Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?
By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016
By Hannah Wills
I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.
My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).
Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.
Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.
Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.
There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.