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Cerys Bradley: My Last Blog Post

By uctzcbr, on 14 June 2019

In April, I had my last shift at the UCL Art Museum . Last week I had my last shift in the Petrie Museum, next week will be my last shift ever at the Grant Museum. After nearly four and a half years, I’ve finally finished studying at UCL – I passed my PhD viva yesterday and am a few minor edits away from graduation.  As working as a student engager has been one of the best things about studying at UCL, I wanted to use this blog post to talk about some of my favourite moments on the job and the things I have learned because of this programme.

Let’s start with my favourite engagements. It was difficult to narrow down the list but I have chosen three, one from each museum. Before I tell you them, I would like to award a “highly commended” prize to the time I spent twenty minutes talking to two visitors in the Grant about how dead baby pigs are used in research in my department before finding out they were vegan. You can read more about the encounter here.

When I started working in the UCL Art Museum, I was incredibly apprehensive – I know nothing about art. My background is in mathematics and the staff in the museum kindly spent a lot of time searching through their catalogue to find related pieces I could talk about (to no avail). So I learned a few facts about Flaxman, the man whose works began the collection, and started offering to take visitors to the Flaxman gallery and the Housman room (a room that hosts several of UCL’s best pieces that should be on public display but are now hidden behind a key-card access only door).

On one of my shifts, a mother and daughter came to the museum. They had just moved to Reading from Pakistan and the daughter wasn’t getting on too well at school. She loved art class so her mum had brought her to London for the day to tour some art galleries. They were a little underwhelmed by our small print room (there wasn’t an exhibition on at the time) so I took them to the Flaxman gallery which displays casts and prototypes of some of the funerary monuments that Flaxman designed and sculpted. Flaxman worked during the British occupation of India and incorporated Indian burial iconography in his work. I learned this from the visitors who explained to me what the specific positions of the figures in the casts and their clothing signified about their lives. The visitors were excited to connect with the work and I learned a lot from them; it was an interaction which really demonstrated how positive the engagement programme could be.

UCL Flaxman Gallery and sculpture

The Flaxman Gallery at UCL

It is at the Grant Museum that I discovered the incredibleness of bats. Once again, I had to work hard with the staff at the museum to identify a way of connecting my research background with the collection. I started talking about the bats because a student in my department did her Master’s project about them. She is an environmental crime researcher (that encompasses both crimes committed against the environment and crimes committed by animals) and used her Master’s dissertation to investigate the destruction of bat habitats in the UK.

When on shift, I would hover by the bat specimens and use them to talk about my colleague’s research and, then, how we study crime in our department more generally. When I wasn’t talking to visitors I would idly google interesting facts about bats. They are now my favourite animals – I have two bat tattoos and a bat detector so I can determine the species of bats on Hampstead Heath.

One of my favourite facts to share with visitors is how much bats eat. Insectivore bats can eat up to 7 times their own body weight in insects in one night and fruit bats can eat up to twice their own body weight. I often tell this fact to children and ask them if they can imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit. On one occasion, I asked a small boy (whose favourite food was cherries) how much fruit that would be. He asked his mum how much he weighed and then carefully counted two times 22 kg on his fingers before answering, very sincerely, 44 kg. His parents were extremely proud.

This is my favourite bat in the Grant Museum, I think he looks like a mob boss doing a really big laugh

When I work in the Petrie Museum, I talk about two things: the pot burial and Amelia Edwards. Three if you count helping children find the pink pyramids hidden in the displays. I like talking about the pot burial because we know so little about it and it’s a brilliant object for explaining to children the mechanics and limitations of archaeology.

When children approach the object, I ask them if they were an archaeologist and they found a skeleton in a pot, what questions would they try to answer. They nearly always ask the same three questions: “who was this person?”, “how did they die?”, and “why are they in a pot?”. Then we try to answer the questions together. On one occasion a tiny child looked me dead in the eye and declared that the person had died when they were hit on the head and all their blood had run out down their face (this was acted out for emphasis). The small child then went and did some colouring and I have had nightmares ever since (not really).

The pot burial in the Petrie Museum

Every instance of talking to a child about the pot burial becomes a favourite engagement at the Petrie. I enjoy observing their curiosity and creativity. It is even more fun when they come to terms with the idea that we just don’t know the complete answer to some questions and so they get to make up their own stories.

I have worked three Saturdays a month nearly every month for the past three years and experienced hundreds of engagements with visitors of UCL’s museums. I have learned a lot about their lives and about the collections, I have grown more confident talking to strangers, I have gotten better at explaining scientific concepts and I have discovered a thousand ways to say, “I have absolutely no idea, let’s google it”.

This is my final blogpost, which is why it is long and overtly sentimental, but I wanted to sign off by saying thank you to the UCL Student Engager’s programme for the huge, positive impact it has had on my time here at UCL.


When Plastics Saved Turtles

By Mark V Kearney, on 25 May 2019

As you may now know, UCL Culture has decided to defund our program next month and so this will be my final post. I thought I would take this opportunity to give a little back story to my PhD project and tell you all about how once upon a time plastic saved the fate of turtles!

Throughout history, natural materials such as tortoise shell and ivory have been coveted by the rich and famous. This led to two things happening – the price of these materials became very high (meaning it really was the rich and famous who could afford them) and the stock levels declined. By stock levels I mean the killing of thousands of animals such as the Hawksbill turtle to feed the needs of the bourgeoisie.

The Grant Museum has three fantastic examples of Hawksbill turtles on its back wall. I normally stand beside them so that I can kidnap engage with people about my work.

Figure 1 – Eretmochelys imbricata or known by its common name Hawksbill Turtle that is on display at the Grant Museum. (Object Number X1226)

By the mid-18th century, the farming of turtles for their shells had gotten to the point where we almost caused their extinction. A similar point had been reached with ivory where demand far outweighed supply. To give you an idea of the scale of what can only be described a mass slaughter, have a look at this doll’s house currently on display at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam – the outside is totally covered in tortoise shell!

Figure 2 – Dolls’ house of Petronella Oortman. Part of the collection at the Rijksmuseum. The object is totally covered with tortoise shell. It measures h 255.0cm × w 190cm × d 78cm which is a huge surface area to cover in shell!

These natural materials were being used for everything: shirt collars, corset boning, piano keys, knife handles, spectacle frames, combs and brush handles, to name the most common ones. The rising cost and demand for these materials lead to a prize of $10,000 being offered to anyone who could develop a material to replace one particular use of ivory: billiard balls. $10k in 1860 s was a huge sum of money — about $300k today!

Around this time, a material called cellulose nitrate had been discovered and was being used in England by Alexander Parkes. John Wesley Hyatt, an American scientist, added heat, pressure and camphor to this material and created what we consider the first successful plastic. This material was hugely popular and allowed the democratisation of many goods which up to that point had been exclusively in the literal hands of the 1%ers.

However, the only issue with cellulose nitrate was that it was HIGHLY flammable. Even today, it’s considered highly dangerous. Even in UCL’s chemistry department, where we have all the safety precautions, you could expect, when we asked to make some for our research we were turned down as the method carries so much risk. Storing this historic plastic is also a major issue. In 1929 a major fire at a hospital in Cleveland, where 123 people were killed, was caused by x-ray negatives made from cellulose nitrate igniting. Because of this danger, the material was changed and cellulose acetate was developed instead. Cellulose acetate is most noted for its ability to mimic tortoise shell and is highly prized in glasses frame manufacture.

While the development of plastic didn’t totally stop the culling, it did slow it enough so that these fantastic animals are still around today.

These two materials are known as semi-synthetic plastics because they are based on cellulose rather than petroleum. It’s not till the development of Bakelite in at the turn of the 20th century that we get fully synthetic plastics. But even at this point plastics held a privileged place within the hierarchy of materials. This changed after the second world war, where mass industrialisation and production of plastic altered its role from being a highly prized replacement for natural materials to what we unfortunately now know it to be – a mass-produced, often poorly made, single-use throwaway object.

Clearly this move away from small scale production of plastic has produced horrific results for the natural environment. But history is starting to repeat itself again and many of the new plastics being developed are based on cellulose, which naturally decays and can be composted.  So, in a way, cellulose acetate is again saving turtles!

Cocaine Mummies & the search for narcotics in historic collections

By Mark V Kearney, on 20 April 2019

I told a small white lie in my last blog as there was actually a third reason I noticed the seven small cylindrical bronze measures in the Petrie Museum. It was the reason they first caught my eye – their museum label described them as being opium measures. We know that the Egyptians consumed wine because we are able to test archaeological artefacts that could have contained wine for its presence. The scientific techniques used is actually the same as what I use in my PhD research looking at the decay of plastics.

Figure 1 – The seven bronze measuring vessels, as seen on display in the Petrie Museum (Author’s own photograph UC26315)

I mostly associate ancient drug use with the Aztecs, “Reefer Madness”, 1960’s counter culture and Alice in Wonderland! But the use of such a drug, either medicinal or recreational, was unknown to me.

As today is April 20th, I thought we could discuss a little bit about the use of drugs in Egypt…

The set of opium measures is dated to the 18th dynasty, which places them at the start of the opium trade in Egypt. There are a number of interesting questions stemming from this statement:

  • How do we know about the drugs they used?
  • Where did they get their drugs?
  • Just how high were they?

We know ancient Egyptians were using drugs for two reasons: First, through written records; second, through scientific analysis. In the fields of archaeological science, heritage science and forensic science, one technique reigns supreme; gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS) is held as being the gold standard when it comes to identifying compounds. This method is basically a 2-for-1 in that it first separates out all the different compounds in a sample (that’s the gas chromatography bit), and then each of these compounds has their unique mass-to-charge ratio analysed. This leads to very specific information about each chemical compound that made up the original sample, which in turn makes identifying these compounds relatively straight forward.

Possibly the best example of this, in relation to the Egyptians, is the case of the Cocaine Mummies. In 1992, Dr. Svetlana Balabanova, a German toxicologist,  found traces of cocaine, tobacco, and hash in several different mummies.  For such an important conclusion, her data treatment is lacking, but more worrying is the utter lack of context in her work. In the three scientific fields I mentioned above, context is king. This is because we are not dealing with fresh newly made samples. At a minimum, samples could be a few days old and likely highly contaminated by their surroundings. Contamination is something that can easily happen over the course of 3500 years from either poor storage conditions, poor handling or even cross-contamination with another object. Learning about where to sample from archaeological or artistic objects is one of the fundamental skills you are taught when entering the field. This means without proper provenance or records all results, no matter how good the analysis was conducted, need to be taken with a very large pinch of salt.

So, what of our German Mummies then? Unlike what Eric Clapton said, cocaine can lie, and three things need to be confirmed before I would be willing to believe the results. The first is are these really ancient Egyptian mummies? Many of the mummies entered collections in the 1800s when record keeping was poor and forgeries were common. Along with this dubious provenance, we have thousands of years of cross-contamination to reconcile. One-nil against.

Secondly is the issue of false positives. While GC/MS makes life easier it does not make things easy. I have personal experience with this, and experience where the context allows for the correct answer to win out. Last week I finished some work at Tate Britain on a plastic artwork. After running a search on the results, something very weird popped up. A clear peak which showed the presence of codeine, a type of opiate. This was a plastic artwork from the 1940s and stored in its protective case at Tate for many years. There is no way this peak was from codeine. In the below image you can see, in red a big peak at 282 and then a scattering of many smaller peaks – this was the signal from my sample. The scattering is noise. The reference sample, in blue, has one main peak at 282 and not a much else.

Figure 2 – A screen grab of the NIST software which searches GCMS results for possible compounds. The red line is from my sample, the blue line is the library reference. The list on the left-hand side are possible matches with match scores – 1000 being a perfect match, an R.Match of 908 means an almost certain match.

The software thinks that because the two samples have the same main peak they must be the same, but context tells us something else might be at play. The noisy smaller values plus a peak at around 282 screams that our GCMS is wearing out and one of its parts will need replacing soon. But if you only ever went by what the software told you would say that this plastic had a drug problem!  Two-nil.

The last issue is where these mummies got their drugs — and again, context remains crucial. Cocaine is derived from the coca leaf, something that is not grown in Egypt. A trade route between Egypt and the New World would have had to been in operation for them to get their fix. While not totally out of the realms of possibility, a pre- Columbian trade route is not something that historians believe happened. There is a suggestion of contact with the New World before the arrival of Columbus, such as the one every Irish child is taught in school, but a fully-fledged industrial trade route does not have enough evidence to support it. Three-nil, Game over.

Getting back to opium production, it’s worth thinking about just how high the Egyptians could have gotten. It is rather difficult to say as we don’t know their exact method of production. A number of years ago VICE reported on heroin users in the Czech Republic who would take a vacation to the poppy fields outside the city to cook up their own batch of heroin from latex produced by the poppies in the field. The video shows the relatively easy cultivation of the poppy latex, but analysis showed that they didn’t actually form heroin, but rather morphine and codeine. These two compounds will get you high… just not as high as heroin. It’s likely the Egyptians were able to produce something similar — maybe that’s where they got the idea for the pyramids…

Measuring the Past: The importance of standards from the Egyptians to the present

By Mark V Kearney, on 29 March 2019

During my previous shift at the Petrie Museum one object took most of my attention – a set of seven cylindrical bronze measures. I noticed them for two reasons, the first being that they are incredibly well made, especially the smallest which is only 5 mm in diameter. The second reason is that even in the 18th Dynasty (about 3500 years ago) the Egyptians understood the concept of standardization.

Figure 1 – The seven bronze measuring vessels, likely for gold dust. (Petrie Museum, UC26315)

Our entire lives are guided by some kind of standard measurement – megabits, mp3, 5G, ounce, and of course the International System of Units. For those of you who don’t believe that working from a common standard set of units is important, allow me to remind you of just how costly it can be to mix things up. In September 1999 NASA’s Mars Climate Orbiter crashed into the side of Mars because one group of workers used non-SI units. A mistake costing $327.6 million.

It seems rather mindless that Egyptians living 3500 years ago understood this, yet we continue to make silly mistakes. The founder of the Petrie Museum, William Matthew Flinders Petrie, was keenly aware that in any high functioning society a set of standards would be both vital to its success and a central part of the daily lives of its citizens. In his book Ancient weights and measures, published in 1926, he notes that “we have now at University College over four thousand weights, or about two thirds of all Egyptian weights known”. This staggering claim highlights the importance of the museum’s collection. What is even more staggering is the sheer range and sub divisions which they had standardized — almost rivalling our own system today.

Figure 2 – Another example of a measuring device from the Petrie Collection. (Petrie Museum, UC7093)

Originally, those seven bronze measures would have measured gold dust in the Deben unit. The largest holding ½ a Deben, or approx. 11.8 grams today. However, as with many things, over time their meanings change, and during the New Kingdom,    a Deben was changed to signify approx. 91 grams.

This change isn’t unlike our own modern struggles with the kilogram, a unit whose precise value had been changing ever so subtly since its mass was first defined in 1886 with Le Grand K – a cylinder of a platinum alloy which is carefully kept in Paris, France. However, basing a standard off of a physical object found only here on Earth rather than a universal constant is suboptimal to say the least. As an example, if someone in Canada wanted to know precisely what mass their object was in relation to a standard kilo they either had to send it to be measured directly against Le Grand K in France or off its copy, which may or may not be identical to Le Grand K. This leads to a lot of uncertainty, and while it might not affect the successful procrastibaking of a certain PhD’s scones (p.s – cake flour works wonders!), it does affect the highly precise measurements of certain scientific professions, as other units are also based of its value.


Figure 3 -The old units, some of which, like a mole, were based on the mass of Le Grand K (Source :Wiki)


Figure 4 – The new standards, where kg is governed by Planck’s constant Source: Wiki)


With this in mind, the group in charge of defining a kilo have changed its definition by defining the Planck constant to be exactly 6.62607015×10−34 kg⋅m2⋅s-1. The means that in May of this year, when the new standards take effect, a kilogram is no longer the mass of some lump of Platinum in a lab in France, but dependant on time and length, both of which are themselves defined by a universal constant.

From measuring mass using set volumes — which is what those seven vessels in the Petrie do — we now measure a kilogram with something called a Kibble Balance. This balance, which can be manufactured anywhere in the world, uses the newly defined value of Planck’s constant to measure the mass of objects to a level where uncertainty no longer has a negative effect — though to be fair, it doesn’t look as nice as the bronze cups, so there is still some work to do!

Objects of Desire Event

By uctzcbr, on 15 March 2019

On the 28th of February, the Petrie Museum hosted a special event, Objects of Desire. February is LGBTQ History Month  so this post is a little late but the event was a lot of fun so well worth a review. Objects of Desire is an annual event hosted by the Egyptologist and former Vice-Chair of the Egypt Exploration Society John J Johnston. This year, Johnston was joined by concert pianist Tyler Hay, UCL academic Dr Xine Yao, V&A Ambassador Dan Vo, author Chris McCrudden, and myself as we all shared objects within the museum that we felt were connected to the LGBTQ+ community.

There aren’t many objects that explicitly show evidence of modern day LGBTQ+ identities and relationships in Ancient Egypt and even fewer that have been catalogued as doing so. But there were several objects that the speakers had personal connections with, or that facilitated a conversation about, some famous LGBTQ+ figures.

Dr Xine Yao used the sarcophagi to talk about 19th-Century mummy fiction, which led to a conversation about her research on the LGBTQ+ community and tarot reading. Tyler Hay chatted about the Pharaoh Hatshepsut who is immortalised in name and image on dozens of small amulets and similar objects in the collection. Hapshepsut is recognised as the second female pharaoh and reigned for approximately 21 years in the 15thC BC. Statues and paintings record Hapshepsut wearing what was essentially the uniform of the pharaohs right down to the false beard; however, other images depict also wearing clothing more typically associated with women.

Not everyone, in fairness, was able to choose an object from the museum. Dan Vo spoke about Antinous, a Greek who came to Ancient Egypt with his lover, the Roman emperor Hadrian. Antinous famously died in the Nile under mysterious circumstances and was deified after death. He has been the subject of many sculptures as he was famed for his beauty. Another iconic symbol of LGBTQ+ relationships (not in the Petrie collection) is the tomb of Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep which was discussed by Chris McCrudden. This is the tomb of two men considered to be joint overseers of the manicurists to King Nyuserre (who ruled in the 25thC BC). Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep’s tomb is decorated with images of them embracing and otherwise depicted using iconography usually reserved for married couples.

I chose to talk about the pot burial in the museum. This is one of the top ten objects at the museum and so I was surprised that none of the other speakers wanted to discuss it. The pot burial was found by archaeologist Ali Suefi and contains human remains of someone thought to be from the earliest farming community in Middle Egypt. The person they belong to is thought to have lived around 6,000 years ago in the village of Badari. I chose this object because, when the remains were first found in 1923 they were thought to have belonged to a woman; however, the gynaecologist Mark argued in an assessment in 1995 that the skeleton belonged to a man who was over 6ft tall.

The Pot Burial at the Petrie Museum, photo from the Petrie website.

We know very little else about this person – they were buried in a pot but either were not buried with any belongings or those belongings have not survived. As such, how this person lived their life and how they expressed themselves is not known. Some people may feel that understanding the sex of the skeleton gives us a small piece of information about who they were. However, I personally feel that guessing the sex of their skeleton can’t tell us about their gender, if they had one. Similarly, I don’t think we can assume that Hapshepsut was a woman who adopted men’s clothing in order to fulfil the role of pharaoh. Instead, they may have chosen that clothing because they saw themselves as a man or had a fluid gender expression.

So often, we impose our ideas of the gender binary on historical figures (recent and ancient) and this may erase the experiences of trans, intersex, and other non-cisgendered people. Just as many historians still argue that Niankhnumn and Khnumnhotep were just good friends, brothers or business partners rather than accepting them as lovers. The Objects of Desire event provided a great space to challenge the absence of LGBTQ+ stories in the collection and argue that this absence has been created because of the way that we record history.

Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals: Encounters of the Close and Personal Kind

By Josie Mills, on 29 January 2019

The two most common questions I get asked about Neanderthals are ‘Why did they go extinct?’ and ‘Did we have sex with them?’ (although never phrased that directly). Neanderthals first appeared in the fossil record around 430 thousand years ago (kya) and persisted through the Mid to Late Ice Age until disappearing approximately 40 kya. They evolved outside of Africa, from existing hominin (human like) populations that had migrated there before 400 kya, and lived in Europe, the Middle East and Western Eurasia. H. neanderthalensis is very closely related to H. sapiens, who are our direct ancestors, with genetic evidence suggesting that we shared a last common ancestor until around 750–550 kya. Although this sounds like a long time ago, the earliest stone tools made by a human ancestor are around 3 million years old.

The publication of the first complete Neanderthal genome in 2010 revealed that all non-African modern humans retain approximately 2% Neanderthal DNA, indicating interbreeding between the two species. So, yes, humans did have sex with Neanderthals, probably about 60–80 kya when they left Africa and encountered established Neanderthal populations in the Middle East. But before this grosses you out, remember that most reconstructions of Neanderthals pre-2010 and particularly during the 19th century were heavily loaded with an ‘us and them’ mentality. Basically, the more ape-like the portrayal of Neanderthals, the more elite and unique humans appear. We know that this is not the case now, with a myriad of new discoveries linking Neanderthals to cultural and symbolic practices, and advanced anatomical adaptations. There is no evidence to suggest the two species would not have recognised each other as what we would call ‘humans’.

A H. neaderthalensis (right) and H. sapien (left) skulls, facing each other. Image credit: hairymuseummatt (original photo), DrMikeBaxter (derivative work) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons


As more Neanderthal genomes are studied scientists are analysing why we have retained these pieces of DNA. The initial contribution of Neanderthal DNA was likely higher at around 6% but as humans have evolved some genes were selected out. Studies  suggest that the genes we retain are related mainly to phenotypic qualities, meaning those that affect our outward appearance, for example hair and skin colour. Researchers at the Max Planck institute proposed that these genes are all linked to climate adaptation and sunlight exposure, demonstrating characteristics linked to the Neanderthal’s c. 400 kya stay in cooler climates (Dannemann and Kelso 2017).

But Anatomically Modern Humans may have inherited something much more practical from Neanderthals in the form of a genetic resistance to some viruses. Researchers have proposed that when H. sapiens left Africa they encountered viruses that their bodies were not adapted to fight. Historically we know that these kind of encounters can be fatal, think the smallpox epidemics brought by the Spanish to Mexico leading to the downfall of the Aztec civilisation. Enard and Petrov (2018) propose that by breeding with Neanderthals, who had been exposed to these pathogens for around half a million years, H. sapiens became immune and were able to survive in Europe and beyond.

In archaeology and palaeoanthropology, the traditional model of linear evolution and direct replacement of species is becoming more and more difficult to uphold, with discoveries like the Denisovans and others living during similar time spans. At this point you might could say at times the Ice Age was a bit more like Middle Earth! There is a growing openness, supported by scientific evidence, to accept more nuanced views of interaction between different human species.


Dannemann, M., & Kelso, J. (2017). The contribution of Neanderthals to phenotypic variation in modern humans. The American Journal of Human Genetics, 101(4), 578-589.

Enard, D. and Petrov, D.A., 2018. Evidence that RNA viruses drove adaptive introgression between Neanderthals and modern humans. Cell, 175(2), pp.360-371.

Green, R.E., Krause, J., Briggs, A.W., Maricic, T., Stenzel, U., Kircher, M., Patterson, N., Li, H., Zhai, W., Fritz, M.H.Y. and Hansen, N.F., 2010. A draft sequence of the Neandertal genome. science, 328(5979), pp.710-722.

Slon, V., Mafessoni, F., Vernot, B., de Filippo, C., Grote, S., Viola, B., Hajdinjak, M., Peyrégne, S., Nagel, S., Brown, S. and Douka, K., 2018. The genome of the offspring of a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father. Nature, 561(7721), p.113.

Wolf, A.B. and Akey, J.M., 2018. Outstanding questions in the study of archaic hominin admixture. PLoS genetics, 14(5), p.e1007349.








Event: Migration through (Pre)History

By Josie Mills, on 28 January 2019

Migration through (Pre)History, an evening of short talks by UCL’s Student Engagers, will be taking place on Thursday, 7 February 2019, from 6:30-9pm in UCL Art Museum

Coming up in UCL Art Museum, we’re hosting a series of talks around the theme of migration, and with Brexit coming up, there’s no wonder that’s what’s on our mind!

We’d like to welcome you to join UCL’s Student Engagers Josie Mills, Hannah Page, and Jen Datiles, current PhD researchers, to explore the migration of people and the movement of objects through time and space. Inspired by the Octagon Gallery’s 2019 exhibit Moving Objects, Student Engagers will use UCL Art Museum as a space to investigate the movement of people across disciplines. Highlights include migration in prehistory and the spread of botanicals in the nineteenth century. Stick around for some wine and snacks afterward!

The event is free and will be held at UCL Art Museum on Thursday 7th of February from 6.30 – 9.00 pm.

The speakers are:

Josie Mills is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Archaeology specialising in prehistoric archaeology, applying scientific techniques to stone tools made by Neanderthals. In her PhD she is studying where flint used to make lithic artefacts comes from in order to look at movement and landscape use during the Middle Palaeolithic. She is also interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division often drawn between us and other species.

Hannah Page is a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. Her thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. Her research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. She is also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Jen Datiles is a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, her research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

As usual our events in the museum aim to be inclusive and interactive, with lighthearted discussion about the topic of the event and how this might relate to our own research areas. You can book the event by clicking here. Booking is encouraged but not essential.

We look forward to welcoming you on the night!

For more information please email josephine.mills.10@ucl.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @ResearchEngager

5 Things Museums Want to Do in the Future

By tcrnkl0, on 6 December 2018

As part of my PhD research this past summer, I got together a group of archive and museum professionals to talk about contemporary collecting and imagining the future of their work.

This wasn’t so much about having museums on Mars or fancy futuristic machines (although technology did come into it) but more about the principles by which archive and museum staff would like to be working and connecting with their audiences.

Participants at the workshop. Image by author.

Based on the workshop, here are 5 things museums want to be doing in the future:

  1. Facilitate inclusive personal and imaginative journeys: There was a strong desire to improve people’s access to collections, in order to make archive and museum collections a truly shared resource. Staff also want to encourage playfulness, and use collections to activate people’s imaginations about creative futures for society. This could include using digital and virtual reality to create emotional connections, centring archives and museums around people’s experiences.
  2. Give life to objects that have lost functionThis meant reinvigorating meaningful objects that we want to be part of collective memory, and valuing the work we put into taking care of them. On the other side, there was also a desire to recognise that materials disintegrate and ‘die’—we don’t have to preserve things that have come to the end of their natural lives.
  3. Protect public access to free digital culture and resources: In a time when much of our digital data, including personal and cultural material, is held and used by private companies, collections should aspire to help people keep things free and public. Practitioners spoke about the importance of learning to navigate digital rights and ownership in their collections. The right to free access to digital culture also needs to be balanced with the right of artists and communities to maintain ownership of their material.
  4. Be instruments of change and activism: Archives and museums can be used to investigate the society we live in, and model ways to engaging in research and learning. They can encourage and support explorations of collections, past collectors, and what it means to be collectors ourselves. Building a strong basis of research and inquiry can be used to inspire changes in attitude and informed democracy. It’s important for archive and collections staff not to be complacent or ‘bubble bound’.
  5. Work across boundaries: Participants wanted to be free to make greater connections between science, art and culture, both within collections and across departments and organisations. Working across boundaries also meant thinking about collections as ecosystems—creating networks of institutional (and community) holdings.

Participant contribution: ‘A future where collections are relevant and facilitate optimistic outrage’. Image by author.

You can read  more about the findings of my workshop, including the full report, at the Heritage Futures project website.

Museum Engagement Outside the Museum

By uctzcbr, on 9 October 2018

On a recent shift in the Grant Museum , I was talking to a small child about the bats. I explained that some bats will eat twice their own body weight in fruit in a single night. I like to share this fact with kids because I then ask them to imagine eating twice their own body weight in their favourite fruit and they are often extremely impressed (an opinion I think everyone should have of bats all the time).  On this occasion, I asked the child how much he thought twice his own body weight would be in his favourite fruit – cherries. He turned to his mum and asked her how much he weighed (17kg), he then patiently counted twice 17 out on his fingers and before replying, very seriously, “it would be 34kg in cherries”. I have been telling this fact to visitors, I estimate, for probably 3 years now. This is the first time anyone has calculated an answer to my follow-up question.

Needless to say, I was impressed, and also touched by how proud this boy’s parents were. Moments like these are one of many reasons I really enjoy speaking to children who visit the museums. They are like small sponges (so right at home at the Grant) and filled with questions that vary wildly and wonderfully from the collection (my favourites include “is everything really dead?” and “how did he brush his teeth?”).

Whilst searching for a suitable image for this post, I discovered the Sponge Crab. This species of crab, that wears sponges as a hat, is an even better metaphor for children because it scuttles. (Image: Grant Museum)

The interesting conversations and literal hours of fact swapping with young visitors that I have enjoyed on my shifts are why I always enthusiastically volunteer to go on school visits and why, last week, I paid a visit to Fleet Primary School to talk to their students for Maths Week.

I was there to talk to the students about my research (in the UCL Crime Science department ) as an example of a something you could do if you studied maths. We talked about the different ways I use maths to understand Dark Net Markets (websites only accessible by anonymity preserving technologies such as Tor that facilitate the trade of illegal goods and services) and how it was similar to the maths they are learning in school. A lot of my research involves trying to measure the population size on these websites and evaluate if it’s been affected by a law enforcement intervention, so it’s basically adding and subtracting. I also look at the proportions of different types of products available to purchase; or, in other words, I divide things.

You may think that my research area is not an appropriate discussion topic for 8-11 year olds but, as ever, I was surprised by how much the students already knew. A good handful of them had heard of the Dark Web, some even knew about the types of the illegal purchases that could be made on it. Fewer had heard of the ways that the Dark Web is used by human rights groups, activists and whistleblowers to circumnavigate censorship and share information that might endanger them. Even though my research focuses on the illegal activity enabled by the Dark Web, a huge benefit of the outreach I am able to do with UCL is the opportunity to inform people about how important a space it can be. Plus I get to hear all of the insightful and interesting thoughts that the students I meet have about my research and being safe online.

The main role of the student engager is to hover in one of UCL’s museums and engage (ensnare?) visitors with conversations about the collections and our research. It takes a bit of getting used to – approaching strangers enjoying their lunch break or afternoon out and interrupting their visit with questions like “what do you think of the skeleton?”, “would you like to hear more about the history of this museum?” or “have you seen the bats?”, but it is a really interesting way to talk to people with lots of different lives and opinions about what happens at UCL. Sometimes, however, we get to take this conversation outside of the museum and learn a lot more about the people we talk to. It’s similar to the work we do in museums, but on a bigger scale, which allows for even more ideas to be shared. I really enjoy this part of the job, especially because I get to do the interesting talking-to-people part without the having-to-initiate-a-conversation  bit.


Myths in the Museum: The Unicorn Horn of UCL

By Jen Datiles, on 18 September 2018

It’s there, just across the main UCL campus on Gower Street. A mystical power of unknown proportions coveted by monarchs and conquerors of golden ages past. Quiet and unassuming, mounted on a museum cabinet crammed with jars of preserved worms and spiders bobbing about in 70% ethanol for eternity, this long, white, spiraled object that looks suspiciously like a wizard’s wand or sorcerer’s staff, sought after by the most powerful dynasties to walk the earth…

No, it’s not a unicorn horn. It’s the Grant Museum of Zoology’s narwhal tusk.


The Narwhal Tusk of UCL. (Grant Museum, Z2168)


Don’t feel bad for mistaking it for a unicorn horn, though. For centuries the Vikings harvested these tusks—which can be up to 10 feet long—from the ocean creatures off the arctic coast of Greenland and used, gifted, and traded them. They were brought to northern Europe via the major trade routes across the Atlantic linking Greenland and Iceland with the British Isles, Scandinavia, and ultimately the Baltic. Since the unicorn symbolized immortality, power, and protection against poison, narwhal tusks were rare and highly sought after to adorn royal objects in Europe and into Asia. They also served as magico-medical material in the cabinets of wealthy physics and apothecaries (whether their unicorn horn powder was ‘authentic’ is another story).


Five types of unicorn, described by Pierre Pomet in his 1694 natural history treatise. (Credit: New York Academy of Medicine)


Unicorns feature heavily in myths and tales as a symbol of both power and pure magic. (Screenshot from Disney/Walden’s Chronicles of Narnia: Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe; 2005)


La Dame à la licorne: À mon seul désir. The famous 16th-century Flemish tapestry, one of six in a series, depicting a noblewoman with her lion and unicorn. It now hangs in Musée de Cluny, Paris.

Perhaps the most famous example of European monarchies’ obsession with owning unicorn horn bling is the Danish throne in Rosenborg Castle. It was commissioned in 1662 to symbolize the ‘absolute monarch’, and was inspired by the throne of Solomon—so naturally its surface was almost entirely covered with precious ‘unicorn horn’. Narwhal tusks were procured by Danish traders, since during this time the Danish monarchs claimed Iceland and the Faroe Islands.

IMPOSING: Rosenborg Castle’s Coronation Throne, used for the Danish coronations between 1671-1840. (Credit: Danish Royal Collections)

So what are these ‘unicorns of the sea’? Narwhals, Monodon monoceros (Greek for ‘one-tooth’ ‘one-horn’) are mid-sized porpoises native to the arctic. Narwhals and beluga whales are the only members of the family Monodontidae, and our knowledge of their daily habits remains elusive. Though they usually don’t share a habitat, just this week a juvenile narwhal male was seen by Quebec researchers playing with a beluga pod over 1000 km south of its usual Arctic range, apparently adopted by its cousins!

Now for the million-dollar question: what is the tusk, besides a magnet for power-crazy monarchs and mystical medicine hunters? The ‘horn’ or ‘tusk’ of a narwhal is actually… a tooth. Unlike many other debunked myths from the Middle Ages, the potency of this unicorn horn’s still relatively shrouded in mystery. For years scientists have debated and theorized about its actual use, from weapons to ‘joust’ for dominance with other males as part of mating rituals, to sensory tools to detect water temperature, pressure and salinity. It wasn’t until last year that drone footage captured footage of narwhals using their tusks to hunt codfish, suggesting the complicated nerve systems within these tusks may have stunning capabilities.

[above and below] Narwhals, narwhals, swimming in the ocean. (Credit: World Wildlife Fund)

So do unicorns exist? We’d have to say no. But until technology catches up to human curiosity and scientific research, these sea unicorns remain as elusive as the myth that surrounds their magical tusks.