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Archive for the 'UCL Collections' Category

What if Bob Dylan became Pharaoh of Egypt?

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 28 June 2018

“For the times they are a’ changin’ ”

-Bob Dylan

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

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

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

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

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

The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan (bobdylan.com)

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My Imaginary Friends in the Petrie Museum

By Cerys Bradley, on 8 June 2018

In the Petrie Museum there is a rather spectacular display cabinet containing 8 of the Fayum Mummy Portraits from the museum’s collection. These are portraits of the deceased, painted on wooden boards and placed on the mummified remains of respected elders, dear friends, and loved ones. These objects in particular are from a collection of 146 such portraits that were found and taken by Flinders Petrie from the Hawara Cemetery in 1888. They are some of my favourite objects in the museum’s collection because of how beautifully preserved they are and how well they connect visitors to the people who we now study.

Fayum Portraits are a burial practice from the Graeco-Roman Period (c. 332 BC – 395 AD) that has been found in excavation sites across Ancient Egypt but particularly in the Faiyum Basin, which is just West of the Nile and South of Cairo. They are thought to have originated during the Roman occupation of Egypt and exist in a long tradition of preserving the image of the deceased upon their death. This tradition includes death masks that were used in the process of mummification in Ancient Egypt but also for references for sculptors in the Middle Ages and then later as an aid to identify unknown corpses. Roman Images were small impressions or masks of the deceased that were kept in the family home alongside inscriptions of their achievements. In Victorian England, death portraits were photographs taken the day after death and provided a memento mori for families to help them remember what their loved one looked like.

Mummy Portrait UC19609 (I tried to write an amusing caption for this image but couldn’t really see past the monobrow, which I imagine wasn’t as much of a talking point during their lifetime).

What I love about the Fayum portraits is how full of life they are. The subjects are painted with their eyes open and their faces full of personality. In much the same way, the subjects of Victorian death portraits were positioned as if playing or interacting with living family members. I think the Fayum portraits show that the desire to see someone you were close to alive again—and to remember them as they were before they passed—is one that transcends time period and culture creating a strong connection to the people who lived two and a half millennia ago.

When the museum is quiet, I like to look at the portraits and imagine the people they depict. I haven’t yet reached the point of actually talking to them, but I have constructed personalities, preferences, and opinions for each. Especially in the context of the Petrie Museum, where you are surrounded by objects held and used by people who lived in Ancient Egypt and Kush, I think you get a unique reminder that the contents of museums like this one were made by and for real people.

Mummy Portrait UC30081 giving you some serious side eye.

The displays in the Petrie Museum showcase many different aspects of everyday life, from small things like cooking and catching rats, to grander ideas of religion and law. As amazing as that is, I think the idea that you can actually look into the eyes of someone who lived in Ancient Egypt is one of the best experiences that a visit to the museum can give you.

Question of the Week: Why are sea sponges considered animals?

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 29 May 2018

By Sarah Gibbs

In that big comparative anatomy lecture hall in the sky, Robert Grant, founder of UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology, must be smiling. This week’s featured question focuses on Grant’s favourite animal: the sea sponge. Grant’s work definitively proved that sponges are animals, not plants or simple celled organisms.

So, why is a sea sponge more closely related to a dog that a cactus? Read on to find out!

lue Barrel Sponge (Scientific American; Creative Commons Chris Coccaro)

The ever-sage Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that early naturalists classed sponges as plants because, you know, they lack organs, don’t move, and often have branches. Understandable, to be sure. In the eighteenth century, however, scientists began to notice animal characteristics of sponges, including the changes in diameter of their central cavity, and their creation of distinct water currents. Zoologists imagined that sponges occupied an isolated position in the animal kingdom, but molecular testing has since proved that sponges and more complex animals (like humans) developed from a common ancestor; sponges also possess many of the qualities biologists use to distinguish people from plants. For example, bodily composition: the elastic skeletons of sponges are made from collagen, the same protein found in human tendons and skin. Prevailing theories suggest that sponges are early animals which produced no subsequent evolutionary line.

The Venus Flower Basket Sponge (Scientific American; Creative Commons Ryan Somma)

The folks over at Scientific American note that sponges’ specialized cells differentiate them from multicellular protists, creatures which are not animals, plants, or fungus, and which form no tissues. It is the thinness of the sponge body and the fact that its cells are exposed to circulating water—which supplies food and oxygen, and removes waste—that make organs unnecessary. Sponges may have been the first multicellular animals. Multicellularity (which means that cells adhere to one another, communicate, are mutually dependent for survival, and specialize to perform different tasks) is the key to producing more complex organisms. Scientists speculate that sponges emerged, flexing their multicellular muscles*, at least 543 million years ago (*as sponges lack arms, they are sadly ineligible for body building contests). According to Scientific American, sponges were the first filter feeders, tiny Brita jugs of the sea** (**mixed metaphor alert).

So, sponges are in fact the original animal hipster; they were multicellular before it was cool. Let’s close with a few fun sponge facts.

Absorbing (!) Facts:

  1. Sponges can range in height from less than one centimeter to two metres tall.
  2. Most sponges are hermaphroditic (male and female cells exist in one animal) and reproduce sexually by releasing spermatozoan into the water current to be carried to other sponges, where they interact with eggs. Sponges can also reproduce asexually.
  3. Some deep-water sponges are carnivorous. Animals like the ping-pong tree sponge lie in wait for small crustaceans and other hapless sea dwellers to alight on their branches, the hook-like spicules on which prevent escape. Digestive cells migrate to the site of capture and the feast begins. Bet you’ll never look at a loofah the same way again.

 

Sources:

Frazer, Jennifer. “Sponges: The Original Animal House.” Scientific American, 17 Nov. 2011, https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/artful-amoeba/sponges-the-original-animal-house/

Sarà, Michele. “Sponge.” Encyclopedia Britannica. Britannica Academic, Britannica Digital Learning, https://academic-eb-com.libproxy.ucl.ac.uk/levels/collegiate/article/sponge/110257

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

By Hannah L Wills, on 24 April 2018

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

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

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

 

The Blaschka family

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

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

 

Why make specimens out of glass?

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

Art, Science, and ‘Jokes of Nature’

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

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

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

 

The end of a craft

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

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

 

 

References

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

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

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

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

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

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

[viii] Ibid., 297-98.

[ix] Ibid.

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

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

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

A Fine Vintage: Grapes and Wine in Ancient Egypt

By Hannah L Wills, on 20 March 2018

Some of the best conversations I have with visitors in the UCL museums start with the question ‘what’s that?’. A couple of weeks ago, I was asked about an object by a visitor to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, as we stood in front of a case containing an array of small objects. The artefact in question was an oval-shaped sculpture with a point at one end, covered on its surface with a pattern of bubble-like protrusions, made from the pale blue ceramic faience. The case contained a number of similarly shaped objects, and a fired clay mould bearing similar bubble-like impressions.

UC795 and UC800, sculptures found in Amarna, Dynasty 18 (1549 BC – 1292 BC). Image credit: Petrie Museum.

UC1700, fired clay mould used in producing faience sculptures similar to those pictured above. Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

After looking them up on the museum’s online catalogue, we discovered that these small objects were depictions of bunches of grapes, produced using moulds like the one displayed in the case. Grape bunches can be found in a variety of objects in the Petrie Museum, in small sculptures like the ones above, and as part of other artefacts. One of the museum’s faience bead necklaces, likely worn by Tutankhamen’s father and described in a recent blog post, features no less than 83 small bunches of grapes among its beads. Other objects in the museum’s catalogue include fragments of plaster featuring painted designs that incorporate bunches of grapes and vines, from the same location and time period as both the grape sculptures and the bead necklace. My favourite grape-related object is a painted limestone statuette of a monkey, depicted happily devouring an enormous bunch of grapes.

UC1957, reconstructed bead necklace made from faience. The necklace features 83 bunches of grapes, and a variety of other forms, including petals, dates, mandrakes and palm-leaves. Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

UC026, painted limestone statuette of a monkey eating a bunch of grapes. Amarna, period of Akhenaten. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

Grape clusters like the sculptures above have been found during excavations at a number of New Kingdom sites in Egypt.[i] It has been suggested that grapes were seen as a symbol of royalty, with painted depictions of the fruits often used to decorate royal thrones and garden shrines.[ii] Grapes and vines, and the process of winemaking, also appear on the walls of New Kingdom tombs.[iii] In ancient Egypt, it was mainly the upper classes and royal families who consumed wine. It was also used as an offering to the gods by pharaohs and priests, as seen in depictions in temples from the New Kingdom period up to Greco-Roman times.[iv] As Anna Garnett, curator of the Petrie Museum, has noted, wine was stored in pottery vessels, known as amphorae (pictured below), and was often labelled with the wine’s location of origin and year of production, just as producers do today.[v]

Detail from facsimile reproduction of a wall mural in the tomb of Nakht at Thebes, ca. 1425–1350 BC, Dynasty 18. This fragment depicts the process of wine making. Norman de Garis Davies (1865–1941), Nakht and Family Fishing and Fowling, Tomb of Nakht, tempera on paper. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

UC32931, shard of an amphora featuring the text ‘Year 17, sweet wine of the domain of Sehetep-A[ten]’, Amarna, Late Dynasty 18. Image credit: Petrie Museum.

 

Maria Rosa Gausch Jané, a leading expert on wine and viticulture in ancient Egypt, has suggested that grapes were seen as a symbol of resurrection, and may also have been thought to play a role in the transfiguration process undertaken by kings as part of the journey into the afterlife.[vi] Supplies of red and white wine have been found in the burial chamber of Tutankhamun, symbolically positioned to aid in the various stages of the king’s transition to the afterlife.[vii]

Grapes had great significance in ancient Egyptian culture, in terms of their cultivation, consumption, and symbolism. Next time you visit the Petrie Museum, see how many references to grapes and wine you can spot!

 

References

[i] ‘Faience grapes from Amarna’, collections database, Y Ganoflan Eifftaidd / Egypt Centre, Swansea,  http://www.egypt.swan.ac.uk/the-collection-2/the-collection/w344a/ [Accessed 18 Mar 2018].

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Maria Rosa Guasch Jané, ‘The Meaning of Wine in Egyptian Tombs: The Three Amphorae from Tutankhamun’s Burial Chamber’, Antiquity 85 (2011): 851-858, p. 855.

[v] Anna E Garnett, ‘Curating the Petrie Museum: Three Object Stories’, 26 Jul 2017, https://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2017/07/26/curating-the-petrie-museum-three-object-stories/#more-51323 [Accessed 18 Mar 2018].

[vi] Jané, ‘The Meaning of Wine’, pp. 855-856.

[vii] Ibid, p. 857.

Time and Astronomy in the Petrie Museum

By Hannah L Wills, on 9 February 2018

During a recent shift at the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, I was asked by one visitor, ‘what’s your favourite object in the museum?’. As anyone who has visited the Petrie Museum will know, there is no shortage of fascinating objects on display, from the museum’s 12th dynasty pottery rat-trap, to the amazing Hawara mummy portraits (naming but two of my go-to favourites when showing visitors around the collection). However, the object I find most interesting within the museum’s collection is a small artefact found in one of the cabinets in the museum’s pottery room, in and amongst a group of objects dating from the Ottoman period (1517 – 1914 CE). The object is identified on its label as ‘UC4108 Wooden astrolabe with brass dial. Probably made for teaching purposes rather than use’. From the moment I first spotted the object I was intrigued. What exactly is an astrolabe, and how would it have been used?

Wooden Astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with its handwritten museum label (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

The Petrie Museum’s astrolabe (UC4108), displayed with a group of objects from the Ottoman Period (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

What is an astrolabe?

An astrolabe is a kind of scientific instrument, used to calculate the time and to make observations, such as the height of the Sun and stars with respect to the horizon or meridian.[i] In the Islamic world, astrolabes served an important function in determining prayer times, and the direction of Mecca.[ii] Such instruments date back to ancient times and were used to reveal how the sky looks from a specific place at a specific time. The face of the astrolabe features a map of the sky, with the celestial sphere mapped onto a flat surface. The instrument features moveable parts that allow the user to set date and time. When this is done, the face of the instrument represents the sky, allowing the user to solve astronomical problems visually.[iii]

Teaching astronomy 

Though many astrolabes used in the medieval period were made from either brass or iron, the Petrie Museum’s astrolabe is made from wood, with a brass dial, known as the ‘rete’ (in Arabic al-‘ankabūt), affixed to the top.[iv] The museum’s catalogue suggests that the object is ‘too crudely made for any practical purpose other than teaching’.[v] Historian Johannes Thomann notes that in the Islamic world from around the mid-eighth century onwards, the main function of the astrolabe was as a tool for teaching introductory astronomy, supported by texts written in an instructional style that explained the use of key astronomical instruments.[vi] The ‘crude’ finish of the Petrie Museum astrolabe, along with its size, would have made it imprecise, and ultimately unfit for carrying out practical calculations. The instrument might instead have been used for basic exercises to familiarise pupils with astronomy, and the process of making observations.

 

To find out more about how astrolabes work, you can watch this short TED talk, “Tom Wujec Demos the 13th-Century Astrolabe.” New York: TED, 2009.

 

Do you have a favourite object in any of the UCL museums? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or find us in the museums and tell us about it!

 

 

References:

[i] ‘Astrolabe’,  in Encyclopaedia Britannica, https://www.britannica.com/science/astrolabe-instrument [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[ii] Unit 4: Science and the Art of the Islamic World, in Maryam D. Ekhtiar and Claire Moore, Art of the Islamic World: A Resource for Educators, https://www.metmuseum.org/learn/educators/curriculum-resources/art-of-the-islamic-world [Accessed 8 Feb 2018], p. 94.

[iii] ‘The Astrolabe: An Instrument with a Past and Future’, http://www.astrolabes.org/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[iv] Sonja Brentjes and Robert G. Morrison ‘The Sciences in Islamic societies (750-1800)’, in Robert Irwin, ed. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Vol. 4. The New Cambridge History of Islam. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010, p. 596.

[v] UC4108 Wooden Astrolabe, Petrie Museum Online Catalogue, http://petriecat.museums.ucl.ac.uk/detail.aspx [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

[vi] ‘Interviews with the Experts’, Charles Burnett interview with Johannes Thomann, Astrolabes in Medieval Jewish Culture, 5 March 2014, http://blogs.mhs.ox.ac.uk/hebrew-astrolabes/2014/03/05/interviews-experts/ [Accessed 8 Feb 2018].

I spy with my little eye… Micrarium Top 5

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 9 January 2018

Want a tour through the Grant Museum’s iconic display of the tiny creatures that populate our world? Well unfortunately, it’s much too small for that! However, here I’ll tell you about five of my favourite slides to be on the lookout for when you visit.

The Micrarium. Photo by author.

The Micrarium’s floor-to-ceiling lightboxes illuminate 2323 microscope slides featuring insects, sea creatures, and more, with another 252 lantern slides underneath. While this sounds like a lot of slides, it’s only around 10% of what the museum holds. Natural history museums often find it difficult to display their slide collections, but the diminutive creatures often featured on them make up most of our planet’s biodiversity.

I start most of my conversations with visitors during Student Engager shifts here – the Micrarium provides a clear illustration of my PhD research about how challenging aspects of diversity (of all kinds) are integrated into existing collections. It’s also an ideal place within the museum to try to pause people in the flow of their visit – it’s hard to resist stopping to snap a selfie or two.

Selfie by author.

The soft glow of the Micrarium’s backlit walls often draws people into the space without realising the enormity (or tininess!) of what they’re looking at. Over time, I’ve cultivated a number of favourites that I point out  in order to share the variety, strangeness, and poetry of the individual slides.

Small and mighty

‘Stomatopoda “Erichtheus” larva’. Photo by author.

I was attracted to this slide because at first I thought it looked like a little flying squirrel. In actuality, it’s the larvae of a mantis shrimp.

The mantis shrimp is an incredible animal. To start, they have the most complex eyes of any animal, seeing a spectrum of colour ten times richer than our own. Its two ‘raptorial’ appendages can strike prey with an amount of force and speed, causing the water around them to boil and producing shockwaves and light that stun, smash and generally decimate their prey.

For more, check out this comic by The Oatmeal that illustrates just how impressive mantis shrimp are.

‘and toe of frog, wool of bat, and tongue of dog’

‘Eye of beetle’. Photo by author.

This is one of my favourite labels in the collection – was a zoologist also dabbling in witchcraft ingredients?  Probably not. But, I’d love to know what the slide was originally used for.

The slide itself also looks unusual due to its decorative paper wrapping. These wrappings were common to slides from the mid-19th century, which were produced and sold by slide preparers for others to study.

Many of the slides in the Micrarium were for teaching students who could check out slides like library books. So, perhaps it illustrated some general principles about beetle eyes rather than being used for specialist research.

Cat and Mouse

Fetal cat head (L). Embryonic mouse head (R). Photo by author.

One of the secrets of the Micrarium is that there are bits of larger animals hidden among all of the tiny ones. I like how the mice look surprisingly cheerful, all things considered. Bonus: see if you can also find the fetal cat paws!

Seeing stars

‘OPHIUROIDEA Amphiura elegens’. Photo by author.

This is a young brittle star, which in the largest species can have arms extending out to 60cm. Brittle stars are a distinct group from starfish; most tend to live in much deeper depths than starfish venture. They also move much faster than starfish, and their scientific name ‘Ophiuroidea’, refers to the slithery, snake-like way their arms move.

This slide can be found at child height, and it’s nice to show kids something they’re likely to recognise.

And finally:

Have you seen the bees’ tongue?

‘Apis (Latin for bee) tongue’ Photo by author.

Showing visitors this slide of the bee’s tongue almost always elicits surprise and fascination. Surprise at the seemingly strange choice to look at just the tongue of something so small and fascination at how complex it is.

We don’t normally think of insects having something so animal-sounding as a tongue (more like stabby spear bits to sting or bite us with!). But, bee tongues are sensitive and impressive tools: scientists have observed bee tongues rapidly evolving alongside climate change.

Good luck finding these…or your own Top 5! Share any of your favourites in the comments.

The Grant Museum blog did a similar post five years ago when the Micrarium opened. These don’t overalp with my Top 5 (which is easy to avoid when there are 2323 slides), so you should also check that out.

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.

Label Detective: Are Bacteria ‘Ordinary Animals?’

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 17 October 2017

A few weeks ago, the Grant Museum opened a new exhibit, The Museum of Ordinary Animals: boring beasts that changed the world. As a detective of the mundane myself, I am a huge fan. But I’m particularly curious about the ordinary animals we can’t see.

Rather than focusing on a specific artefact label, I answer the title question by visiting two places in the Museum of Ordinary Animals exhibition that help raise questions about how things are organised and labeled in zoology more broadly.

Case notes: Bacteria are everywhere. As I mentioned in my previous post, we have 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies alone, living and working together with our organ systems to do things like digest nutrients. This is also happens with other animals — consider the ordinary cow, eating grass. Scientist Scott F. Gilbert tells us that in reality, cows cannot eat grass. The cow’s genome doesn’t have the right proteins to digest grass. Instead, the cow chews grass and the bacteria living in its cut digest it. In that way, the bacteria ‘make the cow possible’.

IMG_1102

The Ordinary Cow, brought to you to by bacteria. Credit: Photo by author

Scientifically speaking, bacteria aren’t actually ‘animals’; they form their own domain of unicellular life. But, as with the cow, bacteria and animals are highly connected. Increasingly, scientists say that the study of bacteria is ‘fundamentally altering our understanding of animal biology’ and theories about the origin and evolution of animals.

But, before we get into that, let’s go back to Charles Darwin (1809-1882). Darwin studied how different species of animals, like the pigeon, are related to each other, and how mapping their sexual reproduction shows how these species diversify and increase in complexity over time. This gets depicted as a tree, with the ancestors at the trunk and species diversifying over time into branches.

Picture1

Darwin’s Ordinary Tree of Pigeons. Photos by author

When scientists began to use electron microscopes in the mid-20th century, our ideas about what made up the ‘tree of life’ expanded. We could not only observe plants, animals, and fungi, but also protists (complex small things) and monera (not-so-complex small things). This was called the five kingdom model. Although many people still vaguely recollect this model from school, improved techniques in genetic research starting in the 1970s has transformed our picture of the ‘tree of life’.

It turns out we had given way too much importance to all the ordinary things we could see, when in fact most of the tree of life is microbes. The newer tree looks like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Now there are just three overarching domains of life: Bacteria, Eucarya (plants, animals, and fungi are just tiny twigs on this branch), and Archaea (another domain of unicellular life, but we’ll leave those for another day).

There’s a third transformation of the ‘tree of life’, and this one is my favourite. Since the 1990s, DNA technology and genomics have given us an even greater ability to ‘see’ the diversity of microbial life and how it relates to each other. The newest models of the tree look more like this:

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

This is a lot messier. Why? Unlike the very tiny branches of life (plants and animals) that we focused a lot of attention on early on in the study of evolution, most of life on earth doesn’t reproduce sexually. Instead, most microbes transfer genes ‘horizontally’ (non-sexually) across organisms, rather than ‘down’ a (sexual) genetic line. This creates links between the ‘branches’ of the tree, starting to make it look like….not a tree at all. As scientist Margaret McFall-Ngai puts it: ‘we now know that genetic material from bacteria sometimes ends up in the bodies of beetles, that of fungi in aphids, and that of humans in malaria protozoa. For bacteria, at least, such transfers are not the stuff of science fiction but of everyday evolution’.

Status: Are bacteria Ordinary Animals? We can conclusively say that bacteria are not animals. But, they are extremely ordinary, even if we can’t see them with the naked eye. In truth, they’re way more ordinary than we are.

 

 

Notes

As with the previous Label Detective entry, this post was deeply inspired by the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, an anthology of essays by zoologists, anthropologists, and other scholars who explore how environmental crisis has highlights the complex and surprising ways that life on earth is tied together. Scott F. Gilbert and Margaret McFall-Ngai, both cited above, contribute chapters.

Label Detective: Are we alone in here?

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 20 September 2017

In the first two instalments of the Label Detective series we investigated the meaning of the word cynocephalus and the impact of British eugenics on Egyptian archaeology. Now we’re moving over to the Grant Museum of Zoology to tackle the label mysteries of the animal kingdom.

Case 4

Let’s start with the Portuguese Man O’War. Here’s a picture of one floating peacefully (and extremely poisonously) in Cornwall earlier this month.

Portuguese Man O'War

Photo credit: Corwall Wildlife Trust

And here’s the label on the specimen in the Grant Museum.

This is my bad photo. There's a better picture of the specimen underneath at the bottom of this post.

This is my bad photo. There’s a better picture of the specimen underneath at the bottom of this post.

The Label: I got curious about the Portuguese Man O’War because the label uses the word ‘colony’ here in a way that I didn’t really understand. When we talk about colonies in the animal kingdom we are usually referring to insects, like bees or ants, where lots of individuals make up a colony. But what does it mean for a colony to make an individual? In the case of the Portuguese Man O’War, a siphonophore, four different types of polyps come together to make an individual like the one pictured. Each kind of polyp has a different function. The inflated bladder, or sail of the Man O’War, helps the creature to float. Then there are reproductive polyps, eating/digestive polyps, and ones that provide the Man O’War’s stinging defence. These latter three types of polyps are themselves made up of groups of individuals called zooids. It’s multiplicities all the way down.

Case Notes: The polyps and zooids that make up a Portuguese Man O’War are genetically identical, and so specialised as to be interdependent (though the individual zooids are structurally similar to other independent species) – so in many ways it does make sense to consider them an individual. But it challenges assumptions that an individual is something entirely singular or uniform.

‘Individuals’ are rarely a closed, or self-contained system. What does this mean? Consider you and your mother. When you are a fetus, some of your cells pass through the placenta and take up residence in your mother’s body. You also get some of your mother’s cells. Even weirder, if you aren’t your mother’s first child, you not only get your mother’s cells, but cells from all your siblings as well. You don’t just have other people’s cells in your body — you also have loads of cells that aren’t human at all. Developmental genetics and embryology scholar Scott F. Gilbert says: ‘Only about half of the cells in our bodies contain a “human genome.” The other cells include about 160 different bacterial genomes. We have about 160 major species of bacteria in our bodies, and they all form complex ecosystems. Human bodies are and contain a plurality of ecosystems.’

These examples are not the only way that genetic transfer is more diverse than the Darwinian model of sexual selection (i.e. getting all of your genes from two parents). And a lot of these more varied and spectacular ways are down to bacteria. Next time on Label Detective, we’ll get into these messier models of evolution.

Status: I would say case closed, but since I’ve just spent the blog post arguing against the concept of a closed system, this seems wrong. But we’re done for now.

wwwopac.exe

Notes

This post was inspired by the book Arts of Living on a Damaged Planet, an anthology of essays by zoologists, anthropologists, and scholars that explores how environmental crisis highlights the complex and surprising ways in which all life on earth is entangled. The quote from Scott F. Gilbert comes from his contribution to this book.