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Objects of Desire Event

Cerys MBradley15 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

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.

References:

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

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

KyleLee-Crossett6 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

Cerys MBradley9 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

JenDatiles18 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.

 

Heritage in Flames

Hannah BPage7 September 2018

I was shattered this week to read about the catastrophic fire in Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum in Brazil (Fig 1). The 200-year-old museum housed an enormous collection of archaeological, anthropological and natural historical objects (more than 20 million) including Luzia woman (Fig 2), an Upper Palaeolithic skeleton and the oldest ever found in the Americas (11,500 years old). The museum also housed extensive collections from the indigenous Brazilian people as well as Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts.  The loss of these objects is one tragedy, but more devastating is the harm done to the decades of diligent work and research by countless people all working to a single end: to preserve and protect the social, cultural and natural heritage of Brazil and the world for the world. Some of the most upsetting photographs were of academics and museum staff in front of the burning museum, frantically trying to save what they could.

Fig 1. Brazil’s National Museum in flames (Source: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

For me, the real privilege of working in museums is seeing just how important they are for all kinds of people. Every person experiences museums in a unique way: they are drawn to different objects, and they each bring something new away from their experience. Museums are a way for people to connect with their past, to learn about the heritage of others, and to appreciate the art and nature of our world. Without museums we risk the disconnection from cultural and natural heritage and ultimately, a loss of identity.

Fig. 2: Luzia Woman (Source: BBC TWO)

Unfortunately this type of news is not new. In recent years we have seen distressing headlines revealing the damage to world heritage sites. From the destruction of parts of archaeological sites such as Palmyra in Syria, the burning of the Kasubi Tombs (Fig. 3)—the burial ground for the kings of the Buganda—in Uganda, to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. These events all have two major features in common: first, the importance of the locations as natural and cultural heritage sites for millions of people, and second, that in some way political agendas can be held responsible for their damage. Political agendas it seems, whether driven by money, religion or an indifference to the value of culture and history, are the biggest threat to our heritage sites.

Fig. 3: The Kasubi Tombs in Uganda (Source: Lazare Eloundou Assomo, © UNESCO)

The burning of Brazil’s National Museum has highlighted the increasing neglect of the heritage sector by governments, which is trickling down to affect research, conservation of artefacts and sites, the honouring of cultural identity, and ultimately the connection with our past and present.

Museums are a celebration of us, and without them, and the research that occurs within those walls we lose much more than just a beautiful building and some aesthetically pleasing objects.

Words cannot describe the pain that must be felt by the hundreds of people directly connected with the museum and the countless more affected by what this loss represents to them.

All I can hope, probably naively, is that governments might wake up and see that an investment in the arts and heritage is an investment in their people, and there is little more important than that.

The End of Art is Peace

Mark VKearney2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).

The end of art is peace….

A post shared by Mark (@mark_v_k_) on

Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.

The Imperial Gentleman of China

CarolynThompson3 July 2018

I am a primatologist; that is, a scientist who studies the behaviour, abundance and conservation status of monkeys, lemurs and apes. My specialty area and the focus of my PhD research here at University College London, is the plight of the gibbons, the smallest of the apes.

The Skywalker Hoolock gibbon (Hoolock tianxing). Photograph taken on Carolyn Thompson’s recent field trip to China. (Photo credit: Carolyn Thompson)

Gibbons are often forgotten in the shadow of their great cousins — the orangutans, chimpanzees, bonobos and gorillas — receiving less funding, as well as research and media attention. This is very unfortunate seeing as 19 of the 20 species are on the brink of extinction. The Hainan gibbon, for example, is the world’s rarest primate with a mere 26 individuals making up their entire global population.

I am always thrilled therefore to see media articles raising some much needed gibbon awareness, even if the news story doesn’t always paint us humans in the best light.

In 2004, one of my supervisors from the Zoological Society of London, stumbled across a gibbon skull inside a tomb in Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, China. The skull is believed to be ca. 2,200-2,300 years old and the potential property of Lady Xia, the grandmother of China’s first emperor, Qin Shihuang, who is famous for his striking terracotta army. Inside this ancient tomb was a whole menagerie of other animal skeletons including a crane, bear and a leopard — yet another example of human-animal relationships that have dated back millennia.

The skull of Junzi imperialis. (Photo credit: Samuel Turvey).

Although this exciting discovery could tell us a lot about our evolutionary shared ancestry with gibbon species, there are still many unanswered questions. We are unsure if the skull, now said to belong to Junzi imperalis (meaning the ‘imperial man of virtue’ due to the strong historical relationship between humans and gibbons in Chinese culture) is in fact a new species and where it came from. There are strong indicators, however, suggesting that this potentially new species of gibbon could be the first ape to have vanished off the face of the earth due to human pressures. Now extinct, we need to look at our current impact on the planet to ensure we don’t do the same with our other cousins.

Part of my PhD research examines the relationship between humans and animals, especially amongst local communities found in gibbon habitat regions. This intrigue, along with my love of mingling with the public, led me to my new role as a Student Engager in the UCL museums. For example, the Ancient Egyptians also had a strong connection with animals which I hope to explore over the coming months in the UCL Petrie Museum, and the Grant Museum of Zoology also has a couple of gibbon skeletons hanging around. Come and see for yourself!

In the meantime, keep your eyes peeled for my upcoming blogs on Twitter: @gibbonresearch and @ResearchEngager

Bodies at work: 3 more interventions that are changing museums

KyleLee-Crossett22 June 2018

Last time in the Label Detective series, I looked at 3 interventions in museum labelling that dramatically changed the feel and experience of museum objects. But changing a label doesn’t always do the job to address how museums (like all public spaces) have excluded or made invisible certain people, histories, or information.

This time around, I’m highlighting three ongoing efforts that centre people showing up to make a change in museum space. Museums today see themselves not only as places that hold objects, but as dynamic social forums. If museums do want to occupy this role, it means not just getting involved in ‘dialog’, but everything from restitution to wacky, meaningful art invasions.

 

1. Museums Detox

Museums Detox is a network of black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) museum and heritage professionals. The network does important work creating a supportive space for BAME individuals in the sector and push for real progress on the persistent underemployment of BAME staff in museums, as well as broader issues of inclusion and representation.

One of the simple but significant interventions they’ve done is to visibly get together in museum space. In 2016 their flash mob at the Museum of London received national media attention. In a Museums Association article, Sara Wajid, one the founders of Museum Detox said about the event:

‘We just feel like people don’t realise there are so many of us from BAME backgrounds who work in museums, and when we get together as the Museum Detox group it can often take people back to see a bunch of confident BAME people walking around a gallery. […] It got us thinking about audiences. Why is it weird to see a group of people of colour hanging out at a museum?’

 

2. Campaign to return the Gweagal Shield

The repatriation of artefacts taken by the British government and collectors during colonisation, or violent and exploitative relations is an ongoing issue. Although in many publicised cases, like that of the Parthenon Marbles, repatriation depicted is a government-to-government process, individuals and non-state communities also play important roles advocating for the return of materials.

The Gweagal Shield is a sacred Aboriginal shield taken by the British at the beginning of their violent conquest of Australia at the end of the 18th century. Upon seeing on display for the first time, Rodney Kelly, a descendant of one of the aboriginal warriors shot at by Lieutenant James Cook on his landing in Australia, recognised the importance of the cultural and community work it could do for the contemporary Gweagal people.

Kelly has since twice come to the England to formally request the shield’s repatriation, in addition to other Aboriginal artifacts held by British and European institutions from that period. Kelly has also spent time in the gallery where the shield is held sharing alternative histories of the shield and hold ‘rebel lecture’ events, including one in partnership with the next group of museum interventionists below!

Rodney Kelly giving a rebel lecture on the Gweagal Shield with BP or not BP? in 2017. Photo Credit: Anna Branthwaite via Art Not Oil Coalition

The campaign to return the Gweagal Shield is also a good example of how object labels can be used to cover up as well as illuminate. In May 2018, Dr Sarah Keenan, a legal scholar, argued that British Museum’s recent changes to the shield’s label text function to weaken the repatriation claims being made.

 

3. BP or not BP?

BP or not BP? is a theatrical protest group that campaigns for museums, galleries, and other arts and cultural institutions to drop sponsorship deals with oil companies. BP or not BP? argue that oil companies, including BP, play a major role in contributing to climate change and the destruction of environments and frontline communities around the world.

One of the things that make their protests and interventions noteworthy is how they use what we might call the grammar of museums and art institutions to speak to them in their own language. Many of BP or not BP? actions dedicate huge effort to creating art installations or even whole exhibitions so striking that sometimes visitors don’t realise they’re not the work of the museum itself.

In all three of these cases, the people involved use a variety of methods to communicate and be in dialog with museums about the issues they care about. However, in this post I wanted to highlight how these groups use their physical presence to demonstrate how museums have a real impact on people’s lives and experiences. Since we often of museum objects as being detached from life in their glass cases or boxes, this isn’t always easy to see. But objects are always ready to come to life in conversation with people — put your body to work in a museum today!