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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

Traces from the Registers: Animating the Slade’s Etching & Engraving and Lithography Prizes

Andrea Fredericksen27 May 2021

During 2020-2021, when UCL was closed due to the coronavirus pandemic, UCL Culture’s curatorial team worked with students from UCL’s History of Art with Material Studies (HAMS) on virtual work placements. These projects provide opportunities for students to gain practical curatorial skills to prepare them for their future careers while undertaking valuable work towards better understanding the collections.

Since September 2020, Sabrina Harverson-Hill and Tianyu Zhang worked together on two virtual curatorial projects to research UCL Art Museum’s Slade Collections in preparation for the Slade 150 anniversary. Sabrina focused on the register for Etchings & Engravings and Tianyu on the register for Lithography to animate the Slade’s historic prizes in printmaking. Here Sabrina and Tianyu describe a few of the challenges and rewards of their placements:

 

What has been your favourite stage of the placement?

Sabrina: From day one my placement with UCL Art Museum was unusual in that it initially began remotely due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Andrea, the Curator at UCL Art Museum, however sent all the necessary material that we needed by post. I was to be working on the register of etchings & engravings in the Slade Collections. It is unique in that it contains within it handwritten entries of students from the Slade who won prizes for etching and engraving between 1937-1981.

My favourite stage entailed researching into my list of prize-winners, particularly those who had perhaps fallen into obscurity. This for me was one of the most exciting stages but also one of the most frustrating. I reached a lot of dead ends with female artists. This seemed mostly due to potential surname changes. Subsequently, there was frequently no trace of where they went on to after their time at the Slade. Having said this, it was all the more rewarding when nuggets of information about artists were found through online research. One example was discovering that Zelma M. Blakely and her partner Keith McKenzie both studied at the Slade. Interestingly, there was more information on Blakely, her life and work, than McKenzie. The pattern with these discoveries was usually the other way around.

 

Tianyu: My favourite stage is looking into the lives of the artists. The process of identifying their names from the hand-written logbook and looking up the names online, looking for every possibility and narrowing it down to the one person who attended the Slade has been a very exciting stage for me, and might lead to interesting research questions. For example, to what extent is Catherine Armitage a talented woman artist under the shadow of her famous husband Paul Feiler, or about the impact of the war upon the students and their study at the Slade, as some of them seem to have paused and resumed their study in 1940s.

(more…)

Digital Digging: Shedding New Light on the Petrie Museum’s Archive

Anna E Garnett20 May 2021

During 2020-2021, 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 virtual work placements. These projects, which included archive transcription, documentation and object label writing, continue to provide 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.

Since September 2020, Karolina Pekala and Timea Deak worked together on two virtual curatorial projects focusing on aspects of the Petrie Museum’s internationally important archive.

Karolina: Beginning a placement at the Petrie Museum was definitely out of my comfort zone. As someone with a predominantly art history background, approaching Egyptian history and objects seemed intimidating until I began to learn about the collection through the task of transcribing negative lists.

A page from the handwritten list of Petrie Museum negatives, written by volunteer Joan Merritt in the 1990s.

The Petrie Museum archive contains a detailed handwritten list describing the photographic negatives in the collection. The information on this long list, describing hundreds of individual negatives, is vital for our understanding of archaeological photography and the publication process for early excavations. This project is a good opportunity for us to contribute to the documentation, and improve the accessibility, of the Museum’s archive.

The handwritten pages contained many names of objects foreign to me, prompting many Google searches. A particular set of objects I found fascinating are the ostraca: small pieces of limestone or pottery used for writing, drawing, or sketching. I was learning something new page by page, and now that museums are slowly opening, I am excited to visit and put the objects to their names.

Despite this being a remote placement, this experience has been enriching. I was especially interested to learn about Joan Merritt, the Petrie Museum volunteer behind the handwritten pages. Knowing that the digitisation of these lists is contributing to a bigger project and legacy is incredibly rewarding.

William Matthew Flinders Petrie in 1892.

Timea: Attempting to piece together the life of a man long gone can be a challenging endeavour at the best of times! Doing this from the writings of others only adds an extra dimension to the challenge. Yet, this was what we tried to do as we scoured trough the archives for information on Flinders Petrie.

The aim of this project was to find out more about how Petrie, and his excavations, were portrayed in the media. For this project, we drew upon our research skills to collect digital newspaper clippings which mention Flinders Petrie and produce a searchable list of these documents for future study, which will be an important addition to the Museum’s digital archive.

No great scandal was unravelled through this exercise; however, we did stumble upon articles from which we could glean aspects of Petrie’s humanity. A 1938 article in the Washington Post describes a bizarre discussion concerning the size of Petrie’s head. It seemed that the archaeologist indulged this discussion himself, perhaps even finding it humorous. Flinders Petrie revealed that, over the many decades of his life, his head had never seemed to stop growing, and seemingly struggled to find the perfect hat to fit him comfortably! Such gems reveal no great accomplishment or secret side to Petrie, but they remind us that he, too, was human.