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Archive for the 'Museum Collections' Category

Jewels of an Ancient Civilization

By Julia R Deathridge, on 1 March 2018

Whenever I’m in the Petrie Museum I’m always drawn to the jewellery. This is because a) much like a magpie my attention is easily attracted to shiny pretty objects, and b) I would actually wear a lot of the pieces on display, probably to some future fancy event that I’ll one day attend post PhD life. So I decided to do a little research on the history of jewellery in ancient Egypt and pick out my favourite pieces from the collection.

Gold wide collar necklace, dynasty 18. From the tomb of the three minor wives of Thutmose III. CC BY-NC 2.0 © Peter Roan

The rise of extravagant jewellery

As far back as the Stone Age, our ancestors have been decorating themselves in jewellery. Originally these were just simple pieces crafted from easily available resources such as seashells, bone and animal skins. However, the ancient Egyptians had other ideas, and they would go on to create trends and styles of jewellery that would live on to this day.

The discovery of gold in ancient Egypt, along with the use of precious gems, resulted in the creation of highly lavish jewellery pieces that epitomised the luxury culture of nobles and royals. As technology advanced and materials became more readily available, the popularity and extravagance of jewellery also increased, making it one of the most desirable trade items of the ancient world.

Jewellery and religion

Jewellery was extremely popular in ancient Egypt. Everyone wore it, whether they were male, female, rich or poor. But jewellery was not just about adorning oneself with pretty gems; it also acted as symbol of status and was steeped in religious beliefs.

Small charms, known as amulets, were of particular religious importance to ancient Egyptians. They believed that these charms had magical powers of protection and healing, and would bestow good fortune to the wearer. Much like charm bracelets today, these charms were commonly worn as part of a necklace or bracelet, and the shape or symbol of the amulet would specify a particular meaning or power.

Violet faience scarab bead (Petrie Museum: UC1367)

Jewellery offered magical powers to the dead as well as the living, and ancient Egyptians were often buried wearing their prized jewels. One of the most common amulets to be buried with was the scarab, as it symbolised rebirth and would ensure reincarnation to the next level.

 Materials and metals

The materials that a jewellery piece was made out of acted as an indicator for social class. Nobles would wear jewellery made up of gold and precious gems, and others would wear jewellery made from copper, colourful stones and rocks.

Gold was the most commonly used precious metal, due to its availability in Egypt at the time and its softness, which made it the perfect material for establishing elaborate intricate designs. Moreover, the non-tarnishing properties of gold added to the magical prowess of the metal, leading ancient Egyptians to believe that it was the ‘flesh of the gods’.

Another regularly used material was the semi-precious stone Lapis Lazuli. The deep blue colour of Lapis Lazuli symbolised honour, royalty, wisdom and truth. Other prized stones included obsidian, garnet, rock crystal and carnelian, pearls and emeralds. However, artificial more affordable versions of these precious gems were also crafted, and commonly worn by the lower classes. Much like the fake diamonds and pearls of today, these artificial gemstones were practically indistinguishable from the real thing.

I want that jewellery!

So now we’ve had a little history. Lets get on to the important stuff – which pieces of jewellery I would most like to wear!

First, lets start with the earrings. It wasn’t actually until King Tutankhamen that earrings became a popular jewellery item among ancient Egyptians. The style and use of earrings is likely to have been brought over from western Africa. My favourite earrings are these beautiful hoops, which would not look out of place on stall in a Brick Lane market!

 

Another piece that would nicely fit into my jewellery collection is a string of faience cat amulets. Firstly, it will go brilliantly with all my other cat jewellery. Secondly, cats were highly regarded in ancient Egypt and these cat amulets would likely to have been of great importance to the owner.

 

Faience, turquoise glaze, sting of cat amulets (Petrie Museum: UC37170)

 

Finally, the ultimate extravagant piece from the collection that I would love to own, is this wide collar necklace, which was likely to have been worn by Akhenaten, Tutankhamen’s father. Each bead was excavated separately and the design of the necklace was reconstructed for the Petrie collection. Additionally, conservation revealed a turquoise bead (11th from the right) to have a cartouche of Tutankhamun. When you’re next in the Petrie, see if you can spot it!

 

Reconstructed bead necklace. Armana period (Petrie Museum: UC1957)

 

Question of the Week: Why Do Wombats Poop Cubes?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 February 2018

 

A wombat waddling along (Image: © Jack Ashby)

With pudgy little legs and a determined waddle, wombats are amongst Australia’s cutest marsupials. I mean, have you ever seen a wombatlet (not the technical term, unfortunately) sneeze? There’s lots to love about wombats—including their cube-shaped poop.

Wombat faeces—not a snack treat (Image: Bjørn Christian Tørrissen)

This odd wombat feature has sparked a lot of gleeful speculation. The prevailing thought is that these six-sided excrements are caused by a combination of the digestion time, the shape of the large intestine, and the dryness of the resulting fecal matter.

Wombats have a slow digestive system—it takes up to 2.5 weeks for food eaten to make its way down the alimentary canal, through the stomach, small intestine, and finally out the anus as fecal matter. (On the scale of animal defecation time, wombats aren’t even in the running. One snake was recorded as “holding it” for 420 days.)

A common wombat, or Vombatus ursinus, skull with large teeth for masticating grasses and roots, and a skeleton with large front claws for digging (Images: Grant Museum of Zoology, Z68 and Z67)

After being processed by the stomach, the digested matter transverses the large intestine, which is a long tube-like organ with ridged sides. These ridges may help to break the matter into compact sections. Since the final part of the intestine is much smoother, these cubed sections retain their shape all the way to the anus.

A wombat’s long digestive time means that this matter becomes condensed and, ultimately, dry as the nutrients are extracted. Wombats have some of the driest faeces amongst mammals and, it turns out, it’s a handy evolutionary trait. Wombats use their droppings to mark territory; with a propensity to defecate on logs and other elevated objects, cubes won’t roll off, unlike cylindrical droppings. As wombats drop between 80 and 100 scats a day, it would be a pain if they, well, scattered.

 

According to Jack Ashby, Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology, “Another thing to note about wombat poo is that since wombats have backwards-facing pouches, larger wombatlets end up spending a lot of time with their faces in poo. It has been suggested that this is an important way that they gain helpful gut bacteria that they need to digest the wombat diet of tough Australian grasses.”

If you want to see fake wombat faeces in action, Robyn Lawrence created a video demonstrating a wombat’s digestive system. She uses Jell-O to illustrate the forming and squeezing of the food into cube shapes, which then passes unchanged through the colon and out the fake anus.

So no, the wombat rectum isn’t square.

———

Further Reading:

Menkhorst, P. A Field Guide to the Mammals of Australia. South Melbourne: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Triggs, Barbara. The Wombat: Common Wombats in Australia. University of New South Wales Press, 2002.

Why are animals 3D?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 23 November 2017

 

Have you heard that our body is mainly composed of 70% water? Although true, the percentage varies from 55% of water in adult women, all the way up to 78% in babies, with the percentage for adult men somewhere in between. This is also true for animals, where some — like the jellyfish — have even 90% of their body composed of water. With this in mind, why don’t animals, including us, look like a soup? How can animals have a defined 3D structure?

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)

Aurelia aurita, moon jellyfish, 5 preserved specimens (C193)

 

Animals are made out of cells, the building blocks of our organs and tissues. But cells are basically a bag of water and chemicals; so again, why don’t animals look like giant bags of chemicals? The most obvious reason is that animals have bones that give structure to the rest of the body. But even bones are 31% water, and organs with no bones, such as hearts, still have a unique 3D form. Hearts have defined chambers (see the elephant heart below); they’re not just a mush of cells. The answer lies not in the cells themselves but in what surrounds them.

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Elephant dried heart (Z639)

Cells are engulfed by the extracellular matrix (ECM) which is mainly composed of proteins. This matrix encompasses the space in-between cells, gives them structural support and acts like a scaffold. It can also act as a pathway for cells to migrate along and it gives out chemical and physical cues that cells respond to. The ECM varies from organ to organ. The brain, for example, is mainly composed of cells with an ECM of only 20% of the total mass. In contrast, cartilage has fewer cells and around 70% of its mass is ECM. Every cell type is surrounded by a specific matrix that will affect its function. Studying this extracellular environment is important to understand how cells develop, how they interact with each other, and how they react to disease.

At the same time, by studying the ECM, researchers can get an idea of how an organ or tissue is structured and how to replicate its intricate architecture. Scientists that work in tissue engineering use a technique which consists of washing away the cells of an organ, literally. By using detergents, the cells are washed away in cycles until just the extracellular matrix is left. In this manner, they can analyse its composition and experiment with the matrix with the end goal of growing an organ in the lab. Therefore, one day we could replace diseased or aged organs with new ones without the need for transplantation. The unique composition of the ECM provides cells with the support they need to survive, and at the same time, gives animals and their organs a defined 3D structure.

 

Sources:

https://water.usgs.gov/edu/propertyyou.html

How to visualize the insides of an animal?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 26 October 2017

When studying animals, sometimes we need to study them from the inside out —literally. One way to do this is to cut them open and looking at their internal structures, such as with the bisected heads or the microscope slides in the Grant Museum of Zoology. Another way to visualize the inside of an animal is to stain a particular body part while making everything else clear; researchers can do this by using chemicals and colour stains. For example, in the Grant Museum of Zoology, we can find specimens like the tarsier, with its skeleton stained in red, or the zebrafish with red and blue parts.

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult tarsier stained with Alizarin Red to show calcium (Z2718)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)

Adult zebrafish stained with Alcian Blue and Alizarin Red (V1550)

 

The process of staining these animals begins with the removal of the skin, viscera and fat tissue.  Then, soft tissues like muscle are cleared using a variety of different methods which mostly involve exposing the specimen to different baths of chemicals. Next, the bones are stained with Alizarin Red and the cartilage with Alcian Blue. It’s a long process that can take a couple of days because the stain needs to properly penetrate the tissues, but the results are amazing.

Initially, both Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue were used as textile dyes, but now they also have numerous biological applications. Alizarin Red staining is a method to visualize mineralized tissue because it stains calcium and Alcian Blue stains specific structures mainly found in cartilage. These stains constitute an important part of research because they allow researchers to visualize the intricate structure of tissues and thus understand how they form throughout development.

ADSCs

Image credit: Eleonora Zucchelli

In the lab where I study, researchers work with adipose (fat) derived stem cells which have the capacity to become different kinds of mature cells. These stem cells are grown under specific conditions and by changing these conditions scientists can direct them into becoming mature cells like fat, bone or cartilage — a process called differentiation. But this process can take anywhere from a couple of weeks up to a couple of months! In order to determine if the differentiation is working, researchers stain the stem cells with Alizarin Red and Alcian Blue to identify if they are in fact turning into bone or cartilage. In the images depicted, undifferentiated adipose derived stem cells (ADSCs) on the top appear clear but their differentiated counterparts are stained in blue or red. This means the differentiation is working.

There are many other stains used on animals or cells. The process of clearing and staining can be very complicated depending on the specimen and what one wishes to stain, but the results can be quite fascinating. What animal would you like to see stained from the inside.

 

Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)

Mouse stained with alizarin red (Z3155)

 

References:

PUCHTLER, H., Meloan, S. N., & TERRY, M. S. (1969). On the history and mechanism of alizarin and alizarin red S stains for calcium. Journal of Histochemistry & Cytochemistry17(2), 110-124.

McLeod, M. J. (1980). Differential staining of cartilage and bone in whole mouse fetuses by alcian blue and alizarin red S. Teratology22(3), 299-301.

 

Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.

 

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

 

How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.

 

What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!

 

References:

[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

Label Detective: Are Bacteria ‘Ordinary Animals?’

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 17 October 2017

A few weeks ago, the Grant Museum opened a new exhibit, The Museum of Ordinary Animals: boring beasts that changed the world. As a detective of the mundane myself, I am a huge fan. But I’m particularly curious about the ordinary animals we can’t see.

Rather than focusing on a specific artefact label, I answer the title question by visiting two places in the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition that help raise questions about how things are organised and labeled in zoology more broadly.

Case notes: Bacteria are everywhere. As I mentioned in my previous post, we have 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies alone, living and working together with our organ systems to do things like digest nutrients. This is also happens with other animals — consider the ordinary cow, eating grass. Scientist Scott F. Gilbert tells us that in reality, cows cannot eat grass. The cow’s genome doesn’t have the right proteins to digest grass. Instead, the cow chews grass and the bacteria living in its cut digest it. In that way, the bacteria ‘make the cow possible’.

IMG_1102

The Ordinary Cow, brought to you to by bacteria. Credit: Photo by author

Scientifically speaking, bacteria aren’t actually ‘animals’; they form their own domain of unicellular life. But, as with the cow, bacteria and animals are highly connected. Increasingly, scientists say that the study of bacteria is ‘fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology’ and theories about the origin and evolution of animals.

But, before we get into that, let’s go back to Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin studied how different species of animals, like the pigeon, are related to each other, and how mapping their sexual reproduction shows how these species diversify and increase in complexity over time. This gets depicted as a tree, with the ancestors at the trunk and species diversifying over time into branches.

Picture1

Darwin’s Ordinary Tree of Pigeons. Photos by author

When scientists began to use electron microscopes in the mid-20th century, our ideas about what made up the ‘tree of life’ expanded. We could not only observe plants, animals, and fungi, but also protists (complex small things) and monera (not-so-complex small things). This was called the five kingdom model. Although many people still vaguely recollect this model from school, improved techniques in genetic research starting in the 1970s has transformed our picture of the ‘tree of life’.

It turns out we had given way too much importance to all the ordinary things we could see, when in fact most of the tree of life is microbes. The newer tree looks like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Now there are just three overarching domains of life: Bacteria, Eucarya (plants, animals, and fungi are just tiny twigs on this branch), and Archaea (another domain of unicellular life, but we’ll leave those for another day).

There’s a third transformation of the ‘tree of life’, and this one is my favourite. Since the 1990s, DNA technology and genomics have given us an even greater ability to ‘see’ the diversity of microbial life and how it relates to each other. The newest models of the tree look more like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is a lot messier. Why? Unlike the very tiny branches of life (plants and animals) that we focused a lot of attention on early on in the study of evolution, most of life on earth doesn’t reproduce sexually. Instead, most microbes transfer genes ‘horizontally’ (non-sexually) across organisms, rather than ‘down’ a (sexual) genetic line. This creates links between the ‘branches’ of the tree, starting to make it look like….not a tree at all. As scientist Margaret McFall-Ngai puts it: ‘we now know that genetic material from bacteria sometimes ends up in the bodies of beetles, that of fungi in aphids, and that of humans in malaria protozoa. For bacteria, at least, such transfers are not the stuff of science fiction but of everyday evolution’.

Status: Are bacteria Ordinary Animals? We can conclusively say that bacteria are not animals. But, they are extremely ordinary, even if we can’t see them with the naked eye. In truth, they’re way more ordinary than we are.

 

 

Notes

As with the previous Label Detective entry, this post was deeply inspired by the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, an anthology of essays by zoologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who explore how environmental crisis has highlights the complex and surprising ways that life on earth is tied together. Scott F. Gilbert and Margaret McFall-Ngai, both cited above, contribute chapters.

Embryological Wax Models

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 14 September 2017

The Grant Museum has a number of embryological wax models on display (Images 1, 2, 4, and 5 amongst others not shown here). These models, while often ignored by visitors, are actually quite remarkable as they showcase the brilliance and mystery of embryological development. They were created to help elucidate essential questions like: how do humans and other animals form? How are a bunch of seemingly insignificant cells, with no shape other than a ball, able to grow so much and in such detail to form intricate patterns like our eyes? How can one cell transform itself into such different tissues, from hard rock bone to the jelly like liver? In order to understand how a human body is formed it is vital to study the very first stages of its creation, i.e. when we are just a bunch of cells.

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

Image 1. Placental mammal embryo (Z3100)

The very first cells that are formed after fertilization are called stem cells and they start with an unlimited capacity to form any type of cells. With time, they start to differentiate and mature into specialized cells with a limited lifetime. In this process, little by little they lose their unlimited capacity until they can only form cells that are similar in lineage. In this manner, totipotent stem cells can form any body part including extraembryonic tissue like the placenta. On the next level, pluripotent stem cells (embryonic stem cells for example) are capable of forming any body part but have lost the capacity to form extraembryonic tissue. And finally, multipotent stem cells, much more restricted, can only form cells from a specific tissue or organ.

This may appear as a straightforward process, but the development of an animal is a deeply specific, delicate, and sophisticated interplay of signals and coordinated transitions. Think of it as an orchestrated dance of on and off switches leading to specialisation and exponential growth. In fact, it is so complex that we still don’t understand it entirely.

Although not all human, the wax models display the first stages of development of vertebrates and closely related animals. First, one cell divides symmetrically into two, then four, then eight and so on (Image 1 and front models of Image 2). Afterwards, cells start organizing themselves answering to chemical and physical signals and different patterns start to appear (Image 2 models in the back). Eventually, an axis emerges on which cells migrate along which will give rise to the head on one side and the body and limbs on the other (Image 4). 

Slowly but surely, we all go from looking like little worms to fully grown animals (Image 3). It is important to note that in this initial period most embryos have a very similar appearance, at least between vertebrates. These similarities tell us that a lot of the genes that govern this initial growth haven’t changed between species over time. It’s like nature is saying, “well, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” and so these mechanisms have been conserved in different animals.

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

Image 2. Branchiostoma sp, Lancelet Embryo (fish-like invertebrate; T114)

These early stages are crucial moments because if one little element of the spatial/temporal organization is out of place, improper organization can lead to lifelong malformations, diseases, or even the termination of the embryo. Hence the importance of understanding how this process works. We know that even in adult life, there are still stem cells proliferating and forming new tissue to a certain degree. Some organs, like the skin, have a lot of stem cells to replace old cells when they die or get injured. But other organs like the brain, have a very limited capacity to grow new cells—one of the reasons why a brain is much more difficult to fix.

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 3. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480) and development of external form of human embryo (LDUCZ-Z430)

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

Image 4. Vertebrate embryos. Image taken from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

So can we get back all the limitless capacity there once was in the developing embryo? Even though the genetic and molecular mechanisms governing all these changes are still somewhat elusive, researchers are using stem cells and powerful genetic tools to answer this question and decipher every single step of how a human is formed in the womb. Moreover, if we can understand the process, then we can recreate and modify it in the lab, and this is exactly what the field of stem cells and regenerative medicine is trying to do. Imagine having the capacity to grow new organs to be used for transplantation or drug testing. How about growing a brand new functioning leg or arm for amputees? Or studying the mechanisms of diseases like Parkinson’s, leukaemia, diabetes, amongst others. The benefits of harnessing the regenerative potential of cells are far-reaching.

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

Image 5. Development of the external form of the human face (LDUCZ-Z480).

The exciting field of stem cells and regenerative medicine has come a long way, more than a century has passed from the first time the term stem cells was used in 1906 up until the creation of genetically modified human embryos in 2017. The embryological wax models represent initial efforts of identifying how changes give rise to specific structures and ultimately how an animal comes into existence. Furthermore, the future still holds exciting breakthroughs, there is still a lot to understand about human development and the wax models are a fantastic resource to portray the morphogenetic changes we all once went through.

 

Resources:

Gilbert SF. Developmental Biology. 6th edition. Sunderland (MA): Sinauer Associates; 2000. Comparative Embryology. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK9974/

http://www.labonline.com.au/content/life-science-clinical-diagnostics-instruments/article/why-do-all-animal-embryos-look-the-same–236915402

Who wants to adopt a parasite? Or, terror and disgust in the Grant Museum. 

By Niall Sreenan, on 12 July 2017

Of all the creatures, critters, beasts, birds, and baleens in UCL’s Grant Museum, few organisms are as ignored and maligned as the parasites. Visitors tend to skirt their north-easterly facing cabinet, either because they have begun their journey around the opposite side of the museum’s horseshoe layout or to bathe in the light of the museum’s “micrarium”; either way, they are not stopping to dwell for long in front of the roundworms, flatworms, or flukes. Likewise, these “helminths” are amongst the least popular candidates for adoption, which allows visitors to have their name displayed beside their specimen of choice in exchange for a contribution to the museum’s conservation, renovation, and documentation projects. There is a gruesome irony here, since tapeworms can also dwell in the gastrointestinal tract of a human museum visitor for two decades completely unnoticed – and grow up to 55 feet long.

This fact might go some way to explaining why visitors seem to prefer more orthodox – and straightforwardly threatening – specimens. They seem to have little problem with, are even fascinated by, lions, sharks, jellyfish, scorpions, and other animals whose attacks can be painfully and violently fatal to humans. But parasites, whose methods are comparatively insidious, seem implicitly to repel. Visitors to the Grant Museum seem to prefer, therefore, threats which are visible and whose assault we can see coming, rather than incursions upon our safety from an invisible and undetectable enemy. They are not alone in this, of course: the fear of that which cannot be seen, or refuses to be revealed, is not merely an expedient workaround for low-budget horror films, but permeates folk-tales, fairy-tales, and mythology, across the world.

Nevertheless, our revulsion of parasites in particular – and not merely of what is invisible – must itself have a less visible cause, because parasites themselves are not always hidden. Organisms like the tick and the leech feed off and derive nutrients at the expense of their host, and are certainly not invisible as they do so. An infamous scene from the film adaptation of Stephen King’s Stand by Me acts as a testament to the terror the latter species seems to evoke.

Perhaps, then, it is less what is invisible or visible and more a political economic fear – a question of ownership. After all, the parasite yields profit from our bodies, without offering anything in exchange, and often without having the good grace to let us know. Can we even claim to own our own bodies, if they are so easily exploited by these organisms? One man, Dimitri Tsafendas, was certain that a parasite had taken ownership not only of his body but his mind when in 1966 he assassinated the prime minister of South Africa, Henrik Verwoerd. Tsafendas was convinced a tapeworm he had as a boy was still present in his system, and was dictating his every action.

This killing represents an uncanny reversal. Verwoerd is known today for his role as the “architect of apartheid” and the discourses and justifications of racism have often drawn upon the notion of “the other” as a parasite, whose incursion on the body politic represents the threat of impurity, disease, and the loss of national ownership. Verwoerd himself became the victim of such a delusion, albeit on the personal, individual scale. Tsafendas, despite his claims, was deemed criminally insane.

Ornithodoros sanguinis-cameli, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Ticks, J135, The Grant Museum of Zoology

Other theories also allow us to speculate why the parasite exerts such a hold upon the human psyche. The French psychoanalyst Didier Anzieu argues in his The Skin Ego (Le Moi Peau) that the biological protection offered by the bodily ‘wrapping’ of our skin is doubled by a psychic defense mechanism which guards against penetrations of and assaults upon our identity sense of self-unity. To feel revulsion or horror at the sight of a tick burrowing itself into one’s arm, therefore, is not merely because it represents a threat to our biological well-being; our disproportionate terror is a result of the sense of being attacked on a deeper, existential level, an infiltration of the very boundaries that allow us to constitute ourselves as sovereign, unified psychic beings.

This theory complements another psychoanalytic theory, Julia Kristeva’s notion of abjection. She contends in The Powers of Horror that our revulsion at the abject is in fact a way of shoring up the very self-identity, unity, and sense of psychic wholeness that it appears to threaten. This is achieved by “abjection”, the sense of relief and pleasure at ejecting from the body that which is perceived to be impure of dangerous. In this way, she argues, we not only resist assimilating what appears to us as an assault on our being, in doing so ‘I expel myself, I spit myself out, I abject myself within the same motion through which “I” claim to establish myself.

Parasites, then, for all that we seem to want to ignore, are for that very reason integral to understanding who we believe we are as human beings. They are what we believe we are not. We are honest; we are visible; we do not take without giving back; we own and control ourselves and in turn respect the self-ownership of others, as long as they too remain in control of themselves. But we do not need the exemplar, historical context, and outcome of Dimitri Tsafendas and Henrik Verwoerd to know that these self-descriptions are often self-deceptions. Perhaps it is time to properly regard the parasite.

The Grossest (Coolest) Things in the Grant

By Cerys Bradley, on 23 June 2017

The female Surinam Toad grows her young in small sacks on her back. To impregnate her, her male partner will inseminate her eggs and then lob (not the technical term) those eggs into her back cavities where they hatch. Her young will develop to toadlets before bursting out and going about their life. In the Grant Museum there is a Surinam Toad specimen caught after her toadlets (young toads) have vacated but before she has shed her skin to prepare for the next reproductive cycle. The result is a display of dimples that will make your skin crawl if you have trypophobia – an irrational fear of seeing an irregular pattern of holes in places you wouldn’t expect to see them. I think the Surinam Toad is really gross and, when asked by visitors “what is the most disgusting thing you have here?” this is the specimen I show them. But, whilst they are being weirded out by its back, I explain its back story and truly fascinating reproductive habits because, even though I don’t want to look at the toad, I do want to learn about it.

The underside of a Surinam Toad (W332) with its gross back hidden from view. Click here to see examples of its back sacks, if you dare.

There are a lot of objects in the Grant Museum that are equal parts disgusting and interesting. That is very much to be expected when your collection centres around objects used to study anatomy and collected by Victorian scientists for whom “squeamish” was something that happened to other people. Of course, not everyone thinks that the objects in the Grant Museum are gross, some people do only see scientific objects of historical importance. I am not one of those people, but I still love working in the Grant and sharing its objects with visitors. Even the ones I don’t like looking at, or rather, especially the ones that I don’t like looking at because they are all valuable objects with interesting histories that tell us something incredible about the world. For this blog post, I have chosen my top five (only five!) grossest objects from the Grant Museum so that I can explain why I also think they are remarkable.

  1. The Surinam Toad, which we have already covered, though I would also like to point out that the male toad embeds the female’s eggs on her back whilst she is doing somersaults so, on top of everything else, this species has pretty good aim.
  2. The Jar of Assorted Lizards – you may be familiar with the Jar of Moles but, one shelf down, there are some assorted lizards which I think are cooler but they don’t get as much attention because they don’t have as good of a PR guy. There are a lot of jars containing multiple specimens in the museum, which may seem odd because you can’t really get a good look at the things inside them. This technique was used, however, because putting things in jars can be expensive and, having lots of jars requires a lot of storage space. So, if you were storing your specimens, not because you wanted to look at them but, because you wanted to study them you could be a bit more practical and put them all in the same jar. Jars of multiple specimens would have been used to conduct repeat experiments or for class demonstrations or practicals (take one and pass it on). I like these objects because they are a great example of how the Museum collection was originally a teaching collection, even if the thought of ever reaching my hand into a jar is not one I enjoy dwelling on.

    Jar of Assorted Lizards (X1286). How many lizards can you count? (There are no prizes.)

  3. The Exploded Skulls – when I first started working at the museum, I thought these were art pieces (which is not a bad guess as the Museum often displays pieces of art inspired by the collection). They look very CSI and it is a tad unnerving to see a skull displayed so that it looks as though it has been ripped to pieces. But, these are actually examples of an ingenious technique designed to solve a teaching problem. Let’s say, hypothetically, you wanted to teach your students about horse skulls. You could bring a horse skull to show them but it might be difficult to demonstrate that the skull is comprised of individual bones. Instead, you could bring your students a little pile of horse skull bones and they could examine the individual pieces but they then might struggle to work out which piece was which or imagine the skull as a whole. Beauchene was a technique developed in the 19thC in France where the skull is taken a part and then fixed back together using wires producing what looks like a skull mid way through and explosion. It allows you to see the skull as a whole and as being comprised of separate pieces simultaneously and even to remove single pieces of skull. These skulls look like Halloween ornaments but are also ingenious teaching tools. 

    An exploded cod skull (V1486). Learn how to make one here.

  4. The Negus Collection – this collection draws quite a lot of attention and I find it interesting to listen in on visitor conversations as they work out what each of the animal heads are. The specimens in the collection are really good examples of things that you don’t want to look at but can’t tear yourself away from. They contain so much information and allow you to see and incredible amount of detail, but I really can’t get over how meaty they look. Victor Negus, the doctor who prepared these specimens used them to study the throat, in doing so he discovered cures for a number of diseases and also understood, for the first time, the evolution of the larynx and how it enabled us to produce speech. Some people, particularly children, find the display a bit upsetting (there is a bunny rabbit in the collection, after all) as, of all the objects in the Museum, this one does seem to be the clearest reminder that this science was conducted on a lot of dead animals. But, it is also a good example of how important this collection was to science and medicine at the time. I like to explain Negus’s discoveries to visitors because it starts a conversation about how these objects were once used and the scientific learning they facilitated.

    An example of a crocodile head from the Negus Collection (X1211). Is it laughing at you? Only in your nightmares.

  5. The Flying Squirrel – this specimen, to be quite frank, looks like a tiny, shrivelled alien. Unfortunately, the preserving fluid in this specimen is running very low and serves as a vivid reminder that all of the specimens in the Museum require a lot of care. Currently the Grant is undergoing a long term project, called Project Pickle, to conserve the wet specimens in need of a top up. But, until this specimen’s jar is topped up he is going to look a bit sad and cold to me.

So, those are what I consider to be the grossest objects in the Grant. They are also some of my favourite objects as they each tell us a lot of nature or the historical context of the collection, or how the collection is studied now. There are many other objects in the Grant that are bit unsettling, why don’t you tweet us your favourites with the hashtag #grossestthinginthegrant and we will send you back an interesting fact about them.

Of “Poetry” and poetry: Wordsworth’s skates and other objects

By Niall Sreenan, on 1 June 2017

In my previous blog post, I wrote about the encounter with death that visitors to any museum must face. Paintings, sculpture, artefacts from the past, even biological specimens: something living in these things is irretrievably lost as soon as they become museal; that is, framed or mounted, put on display for the consumption or consideration of an audience. In a museum, neither the fullness of an object’s historical life nor the vital potential of an artwork shorn from its context can be communicated, as long as the logics of museum display tend towards, as Adorno puts it, historical ‘reification’ or ‘the neutralisation of culture’.

The Nobel prize winning Irish poet Séamus Heaney seeks to offer a different account of the encounter between a museum visitor and an artefact on display in his poem “Wordsworth’s Skates”. Here, mirroring Adorno, Heaney ruminates briefly on the incapacity of museal objects from the artist’s life – the Romantic poet William Wordsworth’s ice skates, in this instance – to call up and materialise the authentic vitality of his life and work.

What could achieve this? Certainly ‘Not his bootless runners’ lying ‘In dust in a display case / Their bindings perished’. For Heaney, these heavy, steel-shod shoes are mere secondary instruments of a poetic life in both its aesthetic and biographical senses; objects that in mediating our relation to Wordsworth’s writing and history obscure the ‘reel of them on frozen Windermere / As he flashed from the clutch of earth along its curve / And left it scored’.

Wordsworth's Skates - via "Trails of the Unexpected"

Wordsworth’s Skates – via “Trails of the Unexpected”

 

However, reading this poem in this way has its limits. Even if Heaney is indulging in a critique of dusty museums, their capacity to drain life from the objects they seek to elevate, it is a critique that fails. The poem itself emphasises this artefact’s capacity as a symbolic entity to point to other literary, historical, cultural contexts – sometimes called “indexicality”. In that ‘Not’ which precedes ‘the bootless runners’, Heaney sets up a relation to the object, albeit a negative one, which implies that while this object does not provide us with an authentic experience of Wordsworth’s life or poetry, it does nevertheless relate to or index certain contexts, histories, and texts drawn from the viewer’s own experience or to which one can be guided. Those lines in Heaney’s poem, composed upon the occasion of contemplating a pair of weathered looking skates, guide us back to the stanza in Wordsworth’s monumental Prelude, where the poet describes himself ‘Proud and exulting like an untired horse […] hissed along the polished ice’. So not only does the poem emphasise the museum object’s indexical capacity to point to texts, contexts, histories, or even feelings outside its immediate physical boundaries. This poem is itself a response to that, to the failure of this object in one sense and, in another, an actual example of the productive power of objects on display.

Here then, is a museum object – pathetic in its obsolescence and in comparison with sublimity of the life and poetry it seeks to evoke – that nevertheless points Heaney and us to the material of that very life and instigates the creation of yet more poetic art. This echoes Ben Lerner’s formulation in The Hatred of Poetry, that there are in fact two types of poetry: “Poetry”, the sublime, transcendent aesthetic object, inaccessible (if ever) except in moments of brief and irretrievable illumination; and actually existing poetry, the text or material of the artwork, which always fails us in its attempt to communicate the timeless sublime. For Lerner, this is the source of his (loving) hatred of poetry, as well as poetry’s animating force. We might glimpse the heavenly through poetry, through text, much like a skater uses steel to slide with seemingly impossible ease over ice, but that frictionless grace, that flash of illumination, is either imagined or simply too fleeting to grasp. However, it is the desire for a lasting sublimity which animates this movement and it persists precisely because its object – the finality of the sublime – is unachievable.

Similarly, instead of lamenting the incapacity of the object as a mediator of “the thing in itself”, Heaney’s poem seems unconcerned with inaccessible transcendence and celebrates the existence of object in-between. He has form for this, of course: consider the metaphor of shovel as pen in another of his poems, “Digging”: a quotidian and unwieldy object that nevertheless achieves something significant, breaking the surface of the earth, excavating, making a mark.

That’s poetry, then. But what of museums and museum objects? And what of the objects in UCL’s Museums?

Consider the specimens in the Grant Museum – say, the preserved thylacine, once dissected by a man called “Darwin’s Bulldog”, T.H. Huxley, whose own scientific work and theorising was and still is greatly influential, and whose fame extends to his grandsons, Aldous and Julian Huxley, each of whom respectively made hugely significant contributions to literature and evolutionary science.

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

Preserved thylacine (Thylacinus cynocephalus), Z1653

That the thylacine itself is not merely dead, but its species entirely extinct, emphasises the folly of indicting museum objects on display for being unable to recuperate authentic historical (or any other form of) life. What the thylacine specimen does achieve – the only thing it can achieve – is to point its viewers towards something else, some other context or text or idea. In my experience, this was that Huxleyean lineage of major scientists and authors, whose works on human evolution, the synthesis of Darwinian evolution and genetic science, and Utopian/Dystopian futures, have become central to my research on the relationship between literature and science. For all of its viewers, however, the thylacine points to its own death, brings the question of its own extinction to the foreground. This is encouraged by the Grant Museum, who display beside the thylacine a picture of the last one ever to exist.

Museum objects can never be what Lerner calls “Poetry”, and they will never communicate to us a timeless sublime or authentic historical life. But they can be poetry, in the materialist sense that Heaney’s poem brings to light: for it is precisely in their failure to be fully alive, as opposed to only being dead, that they function as relational objects which point us towards other places, ideas, texts, histories, or feelings and, perhaps, even towards poetic inspiration.