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UCL Culture Blog


News and musings from the UCL Culture team


Heck that’s cool

Emma-Louise Nicholls13 February 2013

Whilst you and I both work as hard as an ant running uphill carrying a dead fly three times its size at our jobs all day every day (right?), sometimes you can’t help but feel a little less Gandalf the Grey and a little more Freena the elf (remember him? Exactly.), than you may otherwise desire.


I get a lot of satisfaction out of a day at work, partly because I am easily amused by… myself, and partly because my job rocks. Not every day of course, some days I want to dart people with porcupine quills from the balcony, but that’s very rare (have no fear). However, more often than not I look at a project or piece of work, or reflect on a school visit, and I think “Yeah, that was super, I’m really pleased”. Getting nice feedback on my Specimen of the Week blog is one of my favourites for example (*cough*hint*cough*). One such moment of self admiration came due to a new project called the Micrarium.


Don’t overestimate my involvement in this project, I have merely spent several (thousand) hours pouring my liquified eyeballs over billions of microscope slides, selecting the sexiest ones and accessioning more thin sections than I have had individual days in my 31 years of life. I did not conceive the idea nor design, sadly did not carry out the building work (I like DIY), thankfully did not insert every slide into the nails-on-a-blackboard-infuriatingly-fiddly grooves on the walls, nor (even more thankfully) did I gain as many grey hairs as the curator. I did however, upon first looking at the completed Micrarium, like an actor seeing a completed film they’d spent months working on in disarticulated portions for the first time, subconsciously breathe aloud “Heck that’s cool.”

The Micrarium – a place for tiny things – opens

Jack Ashby11 February 2013

complete micrarium 2 whitenedHere at the Grant Museum we’re not afraid to try something big or something new. This time we’re doing just that with something small and something old, with a topic which has traditionally been problematic for natural history museums.

Last Thursday we opened the Micrarium – a place for tiny things. In what we believe is a first of its kind, we have converted an old storage room into a backlit cave displaying 2323 microscope slides and 252 lantern slides lining the walls on floor-to-ceiling light boxes and the effect is quite staggering. The slides mostly show whole small animals, or slices through whole small animals, a preparation technique which itself is amazing. Imagine taking a slice 1/10th of a millimetre thick through a fly, cutting through its antennae, its body, its head, the hairs on its head, its wings and its legs, all at once.
There were two main drivers behind the project…

1) Displays in natural history museums, while being obviously awesome, are deeply unrepresentative of nature. (more…)

A Review, of sorts, of Treasures at the Natural History Museum

Jack Ashby24 January 2013

Treasures is the new permanent exhibition at the Natural History Museum (NHM) which “displays 22 of the most extraordinary specimens that have ever been on show at the Museum”. I’d been excited about it since I first heard about it a couple of years ago.

As we all know, the best side of most museums isn’t the one that faces the public, and that is definitely true of the NHM, which for obvious reasons can’t display all 70 million objects in its care, or indeed all of the brilliant scientific research it undertakes. I’ve been critical before of the NHM missing opportunities to display real objects in its exhibitions, and so a gallery dedicated to showing what everyone actually comes to museums to see is exactly what I want them to be doing.

Being lucky enough to do the job I do means that I’m privileged in knowing quite a lot about what the NHM has behind the scenes. Before visiting, I made a list of what I thought the NHM’s treasures are, and ticked it off as I went around: (more…)

I found this… Mexican Plateau Horned Lizard

Naomi Asantewa-Sechereh17 October 2012

I found this… is a new mini-installation by the entrance to the Museum. In each of the six cabinets one member of our team has selected one object which they have uncovered something new about. Today…

Mexican Plateau Horned LizardMexican Plateau Horned Lizard

Part of my role involves looking after the adoption scheme, which means that I get to research the specimens in order to prepare their adoption certificates. Just today I used some of my adoption knowledge when a visitor asked about the pink fairy armadillo.

I enjoy the opportunity this gives to learn more about each specimen, especially when I come across the most bizarre facts that I could never have imagined. Take the Mexican Plateau Horned Lizard, it may appear cute and feeble, but it has the ability to squirt foul-tasting blood from its eyes forcing its canine and feline predators to drop it. Facts like these are guaranteed to make it into an adoption certificate!

I found this… dinosaur footprint

Simon J Jackson10 October 2012

I found this… is a new mini-installation by the entrance to the Museum. In each of the six cabinets one member of our team has selected one object which they have uncovered something new about. Today…

The dinosaur footprint

Dinosaur Footprint As I worked my way through documenting numerous specimens in the stores, I was pleased to come upon this specimen, one of three plaster casts of dinosaur footprints from the Isle of Wight Francis Mussett Collection. Having completed a Ph.D. in dinosaur footprint formation, it was a great opportunity for me to apply my expertise to the specimens. Firstly, by comparing the specimen to other footprints in the literature, and ones I have studied, I was able to ascertain that the animal that made this footprint was probably a flesh eating or carnivorous dinosaur — note the three long slender digits pointing forward with pointed terminations. By using a well-known relationship between footprint length and hip height, I was able to ascertain that the dinosaur would have been approximately 1 m high at the hip, and therefore about 3 to 4 m in length. The web-like structure between two of the toe imprints was probably formed from sediment being squeezed between the toes as the foot impacted upon the sediment. Thus the original ‘mould’ of the foot may have been slightly modified by the movement of the sediment, which means our interpretation of the animal’s size and type needs to be treated with some caution.

I found this…

Jack Ashby9 October 2012

As Manager of the Grant Museum I’m lucky because I get to work with what many people in the business would say is the best collection in London*, but also a team of very interesting staff. We have a window in the schedule of exhibitions in the Museum, so I decided to put these two bits of luck together and asked each member to select one object that they have made a discovery about to display.

Grant Museum pigeon holes

The pigeon holes that once were

Previous visitors to the Museum will remember that by the door there was a row of pigeon holes from when the room was a library. When we moved in 18 months ago we were quite excited about these and the opportunities we thought they offered. In the main we thought we’d offer them up as one of the many spaces we have for exhibitions co-curated with academic researchers here at UCL (remember Art by Animals and Buried on Campus?). When there were no exhibitions on we could do something ourselves, like animal alphabets, or actually fill them with pigeons. (more…)

Grant Museum Objects On Tour!

Mark Carnall18 July 2012

A photo of three objects on loan to Florence Nightingale Museum from the Grant Museum

This dynamic trio of objects are currently on loan to the Florence Nightingale Museum in an exhibition titled BONE. The exhibition, curated by Simon Gould and Rhiannon Armstrong, takes the central premise of BONE and creates a three dimensional spider diagram display of objects that enshrine different aspects of ‘boniness’. Hit the jump for details about the exhibition and let us know if you spot our objects on tour. (more…)

Buried on Campus has opened

Jack Ashby24 April 2012

Excavation in the QuadTwo years ago rumours spread quickly around UCL that builders working in the Main Quad on Gower Street had discovered human bones while they were digging an access trench. Lots of human bones. As would be expected, theories abound as to what the story behind such a discovery might be.

The police were immediately involved, and they consulted UCL’s own expert forensic anatomist, Dr Wendy Birch, and established that no foul play had taken place, and the remains were not of police interest. Since then, Dr Birch and her colleagues have been researching the remains and trying to piece together (often literally – many of the bones were highly fragmented) what they are and why they were buried.

This is the topic of the Grant Museum’s new exhibition, Buried on Campus, co-curated by Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, our immediate Rockefeller Building neighbours in the UCL Anatomy Lab. (more…)

Art by Animals opens today

Jack Ashby1 February 2012

Art by Animals - Grant Museum - chimp - Saint Louis Zoo

“Digit Master” 2011, Bakhari the chimp, Saint Louis Zoo

Today the newest exhibition at the Grant Museum opens and it’s probably not something many people will have seen before. Art by Animals is an exhibition of paintings by orang-utans, a chimp, elephants and a gorilla, and to be honest, most of them are better than I could do.

When our co-curators Michael Tuck, a graduate from the UCL Slade School of Fine Art, and artist Will Tuck, first approached me about a year ago I have to admit to being shocked at the elephant painting of a flower pot – it truly displays the incredible dexterity of the elephant’s trunk, but is it art?

Here’s a video about it. (more…)

Why we’ve put a thousand specimens on the floor

Jack Ashby9 January 2012

If you come down to the Museum today you’re sure of a big surprise.

1000 specimens on the floor

1000 specimens on the floor

Ever since we moved into our new venue last March we’ve been waiting for the time that we could undertake a very exciting construction project. The room we now occupy was built as a library, and the 39 book cases that run along the bottom row of the Museum’s walls didn’t have any doors on them. We were unable to commission new glass doors in time for the opening so we went with the temporary measure of screwing sheets of perspex in to protect the specimens on display. (more…)