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Question of the Week: Why does the Kingfisher look blue?

Cerys RJones25 September 2018

The Common Kingfisher is one of Britain’s most colourful native birds and a personal favourite of mine. Despite the name, the Common Kingfisher isn’t actually all that common. I’ve only been lucky enough to see one in the wild and it was a brief encounter; I still vividly remember the bright blue flash of its feathers. Although these creatures are known for their striking colours, the blue feathers down the back of the Kingfisher are actually brown.

The bright blue colour you perceive is due to a phenomenon called structural colouration. Structural  colouration is seen throughout the animal kingdom and makes creatures appear much more colourful than they actually are. So while the coloured pigments in the kingfisher’s feathers are brown, you actually view them as a brilliant blue.


The brightly coloured Common Kingfisher (Image: Avijan saha)

Structural colouration, first described by Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton, is when the observed colour of an object is not due to the pigment but rather caused by some interference effects instead. The structure of the object itself causes a different colour to be perceived than what would typically be observed by the pigment. Structural colouration can result in iridescent colours – i.e. colours that are dependent on the viewing angle – or non-iridescent colours, when the colour remains constant regardless of the viewing angle. Examples of iridescent colours are the feathers of a peacock, which are also pigmented brown but appear blue due to the structural colouration, and the setea (or spines) of the sea mouse. The nanostructures of the setea of the sea mouse and peacock feathers are regular and so reflect the light in the same direction. This means that the bright colour is only perceived at a certain angle.

The setea of the sea mouse appear red, green and blue to act as a warning to potential predators. The sea mice in the Grant Museum are some of my favourite specimens in the museum and are often unfortunately overlooked by visitors. Their interesting name likely derives from the fact that they look like drowned mice when washed up on shore, but their Latin name, Aphrodita, comes from the Ancient Greek goddess of love, Aphrodite, supposedly due to their resemblance to female anatomy…

The Sea Mouse specimen in the Grant Museum, G15 (Author’s own photo)

In contrast, the kingfisher’s feathers are an example of non-iridescent structural colouration. The blue stripe appears blue regardless of the angle of the viewer. This is because the structures are randomly oriented and so the reflections of the light are not angled in the same direction. The blue-and-yellow macaw similarly displays bright blue feathers that are due to non-iridescent structural coloration. These feathers also contain the brown-black pigment melanin that is present in those of the kingfisher.

Let that be a lesson that you can never trust your eyes – at least, not when it comes to structural colouration! Next time you visit the Grant Museum, look out for our kingfisher taxidermy specimen, the sea mice and any other brightly coloured creatures that may be cleverly appearing more colourful than their pigments might suggest!

To read more about this phenomenon, check out this paper.

Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

Marianne JDatiles18 September 2018

It’s there, just across the main UCL campus on Gower Street. A mystical power of unknown proportions coveted by monarchs and conquerors of golden ages past. Quiet and unassuming, mounted on a museum cabinet crammed with jars of preserved worms and spiders bobbing about in 70% ethanol for eternity, this long, white, spiraled object that looks suspiciously like a wizard’s wand or sorcerer’s staff, sought after by the most powerful dynasties to walk the earth…

No, it’s not a unicorn horn. It’s the Grant Museum of Zoology’s narwhal tusk.

 

The Narwhal Tusk of UCL. (Grant Museum, Z2168)

 

Don’t feel bad for mistaking it for a unicorn horn, though. For centuries the Vikings harvested these tusks—which can be up to 10 feet long—from the ocean creatures off the arctic coast of Greenland and used, gifted, and traded them. They were brought to northern Europe via the major trade routes across the Atlantic linking Greenland and Iceland with the British Isles, Scandinavia, and ultimately the Baltic. Since the unicorn symbolized immortality, power, and protection against poison, narwhal tusks were rare and highly sought after to adorn royal objects in Europe and into Asia. They also served as magico-medical material in the cabinets of wealthy physics and apothecaries (whether their unicorn horn powder was ‘authentic’ is another story).

 

Five types of unicorn, described by Pierre Pomet in his 1694 natural history treatise. (Credit: New York Academy of Medicine)

 

Unicorns feature heavily in myths and tales as a symbol of both power and pure magic. (Screenshot from Disney/Walden’s Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; 2005)

 

La Dame à la licorne: À mon seul désir. The famous 16th-century Flemish tapestry, one of six in a series, depicting a noblewoman with her lion and unicorn. It now hangs in Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Perhaps the most famous example of European monarchies’ obsession with owning unicorn horn bling is the Danish throne in Rosenborg Castle. It was commissioned in 1662 to symbolize the ‘absolute monarch’, and was inspired by the throne of Solomon—so naturally its surface was almost entirely covered with precious ‘unicorn horn’. Narwhal tusks were procured by Danish traders, since during this time the Danish monarchs claimed Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

IMPOSING: Rosenborg Castle’s Coronation Throne, used for the Danish coronations between 1671-1840. (Credit: Danish Royal Collections)

So what are these ‘unicorns of the sea’? Narwhals, Monodon monoceros (Greek for ‘one-tooth’ ‘one-horn’) are mid-sized porpoises native to the arctic. Narwhals and beluga whales are the only members of the family Monodontidae, and our knowledge of their daily habits remains elusive. Though they usually don’t share a habitat, just this week a juvenile narwhal male was seen by Quebec researchers playing with a beluga pod over 1000 km south of its usual Arctic range, apparently adopted by its cousins!

Now for the million-dollar question: what is the tusk, besides a magnet for power-crazy monarchs and mystical medicine hunters? The ‘horn’ or ‘tusk’ of a narwhal is actually… a tooth. Unlike many other debunked myths from the Middle Ages, the potency of this unicorn horn’s still relatively shrouded in mystery. For years scientists have debated and theorized about its actual use, from weapons to ‘joust’ for dominance with other males as part of mating rituals, to sensory tools to detect water temperature, pressure and salinity. It wasn’t until last year that drone footage captured footage of narwhals using their tusks to hunt codfish, suggesting the complicated nerve systems within these tusks may have stunning capabilities.

[above and below] Narwhals, narwhals, swimming in the ocean. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund)

So do unicorns exist? We’d have to say no. But until technology catches up to human curiosity and scientific research, these sea unicorns remain as elusive as the myth that surrounds their magical tusks.

 

Heritage in Flames

Hannah BPage7 September 2018

I was shattered this week to read about the catastrophic fire in Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum in Brazil (Fig 1). The 200-year-old museum housed an enormous collection of archaeological, anthropological and natural historical objects (more than 20 million) including Luzia woman (Fig 2), an Upper Palaeolithic skeleton and the oldest ever found in the Americas (11,500 years old). The museum also housed extensive collections from the indigenous Brazilian people as well as Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts.  The loss of these objects is one tragedy, but more devastating is the harm done to the decades of diligent work and research by countless people all working to a single end: to preserve and protect the social, cultural and natural heritage of Brazil and the world for the world. Some of the most upsetting photographs were of academics and museum staff in front of the burning museum, frantically trying to save what they could.

Fig 1. Brazil’s National Museum in flames (Source: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

For me, the real privilege of working in museums is seeing just how important they are for all kinds of people. Every person experiences museums in a unique way: they are drawn to different objects, and they each bring something new away from their experience. Museums are a way for people to connect with their past, to learn about the heritage of others, and to appreciate the art and nature of our world. Without museums we risk the disconnection from cultural and natural heritage and ultimately, a loss of identity.

Fig. 2: Luzia Woman (Source: BBC TWO)

Unfortunately this type of news is not new. In recent years we have seen distressing headlines revealing the damage to world heritage sites. From the destruction of parts of archaeological sites such as Palmyra in Syria, the burning of the Kasubi Tombs (Fig. 3)—the burial ground for the kings of the Buganda—in Uganda, to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. These events all have two major features in common: first, the importance of the locations as natural and cultural heritage sites for millions of people, and second, that in some way political agendas can be held responsible for their damage. Political agendas it seems, whether driven by money, religion or an indifference to the value of culture and history, are the biggest threat to our heritage sites.

Fig. 3: The Kasubi Tombs in Uganda (Source: Lazare Eloundou Assomo, © UNESCO)

The burning of Brazil’s National Museum has highlighted the increasing neglect of the heritage sector by governments, which is trickling down to affect research, conservation of artefacts and sites, the honouring of cultural identity, and ultimately the connection with our past and present.

Museums are a celebration of us, and without them, and the research that occurs within those walls we lose much more than just a beautiful building and some aesthetically pleasing objects.

Words cannot describe the pain that must be felt by the hundreds of people directly connected with the museum and the countless more affected by what this loss represents to them.

All I can hope, probably naively, is that governments might wake up and see that an investment in the arts and heritage is an investment in their people, and there is little more important than that.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Introduction

AnnaPokorska18 August 2018

When viewing exhibitions of objects from ancient Egypt (or any ancient civilisation for that matter) we are used to seeing the beige and grey appearance of bare stone. Indeed, we have come to appreciate the simplicity and purity of ancient sculptures, reliefs and carvings, perpetuated by the numerous plaster casts made and distributed both for research or as works of art in their own right (case in point – the Plaster Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

However, this is quite far from the truth. In fact, colour was not only common but of great symbolic importance in Egypt. This is hardly surprising as we use colour to communicate every day even in the modern era (with the most obvious and striking example of the traffic light system, or the wearing of black in many cultures to signal mourning). Although some traditional meanings will have changed over the centuries and varied between cultures, the principle still remains and is widely studied and exploited in a fascinating way in such fields as psychology, marketing and advertising. But I digress…

Let us return to ancient Egypt. To date, many attempts have been made to restore the original colours of artefacts. One such example is the virtual restoration of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where experts have a created a colour projection to be overlaid on top of the damaged hieroglyphs. An article on the whole project, called Color the Temple, can be read here.

Some people object to these types of intervention, sceptical of how well they recreate and represent the work of the artist, especially if little physical evidence of the original colours in a particular artefact exists. And indeed, we must always be careful when it comes to any type of restoration to take it only for what it is – someone else’s idea of what the object would have originally looked like (often dependent on the restorer’s skill). Although they might still have a way to go, I personally find these virtual restoration techniques intriguing and full of potential. They certainly help my imagination and understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

But we can find authentic and undamaged examples of colour even in the Petrie Museum collection. One of the first objects one sees when entering the main exhibition is a limestone wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara, its beautiful hieroglyphs tinted in green (below).

Wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara. (Petrie Museum, UC14540)

Painted wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris. (Petrie Museum, UC14226)

 

While on the other side of the display is a painted, rather than carved, wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris (above).

Egyptian artists would have had at their disposal mostly pigments made from grinding common (as well as some not-so-common) minerals and earths. Hidden away in the Petrie Museum storage is a drawer full of exactly those kinds of pigments (below).

Pigment drawer in storage at the Petrie Museum. (Photo: Anna Pokorska)

 

The yellowed typed note reads:

‘The pigments used by the ancient Egyptians for their paintings have been analysed and are mostly made from naturally occurring minerals, finely ground, or from natural substances.

Black – some form of carbon, usually soot.

Blue – originally azurite, a blue carbonate of copper found locally. From the IVth Dynasty on artificial frit was used composed of a crystalline compound of silica, copper and calcium.

Brown – generally ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

Green – powdered malachite (a natural ore of copper), and an artificial frit analogous to the blue frit described above.

Pink – an oxide of iron.

Red – red ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

White – either calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum).

Yellow – yellow ochre, an oxide of iron and less often orpiment a natural sulphide of arsenic.

The pigments were pounded in to a fine powder, mixed with water to which a little size, gum or albumen was added to make the whole adhesive.’

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this subject is too broad and interesting to fit into a single blog post and I’ve decided to explore it further, perhaps expanding beyond Egypt and the ancient times. We shall see where this journey takes me, but I hope you will join me as I investigate individual colours in my future posts.

 You can now read about the colours blue and red.

Myths in the Museum: The Dugong and the Mermaid

Marianne JDatiles21 July 2018

There’s a 2.7-meter-long skeleton of a big underwater creature in the Grant Museum of Zoology, right when you enter the main room. On my first Saturday shift as a PhD museum engager, a 7-year-old boy stopped to point and ask his mom what this monster was, and why it had hands. The mom glanced at the display label, read its name, DUGONG, and then stopped and looked at me — what on earth was this note about this animal starting the myth of mermaids? Was it for real?

The dugong skeleton making waves (Grant Museum, Z33)

As Rita Dal Martello has written on our blog before, dugongs and manatees both belong to the animal genus Sirenia, and share the common name ‘sea cow’. The mammary glands of females in the Sirenia genus are located on their upper bodies near their armpits, which are likely to have contributed to the reported ‘mermaid’ sightings of explorers and sailors. While manatees can be found in estuarine and fresh waters, dugongs are strictly marine mammals. They also possess a dolphin fluke-like tail. Dugongs are slimmer than their cousins, but this is relative — they still can grow to 3 meters in length and weigh up to a whopping 1000 kg! It’s not surprising, then, that sailors spotted these animals from their ship’s deck. And mistaking them for beautiful humanlike creatures is not entirely far-fetched… when one considers these men could have been at sea for years at a time and knew every tall tale of fantastical ocean creatures in the book.

The myth of humanlike water spirits has perpetuated over the centuries. The first depiction of a half human-half fish creature is thought to be of the Babylonian water god Oannes as far back as 5000 BCE. The ancient Greek sirens, which originally were described with human heads on birds’ bodies, have also often been portrayed with fishtails. Pliny the Elder dedicated an entire chapter of his 1st century book The Natural History to write on the forms of tritons and nereids, describing that “in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.” In the pacific island nation of Palau, where a 3,000-year-old cave drawing of dugongs was found, legends of young women transforming into sea creatures have been passed down over the years; the word dugong, in fact, derives from Malay for ‘lady of the sea’. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids near Haiti in 1493, and the English explorer Henry Hudson (namesake of New York’s Hudson River) gave a vivid description of the mermaid his crew apparently saw off the coast of Greenland in 1608:

“From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s,
as they say they saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her
skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behind of colour
blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the
tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell.”

An 1817 coloured engraving of mermaids. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Captain Hailborne at St. Johns Newfoundland, from Newe Welt und Americanische Historian by Ludwig Gottfried, 1655. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mermaid specimens held a particular grip on Western popular imagination. The hype began when several astonishingly realistic mermaid ‘specimens’ from Asia — primarily from Japan — made their way to Europe during Japan’s isolation policy under the Tokugawa shogunate. When this ended in 1854, these ningyo (which translates to ‘man-fish’), began to circulate as objects of good fortune, supernatural potency, and — perhaps above all — as a means to spark the curiosity of the public. Mermaids were sought after by collectors and showmen alike to draw crowds, as P.T. Barnum famously did with the ‘Feejee Mermaid’.

A Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. (Credit: Royal Academy)

The “mermaid” from the Horniman Museum. (Photo: Heini Schneebeli)

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), whose massive collection has been distributed over the years to various museums including our own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, saw mermaids worth purchasing for their anthropological value; his two specimens are now housed in the Science Museum over in South Kensington, and in the Buxton Museum. Even the British Museum down the road boasts having its own mermaid. And these ‘Japanese mermaids’ continue to captivate our interest into the present day, not only out of curiosity but for science and conservation studies; researchers at the nearby Wellcome Collection recently investigated what two of these cleverly constructed specimens (long assumed to be a monkey head sewn to a fish body) are actually made of. The answer, it turns out, is stuffed papier-mache, wire, fish teeth, scales, carved bone and wood!

So next time you’re at the Grant Museum, take a look at the dugong skeleton. It may not look like it now, but just think of how this creature inspired sailors, shamans, and showmen to perpetuate myths of mermaids across the world, and over hundreds of years!

 

Not a mermaid. (Photo: Julien Willem)

Additional Reading:

Viscardi P, Hollinshead A, MacFarlane R, Moffatt J, 2014. Mermaids Uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, (27): 98-116.

 

The Invisible Glow of Egyptian Blue

Cerys RJones20 July 2018

If you were to visit the Petrie Museum with infrared vision, you would probably be drawn to wildly different parts of the collection than you would normally. Certain artefacts would appear to glow before your eyes. This is because of the inventively-named pigment Egyptian blue, which, as the name tells you, is a blue pigment that was commonly used in Egypt. However, Egyptian blue has a special property that makes it stand out from the rest: when illuminated in visible light, it fluoresces infrared light. If you could see infrared light, you would see all of the artefacts that contain this pigment glowing. I haven’t yet evolved to have this special power, but I have a camera that does. This is a multispectral imaging system and is what my PhD research is focused on. Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of objects that are illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light to reveal features that cannot be detected by the human eye alone.

Last November, I captured multispectral images of this Egyptian mummy mask from the Petrie Museum. In the Petrie catalogue, it is described as a “linen-based cartonnage mask, painted with blue headcloth, white face, black brows, eye-borders and pupils, and red-edged yellow band around face.” This mummy mask would have placed over the mummified body to protect the deceased in the afterlife. The Petrie has several mummy masks in the collection, including some that are gilded with gold.

Late period cartonnage mask (Petrie Museum, 55084)

The mask was illuminated in visible light and an infrared filter was placed in front of the camera lens. This meant that only infrared light was able to pass through the lens and be captured by the camera. The resulting image is below. The blue headcloth appears brightly in the image, indicating that it is painted in Egyptian blue. We were also able to confirm that the little fragment of mask in the vial was also from the headpiece, as this also fluoresced.

The cartonnage mask illuminated in visible light (left) and captured with an infrared filter (right). (Photo: Cerys Jones)

When you search Egyptian blue in the Petrie catalogue, 194 results appear ranging from Egyptian blue scarab beetles to plaster with hieroglyphs written in Egyptian blue paint. Two of my favourite items from the collection are the Egyptian blue hippopotamus and the Egyptian blue paste amulet of a lion-headed goddess. The hippopotamus represents Taweret, the Ancient Egyptian goddess of childbirth and fertility. The lion-headed goddess is probably Bastet, the goddess of warfare in Lower Egypt .

Left, hippopotamus in Egyptian blue pigment (Petrie Museum, 6489) and right, Egyptian blue paste lion-headed amulet (Petrie Museum, 52875).

Next time you visit an Egyptian museum, keep your eyes out for any artefacts that are painted in Egyptian Blue that are glowing unbeknown to your eyes!

What if Bob Dylan became Pharaoh of Egypt?

Sarah MGibbs28 June 2018

“For the times they are a’ changin’ ”

-Bob Dylan

Bob Dylan in Don’t Look Back (http://nostalgiacentral.com); bust of Akhenaten (http://www.crystalinks.com/akhenaten.html)

If I were to invent a new board game, I’d call it “Who are you now?” Players would have to imagine who historical figures would be if they were alive today. Alexander the Great? A corporate raider leading hostile takeovers and selling dismantled companies to the highest bidder. Christopher Columbus? The captain of the first mission to Mars. Jean Jacques Rousseau? Head of a yoga ashram and wellness retreat in the Cotswolds. And Akhenaten, the iconoclastic pharaoh of the 18th dynasty, artefacts from whose reign are on display at UCL’s Petrie Museum, would definitely be Bob Dylan.

At first glance, the son of Amenhotep III and the folk singer from Hibbing, Minnesota may not seem like brothers from other mothers. Fair enough. The two men’s lives are separated by nearly three thousand years, and many more thousand miles. But the careers of king and artist, both of whom defined the cultures of their respective periods, evince intriguing similarities.

Let’s consider some points of convergence, shall we?

1. Artistic Revolution
Bob Dylan’s breakthrough album, The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan, was released in 1963 (bobdylan.com) and launched a folk revival which defined popular music for the remainder of the decade. After the dominance of Frank Sinatra-style crooners in the 1950s, Dylan’s productions—featuring simple arrangements and complex, poetic lyrics sung by a vocalist of limited range—were a complete departure from the musical mainstream.

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (bobdylan.com)

Akhenaten likewise upset the artistic establishment. Have you ever tried to “walk like an Egyptian”? Traditional Egyptian reliefs employed multiple viewpoint perspective, a technique which presented the parts of the human body in the positions in which they appeared most attractive: head and legs in profile (feet staggered) while chest and torso faced the viewer . In contrast, the relief images produced during Akhenaten’s reign featured naturalistic representations of the body; positions and postures were relaxed, and round hips and bulging bellies were on full display.

Akhenaten, Nefertiti, and Meritaten Worshipping the Sun-God, Aten (Petrie Museum UC401; alabaster relief)

 

2. Religious Upheaval
The perception of Dylan in the 1960s as a truth-telling artist of the people led his most devoted followers to view him as a prophet (one more-than-slightly deranged fan picked through his garbage in New York City looking for said “truth”). Surreal, dystopian songs like “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall” added to the effect.

Akhenaten actually did change Egypt’s religion. He was king. He could do that. Ushering in one of the first eras of monotheism in the ancient world, the Pharaoh replaced Egypt’s pantheon of gods with worship of the sun-god in his celestial “disk” form.

3. Name Changin’
A revolutionary needs an epic name. Robert Allen Zimmerman, son of a furniture store owner in small-town Minnesota, became Bob Dylan. And Amenhotep IV was reborn as Akhenaten; he incorporated the Egyptian word for “disk” (“Aten”) into his new moniker to honour his one-and-only god.

4. The City Founders
Following a near-fatal motorcycle accident in 1966, Dylan retreated from public life. He went to Woodstock in upstate New York, and other artists followed, most notably The Band, whose debut album, Music from Big Pink, was written in Woodstock and features the classic song “The Weight.” George Harrison of The Beatles also found his way to Dylan’s idyll.

Admittedly, Akhenaten went a little bit bigger. In the sixth year of his reign, the King founded a new city in middle Egypt between the government and spiritual hubs of Memphis and Thebes. He called the city Akhet-Aten (today it is known as Tell el Amarna) and dedicated it to his god. The Collection at UCL’s Petrie Museum includes a number of reliefs and pottery fragments from the city.

Inlay from Wall Decoration at Tell el Amarna (Petrie Museum UC907)

While Dylan continues to endure, and to frustrate groups like the Nobel Prize Committee (he failed to show up to collect his honour), Akhenaten ruled for only seventeen years. After his death, Tell el Amarna was abandoned, and Egypt reverted to polytheism. The commune broke up. The flower children had to get office jobs. Some revolutions just don’t last.

“It’s all over now, Baby Blue.”
-Bob Dylan

Promotional Poster for the film Don’t Look Back (www.gigsoupmusic.com)

A Tale of Two Exhibitions: Auguste Rodin, Gwen John, and the Torsos of Antiquity

Sarah MGibbs4 June 2018

By Sarah Gibbs

What do you get when you combine a French sculptor, an English painter, and a bunch of statues that lost their heads (literally) on the journey from antiquity to the twentieth century? Amazing exhibitions at the British Museum, which just opened the show Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, and the UCL Art Museum, where visitors can enjoy Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918!

Left: Auguste Rodin (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan); right: Gwen John. Self-Portrait, 1900 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

The British Museum’s exhibition examines the profound influence on the artist’s work of classical sculpture, in particular, the Parthenon figures in the British Museum. Of Pheidias, the ancient sculptor responsible for the Parthenon’s adornment, as well as the giant statue of the goddess Athena that resided within, Rodin declared in 1911: “No artist will ever surpass [him]… The greatest of the sculptors, who appeared at the time when the entire human dream could be contained in the pediment of a temple, will never be equalled.”

Rodin’s purpose-built antiquities museum at Meudon (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan)

In homage to the works of antiquity, Rodin removed the heads and extremities from many of his own sculptures. In so doing, he created a new sub-genre of art: the headless, limbless torso (because beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder—of abdominals). Among the photographs included in the British Museum’s displays is an image of Gwen John, an English painter and Rodin’s lover, and a featured artist in another local exhibition.

While the UCL Art Museum’s Prize & Prejudice doesn’t include any paintings of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake at Pemberley, it is an in-depth examination of the work of the female artists who swept the Slade School’s annual prizes in 1918. Among the portraits, drapery studies, and drawings from life is a composition by Gwen John, a student at the Slade between 1895 and 1898. John’s piece includes a figure sketch after Raphael and the exhibit’s accompanying text notes that: “Like her peers she would have been encouraged to visit the Print Room at the British Museum in order to closely examine the [Old Masters’] originals in person.”

Drawing from casts of headless, limbless classical torsos was also part of the Slade students’ training. Perhaps John and Rodin passed one another in the British Museum’s hallowed halls before they met in France in 1904.

The British Museum and the UCL Art Museum’s exhibitions are a beautiful double feature for any art lover with a free afternoon in Bloomsbury. Rodin diverged from classical models in his desire to show the sculpting process—tool marks and rough edges remain on his works—and in his interest in pieces which appeared unfinished. Likewise, Prize & Prejudice’s drawings and paintings are artefacts of art in progress: the efforts of practitioners honing their craft and learning from the masters who preceded them.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece; until 29 July 2018 (British Museum)

Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918; until 8 June 2018 (UCL Art Museum)

 

Sources:

British Museum. Rodin & the Art of Ancient Greece. 2018. London. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/rodin-1.aspx

Langdale, Cecily. “John, Gwendolen Mary [Gwen], (1876–1939).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37610

UCL Art Museum. Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918. 2018. London.

Question of the Week: Why do box jellyfish have eyes?

KyleLee-Crossett10 May 2018

If you meet me during one of my shifts as a PhD Student Engager in the Grant Museum, you’ll find me next to the Micrarium, facing a case packed full of jellyfish and their ghostly relatives. I’ve never had an interest in jellyfish before, but hours and hours of staring at them over the time I’ve been an Engager has inspired my admiration (as well as a previous blog post).

Box jellyfish specimen at the Grant Museum, photo by author.

In recent weeks, I’ve had a number of visitors ask me about box jellyfish eyes, because it’s surprising to find out that something which often looks and moves like a floating plastic bag has eyes. And not just one or two eyes, but 24 in total. Their eyes are bundled into four structures called rhopalia, which sit around the bottom of its bell. Two of the eye types have the capability to form images, while the other two types help with swimming navigation, avoiding obstacles, and responding to light. Fun fact: Box jellyfish can regenerate their eye bundles (rhopalia) in as quickly as two weeks’ time.

On the specimen in the Grant Museum, you can only see two of it’s eyes because it’s been carefully bisected to reveal its internal anatomy.

Grant Museum specimen with eyes highlighted by author.

Like other jellies, box jellyfish have no brain, perceiving the world only through their nervous systems. Most jellyfish catch their prey without having either brains or eyes, just by floating transparently through the sea until prey run into their tentacles. So, our question should actually be: why do box jellyfish even need eyes?

There are at two main possibilities:

1)  Habitat: Unlike most jellies, which live on the open sea, box jellyfish tend to live in shallow water, which has many obstacles. Scientists have shown that box jellies near Puerto Rico can navigate around the dense mangrove swamps where they live, and also make sure that they don’t drift away to where there is less prey. Their upper lens eye can actually peer through the water’s surface to navigate from landmarks above the water, and perhaps celestial ones as well! Some scientists think these kinds of jellies actively hunt rather than passively encounter prey.

2) Reproduction: Among jellyfish, box jellies also have unusual mating practices, involving the precise transfer of sperm, which might involve the use of their complex eyes to identify mates.

Many things about jellyfish biology and behaviour are still a mystery to scientists, so keep a lookout for ongoing discoveries.

 

Bonus fact: box jellyfish also need to rest their eyes

Scientists have only recently discovered that jellyfish appear to sleep at night—an activity usually only associated with vertebrates. Some reasons why they might do this include is because of their reliance on vision for hunting (they don’t see well enough to hunt in the dark) or because they jellies simply need to take a break from the neural processing their eyes require.

 

 

Of Gastropods and Glass: The Grant Museum’s Blaschka Models of Invertebrates

Hannah LWills24 April 2018

This week it’s time for another of my favourite objects from the UCL museums, today from the collections of the Grant Museum of Zoology. Displayed in a case near the front of the museum is a collection of extraordinary objects. At first glance, these objects appear somewhat otherworldly; their lightly transparent and almost twinkling surfaces captured my attention from my very first visit. They are, of course, the Grant Museum’s collection of glass models of invertebrates, a collection that includes jellyfish, sea anemones, gastropods, and sea cucumbers, produced at the end of the nineteenth century by the Blaschkas, a renowned family of Czech jewellers.

Limax arborum (tree slug). Blaschka glass model of a white slug, (P202). Image credit: Grant Museum.

Actinia equina (beadlet anemone). Blaschka model of a beadlet anemone. Red/orange body with white beadlets. The tentacles are transparent. On a black wooden base, under a glass dome, (C373). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The Blaschka family

The models in the museum’s collection were produced by Leopold and his son Rudolph Blaschka in the late 1800s, and may have been ordered by E. Ray Lankester during his time at UCL as professor of zoology.[i] Leopold Blaschka was born in 1822 in Northern Bohemia (today part of Czechia), in Aicha, a village known for its glasswork and decorative crafts.[ii] The Blaschka family specialised in producing jewellery using a range of materials, including glass, metal, and semi-precious stones. During his career, Leopold developed an interest in natural history, and began producing and selling models of invertebrates in the mid-1860s. The models were created using glass, wire, glue and paint, and occasionally incorporated parts of once-living creatures, including snail shells (see below).[iii] Today, Blaschka invertebrate models can be found in museums all over the world. The Harvard Museum of Natural History also holds a collection of glass flowers created by the Blaschkas, commissioned by the university in 1890.[iv]

Arianta arbustorum (copse snail). Blaschka glass model, (P196). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

Why make specimens out of glass?

Passing the collection of models for the first time, a visitor to the Grant Museum could be forgiven for mistaking these models for specimens that were once alive. In light of the museum’s other displays, which feature real animals preserved using a variety of methods, one might wonder why artificial specimens, such as the Blaschka models, should be on display in a museum of natural history. While some creatures, such as mammals, birds, and fish, are easily preserved using methods of taxidermy, flowers and the softer bodies of invertebrates pose specific challenges in terms of their preservation. Putting these specimens into alcohol causes them to lose their shape and colour.[v] By creating models out of glass and other materials, it is possible to depict the vibrant colours and forms of the original specimens, allowing these creatures to be preserved and studied.

Art, Science, and ‘Jokes of Nature’

Former student engager Niall Sreenan has mused on the nature of the Blaschka models as artificial creations that occupy an ambiguous realm between nature and art.[vi] As a historian of science, I am fascinated by this interplay, particularly as it relates to the practice of natural history and the display of specimens. The relationship between art, nature, and science held great significance to the practice of natural history in sixteenth and seventeenth-century Europe. As the historian Paula Findlen has noted, collectors of natural specimens in the Early Modern period were fascinated by the idea that Nature, as a creative force who produced all the objects and creatures in the world, sported or played in her work by producing ‘jokes of nature’.[vii] Such ‘jokes of nature’ incorporated instances where natural objects appeared to ‘mimic’ human artifice, as seen in unusual fossils, geometric crystals, or in stones which appeared to have pictures implanted within them.[viii] ‘Jokes of nature’ were connected to science through the idea that man might match nature using art. Artificial creations and human imitations of natural forms were thought to mimic these jokes in a way that was central to natural philosophers’ understanding of the world.[ix]

Though produced over a century later, the Blaschka glass models call to mind this ambiguous division between human artifice and natural object. As models of difficult-to-preserve specimens, they allow visitors to understand what these creatures look like. On the other hand, they draw attention to human ingenuity and skill in the way they artfully capture the look of organic specimens.

Sea cucumber (female). Blaschka glass model in a cylindrical specimen jar, (S73). Image credit: Grant Museum.

 

The end of a craft

In 1895, Leopold Blaschka died. When his son retired in 1938 with no apprentices left at the firm, the Blaschka family business closed.[x] The skills used to produce the models died with the Blaschka family, and their work has not been repeated since.[xi] The models in the Grant Museum stand as a remarkable testament to unique craftsmanship and skills now lost.

Though models are no longer produced using the techniques once used by the Blaschka family, the relationship between art and natural history continues to fascinate contemporary artists. Grant Museum Manager Jack Ashby has recently written about the ways in which artists explore and reference the methods of natural history, and the treatment of both living and preserved animal specimens on display.[xii] Exploring the intersection of natural history and art, whether in the creation of model specimens or in the interrogation of the practices of natural history, can prompt us to question the ways in which natural and man-made objects are encountered in museums, and the way we understand an object’s (and our own) relationship with the natural world.

 

 

References

[i] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[ii] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vi] Niall Sreenan, ‘”Strange Creatures” – Reflections – Part One’, 25 June 2015, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/researchers-in-museums/2015/06/25/strange-creatures-reflections-part-one/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[vii] Paula Findlen, “Jokes of Nature and Jokes of Knowledge: The Playfulness of Scientific Discourse in Early Modern Europe,” Renaissance Quarterly 43, no. 2 (1990): 292-96.

[viii] Ibid., 297-98.

[ix] Ibid.

[x] ‘Blaschka Models’, National Museums Scotland, https://www.nms.ac.uk/explore-our-collections/stories/natural-world/blaschka-models/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xi] ‘Blaschka Glass Model Invertebrates’, UCL Grant Museum, https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/grant-museum-zoology/blaschka-glass-models-invertebrates [Accessed 23 April 2018].

[xii] Jack Ashby, ‘When Art Recreates the Workings of Natural History it can Stimulate Curiosity and Emotion’, 19 April 2018, https://natsca.blog/2018/04/19/when-art-recreates-the-workings-of-natural-history-it-can-stimulate-curiosity-and-emotion/ [Accessed 23 April 2018].