodontidae, represented today by only two species the American paddlefish Polyodon spathula and the possibly-extinct Chinese paddlefish Psephurus gladius) and fortunately, one of these specimens, matched the specifications for research (in this article I wrote about how ‘usable’ specimens dwindle to tens from thousands depending on the type of research).

So for the second time in May I was on bodyguard duty to escort one of our specimens down to South Kensington for some scanning, this time for SCIENCE!

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Should or should not museums be places for debate?

Celine West5 April 2013

Last week the Museums Association (MA) published the results of its survey of public attitudes to museums. This survey showed all the good news that museum people love to hear – lots of people love museums, our collections, exhibitions and education programmes. As the report says, people have a strong, positive emotional attachment to museums – interestingly, whether they visit or not (1).

A summary of the report lists museums’ essential purposes (as viewed by the public), priority purposes, on down through low priority purposes. For example, an essential purpose is “creating knowledge for, and about, society” and a priority purpose is “promote happiness and wellbeing”. This list of purposes ends, however, with a couple of things under the heading “purposes challenged by the public” i.e. “what people think museums should Not be doing” and one of these is “providing a forum for debate”.

 

People discussing objects and subjects in the mirrored outreach box called The Thing Is

 

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