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Archive for the 'Research' Category

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.

Mammoths and Magdalenians: A Summer in the Ice Age

By Josephine Mills, on 30 August 2017

This August I swapped the busy streets of London for the beaches and archaeology on the island of Jersey, which is located close to the Normandy coastline in the English Channel. Jersey is an incredibly archaeologically-rich location with many prehistoric and historic sites of interest. The project that I work with is called Ice Age Island (twitter hashtag: #iceageisland) and we are particularly focused on archaeological deposits from the Middle Palaeolithic, Upper Palaeolithic and Mesolithic sites on the island.

Jersey is currently an island but during cooler periods of the Pleistocene (Ice Age), when sea level fell, it regularly became part of the larger Channel landmass of the Continental Shelf. The Ice Age Island team are a group of researchers and students focused on unravelling this part of the island’s past by exploring terrestrial sites on the island but also investigating how humans used the wider, now submerged, landscape that surrounded it. Currently work is focused on reconstructing geological and topographical mapping of the Continental Shelf and also working out how artefacts from the sites we are excavating and studying can contribute to our understanding of behaviour in the offshore area.

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Fig 1. A map showing the location of Jersey and the other Channel Islands. Numbered locations refer to Middle Palaeolithic sites in the area: 1= Le Rozel, 2= La Cotte a la Chèvre, 3 = La Cotte de St. Brelade, 4 = Mont Dol

My PhD is focused during the Middle Palaeolithic of Jersey when Neanderthals visited the island, particularly the site of La Cotte de St. Brelade on the south-west coast. La Cotte is a sheltered cave-like area formed within a granite t-shaped ravine system and has recorded Neanderthal activity intermittently from around 240,000 to 40,000 years ago. The work that I do helps to contribute to the understanding of how Neanderthals interacted with the offshore landscape, particularly where they got the raw material needed to make stone artefacts from. The use of stone, particularly flint, to make tools was key to survival for Neanderthals. Tools made from stone were used for activities like hunting, food processing, and preparing hides—giving access to food, nutrition, defence, and warmth. Flint presence and absence fluctuates in the deposits at La Cotte and by understanding differences in the types of raw materials in the different archaeological layers we hope to reconstruct a model of the availability of different sources; this will in turn shed light on Neanderthal behaviour in the wider landscape. So this summer I’ve swapped three museums for one museum archive in Jersey where I have been analysing flint tools from La Cotte!

High def CSB

Fig 2: View into the t-shaped ravine system at La Cotte de St. Brelade (own image)

However Ice Age Island is made up of multiple strands of investigation and the most active is the archaeological training dig and field school, which UCL has been involved in for seven excavation seasons. The site is run by Dr Ed. Blinkhorn (Senior Archaeologist UCL and Archaeology South East), and supported by supervisors and students from different universities. Excavation is focused on the Magdalenian (a time period spanning 17,000 – 12,000 years ago) site of Les Varines, where the archaeological deposits are dated to approximately 14,000 years ago.

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Fig 3. Students and staff working at the excavation during the site open day (own image)

The current interpretation is that the site represents a hunter-gatherer camp where Magdalenian people lived for some parts of the year. Located at the sheltered apex of a wide valley system the site would have been a prime position for tracking migrating animals, like deer and horse, in the landscape below. However the story of Les Varines has changed through the seven years the site has been excavated. Initially the artefacts that were found appeared disturbed by post-depositional processes and were not excavated in the original position they were left by the Magdalenian people. This limited the behavioural inference that could be taken from the artefacts. However as new trenches and test pits were put in, guided by geophysical survey, areas of intact Upper Palaeolithic archaeology were discovered!

This year has been a really exciting excavation season as the type of finds being made have diversified from flint tools to include a mammoth tooth and multiple constructed hearth areas. This allows a much more varied picture of life at the site, demonstrating different activities the Magdalenian people were carrying out!

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nv1n5KSOlXs

Ed Blinkhorn and Letty Ingrey (UCL/ Archaeology South East) talking about the potential mammoth tooth find

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p7RAOEDLcGc&t=5s

UCL MSc Palaeolithic Archaeology and Palaeoanthropology students Leah and Fiona discussing uncovering the Magdalenian Hearth Features

So if you haven’t seen my in a museum for a while – that’s what I’ve been up to!

Adventures in Eighteenth-century Papermaking

By Hannah L Wills, on 21 July 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

Earlier this summer, I gave a talk with some of the other engagers at our ‘Materials & Objects’ event at the UCL Art Museum. In preparing for the event, we were all challenged to think about the objects, materials, and physical ‘stuff’ that we work with on a daily basis. As I’ve written about before, my research focuses on the notebooks and diaries of a late eighteenth-century physician and natural philosopher, Charles Blagden (1748-1820), who served as secretary to the Royal Society. One of the things I’m interested in is how Blagden used his notebooks and diaries to keep track of his day-to-day activities, as well as the business of one of London’s major learned societies. Record keeping and note taking was a central part of Blagden’s life, and it’s owing to his impressive record keeping habit that there’s one material I handle in my research more than any other: eighteenth-century paper.

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 - MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 – MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

 

When I began preparing my talk for ‘Materials & Objects’, I started to think about how I might bring paper, a relatively mundane material, to life. My initial reading on the craft of papermaking told me that despite it being a 2000-year old process, making paper by hand has changed relatively little between then and now.[i] Out of curiosity, I decided to do an experiment, and to see if I could replicate some of the processes of eighteenth-century papermaking at home, in my kitchen.

The first stage in the papermaking process is to select the material from which the paper is going to be made. In the eighteenth century, this would typically have been cotton and linen rags. Towards the end of the century, shortages of rags, in part caused by an increased use of paper for printing, meant that makers began to experiment with other materials. In 1801, the very first book printed on recycled paper was published in London—that is, paper that had been printed on once before already.[ii]

Having selected the material, the next step is to break it down, making it into a pulp. When papermaking was first introduced in Europe in the twelfth century, rags were wetted, pressed into balls, and then left to ferment. After this, the rags were macerated in large water-powered stamping mills.[iii] In the eighteenth century, a beating engine, or a Hollander, was used to tear up the material, creating a wet pulp by circulating rags around a large tub with a cylinder fitted with cutting bars (see below).[iv] For my purposes, I found a kitchen blender worked well to break up scraps of used paper from my recycling bin at home, ready to make into new blank sheets.

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

Having been broken down, the liquid pulp mixture is then transferred to a container. In the eighteenth century, someone known as the ‘vatman’ would have stood over this container and dipped a mould into the solution at a near-perpendicular angle. Turning the mould face upwards in the solution before lifting it out horizontally, the vatman would have pulled out the mould to find an even covering of macerated fibres assembled across its surface. It is these fibres that would later form the finished sheet of paper.[v]

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

The moulds used in papermaking determine several features of the finished sheets of paper, including shape, texture and appearance. The type of mould first used in European papermaking was known as a ‘laid’ mould. This mould typically featured wires laced horizontally into vertical wooden ribs, meaning that when the mould was pulled out of the vat, the pulp would lie heavier on either size of the wooden ribs, giving vertical dark patches and the characteristic markings of ‘laid’ paper.[vi]

Screenshot 2017-07-20 11.16.04

A laid mould, with vertical wooden ribs and horizontal wires. A design and marker’s name are visible sewn into the mould, and will leave what is known as the ‘watermark’ on individual sheets of paper. (Image credit: Laid mold and deckle, Denmark – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

Screenshot 2017-07-20 15.10.07

Characteristic ‘link and chain’ pattern found on laid paper, left by the ribs and wires. This piece is a modern imitation of antique laid paper. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

In mid-eighteenth century Britain, a new type of mould became widely used, developed by the Whatman papermakers based in Kent. This mould was known as a ‘wove’ mould, and had a much smoother surface, consisting of a fine brass screening that was woven like cloth. These moulds imparted a more uniform and fabric-like texture to individual sheets.[vii]

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England - Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

 

For my own papermaking, I chose to dip a piece of fine sieve-like material into my makeshift vat, aiming to replicate partially the texture and appearance of a ‘wove’ mould. The implement I chose for this was a small kitchen pan splatter guard, made up of fine mesh that when pulled out of the vat would hold a layer of fibres on its surface.

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

After the mould was pulled from the vat, the eighteenth-century vatman would pass it on to a coucher who would remove the sheet from the mould, before pressing it between felts to remove the water.[viii]

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

In order to remove my sheet of paper from the mould, I placed another sieve-material implement over the top of the fibres and pressed down with a sponge. With a tea towel placed underneath, this worked to remove much of the water without the need for a proper press. Pulling the top piece of sieve away from the bottom, I was left with a drier surface of fibres, which could be carefully lifted off the mould, and set aside to dry.

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

 

At this point in the eighteenth-century process, sheets were ‘sized’—dipped into a gelatinous substance made from animal hides that made the sheet stronger and water resistant.[ix] After my sheets had been left to one side to dry for a few hours, I decided to experiment by writing on them. I had not applied size to any of my sheets, so found that when I wrote on them the ink spread out, giving a sort of blotting paper effect.

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

After having size applied, sheets in an eighteenth-century papermill would have undergone a number of finishing stages. These included polishing and surfacing, processes that gave the paper a more uniform appearance.[x] With my own sheets of paper, I found passing a warm iron over the surface achieved a similar effect, removing some of the creases and wrinkles that had appeared during drying.

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

It is after these final finishing and drying processes that sheets of paper are ready to be packaged up and sent to the stationer’s.

Replicating historic crafts and processes is not new within the discipline of history. One of my favourite examples is a paper that was published in 1995, in which the historian Heinz Otto Sibum recreated the experiments of the scientist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) in determining the mechanical equivalent of heat. By trying to recreate the experiment from Joule’s notes, Sibum revealed that Joule made frequent use of the bodily skills he developed while working in the brewing industry, such as the ability to measure temperatures remarkably accurately by using only his elbow.[xi] Often, attempting to replicate an experiment or craft will reveal just how much it relies upon implicit bodily skills, or tacit knowledge, the kinds of ‘knacks’ that are not written down but are simply known to those who perform an activity regularly.

In attempting to replicate the craft of eighteenth-century papermaking, I really only approximated the process, making substitutions for equipment and improvising a number of techniques, particularly when it came to removing my delicate wet sheets of paper from the mould. I think the biggest lesson I learnt was to have a greater appreciation of the material, and just how many skills and processes went into crafting each sheet of paper in the eighteenth century. Characteristics of individual sheets such as colour, texture and markings had not caught my attention in the archives previously, but I now find them fascinating for what they can reveal about the nature of the fibres used, the construction of the paper mould, and the processes followed by each individual papermaker.

 

 

References:

[i] Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (New York: Dover, 1978), 178.

[ii] Ibid., 309-33.

[iii] Ibid., 153-55.

[iv] Theresa Fairbanks and Scott Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006), 68.

[v] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 177.

[vi] Ibid., 114-23.

[vii] Ibid., 125-27. See also Fairbanks and Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills.

[viii] Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills, 71.

[ix] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 194.

[x] Ibid., 196-99.

[xi] Heinz Otto Sibum, “Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 26, no. 1 (1995): 73-106.

 

Five years of research: a summary

By Stacy Hackner, on 3 July 2017

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by Stacy Hackner

A PhD often feels like an unrewarding process. There are setbacks, data failures, non-significant results, and a general lack of the small successes that (I hear) make general worklife pleasant: “I got that promotion!” “Everyone applauded my presentation!” “I moved to the desk near the window!” PhD life is one giant slog until the end, a nerve-wracking hours-long session where you’re grilled by the only people who know more about your field than you.

I survived.

Hopefully some of you have been following my research here, starting from astronauts and moving on to runners and foraging patterns. It all ties together, I promise. I recently gave a talk at the Engagers’ event “Materials & Objects” summarizing my research, which I can now tell you about in its full glory! I’m pleased to announce: I had significant findings.

The lowdown is that (as expected) there are differences in the shape of the tibia (shin bone) between nomads and farmers in Sudan. Why would this be? Well, if you’ve been following along, bones change shape in response to activity, particularly activities performed during adolescence. The major categories of tibial shape were those that indicated long-distance walking, doing activity in one place, and doing very little activity. Looking at the distribution, the majority of the nomadic males had the leg shape indicating long-distance walking, and some of the agricultural males had the long-distance shape and others had the staying-in-place shape. This makes sense considering the varying types of activity performed in an agricultural society, particularly one that also had herds to take care of: some individuals would be taking the herds up and down along the Nile to find grazing land while others stayed local, tending farms. While it’s unclear how often a nomadic group needs to move camp to be considered truly nomadic, in this case it seems like they were walking a lot – enough to compare their tibial shape to that of modern long-distance runners. These differences in food acquisition are culturally-adapted responses to differing environments: the nomads live in semi-arid grassland and can travel slowly over a large area to graze sheep and cattle, while the farmers are constrained to a narrow strip of fertile land along the Nile banks, limiting how many people can move around, and how often.

Perhaps the most important finding is the difference between males and females. In addition to looking at shape, I also conducted tests to show how strong each bone is regardless of shape, a result called polar second moment of inertia (and shortened to, unexpectedly, J). The males at each site had higher values for J – thus, stronger bones – than the females. However, the nomadic females had higher J values than some of the males at the agricultural sites! This is in spite of most females from both sites having the tibial shape indicating “not very much activity”. This shape may be the juvenile shape of the tibia, which females have retained into adulthood despite performing enough activity to give them higher strength values than male farmers. Similar results have actually been noted in studies examining different time periods – for instance, the Paleolithic to Neolithic – and found much more similarity between females than between males. Researchers often interpret this as evidence of changing male roles but female roles remaining the same, which strikes me as unlikely considering the time spans covered. I instead conclude that females build bone differently in adolescence, and perhaps there are subtleties in bone development that don’t reveal themselves as differences in shape. As females have lower rates of testosterone, which builds bone as well as muscle, they may have to work harder or longer than males to attain the same bone shape and strength. I’m using this to argue that the roles of women in archaeological societies – particularly nomadic ones – have been unexamined in light of biological evidence.

Of course, the best conclusion for a PhD is a call for more research, and mine is that we need to examine male and female adolescent athletes together to see when exactly shape change occurs. If we can pin down the amount of activity necessary for women to have bones as strong as those of their male peers, we can more accurately interpret the types of activities ancient people were performing without devaluing the work of women.

My examiners found all this enthralling, and I’m pleased to say I passed! The work of this woman is valued in the eyes of the academe.

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.

Museum Audio Guide Project

By Cerys Bradley, on 21 March 2017

I have been a student engager for almost a year now and the more time I spend in each of the museums, the more I come to realise that there’s an incredible amount to learn about them. Obviously, a museum with 30,000+ objects in it contains a lot of knowledge, but, even beyond that, there are so many more ways of studying and thinking about each object and collection than I ever imagined. Each museum is bursting with questions about not only the objects they house but their histories and the lives of the people who made and worked in them. So, after each of my shifts, I have been writing down all of the questions that I have been asked by visitors or thought of myself whilst wandering around and I have done my best to answer them. The resulting catalogue of information is enormous. It is too much knowledge to fit on traditional, tiny museum placards and too much for any one student engager to learn and recite for visitors (not least because each of the museums is only open for four hours at a time). Thus, the UCL Museum Audio Guide Project was born.

This project, funded and encouraged by UCL Culture, will produce three sets of podcasts, one for each of the museums, to act as audio tour guides. They will be free, downloadable from your usual podcasting app, and tailorable to your visit. Each museum will have a short tour of only an hour, and an extended cut closer to two and a half hours (which is still the tip of iceberg, really) as well as a number of themed tours. For example, the Grant Museum will have an evolutionary biology themed tour which will tell listeners all about the history of evolutionary theory and the role the Grant played in its development.

Now, I am not an expert in Evolutionary Biology, nor in Egyptology, Anatomy or Art. Luckily, I have had a lot of help making the audio guides and, so far, have interviewed a number of researchers and members of staff at each of the museums. I have spoken to Jon Thompson of the Slade School of Fine Art; Debbie Challis at the Petrie Museum;  Stacy Hackner, Max Pinarello and Alice Stevenson from the Institute of Archeology; Professor Joe Cain, Head of Science and Technology Studies at UCL; and Sarah Doherty from the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford. Each of their interviews will make it into the audio guides along with many others so that listeners will get to learn about the objects from world leaders and experts.

Planning and recording the interviews has been excellent and I have learnt a lot about each of the museums already. Just this week, I spoke to Sarah Doherty, a Ceramicist and Archaeologist, for over an hour and a half just about pots. I did not realise there was so much to learn about pots. As it turns out, shards of pottery can be used to understand almost every aspect of Ancient Egyptian life from their diets to their lifestyles to their technological advancements. I have also learnt that you can do an entire PhD on the tibia bone because it, too, can tell archaeologists incredible things about the lives of people thousands of years ago.

Learning about the fascinating museum collections has been the best bit of the audio guide project (which is easy to say because editing is boring and takes ages) but I still have a way to go. The collections at UCL are enormous and so, even with the restrictive time limit of two and a half hours of material, I have many more interviews scheduled and planned. Unfortunately, the first audio guide isn’t likely to be ready for another few months but this does mean there is still plenty of time for you to get involved.

Do you have a question about the museums? And, I mean any question, from “How old is this object?” to “Why are these things all in this cabinet together?” to “Who found this?”, then tweet me (@hashtagcerys) and we’ll put your question (and its answer) into the audio guide.

When tasked to find a photo, I thought I’d find the specimen with the biggest ears (for listening).

Medieval Calendar Predictions for 2017

By Arendse I Lund, on 16 January 2017

With the twists and turns of 2016, excuse me if I’m not crazy about not wanting to make predictions for the year ahead. Instead, I’ll look back. By relying on some good ol’ advice from the fifteenth-century, I don’t see how anything could go wrong.

Below is my translation from Middle English of the calendar from the Medical Society of London, MS 136; the italicised portions indicate where I have relied on the Middle English text of the Henslow duplicate instead. Remedies 143-156 in this manuscript contain instructions on how to ensure a good year. These contain a month-by-month breakdown and, like a negative fortune cookie, list the bad or “perilous” days to expect each month. Forewarned is forearmed, right?

Bedford Hours, January calendar

Detail from the calendar page for January (British Library, Bedford Hours, f. 1r)

In the month of January, white wine is good to drink and blood-letting to forbear. There are seven perilous days: January 1st, 2nd, 4th, 5th, 10th, 15th, and 19th.

February medeval calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for February (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 19v)

In the month of February, don’t eat pottage made of hocks because they are poisonous. And bloodlet from the wrist of the hand and the vein of the thumb. There are two perilous days: February 6th and the 7th; the 8th is not that good either. Eat hot meats.

Medieval March calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for March (British Library, Add. MS 18852, f. 3r)

In the month of March, eat figs and raisins and other sweet meats. And don’t bloodlet on the right arm for each manner of fever of that year. There are four perilous days: March 10th, 12th, 16th, and 18th.

Medieval April calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for April (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 22r)

In the month of April, bloodlet on the left arm on the 11th day and that year he shall not lose his sight. And on April 3rd, bloodlet and that year you shall not get a headache. Eat fresh flesh and hot meat. There are two perilous days: April 6th and 11th.

Medieval May calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for May (British Library, Add. MS 35313, f. 3v)

In the month of May, arise early and eat and drink early; don’t sleep at noon. Eat hot meats. Don’t eat the head or the feet of any animal because her brain wastes and her marrow consumes, and all living things become feeble in this month. There are four perilous days: May 7th, 15th, 16th, and 20th.

June medieval calendar page

Detail from the calendar page for June (British Library, Add. MS 18851, f. 4)

In the month of June, it is good to drink a draught of water every day while fasting; eat and drink meat and ale in moderation. Only bleed when there’s the greatest of needs. There are seven days which are perilous to bloodlet.

July medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for July (British Library, Add. MS 18851, f. 4v)

In the month of July, keep away from women because your brain is just beginning to gather its humors. And don’t bloodlet. There are two perilous days: July 15th and 19th.

August medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for August (Metropolitan Museum of Art, Belles Heures, f. 9r)

In the month of August, don’t eat wort plants or cabbages and don’t bloodlet. There are two perilous days: August 19th and 20th.

September medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for September (British Library, Add. MS 18850, f. 9r)

In the month of September, all ripe fruit is good to eat and blood is good to let. Without doubt, he who bloodlets on September 17th shall not suffer from edema, nor frenzy, nor the falling evil.

October medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for October (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 27v)

In the month of October, new wine is good to drink, and bloodlet if necessary; there is one perilous day and that is October 6th.

November medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for November (British Library, Bedford Hours, f. 11r)

In the month of November, don’t take a bath because blood is gathering well in your head-vein. Apply a cupping glass a little because lancing and cupping are good to use then since all the humors are active and quick. There are two perilous days: November 15th and 20th.

December medieval calendar page

Detail from calendar page for December (British Library, Add. MS 24098, f. 30r)

In the month of December, eat hot meats and bloodlet if necessary. There are three perilous days: December 15th, 16th, and 18th. Refrain from cold worts as they are poisonous and melancholic.

Whosoever holds to this life regimen may be secure in his health.

by Arendse Lund

 

Normativity November: Defining the Archaeological Normal

By Stacy Hackner, on 23 November 2016

This post is part of QMUL’s Normativity November, a month exploring the concept of the normal in preparation for the exciting Being Human events ‘Emotions and Cancer’ on 22 November and ‘The Museum of the Normal’ on 24 November, and originally appeared on the QMUL History of Emotions Blog.

DSC_0745by Stacy Hackner

 

The history of archaeology in the late 19th and early 20th centuries can be read as the history of European men attempting to prove their perceived place in the world. At the time, western Europe had colonized much of the world, dividing up Africa, South America, and Oceania from which they could extract resources to further fund empires. Alongside this global spread was a sincere belief in the superiority of the rule of white men, which had grown from the Darwinian theory of evolution and the subsequent ideas of eugenics advanced by Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton: not only were white men the height of evolutionary and cultural progress, they were the epitome of thousands of years of cultural development which was superior to any other world culture. According to their belief, it was inevitable that Europeans should colonize the rest of the world. This was not only the normal way of life, but the only one that made sense.

In modern archaeology, we let the data speak for itself, trying not to impose our own ideas of normality and society onto ancient cultures. One hundred years ago, however, archaeology was used as a tool to prove European superiority and cultural manifest and without the benefit of radiocarbon dating (invented in the 1940s) to identify which culture developed at what time, Victorian and Edwardian archaeologists were free to stratify ancient cultures in a way that supported their framework that most European=most advanced. “European-ness” was defined through craniometry, or the measurement and appearance of skulls, and similar measurements of the limbs. Normality was defined as the average British measurement, and any deviation from this normal immediately identified that individual as part of a lesser race (a term which modern anthropologists find highly problematic, as so much of what was previously called “race” is culture).

In my research into sites in Egypt and Sudan, I’ve encountered two sites that typify this shoehorning of archaeology to fit a Victorian ideal of European superiority. The first is an ancient Egyptian site called Naqada, excavated by Sir William Matthew Flinders Petrie in the 1890s. Petrie is considered the founder of modern, methodological archaeology because he invented typology – categorizing objects based on their similarity to each other. As an associate and friend of Galton and others in the eugenics circle, he applied the same principle to categorizing people (it’s likely that his excavations of human remains were requested by Galton to diversify his anthropometric collection). Naqada featured two main types of burials: one where the deceased were laid on their backs (supine) and one where the deceased were curled up on their side (flexed). Petrie called these “Egyptian” and “foreign” types, respectively. The grave goods (hand-made pottery, hairpins, fish-shaped slate palettes) found in the foreign tombs did not resemble any from his previous Egyptian excavations. The skeletons were so markedly different from the Egyptians – round, high skulls of the “Algerian” type, and tall and rugged – that he called them the “New Race”. Similarities, such as the burnt animal offerings found in the New Race tombs, present in Egyptian tombs as symbolic wall paintings, were obviously naïve imitations made by the immigrants. However, the progression of New Race pottery styles pointed to a lengthy stay in Egypt, which confused Petrie. Any protracted stay among the Egyptians must surely have led to trade: why then was there an absence of Egyptian trade goods? His conclusion was that the New Race were invading cannibals from a hot climate who had completely obliterated the local, peaceful Egyptian community between the Old and Middle Kingdoms.

Of course, with the advent of radiocarbon dating and a more discerning approach to cultural change, we now know that Petrie had it backwards. The New Race are actually a pre-Dynastic Egyptian culture (4800-3100 BC), who created permanent urban agricultural settlements after presumably thousands of years of being semi-nomadic alongside smaller agricultural centres. Petrie’s accusation of cannibalism is derived from remarks from Juvenal, a Roman poet writing centuries later. It also shows Petrie’s racism – of course these people from a “hot climate” erased the peaceful Egyptians, whose skulls bear more resemblance to Europeans. In actuality, Egyptian culture as we know it, with pyramids and chariots and mummification, developed from pre-Dynastic culture through very uninteresting centuries-long cultural change. Petrie’s own beliefs about the superiority of Europeans, typified by the Egyptians, allowed him to create a scientific-sounding argument that associated Africans with warlike-invasion halting cultural progression.

The second site in my research is Jebel Moya, located 250 km south of the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, and excavated by Sir Henry Wellcome from 1911-1914. The site is a cemetery that appears to be of a nomadic group, dating to the Meroitic period (3rd century BC-4th century AD). The site lacks the pottery indicative of the predominant Meroitic culture, therefore the skulls were used to determine racial affiliation. Meroe was seen as part of the lineage of ancient Egypt – despite being Sudanese, the Meroitic people adopted pyramid-building and other cultural markers inspired by the now-defunct Egyptian civilization. Because many more female skeletons were discovered at this site than male, one early hypothesis was that Jebel Moya was a pagan and “predatory” group that absorbed women from southern Sudanese tribes either by marriage or slavery and that, as Petrie put it, it was “not a source from which anything sprang, whether culture or tribes or customs”. Yet, the skulls don’t show evidence of interbreeding, implying that they weren’t importing women, and later studies showed that many of the supposed female skeletons were actually those of young males. This is another instance of British anthropologists drawing conclusions about the ancient world using their framework of the British normal. If the Jebel Moyans weren’t associating themselves with the majority Egyptianized culture, they must be pagan (never mind that the Egyptians were pagan too!), polygamous, and lacking in any kind of transferrable culture; in addition, they must have come from the south – that is, Africa.

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

Sir Henry Wellcome at the Jebel Moya excavations
Credit: Wellcome Library, London.

These sites were prominent excavations at the time, and the skeletons went on to be used in a number of arguments about race and relatedness. We now know – as the Victorian researchers reluctantly admitted – that ruggedness of the limbs is due to activity, and that a better way to examine relatedness is by examining teeth rather than skulls. However, the idea of Europeans as superior, following millennia of culture that sprung from the Egyptians and continued by the Greeks and Romans, was read into every archaeological discovery, bolstering the argument that European superiority was normal. Despite our focus on the scientific method and attempting to keep our beliefs out of our research, I wonder what future archaeologists will find problematic about current archaeology.

Sources

Addison, F. 1949. Jebel Moya, Vol I: Text. London: Oxford University Press.

Baumgartel, E.J. 1970. Petrie’s Naqada Excavation: A Supplement. London: Bernard Quaritch.

Petrie, W.M.F. 1896. Naqada and Ballas. Warminster: Aris & Phillips.

The People Who Became Book Bindings

By Arendse I Lund, on 31 October 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

The softness of the leather, the beauty of the decoration—we just can’t help it, we judge a book by its cover. Yet, when we hold a book in our hands, how good of judges are we as to what it’s made of?

Leather bindings are generally made from calfskin, sheepskin, or goatskin. (Traditionally, goatskin is referred to as Morocco leather.) It’s surprisingly difficult to tell these apart at a glance, and you’ll sometimes see labels stating two possibilities for the make of the bindings. This becomes even more complex when you throw in a fourth option: Anthropodermic bibliopegy. Otherwise known as books bound in human skin, these rare editions became popular in the 18th century although it’s uncertain when exactly the practice started.

pigskin and humanskin

Left, white pigskin binding (British Library, Add MS 59678); Right, human skin binding (Houghton Library, FC8.H8177.879dc)

However difficult it is to tell animal bindings apart, certainly we must be able to discern human skin bindings at a glance? Not so. UC Berkeley long held a book which it believed to have been bound in human skin. As this video from the Bancroft Library shows, it’s only by performing tests on the book that we’re able to know for certain. This opens an avenue for an unscrupulous bookseller, looking to increase the price of a particular book, to pass it off as something else. There’s simply no special smell or feel which acts as a dead giveaway; without testing it directly, we just can’t tell for certain.

book not boundin human skin

Book formerly thought to be bound in human skin (Wellcome Collection .b21243840)

For instance, one book in the Wellcome Library was rumored to be bound in the skin of Crispus Attucks, killed in the Boston Massacre. A note on paper attached to the clasp of the book reads: “The cover of this book is made of Tanned Skin of the Negro whose Execution caused the War of Independence.” This has since been proven false.

binding formerly thought to be human

The supposed skin of Jonas Wright (HOLLIS no. 4317553)

The Harvard Law School Library had three books bound in what was thought to be human skin. One provoked extra interest because of the morbid inscription on its final page: “The bynding of this booke is all that remains of my dear friende Jonas Wright, who was flayed alive by the Wavuma on the Fourth Day of August, 1632. King Mbesa did give me the book, it being one of poore Jonas chiefe possessions, together with ample of his skin to bynd it. Requiescat in pace.” Unfortunately for fans of anthropodermic bibliopegy, tests proved that the binding was sheepskin instead. However, it is always possible that the book was rebound.

human skin book

A pocket book made from Burke (Surgeons’ Hall Museums)

Some books have been tested and turned out to be genuine. The Surgeons’ Hall Museums has a curious pocketbook which has been proven to be anthropodermic bibliopegy. Stamped into the pebbled leather are the words “BURKE’S SKIN POCKET BOOK” and “EXECUTED 28 JAN 1829.” Medical historian Lindsey Fitzharris has noted that anthropodermic bibliopegy was historically done for three reasons: punishment, memorialization, and collection. Burke falls into the first category. He was a notorious serial killer posing as a body snatcher in the early 19th century; under Britain’s Murder Act, when he was caught and convicted, he was publicly dissected so as to be made an example of and his skin used for the bindings. This pocketbook makes no secrets of its background with its embossed cover.

Richly decorated binding using the skin of an unknown woman (Wellcome Collection .b13425110)

Richly decorated binding using the skin of an unknown woman (Wellcome Collection .b13425110)

By contrast, the cover of Houghton Library’s human skin book is free from decoration; the man who bound it wrote, “This book is bound in human skin parchment on which no ornament has been stamped to preserve its elegance. By looking carefully you easily distinguish the pores of the skin. A book about the human soul deserved to have a human covering: I had kept this piece of human skin taken from the back of a woman. It is interesting to see the different aspects that change this skin according to the method of preparation to which it is subjected. Compare for example with the small volume I have in my library, Sever. Pinaeus de Virginitatis notis which is also bound in human skin but tanned with sumac.” The volume referenced is now in the Wellcome Collection and is a treatise on female virginity.

Mary Lynch skin binding

Three books bound from the skin of Mary Lynch (Mutter Museum)

Philadelphia’s Mutter Museum owns five examples of anthropodermic bibliopegy; startling, three have been bound using the skin of the same woman, Mary Lynch. Lynch, unlike Burke, was not a criminal but a hospital patient who died of trichinosis after a short stay. Her doctor was responsible for taking her skin and using it to bind the books. The female subject matter of these books—Speculations on the Mode and Appearances of Impregnation in the Human Female, Le Nouvelles Decouvertes sur Toutes les Parties Principales de L’Homme et de la Femme, and Recueil des Secrets de Louyse Bourgeois—suggests a perceived connection between the interior and exterior of the books. Similarly, one 1793 edition of the Marquis de Sade’s Justine Et Juliette, an erotic novel, was rumored to have used the skin from a woman’s breast.

inscription about Mary Lynch

An inscription memorializing Mary Lynch in one of the books bound in her skin (Mutter Museum)

The practice of anthropodermic bibliopegy ended in the late 19th century and there are no known 20th century examples. It’s also important to bear in mind that many of the “donors” didn’t give their consent and—in the case of Burke and other criminals—using their skin in bindings was an additional means to publicly make an example of them. It would certainly be illegal today, yet many museums and libraries contain books which make this dubious claim to notoriety. However, historically it has been difficult to verify the truth behind such claims. With the advent of peptide mass fingerprinting, a test which analyzes the remaining proteins, bindings can finally undergo tests with little to no damage. The Anthropodermic Book Project is working to identify human skin bindings for books and, at last count, have confirmed 18. While there have never been very many cases of anthropodermic bibliopegy, now that libraries are able to test their books without harming them, we’re bound to discover additional examples.

The value of ‘offline’ cultural heritage

By Kevin Guyan, on 19 September 2016

By Anna Rudnicka

SPF 50By Anna Rudnicka

Observing a small child approach a museum object and squeak with joy is perhaps the most rewarding part of working in UCL’s museums. I still remember how long it took for medieval kings to put on their Sunday best – just under an hour, apparently, at least in Central Europe – a fact I learnt during a primary school trip to the local castle. Children and adults tend to acquire knowledge more easily when the information is supported by ‘hands-on’ experience of handling or observing an object.

Nowadays, an increasing amount of culture consumption happens online. Will children go to castles in 20 years’ time? Or will they learn history solely from online textbooks and virtual reality tutorials? It has been argued that museums may struggle to compete with virtual reality. The speed with which technology progresses makes it difficult to speculate about the future of the heritage sector. For now, numerous heritage institutions have made an effort to create digital collections. Paintings, sculptures, old books and even historic houses are represented online in digital format – they are often videotaped, photographed or, in case of texts, transcribed. Then, linked by a theme or a story, they become collections. Because of the cost and time commitment required, institutions have been delegating some of these tasks to online volunteers. We are yet to understand how this may affect job prospects, or indeed the security of jobs for those currently employed within the sector.

Digital resources provide us with many new opportunities: we can discover art and historic objects from museums situated thousands of miles away, while sitting at the computer in our comfortable slippers. We benefit from speed of access and lower costs (no plane fare needed) even when conducting extensive online research. Finally, there is the advantage of flexibility. Themes and stories can take precedence over geographic location: objects stored or displayed in remote parts of the world are now only as far as a click or a swipe. We learn contextually.

Although popularity of digital resources could make them seem devoid of drawbacks, the number of British citizens that lack either Internet access or the IT skills required to perform searches in Internet databases, is still high. UCL’s Melissa Terras (Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies) cautions that ‘digital’ does not equal ‘accessible’. It will take time for researchers to achieve a good understanding of what different social and age groups want, and need, form their experience of online heritage.

In the same way that most of us prefer to eat ice cream than to look at it, the experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits. Regular library users are more likely to report higher life satisfaction and better overall health. This finding remains valid when many other factors relevant for our wellbeing are controlled for. Learning opportunities afforded by visiting a museum can surpass those inside a classroom. A large study conducted at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has shown that a trip to the museum resulted in improved ability to think critically about art, and that this effect was particularly pronounced for students from underprivileged backgrounds.


“The experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits”


As reminded by Jones and Holden in their seminal pamphlet, we live in a material world. Interestingly, factors such as air pollution, high levels of UV radiation or presence of microbes, are detrimental both to materials that make up our heritage, and to our own health. Perhaps, if we paid more attention to conservation needs of heritage objects, it could result in improved environmental awareness? Since learning about the impact of UV radiation on paintings and other objects prone to fading of colours – I have been a lot more diligent in applying my SPF cream. I am also more interested in pro-environmental initiatives. While heavy Internet consumption may be a sign of the times, it is the material world and material heritage objects that illustrate the consequences of unsustainable behaviours.

Finally, the role of providing access to cultural heritage objects and collections goes beyond personal interests, entertainment, academic study or even the natural environment. By showing us how our ancestors lived, thought and created in the past, heritage institutions teach us the history of humanity. We learn about the things we all have in common, and we are exposed to mistakes that we can learn from. Material objects play a crucial role in educating about the Holocaust. It is their physical real-ness that provides us with an accurate insight into the course of events. Their tangibility and material form offer an experience that is very different from the glamorized version of Holocaust so often depicted by Hollywood or the Holocaust as a generalised concept surrounded by myths and inaccuracies.

Although providing us with new opportunities, online heritage collections are far from perfect: we still need unified description systems, databases that are easier to navigate, and a better understanding of people’s Internet behaviours. Digital heritage and cultural resources allow fast and cost-effective access to information, however, in their current shape and form, we cannot rely on them to provide equal access for all members of the society or to fulfil our duty of honouring the past. It is difficult to foresee the impact that the next few decades may have on the heritage sector, or whether technologies such as virtual reality might bridge the gap between online and offline collections. In the meantime, I encourage you to support your local libraries and museums, especially if they are affected by cuts in funding. You can do this by speaking to your local MP, or by joining an online campaign. The values of material cultural heritage – and the human interaction and learning opportunities afforded by trained staff – should not be taken for granted. My guess is, if we found them gone once we had unglued ourselves from our computers, we would not know how to do without them.

Anna works as a Student Engager and is currently conducting an experiment at UCL’s Octagon Gallery into fading. Anyone visiting the gallery is encouraged to take a photo of the colour chart and tweet it to @HeritageCitSci.