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Archive for the 'Question of the Week' Category

Question of the Week:

Was Using Human Remains for Science Taboo?

By ucramew, on 20 January 2016

Misha Ewen

By Misha Ewen


During a shift in the Grant Museum of Zoology recently, an American high school student asked me about the history of the collection and how it has been (and still is) used to teach students about anatomy. We got on to talking about museum collections that have specimens of human remains, like the Hunterian Museum in London. His next question was, when did we stop feeling that studying human remains through dissection, for the purposes of science, was taboo?

Nowadays, it’s commonplace for students studying anatomy to encounter human remains as part of their university degree, but this wasn’t always the case. In the early nineteenth century, there was a dire shortage in Britain of bodies for the purpose of medical research. For instance, the Edinburgh Medical College received fewer than five cadavers a year [1]. This was because only the remains of executed criminals could legally be used. The limitations put on scientific research because of this policy gave oxygen to the criminal business of ‘body-snatching’. When it began, the ‘snatchers’ invented a method to remove bodies from graves without detection: they used to dig holes, some distance away, and tunnel down into the graves before pulling bodies out by rope or hooks. Those who could afford it soon began to invest in mausoleums, vaults and table tombstones to ensure the safekeeping of their eternal resting places [2].

Medical students? Body-snatchers? Or both?

Medical students? Body-snatchers? Or both?

The business of bodysnatching, that fuelled medical research, soon turned even more sinister… In 1831 three men were arrested in London for the murder of vagrants, individuals whose deaths they thought would go unnoticed. On the day they were arrested, they had tried to sell the body of a fourteen year old boy to the lecturers of King’s College for twelve guineas [3]. There was also the famous case of William Burke and William Hare in Edinburgh, who murdered seventeen victims between 1827 and 1829, before selling the corpses to Dr Robert Knox at the Edinburgh Medical College. Unfortunately, this grisly business was inherently tied up in the advancement of medical knowledge.

The dissection of bodies was problematic, in both religious and moral terms, for contemporaries. In the first instance, many believed that their bodies had to remain intact for the afterlife, and dissection was also widely considered to be a punishment for the worst type of criminal. Take the fate of the Edinburgh bodysnatcher William Burke, for instance: he was executed by hanging in 1829 and his body was then publicly dissected at the Edinburgh Medical College [4]. And yet, in this period, recognition of the need for medical students to learn from human subjects was growing.

Courtesy of the Edinburgh City of Literature

Courtesy of the Edinburgh City of Literature

Public outcry, because of the black-market that had developed around medical research, helped the passing of a new bill: the 1832 Anatomy Act, which recognised that more bodies were needed for research and teaching. University College London’s Jeremy Bentham, who donated his own body to science (his auto-icon remains in the UCL South Cloisters), helped prepare the bill before his death in 1832. The act significantly extended access to cadavers, by allowing anatomists to dissect ‘unclaimed bodies’, individuals who died without anyone coming forward to pay for their burial. This was mostly people who died destitute in hospitals, workhouses and prisons. Dissection was no longer solely associated with individuals who were executed for murder, it was now also associated with the shame of dying in poverty [5].

It was really only in the mid-twentieth century that the donation of bodies to science became commonplace. Yet even now, we often feel squeamish about donating our bodies to science after we die. Attitudes certainly have changed, however, since 1832. From December 2015, individuals living in Wales will now have to opt-out if they don’t want their organs donated when they die, and legislation will certainly change soon in the rest of the United Kingdom.


[1] http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html

[2] http://www.history.co.uk/study-topics/history-of-death/the-rise-of-the-body-snatchers

[3] http://www.exclassics.com/newgate/ng609.htm

[4] http://www.edinburgh-history.co.uk/burke-hare.html

[5] http://www.kingscollections.org/exhibitions/specialcollections/charles-dickens-2/italian-boy/anatomy-act

Further reading:

Colin Blakemore & Sheila Jennett, ‘body snatchers’, The Oxford Companion to the Body (2001). Encyclopedia.com. <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Question of the Week:

Why can’t I touch museum objects?

By Stacy Hackner, on 19 August 2015

DSC_0745By Stacy Hackner

For humans, touch is an important way to gain information about an object. We can tell if something is soft or hard, heavy or light, smooth or rough or fluffy, pliable, sharp, irregular. During my masters class on human dentition, I learned to identify teeth by touch to get around visual biases. We spent a significant amount of time touching objects in our environment, so we tend to get angry when museums tell us not to touch the objects.

I understand the desire to touch a piece of history. There’s a feeling of authenticity you get from holding something made by ancient people, and a sense of disappointment if you’re told the artifact is actually a replica. A British Museum visitor commented that “It was just lovely to know that you could pick something up that was authentic. It was just lovely to put your hands on something.” Another said “You do think sometimes when you’re looking in the cases, sometimes I’d like to pick that up and really look closely.”[i]

Even with “no touching” signs, museum visitors continue to touch things. Sometimes it’s by accident and sometimes they get a sneaky look on their faces, knowing they’re ignoring the signs; most often, they don’t realize what they’re doing is damaging the object.

Passive conservation of an object involves creating a stable environment so that the object can continue its “life” undisturbed. Sudden changes in humidity, temperature, and light can degrade the object. Touching it introduces dirt and oils from your skin onto its surface – the same way you’d leave fingerprints at a crime scene. Additionally, the oils can then attract dirt to linger, and acidic oils can also degrade metallic surfaces.

Yes, museum professionals handle objects for research purposes. However, we attempt to handle them as little as possible with clean hands and wear gloves when appropriate. This difference between museum staff and the public is also one of quantity: it’s ok if one person does it occasionally, but if everyone touches it on every visit, the grime adds up. In 2009, the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford introduced a “touchometer” that counts how many people have touched an object made of various materials. As you can see in the image below, after nearly 8 million touches, the left half of the object is severely degraded. The stone (centre) has developed a patina, the metal (bottom) has become shiny, and the cloth (left) has entirely worn away. (Also, people have scratched the frame.)

The Ashmolean's Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman.

The Ashmolean’s Touchometer. Thanks to Mark Norman, the Ashmolean’s Head of Conservation.

If you walk through the British Museum’s gallery of Egyptian statuary, you can clearly see the areas on artifacts that people like to touch – the corners and public-facing edges of sarcophaguses are darker than the wall-facing edges, and anything round and protruding tends to have a sheen that takes years of painstaking work to remove (hands, feet, and breasts of statues at human height are particularly vulnerable).

Schoolchildren touch a sarcophagus. Credit: Sebastian Meyer for The Telegraph.

The Grant Museum has specific objects that can be handled, and UCL Museums have object-based learning programs to introduce students and specific groups to handling museum objects. [ii] Many other museums have touch tables or touch sessions where you can feel the weight of hand axes or porcupine quills. Don’t despair if you’re asked not to touch something in a museum – we’re not angry, we just want to make sure they’re preserved for future museum visitors to enjoy.



[i] Touching History: An evaluation of Hands On desks at The British Museum. 2008. Morris Hargreaves Mcintyre.

[ii] UCL Museums Touch & Wellbeing; Object-Based Learning

Conservation Advice – Handling Museum Objects. 2015. Southeast Museums.

Question of the week:

Are there any objects depicting Queen Nefertiti at Petrie museum?

By rmjllil, on 22 July 2015

By Ann Liljas

Earlier this month a new statue of Queen Nefertiti was unveiled in Egypt. In case you haven’t heard about Nefertiti, she lived around 1370-1330 BC and was married to Pharaoh Akhenaten. Nefertiti means “the beautiful has come” and to many Egyptians she is a symbol of the country’s beauty and rich cultural heritage. The new sculpture was intended to be a replica of a famous 3,300-year old bust of the queen (currently housed in Neues Museum in Berlin) at the entrance of the city of Samalut. But immediately when the new statue was unveiled it was criticised for being an incredibly ugly copy. Within just a few days Egyptians had forced the authorities to remove the statue. A visitor to Petrie museum had heard about this controversial statue and asked me if there are any artefacts at Petrie museum depicting Nefertiti.

In 1891 Flinders Petrie excavated two artefacts that are likely to be representing Nefertiti at Amarna. One is a sketch of the queen wearing her distinctive tall crown on limestone. The other piece is a small head modelled from red quartzite which is believed to depict Nefertiti. The artefacts made an enormous impact on the contemporary art world in London when exhibited in the 1890s. Petrie also found earrings from the same province (Amarna) and time (1550-1300 BC) which may have belonged to Nefertiti. All these objects are on display at the Petrie museum.

Click here to see pictures of the new statue of Nefertiti published by the BBC.

image1 image2 image3

Question of the week:

How do older people benefit from domestic animals?

By rmjllil, on 3 June 2015

A conversation with a visitor at the Grant museum about my research on ageing led to the question ‘How do older people benefit from domestic animals?’

Human-animal interaction is a field of study that has been scientifically explored since the 1980’s and has ever since has a great focus on the emotional and positive aspects of pets including health benefits. However animals have been used as an aid in treating mental and physical health problems since late 16th century. Research studies have shown that animals are great at keeping people company, providing emotional support and a sense of physical and psychological wellbeing. This is particularly important to older people who are more likely to be disabled than younger adults and this may lead to difficulties doing things and meeting friends which can result in poorer quality of life including low mood and feeling lonely. Pets can play a very useful role making people feel happier and research has shown that older people who have a pet socialise and talk more, not only with the pet but with other people too. Pets can also help us feeling less anxious and can even improve our abstract thinking, concentration and motivation.

Another common health problem in older people is dementia. Someone with dementia has problems with thinking or memory and could for example struggle to recall events that happened recently, find it difficult to plan and organise things, and lose track of the day. This is because their brains are not fully functioning. Interestingly, spending time with a pet can in just a few months’ time improve brain activity in people suffering from dementia. This make researchers think that pets may help slowing down the development of dementia.

Odendaal, JSJ. Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2000;49(4):275-280

Kawamura, N. et al. Long-term evaluation of animal-assisted therapy for institutionalized elderly people: a preliminary result. Psychogeriatrics. 2007;(7): 8–13

Bernabei, V. et al. Animal-assisted interventions for elderly patients affected by dementia or psychiatric disorders: a review. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2013;(47):762-773

Domestic cat





Picture: domestic cat on display at Grant museum

Question of the week:

How can we benefit from studies on social behaviour in rats?

By rmjllil, on 27 May 2015

A Japanese study on rats and their social behaviour published a couple of weeks ago has received attention worldwide. A visitor at Grant museum asked me as a researcher what this study wanted to find out and how we could benefit from such knowledge. Before trying to answer that question I’ll briefly explain what the researchers did.

In the experiment one rat was put in a pool of water where it had to swim for its life and another rat was put in a cage adjacent to it. The soaked rat could only escape the pool and access a dry area in the cage if the other rat opened a gate for it. The experiment shows that rats quickly opened the gate when their fellow rat was in the water but did not bother to open it if there was no water and hence no danger to the fellow rat. The researchers then provided a piece of food in a third cage behind a different gate to see what happened when rats had to choose between opening the gate to help their distressed mate or accessing a different gate to obtain food for themselves. In most cases, rats chose to help their mates before going for the food.

From this study we have learnt that rats can behave in a way that benefits others and they want to help others even if they don’t gain any advantage from it. By saving their mate before going for food it was shown that helping others in danger has a higher value than obtaining a food reward. Based on this experiment it was also found that rats may be motivated to save a mate because of empathy-like feelings. Such findings are important to us because it helps us understand what prompt us helping others. This study also showed that empathy and willingness of helping others seems to be something in our biology. Hence, empathy-like reactions may not happen because you’ve been taught to help others but could be something in our genes independent of culture and upbringing. These findings make this study very interesting and important in order to learn more about ourselves and understand our own behaviour.

Reference: Sato, N. et al. (2015). Rats demonstrate helping behaviour towards a soaked conspecific. Animal Cognition. DOI 10.1007/s10071-015-0872-2

Question of the week:

How do we find out about clothing in Ancient Egypt?

By rmjllil, on 20 May 2015

At Petrie Museum you find one of the oldest garments from Egypt on display in the world, the Tarkhan dress (pictured below) made of linen from around 3000 BC. There is also a reconstructed bead net dress that may have been worn for dancing in Dynasty 5 (c. 2400 BC). A visitor who was fascinated by these two garments asked me: how do we learn about Egyptian clothing? One of the most common ways to find out how people were dressed in the past is to study clothing in art. This quickly gives us a good idea of what people probably wore. However anyone interested in the actual materials used would have to investigate the physical remains of textiles from that time. Such studies can also help us understanding how the clothes were worn. For example, two large rectangular pieces of linen (displayed at museums outside the UK) have been recognised as dresses thanks to analyses of the stress marks and areas of wear on them which were identical to other pieces of clothes that were wrapped several times around the body.

If you’re interested in finding out more about research on the textiles that have survived I would recommend the book Pharaonic Egyptian clothing by Gillian Vogelsang-Eastwood (1993).

tarkhan dress

Question of the week:

Do single-eyed animals really exist?

By rmjllil, on 15 April 2015

In many cultures and films there are stories about one-eyed monsters. This week I answer the question whether single-eyed animals exist in reality.

A lady visiting the Grant Museum the other day found the elephant skull very fascinating as it didn’t look like what she expected. The hole in the middle of the front of the skull reminded her of the one-eyed Polyphemus in Homer’s Odyssey. You might have made the same observation when visiting the museum. But do one-eyed animals exist outside Greek mythology and Hollywood? The answer is yes. And they are everything but big monsters. There are 44 species of the genus Cyclops, also known as water fleas, all with a single eye that is either red or black. Cyclops are between 0.5-3 mm long, have 5 pairs of limbs on the head and another 7 pairs of limbs on the mid-body. They also have 2 pairs of antennae. Their average lifespan is 3 months. Cyclops live in fresh water across Britain and they are very common in slow rivers and canals, particularly among weeds. If you collect some water and examine it you’re likely to find some Cyclops. And there’s no need to fear this tiny one-eyed animal.

Source: Microscope UK


Question of the Week: What is that object?

By Stacy Hackner, on 18 February 2015


By Stacy Hackner

One of the most frequent questions I’m asked isn’t about history or osteology. It’s “can you tell me what that thing is?” Many objects in the UCL Museums don’t have explanatory labels, so it’s understandable that visitors don’t know. However, it’s usually the case that we don’t know either! In archaeology, a number of excavated items are recorded with detailed descriptions of size, weight, material, but no conclusion as to the purpose of the object. The Petrie houses a number of smooth pebbles from predynastic-era graves. When those people had the technology to make wheel-thrown pottery and intricately carved stone vessels, why be buried with a simple stone? The anthropological answer is that it served a ritualistic purpose; the humanistic answer is that somebody saw a smooth stone they liked, one that felt good to keep in the hand and rub, and it became important to them. I have stones that remained in coat pockets for years, getting smoother and smoother from my touch. It doesn’t necessarily have to be “totemic”. Other artifacts are confusing because they look like modern items. One visitor asked me about a clay object that looked like a cog.


UC18527. Image courtesy Petrie catalogue.

I had no idea what it was! We do have various sorts of cogs from ancient times, like waterwheels and the Antikythera mechanism, but in this case I thought I could solve the mystery quite easily. The object had a UC number, indicating its place in the Petrie catalogue. I looked it up on the web (the catalogue is open-access) and found out it’s actually an oil lamp: if you look closely, you can see traces of burning in the centre. The same goes for the Grant Museum’s catalogue – if you can find the specimen’s number, you can look up the name. Then it’s fun to Google the animal and see what it looked like with all its fur on – the tenrec is my favourite example. With only the skeleton it looks like any other small mammal, but when complete it’s like a cross between a hedgehog and a fiery caterpillar.

If you’d like to know what something is, please do ask! We may not know, but love to learn about all the amazing objects around us.

Question of the week:

What do captive tigers die from?

By rmjllil, on 4 February 2015

AnnRecently I had a chat about tigers with a young visitor at the Grant Museum. As you might know, in early 2015 it was reported that India’s tiger population has increased by 30 per cent from 1,706 tigers in 2011 to 2,226 in 2014. This is fantastic news as the global tiger population is falling due to illegal wildlife trade. But the high death rates in tigers in captive wildlife conservation is a serious concern too and the visitor asked me what tigers in captivity die from. I decided to find out.

Among felines, that’s cats such as lion, tiger and leopard, lions have the highest death rates. Death rates are higher in male felines compared to female and cubs have greater risks of dying than adults: about half of all cubs don’t reach the age of 2 years.

A study in India shows that morbidity (diseases) in felines is a big problem and a common reason of death. According to the study, the most common reason of death in felines is respiratory conditions (23% of all deaths) (for example bacterial diseases that affect the lungs) followed by digestive conditions (19%). Many of the diseases kill felines because they easily spread between groups of animals and it’s difficult to separate infected and non-infected individuals.

Hiring more guards and protecting reserves helps stopping the illegal wildlife trade and increases the number of tigers. This is absolutely crucial but doesn’t prevent and stop deadly infections. To help tigers live longer better facilities and skills are needed to prevent, treat and control for these disease-related deaths.


Click here for information about the increased tiger population in India. For the cited mortality study, click here.

Question of the Week:

Can we build a brain in the lab?

By ucbtch1, on 28 January 2015


Citlali Helenes Gonzalez-labWhile working at the Grant museum of Zoology the other day, I encountered a lovely group of teenagers that started asking me questions about the museum. As we engagers do, I automatically started talking about my PhD project. I told them that I was working with stems cells and trying to build a neural tissue in the lab, to which they replied with a tilt of the head in sign of confusion. So I inevitably had to change my explanation and told them that I was trying to build a tiny part of a brain in the lab.

With a change of head tilting they replied with “Uh, that sounds cool” and “Are you going to create a Frankenstein?” To which I, being the bubble buster that I am, had to reply with, “Well, actually, Frankenstein was the scientist that created the monster”. So no, I am not going to create a scientist, or a monster, or a brain. I could see a tiny deception in their faces, so explained that neural tissue doesn’t necessarily mean that I’m building an entire brain, although it would be helpful to have two brains instead of one, especially when writing a thesis!!! But no, scientists have not been able to grow a full size brain. The closest that scientists have come, has been to grow a group of brain cells that self-assembled into an “organoid” that resembles some structures of a brain.

So how is that different from a brain? Good question, I am glad you asked avid reader. Even though the cells scientists have grown have developed into different kinds of brain cells and had some neural activity, the maturation and differentiation of different brain areas was not complete. The connections and systems that make us see or hear or control our movements were not there.

It is not enough to have brain cells arranged together; the information that runs through neurons has to have specific highways and an overall order in the soup of chemicals and cells that is our brain. Besides all the intricate and delicate organization cells need to have, they also need nutrients and oxygen or in other words, blood vessels, little tiny ones and big chunky ones, to reach every cell so that they can survive and function. Yes, there are interesting advances into knowing how the brain works and how cells develop into a brain, but we are not there yet.

So the answer to “Can we build a brain in the lab?” is no, not right now. So contrary to what may have been on the news, lets just say that we can grow brain cells and keep them alive; we can make them interact with each other and grow groups that self-assemble, but we are years away from actually growing a fully functional brain. And in order to have a ”functioning” brain it would need to have eyes and ears and muscles and all of the systems that connect to it (basically a body) in order to be functional. Otherwise it would not have any input and would not be able to process information.

Many of the guys that I was talking to in the museum where relieved when I explained this to them, fearing that maybe science has come too far. Has it? I don’t know, but I will leave you with this question: Do you think it would be a good idea to build a brain in a lab?


Infographic from livescience.com: