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The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

NiallSreenan30 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

Cerys MBradley21 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

Arendse ILund16 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

StacyHackner23 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

Arendse ILund31 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

KevinGuyan19 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.

The Student Engager Project featured on the LSE Impact Blog

KevinGuyan12 August 2016

The Student Engager project featured on the LSE Impact Blog, an online hub for those researching and working at universities who wish to maximise the impact of academic work.  In the article, the project coordinator Kevin Guyan discusses the potential benefits of the public engagement project for training the next generation of researchers in ways to communicate research with non-academic audiences.

 

LSE Impact Blog

To read the full article visit the LSE Impact Blog.

 

 

Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?

KevinGuyan28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills

 

 

I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.

Blagden

Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).

Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.

Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

Cookie Cutter Shark Jaw, photo credit: Grant Museum of Zoology (V415).

Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.

There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.

 

Stress: Remembering Men

KevinGuyan16 November 2015

By Kevin Guyan

 

In the latest blog post to accompany Stress: Approaches to the First World War, Kevin Guyan explains what James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting The Seven Ages of Man tells us about remembering masculinities in twentieth century Britain. 

 

The Seven Ages of Man

The Seven Ages of Man © the artist’s estate, photo credit: UCL Art Museum

A reproduction of James Andrew Wykeham Simons’ 1948 painting, The Seven Ages of Man is currently on display as part of the Stress: Approaches to the First World War exhibition.  I selected the work for inclusion as it tells us a lot about masculine identities of the past and raises particular questions about how we commemorate men lost in war, themes addressed in my PhD research.

Simons’ painting takes its name from a monologue in the William Shakespeare play As You Like It.  The painting’s title invites viewers to look for Shakespeare’s seven ages of man and rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.

The youngest man found in the painting is the infant, held in the arms of his nurse.  The men are looking out to a body of water where the next age of man is located, the emotional lover, whom Shakespeare describes as ‘sighing like a furnace, with a wofeful ballad made to his mistress’ eyebrow’.  The turbulent years of being young and in love catches the attention of the other men in the painting.

The next stage to follow in a man’s life is the devoted soldier.  Shakespeare describes this man as ‘full of strange oaths, and bearded like a pard’, which was the Old English word for leopard and highlights young men’s tendency to grow patchy beards.

On his return from war, man enters the next stage of life in which they no longer feel the need to prove themselves and can instead sit back and enjoy commenting on the world around them.  We would today describe this phase as middle aged, and two characters in Simons’ painting fit this description.  At this point in Shakespeare’s journey through the seven ages of man the chronology becomes less clear, as it’s of course possible to be an older soldier or a younger man who is also self-assured.

Reaching the end of one’s life, and one becomes an old man who cares little about his dress sense, wearing ‘lean and slippered pantaloon’ to cover his ‘shrunk shank’ – his thin legs.  Finally, man’s life ends with ‘mere oblivion’ and is left ‘sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything’.  Death.

I am unable to tell why Simons made one slight change in his painting from the Shakespeare monologue – he does not depict the age of the schoolboy and instead adds two, rather than one, middle aged men – the youngest in blue and the oldest in grey.  My hesitant guess is that this change reflected the huge increase in life expectancy in the mid-twentieth century, with the middle decades of one’s life expanding and therefore justifying an additional character.


“Rethink your view towards masculinity – not as something fixed but as something continually in flux.”


My own research explores the relationship between masculinities, planning knowledge and domestic space in Britain between the 1941 Blitz and the early 1960s.  One of the biggest changes during this period was men’s movement from old homes into new homes after the Second World War and the new opportunities men found in terms of privacy, more space, use of a garden and private bedrooms.  The move into new homes made it easier for men to perform family-orientated masculinities and change what they did in the home as fathers and husbands.

In my study of postwar housing, men’s gender identity is not fixed but something that can change according to time and place.  Similarly, in Simons’ painting, men’s masculine identities do not change according to space but change according to time.

The Seven Ages of Man, when viewed within the context of the First World War, raises questions about how and who we commemorate.  When commemorating men who served in the First World War we need to think about their masculine identities as something unfixed that could be achieved, lost and rediscovered – there was and is no option for lifetime membership. And for millions of men in the early twentieth century, the opportunity to progress through the painting’s seven ages was viciously cut short.

It is always sad to hear when the linear path of a man’s life does not proceed through the generations as predicted – painted against the backdrop of the mid-1940s, I therefore read Simons’ painting as an anti-war statement that reminds us of the many male lives that were unnaturally disrupted by conflict.  Approaching the subject of commemoration through a gender history lens raises new ways to think about men’s lives in the past and reminds us of the need to stop history from repeating itself.

 

From hearing ears to hearing impairment

Ann E MLiljas28 September 2015

Ann

By Ann Liljas

 

When visiting Petrie museum or exhibitions on ancient Egypt you may have seen amulets in the form of the human external ear. These were extremely common in the New Kingdom (c. 1550-1069 BC) and onwards and served a votive function (i.e. a sacred gift to a god or goddess) as “hearing ears”. It was believed that “hearing ears” would encourage the god or goddess to hear and consequently answer the person’s prayer.

My PhD is about hearing impairment in older age and so the symbolic use of the external human ear in ancient Egypt fascinates me. Today one in five (20%) Britons aged 60 years and over have a hearing impairment. This means hearing impairment is very common in older age. And as we live longer than before the proportion of older people is growing and so does the number of people with a hearing problem. Older people with hearing impairment are more likely to have other physical health problems too which may reduce their chances of independent living. Therefore it’s important to undertake research on hearing impairment and in my study I try to understand how hearing impairment influences chronic conditions such as cardiovascular disease, physical disability and cognitive function. By gaining a better understanding of the links between these age-related conditions I hope to establish the impact of hearing impairment on healthy living in later life.

In my study I have used data from questionnaires on health and lifestyle completed by older men from 24 towns across Great Britain. I have then undertaken statistical calculations to measure any associations between hearing impairment and health and lifestyle factors. My findings so far have  shown that, compared to men who did not have a hearing problem, those who report a hearing problem were more likely to have poor physical functioning (e.g. having problems using the telephone or public transport on their own), poor quality of life and little social interaction with other people. Having a hearing impairment was also associated with an increased risk of chronic conditions (cardiovascular disease, stroke, chest pain, breathlessness, arthritis, bronchitis) and being obese. So what do these results really say? First of all, there have been several other studies undertaken in other countries investigating how hearing impairment may influence health in later life and my findings are similar to what has been demonstrated by other researchers. Thus, my findings support existing evidence showing that hearing problems restrict older people’s physical functioning which can limit independent living. imageBut it also show some links between hearing impairment and health that few previous studies have investigated, for example that those with hearing impairment are more likely to be obese compared to those who do not have a hearing impairment. Studies like this are important when it comes to public health policies on hearing impairment and older people. In the conclusions of my study I suggest that hearing impairment needs to be addressed in public health policies. By detecting hearing impairment at an early stage it would be possible to help people with their hearing problem before it gets worse. Such actions could also prevent poor physical functioning and poor social interaction. Local organisations could also play an important role helping older people leading active and social lives. Staying healthy is absolutely crucial to avoid age-related health problems, maintain mental well-being and remain independent in older age.

If you want to find out more about my study, which also investigates eyesight problems, you can access it online here.

For more information about the hearing ears in ancient Egypt, visit Petrie museum. Objects with hearing ears on display include for example UC 14543.

References:
Gopinath B et al. Prevalence of age-related hearing loss in older adults: Blue Mountains Study. Arch Intern Med 2009;169:415-6.

Helzner EP et al. Race and sex differences in age-related hearing loss: the Health, Aging and Body Composition Study. J Am Geriatr Soc 2005;53:2119-27.

Akeroyd MA et al.. Estimates of the number of adults in England, Wales, and Scotland with a hearing loss. Int J Audiol 2014;53:60-1.

Crews JE & Campbell VA. Vision impairment and hearing loss among community-dwelling older Americans: implications for health and functioning. Am J Public Health 2004;94:823-9.

Campbell VA et al. Surveillance for sensory impairment, activity limitation, and health-related quality of life among older adults–United States, 1993-1997. MMWR CDC Surveill Summ 1999;48:131-56.