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Archive for the 'Public Engagement' Category

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.

What do Kids ask Scientists?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 26 January 2018

Science is exciting, science is fascinating, and with science you never get bored — this is what I want to communicate to children when I give talks about my research. As I work with brains, lasers and 3D printing, that’s easy enough. When I talk about neuroscience and what I do in the lab as a PhD student, kids are always interested even if the younger ones don’t even know what a brain does. When I show them pictures of my research (see below), which involves working with brain cells and dissecting brains, there’s always an eww sound — because the brain is “slimy”.

 

 

 

 

 

A pig’s brain, which — according to kids — is gross because it’s slimy. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

 

 

 

 

The same brain cut into pieces. (Image: Author’s own photo)

 

After my talk, with just a couple of minutes left and a lot of hands raised, I get a lightning round of questions. They range from all aspects of life, not just science as they assume that scientists know everything about everything in the universe. This would be cool, but it’s definitely not the case. Anyhow, I always have a blast answering their unique questions, so I’ve decided to share a couple of my favourites and some of the trickier ones here. Here is a taster of them, followed by my inner dialogue (ID) and what I actually answered (A). As you will see, my inner dialogue can be quite different from the answer, which just shows how difficult it can be to answer unexpected questions. Remember, as I always tell the kids, there are no stupid questions.

 

Q: Can you make little animals?

ID: Other than little humans in my uterus, no.

A: Scientist are trying to make organs in the lab by growing cells in a specific way, but we can’t grow a full animal yet.

 

Q: Why do you die?

ID: Because our bodies can’t cope with so much wisdom.

A: It’s a big scientific question, trying to answer why we age and ultimately die. Our bodies grow older and our cells don’t regenerate as much as they used to, but ultimately we don’t know exactly why this happens.

 

Q: How much do you make?

ID: Not enough.

A: Enough.

 

Q: Is it true that when you die your heart explodes?

ID: Yes, if you die in an explosion.

A: No, when you die your heart just stops beating.

 

Q: Can we even get to fully understand the brain if it’s always evolving?

Now, this one really impressed me because: 1) she knows about evolution and understands that not only we as a species evolved but we are still evolving and so are our brains; 2) she knows that we don’t know everything about the brain; and 3) it’s just a really interesting question coming from a 10-year-old!

ID: Wow, yeah that’s true, can we?

A: That’s a very good question. Yes, we don’t know fully how the brain works but there are breakthroughs in science every day and new tools and techniques will allow us to one day fully understand the brain, even if it’s still evolving.

 

Q: My friend told me that he saw a ghost and… (After a long story about his friend seeing a ghost, the teacher was a little fed up with his not very scientific question and the rest of the class was giggling).

ID: I’m also giggling.

A: Just because your friend said so that doesn’t mean it’s real. You have to question him and ask him to show you evidence of what he claims is true. Remember to always question everything and look for evidence.

 

Q: What’s the most interesting thing you’ve discovered?

ID: How resilient I can be when facing relentless adversity, demonstrated by how my numerous failed experiments and negative results have broken my spirit yet have not killed my wandering scientific mind. Oh, wait, you mean like in science?

A: How cool neurons look down a microscope.

 

Q: Why do you like gross stuff?

ID: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

A: What are you talking about? Brains are not gross, they’re amazing!

 

Q: How old is the universe?

ID: Oh god, try to remember, you know this.

A: Around 14 billion years.

Q: How much is that?

A: A lot!

 

So there you have it: kids and their questions. I wish to thank the schools that invited us PhD students, as well as the children for listening to me and asking such stimulating questions. Keep your curiosity alive!

 

We’re Hiring Student Engagers!

By Arendse I Lund, on 24 January 2018

Are you a UCL student and excited to share your PhD research with the world? Can you find connections between your research and museum collections? Come join our Student Engager team!

Citlali Helenes Gonzalez presents during the Materials & Objects event in the UCL Art Museum last spring.

 

Who We Are

We’re a interdisciplinary team of PhD students from across UCL who are interested in public engagement and sharing our doctoral research with the world. We come from different backgrounds and departments and study everything from medieval law to neuroscience to the Dark Web. You might spot us in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, or Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology any day of the week talking about our research and how it relates to the museum collections.

We love talking to people, sharing expertise, and making new connections that benefit both the public and our own research. Sometimes we also host events such as Foreign Bodies, LandSCAPE, Stress: Approaches to the First World War, and Materials & Objects.

 

Are You the One?

We’re hiring! If you’re a first or second-year PhD student interested in working in the three UCL museums, sharing your knowledge, engaging the public in dialogue, and enhancing visitors’ experiences of UCL, then we want to hear from you. We think this is the best gig ever and we want equally enthusiastic people to come join us. We’ve also written extensively on this blog about what the Student Engager experience is like and highly recommend you take a look around if you’re interested in joining us.

For the practical side, here’s a full job description (PDF); you should email your CV and cover letter to Celine West (celine.west@ucl.ac.uk) by 16 February.

If you have any questions, tweet us or find us in one of the UCL museums.

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.

Materials and Objects: The Secrets behind our Research

By Josephine Mills, on 16 May 2017

 

Materials and Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18th May 2017, UCL Art Museum 2-4pm

Our next event ‘Materials and Objects’ is just a few days away and I thought this would be a good opportunity to chat a little bit about the event and our work as research engagers in general! This Thursday an afternoon of short talks will be given by UCL PhD researchers on a wide variety of topics, with a focus on the materials and objects that underlie each of our research areas. How this is interpreted varies from discipline to discipline but we all directly deal with materials and objects—or the systems used to understand, archive, and process them—whether it’s studying how objects like diaries and brains can be created, or interpreting new layers of meaning from materials like medieval manuscripts. As a team we employ a huge variety of different techniques, although we often surprise ourselves by the degree of overlap even with our disparate time frames and subject materials!

Materials and objects

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The event itself is being hosted by UCL Art Museum—one of the museums we actively engage in—as our work reflects themes and pieces from the space itself. In fact, as research engagers, you can usually find one of us in the three museums on campus: the Art Museum, the Grant Museum or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. Depending on which museum we’re engaging in, different aspects of our research intersects with the displays.

As an archaeologist who focuses on prehistoric stone tools when I’m in the Petrie Museum I usually talk to people about the flint artefacts that you may not necessarily associate with the Ancient Egyptians. In the Art Museum I mainly focus on discussing landscape as my research also deals with reconstructing ancient landscape use.

Funnily enough last Tuesday in the Grant Museum someone asked me ‘So how do you relate rocks to this?’ as they gestured widely indicating the menagerie of fauna, both skeletal and preserved, surrounding us. I hastily indicated the Neanderthal skull cast around the corner and we chatted about Ice Age megafauna and hunting. We also talked about research in general and how, although he had studied medieval history, many of the processes that we use to get to the end goal are similar across all disciplines be it archaeological or neuroscience.

flint snake

The head of a flint snake (UC. 15171), which I often point out to people in the Petrie Museum, it is part of a display of flint animals including cows, dogs and birds! This demonstrates flint’s use as non-practical material and highlights its importance in Ancient Egypt! (photo by author)

 

That pretty much sums up the core of being a research engager, attempting to make what we do – which may at first glance sound niche – relevant and interesting to visitors of UCL Museums and UCL in general. In turn we benefit from having other opinions about our research as well, which can sometimes seem like a solo journey!

So come and see for yourself this Thursday—expect science, art, cake, and the odd Neanderthal!

Grab a free ticket here:

https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/events/materials-and-objects-what-do-researchers-ucl-study

 

Materials & Objects: What do researchers at UCL study?

By Hannah L Wills, on 2 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18 May 2017, UCL Art Museum, 2-4pm.

Taking a look at the range of posts we’ve had on our blog just recently, I’m struck by how many different kinds of materials we work with as researchers at UCL. From brains to archives, from skeletons to manuscripts, there’s a whole range of ‘stuff’ that forms the core of our research as PhD students, not to mention the objects we engage and interact with while we work in the museums, chatting about our research with the public.

In two weeks, a group of student engagers are getting together for an afternoon of short talks in the Art Museum, presenting and explaining their research based around the theme of materials and objects. Each short talk will give an insight into some of the research that happens at UCL, in departments ranging from Security and Crime Science to the Institute of Archaeology.

Arendse Lund, whose blog posts have explored unusual book-bindings as well as medieval twitter, will be ‘Marvelling at Medieval Manuscripts’ and their makeup.

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Speaking about my work on eighteenth-century notebooks and diaries, I’ll be explaining how eighteenth-century paper was made, and how it was used by note-takers.

Kyle Lee-Crossett, who reflected last month on the absence of people in images of archives, will be delving into ‘Invisible Boxes’, exploring the materials of archives and collections.

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Cerys Bradley, who has written about her work on the museum audio guide project, will be speaking at the event about her work studying illegal objects on the Dark Web.

Citlali Helenes González will be exploring the material of the body, in her talk ‘How to Build a Brain in the Lab’. You can find out more about Citlali’s fascinating research, and building brains, here.

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Josie Mills, who has written recently about her work on Neanderthal landscape use and migration, will be revealing in her talk just where the Neanderthals got their stuff.

Stacy Hackner, whose work focuses on the tibia, will be explaining how bone reacts to activity in her talk, ‘Standing on One Foot’.

 

Our ‘Materials & Objects’ event will be happening on Thursday 18 May in the UCL Art Museum, from 2-4pm. Do join us if you can—the event will conclude with tea and refreshments, and an opportunity to meet the researchers. You can find out more and view our poster for the event here.

The event is FREE to attend, but online booking is suggested via: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/event-ticketing/booking?ev=16160

 

Question of the Week: Why do brains have wrinkles?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 27 April 2017

The brains displayed at the entrance of the Grant Museum are mostly mammal’s brains but we can observe differences in sizes and in how smooth or wrinkly they are. The folds of a brain are called gyri and the grooves are called sulci. These morphological features are produced by the folding of the cortex, the part of our brain responsible for higher cognitive processes like memories, language and consciousness. During development, all brains start off with a smooth surface and as they grow, gyrification (the development of the gyri and sulci) occurs. It is interesting to note that the major folds are very consistent amongst individuals, meaning that development is similar sometimes even amongst species.

c_ucl_gmz_matt_clayton020

The brain collection on display at the Grant Museum of Zoology (Image credit Grant Museum of Zoology).

 

It has been assumed that the wrinkles in brains correlate with an animal’s intelligence. The reasoning behind this is that a bigger brain, and hence more neurons, need more space. The folds allow the cortex to increase its area while being packed in a confined space like our cranium. There are several factors and hypothesis of how gyrification occurs. Recently, researchers at Harvard developed a 3D gel model based on MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) images to understand how this process occurs. They found out that it all boils down to the mechanical properties of the cortex. While neuronal cells grow and divide, the increasingly bigger brain leads to a compression of the cortex and to the formation of the folds. The researchers were able to mimic the folds of the cortex and were stunned at how similar their gel model looked to a real human brain.

tumblr_o21mv85Nt01t5fphqo1_1280

Gel model of a foetal brain (Image credit: Mahadevan Lab/Harvard SEAS).

 

Even though most of the brains on display in the Grant museum have gyri and sulci, in nature, most animals have smooth brains. In general, larger brains have folds while smaller brains do not, even small mammals like rats or mice have smooth brains. In humans, a lissencephalic brain is one without gyri and sulci and is a result of a rare disorder that is characterised by mental abnormalities. From the collection of brains in the Grant Museum, there is only one lissencephalic brain—next time you visit the museum see if you can spot it. Additionally, try to find the brain coral. Because of its intricate maze–like pattern, Diploria labyrinthiformis has very similar ridges and grooves as a brain, and so is referred to as brain coral. Overall, I find looking at brains and their grooves fascinating, each species with their own pattern and each groove in a specific place. Makes me wonder how brain coral gets its patterns.

brain coral 3

Diploria labyrinthiformis also known as brain coral(Grant Museum C1084).

 

References:

Roth, G. and Dicke, U., 2005. Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Trends in cognitive sciences9(5), pp.250-257.

Ronan, L. and Fletcher, P.C., 2015. From genes to folds: a review of cortical gyrification theory. Brain Structure and Function220(5), pp.2475-2483.

Manger, P.R., Prowse, M., Haagensen, M. and Hemingway, J., 2012. Quantitative analysis of neocortical gyrencephaly in African elephants (Loxodonta africana) and six species of cetaceans: comparison with other mammals. Journal of Comparative Neurology520(11), pp.2430-2439.

 

Question of the Week: What’s that zigzag on your skull?

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 April 2017

Stan hangs out in a corner of the Grant Museum amid cases filled with insect exoskeletons and bisected animal heads. Standing at around two meters, he keeps watch through empty sockets over the animal bones, taxidermy, and jar specimens.

“Can I hold his hand?” I’ve been asked more than once. “Is he real?” comes the hesitant question. As a matter of fact, Stan is a model skeleton, the likes of which you’ve probably seen in any biology classroom. Although he’s resin and missing a joint or two he’s still a remarkably good way to explain what we’re made of once you strip all our clothes, skin, and muscles away.

One of Stan’s characteristics is a zigzagging line arching its way across his skull. Surprised by the mark, a visitor wanted to know why Stan bears this line. She might have been surprised to know that she has one too. It’s actually a feature all human skulls have. Known as the coronal suture, it’s an immovable joint that runs transverse across the skull, separating the frontal bone from the parietal bones.

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford's Children Health Hospital)

Top view of a skull with coronal suture extending from ear to ear (Image: Stanford’s Children Health Hospital)

At birth, the various bones of the skull don’t quite join up, making it easier for the infant to fit through the birth canal; following the birth, the gap persists for a while and the coronal suture reflects where that separation once was. There can be “premature closing” of the suture if the bones fuse too soon and people will develop conditions such as oxycephaly—where the skull is lengthened—or plagiocephaly—where the skull is flattened.

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the "Peking man" but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

Top view of skull casts, the left found in Beijing and commonly referred to as the “Peking man” but is actually thought to be female (Grant Museum Z2681); and the right of a Rhodesian Man found in Kabwe and known as the Broken Hill 1 skull (Grant Museum Z2684).

If you take an “exploded skull” view then you can see how the various parts of your head all join up. We can see these sutures in other skulls than just modern humans as these skulls are formed in similar ways.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Chimpanzee skull (left, Grant Museum Z461) and Neanderthal skull (right, Grant Museum Z2020) both showing coronal sutures.

Stan has a few friends at the Grant Museum. There’s a Neanderthal skull alongside Homo erectus, Homo habilis, and Australopithecus afarensis. There’s also a human skeleton that oversees the museum up on a balcony accompanied by an orangutan, gorilla, and chimpanzee—all bearing these sutures.

Next time you see a human skull in a museum, see if you can spot the coronal suture. While knowing its name may not win you any prizes in a pub quiz, it’ll certainly impress Stan. He’ll be waiting to say hi.

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.

The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

By Niall Sreenan, on 30 March 2017

It will not be lost upon anybody that visits the Grant Museum of Zoology or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL that these are places of death. Both are a kind of necropolis, containing preserved remains. The remains of the biologically dead, in the former; in the latter, the preserved remains – biological and cultural – of the long deceased people of ancient North African civilisations, many of which are themselves vessels or tokens designed to smooth the passage of the dead to another, immaterial realm.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The morbid nature of these museums and the objects they house would not be lost on the 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. The word “museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses”, a fact which emphasises the supposedly inspirational nature of these cultural institutions. But for Adorno, the creativity-inspiring significance of the museum had in contemporary Western society been eclipsed by its material and cultural function. In his essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno dwells upon the macabre nature of the museum, and the art gallery. The German term museal (“museum-like), he tells us, is a suggestively pejorative one used to describe the character of certain artefacts: objects to which the observer or museum-goer ‘no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying’. We come close to this in the English language when, by saying something or someone “belongs in a museum”, we describe people, technologies, institutions, or ideas that have far exceeded their sell-by date and have become decrepit.

Adorno’s observation is literally true in many cases. Walk through the atria of the Science Museum in South Kensington and you will see installed behind glass a host of superannuated but undeniably contemporary artefacts – Bakelite telephones, Atari computers, horsehair toothbrushes, and so forth. We are being told: by virtue of being useless, these objects are displayed in this museum. Or perhaps: by installing these objects in a museum, these objects should now be considered obsolete (even if they are still technically useful).

The same could be said about art. Once installed in a museum or gallery, a painting, print, or sculpture becomes a commodity whose value is defined primarily by its capacity to create profit – for the museum, the artist, the collector, or the dealer. The life of that artwork – its social, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic value outside that of commerce or “cultural capital” – has been destroyed by the same process of display operative in the Science Museum, which by selecting and displaying objects consigns them to the grave. Art is on display because it is monetarily valuable; being in a museum ascribes monetary value to art. Forget the muses, Adorno says: ‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’

This conception of the museum as mausoleum can illuminate two apparently divergent kinds of museum display, both of which can be understood to drain the life from the objects they seek to exhibit. First, any attempt to place works of art in so-called “authentic”, historical settings is not only a shabby form of nostalgia. Such a move, in a desperate attempt to claw back an irretrievable cultural tradition, reduces to a form of historical citation the artwork it seeks to celebrate. This can lead only to melancholy. For such a purely referential and reverential effort to recuperate the past will always fail, leaving us to lament uselessly the passing of historical time. We resign ourselves to the fact that the historical context that gave life to the artwork is lost to us; and that, therefore, the artwork is itself dead.

The seemingly contrasting practice of deliberately wrenching art from its historical and aesthetic context – such as in the contemporary fashion for “white cube” galleries – can be understood as equally unsatisfactory and inauthentic, since this form of exhibition strips art of its history altogether. Historical nostalgia might at lead us, at least, to a despairing and therefore critical conception of the impossibility of grasping the life of art in undistorted historical context. Decontextualisation wears inauthenticity as a badge of honour. The false trappings of tradition and the over-serious officiousness of the desire for authenticity of which it is symptomatic squeezes the life from art entirely. Willing dilettantism denies us the opportunity of understanding the historical nature of art — however incomplete that understanding might be.

This double bind is a useful way of understanding the objects we see in the Grant Museum in UCL. Adorno’s analysis in “Valery Proust Museum” is aimed at art and art museums primarily. But reading in this way, for example, the literally dead animals in a museum of zoology can illuminate how, through being displayed, they have become museal. How does one display a dead animal? In a mock-up of its original habitat – a tawdry and macabre mirror of the attempt to display art in “authentic” context? Or should we simply display it in a glass box, stripped of context – continuing the violent logic of ecological, geographical displacement that resulted in that animal’s death and preservation?

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew (Z2789)

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew, The Grant Museum (Z2789)

The former, at least, by offering us a glimpse into the original habitat of a species might offer us an unintended critique of how in British museums of zoology many of the species on display are relics of a violent colonial past: animals whose death and passage to Britain was made possible by an imperial infrastructure of scientists, surgeons, and interested amateurs, scattered across British dominions. However, even the act of preservation itself is a false kind of de-contextualisation. While the skeletons, preserved, and stuffed species that line the walls of the Grant Museum were intended first for scientific education and research, as a spectacle they take on a distinctly melancholy aspect. This is especially true for the display of extinct species; thylacine parts, dodo bones, a quagga skeleton: these are embodiments of a desire to preserve what is dead, to recuperate – through entirely artificial means – what is irretrievably lost.

Could we not apply a similar logic to the objects in the Petrie Museum? How do we display the remains of a dead civilisation, and in what way a do we render them historically or immediately lifeless? The set of Fayum mummy portraits housed in this museum pose a suggestive example of just such a problem. Excavated by Flinders Petrie in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, these strikingly naturalist portraits were ‘part of the funerary equipment needed for entry into the afterlife’ for elite members of the Fayum people who lived in Egypt under Roman rule. Such information, we might think, animates these portraits; they are a record of the funerary practices of an ancient people, bringing to life the death-rituals of the past. However, the manner in which these portraits are displayed now and were displayed originally suggests something else.

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Today, these panels sit alongside each other in a row: a set of faces painted in Greco-Roman style lined up in sequence, like the photo album of an ancient family. And Petrie himself first displayed these as if they were European art portraits, set upon the walls of a London room in 1889. Crucially, these two forms of display are made possible by the fact that these portraits are torn out from their funerary and material contexts. Each portrait was literally cut from the mummy to which they belonged. These portraits exist in a museum only by virtue of an act of violent de-contextualisation, which no amount of historical or cultural context can reverse or palliate. What was alive for the dead in the past, has been exhumed for the living today and in turn made museal.

Adorno’s reflections on “the museal” raise important questions about how we display objects in museums, the forms of contextualisation and de-contextualisation to which we submit these objects, and the historical and cultural forces their display reflects. It also mirrors long-running debates in the Humanities about how we should interpret all forms of cultural production. Rita Felski puts it this way: ‘Critics […] find themselves zigzagging between dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art.’ Scholars in the humanities simply do not agree about whether we should stick primarily to interpreting the objects themselves, or whether we need to focus on the social, political, linguistic, and historical contexts that gave rise to those objects.

This essay will not attempt to resolve these problems, but instead has attempted to draw attention to the way in which objects in a museum are involved in a seemingly irresolvable tension. What is easy to ignore, however, is how visitors to museums themselves respond to objects in ways that go beyond the pinched contestations of academic critique. Over four years of engaging with visitors across UCL’s three public museums, I have seen people respond the museum collections in ways that categorisation and critique cannot always account for. Visitors to the Grant Museum respond with both intellectual wonder and personal revulsion to the often grotesque preserved remains of 19th century science’s subjects; in the Petrie museum I have talked with people reflecting upon a divided sense of historical vertigo, ruminating upon the impossibility of knowing the lives of Ancient Egyptians, while at the same time marvelling at the uncanny sense of intimacy evoked by one’s proximity to the hair combs, sandals, and kohl pots of ordinary ancients. Responses to objects in UCL’s museums are never absolutely historically critical nor completely naïve. They are complex aggregates of both; mixtures or compounds of thinking, feeling, scepticism, and wonder. If I have learned anything from working in these museums it is that the necessary but sometimes leaden abstractions of academic criticism must always return to the organic complexity of living responses to museum objects.

A Physicist’s Guide to Zoology

By Catryn Williams, on 21 February 2017

As any lover of Attenborough will, I’m sure, understand, the idea that someone is not naturally interested in nature and zoology is something that I, as a researcher of primates (specifically, their gut bacteria), had never really considered before. Aware as I am that the fascinating but visually underwhelming (I’m sorry!) sea squirt might take a bit of effort to enthuse people I sort of assumed a general underlying love of at least all the four-legged, big-eyed, furry, woolly things of the world.

This wholly unreasonable assumption of mine was proven wrong during last week’s shift at the Grant Museum by one simple question from a very enthusiastic and lovely retired physicist:

“What would a group of physicists find interesting in a Zoology museum?”

What follow here are just two examples of nature seen through a different lens, which I hope go some way towards enthusing those not naturally curious about zoology.

All that glitters isn’t gold, all that shimmers isn’t green

Most of the green birds you see are pretenders.  Rather than truly being green, they’re a beautiful example of something called structural colouring.

When you use paint to colour a surface, what you are applying are coloured molecules, called pigments.  These produce colour through absorption of different wavelengths of light; to produce green, for example, red and blue light are absorbed whilst green light is reflected into your eyes.

Honeycreeper

The Green Honeycreeper, not a green bird. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Lip Kee on Flickr

First observed by Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton and explained by Thomas Young a century later, structural colouring, however, is the production of colour through the interference of white light by microscopic surfaces, rather than absorption of certain wavelengths.  This can work in conjunction with pigments — for example, a peacock feather is pigmented brown, but microscopically structured so that they reflect blue and green light, and also making them iridescent, showing different colours depending on the angle from which you view them.

Structural colouring in animals, particularly birds, can be a big evolutionary advantage.  Creating pigments can be very energy-costly, and often requires rare elements that are difficult to extract from food during digestion, such as metals like cadmium, cobalt or chromium for green pigments.  Structural colouring is an ingenious way to create these brilliant colours through feather shape alone, hugely useful when trying to attract a mate or hide from predators in the trees.

Turacos are the interesting exception to these structural colourists.  Found in forests and woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, these birds actually produce their own unique red and green pigments, called turacin and turacoverdin respectively, using an unusually high amount of copper.  Just why they make this pigment is still a mystery.  Their habitat coincides with the world’s richest copperbelt, leading some to speculate that this pigment production might’ve evolved to detoxify the large amount of copper these birds ingest through their food.  Whatever the reason, this unique ability to use copper in this way makes turacos some of the only truly green birds.

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: C. P. Ewing

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of C. P. Ewing on Flickr

There are many examples of structural colouring in the Grant Museum, from the peacock’s feather to the wings of iridescent butterflies and the gold sheen of some beetles.  I highly recommend seeing how many you can spot next time you’re there.

 

A (constructal) theory of everything

 

It might not be the unified theory that Stephen Hawking is searching for, but the Constructal Law is a physics theory that can be used to explain the shapes of all the bones, limbs and preserved animal specimens that you see around you in the Grant Museum.

In its simplest form, Constructal Law states that systems naturally evolve over time to minimise energy waste.  Substitute the word “animals” for “systems”, and you have its application to zoology.  This seems like an obvious benefit; wasting less energy allows animals to get the most out of the food they eat, allowing them to flee from predators faster, spend less time gathering food and more time chatting each other up, and produce better-fed offspring. Where this rule becomes most interesting though is when you consider animal locomotion.

Even though running, flying and swimming have all evolved as separate methods of locomotion, they’re all linked by this simple physics principle.  Despite involving very different body mechanics, it turns out that there is a universal relationship between animals’ mass and speed, as well as the frequency and force of limb or tail movement, whether those are legs, wings or fins.  The relationship between a winged animal’s mass and the frequency of their wing beats shows the same relationship as between mass and rate of swimming in fish, as well as mass and stride frequency in running animals, and has all evolved to move the animal at optimal speed, reducing energy wastage whilst maintaining quick movement.  No other factors, such as type of creature, limb length, wingspan or otherwise, seem to factor in to this, only body mass and limb or tail movement.

Grant Museum

Paddling and running on display at the Grant Museum. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Justin Pickard on Flickr

This principle helps determine how animals move around and is a brilliant example of how the great diversity of life still converges to fit fundamental physics principles.  Next time you’re in the Grant Museum, have a think about how all the animals around you have been shaped in part by this universal law.

The physicist I met got me to consider the animal specimens in the museum from a whole new angle, making me think about what different people would find interesting about zoology and, importantly, why, rather than just assuming everyone has an inbuilt love.  Just like the iridescent wings of certain animals, looking at a familiar collection from a different angle can offer a whole new view on zoology.  And seriously, give the sea squirt a chance.