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Museum Engagement Outside the Museum

By Cerys Bradley, 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.

 

Heritage in Flames

By Hannah B Page, on 7 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

By Mark V Kearney, on 2 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

By Carolyn Thompson, on 3 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

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 22 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!

How can tissue engineering help zoology?

By Citlali Helenes Gonzalez, on 31 May 2018

Animals come in all shapes, sizes and textures. Some have fur, while others have scales. Some lay eggs and others are jelly-like. Ever wonder how all these structures are created or why animals are so different? When zoology museums were first created, they served as a place to preserve animals brought from distant lands, animals no one had ever seen. People were fascinated by the then curiosities, but they were more than curiosities—preserved animals were also used for study. Naturalists were interested in deciphering how all these animals came into being, why they had their unique features and how they all linked together. In order to understand a new species, they would need to compare them to the ones they already knew. This way, they could classify new species and study how they developed.

Scientists would go to great lengths to understand animal biology. Edward Wilson was the scientific advisor for Robert Falco Scott’s final expedition to Antarctica. To study how species evolved, Wilson wanted to collect emperor penguin eggs. Thinking that penguins were primitive birds, he thought he might find a link between reptiles and birds by studying penguin embryos. They managed to collect five eggs but two of them cracked. With great difficulty and under adverse weather conditions, to say the least, they managed to return the three remaining eggs back to camp. Ultimately all but one of the men in the expedition died, but the eggs made their way back to London and the embryos were dissected. The link they were looking for was never found, but their story illustrates the incredible lengths they went to further their understanding of animal biology. This was how scientists studied animals and overall the natural world and its evolution: by collecting, studying and comparing.

Emperor penguin eggs brought back from the 1911 Terra Nova expedition to the Antarctic. The holes were made to allow investigation of the embryos. (Image: © The Trustees of the Natural History Museum, London. Licensed under the Open Government Licence)

Nowadays there are more tools to understand animal biology and evolution. Tissue engineering is the branch of biology that is concerned with studying cells, the materials that support the cells and the chemicals that control the cells. It studies how tissues, like bone or cartilage, are formed. And it aims to build organs, like a liver or a heart. At the same time, tissue engineering goes hand in hand with stem cells, which are immature cells that have the capacity to form any tissue in the body. Thus, organs can be created by growing stem cells together with materials that function as scaffolds.

Tissue-engineered porcine heart (Image: courtesy of Otto Lab for Organ Engineering and Regeneration, Massachusetts General Hospital)

Stem cells and tissue engineering are aiding in the study of evolution and animal biology. At the moment it is very hard to obtain a fully mature and functioning organ, but scientists are growing organoids. These are bulks of stem cells that can grow into similar structures that replicate an organ. In other words, organoids are growths of cells that resemble an organ. Organoids are immature but they are useful to study how organs develop and behave.

Scientists are interested in growing organoids from different animal’s stem cells. This way they can directly compare how they grow and analyse their differences. Imagine growing a lion, a whale and a chimp’s heart organoid side by side in the lab. This is a new way of doing comparative anatomy—organoids. One day, tissue engineering will allow researchers to grow mature functioning organs and, why not, maybe even whole animals in the lab. This way, researchers won’t have to go all the way to Antarctica to collect eggs, they could just grow them closer to home! But until that day comes, organoids provide an invaluable opportunity to study the evolution and development of species by analysing their similarities and differences.

Intestinal organoids (Image: Gianmaria Liccardi, PhD/The Institute of Cancer Research)

Cerebral organoid (Image by Lisa Nguyen, Yaoming Wang and Angeliki Nikolakopoulou, USC Stem Cell)

References:

Hampton T. Organoids Reveal Clues to Gut-Brain Communication. JAMA. 2017;318(9):787–788. doi:10.1001/jama.2017.11545

Introducing the new Student Engagers!

By Arendse I Lund, on 1 May 2018

We have a new cohort of Student Engagers joining the team! We are incredibly pleased to welcome eight new PhD students working on everything from George Orwell to gibbon decline. Starting this month, you can look for them in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, and Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. You can also read a little about them and their research in their own words below.

Alexandra Bridarolli:

I am a 2nd year PhD student at Eastman Dental Institute at UCL in London. I am also part of SEAHA, the centre for doctoral training in Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology, a research centre also based at UCL bringing together other PhD students promoting heritage science in research. My background is in chemistry and I have a strong interest in material science. I have always been fascinated by the detective work carried out by scientists working on art objects, studying the materials they are made of, their stability, their properties.

My current research explores the use of innovative nanoparticles of cellulose for the consolidation of the canvas of modern paintings. These treatments could offer an alternative to current practices and materials in use in conservation which are known to put paintings at risks. This research greatly benefits from a close collaboration with painting conservators across Europe.

Mark Kearney:

I am a 2nd year PhD student based at the SEAHA CDT in the Institute of Sustainable Heritage. My research is concerned with the decay of plastic objects of art and design. Contrary to popular belief, many plastics do not last forever, with some suffering rapid and often catastrophic decay patterns within the first 20 – 50 years of acquisition. As plastics have been one of the most important materials of the modern era, they now form central parts of museum’s collections.

My project will exploit the information gained from the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are naturally emitted from plastics objects with the aim to detect and monitor their decay museum environments. I will work with Tate museums to study their sculpture collection, looking at cellulose acetate works of art, a polymer known to be problematic within museums.

Anna Pokorska:

I am a second year PhD student at the Institute for Sustainable Heritage and SEAHA-CDT (Science and Engineering in Arts, Heritage and Archaeology Centre for Doctoral Training). My research project is focused on the stability of modern synthetic and semi-synthetic materials to visible light and is carried out at in association with the V&A museum and Philips.

“Modern” materials such as plastics are a very important part of modern and contemporary art and design as well as social history collections from the 20th century. From high-profile artworks destined for a life in a gallery to everyday objects meant to be disposed of, more and more of plastic objects can be found in heritage institutions. However, our knowledge of their light sensitivity from a heritage perspective as well as the guidelines for their display and preservation are still limited. The project will, therefore, investigate the light stability of plastics to understand whether and how their light degradation is spectrally dependent. This will be done using visible radiation only as it would normally be in a museum or gallery environment.

Hannah Page:

I am a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. My thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. My 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. I am also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Sarah Gibbs:

I completed an MA in English at Queen’s University and a Master of Library and Information Studies (MLIS) degree at McGill University in Canada. My doctoral dissertation at UCL focuses on George Orwell’s epistemology. My research combines concepts and methodologies from literary scholarship, philosophy, and library and information studies to discern how the ‘Tory-Anarchist-Turned-Socialist’ author of Nineteen Eighty-Four conceived of the relationship between knowledge and power, and what tools his epistemology offers to address current political realities.

Cerys Jones:

Multispectral imaging involves capturing images of an object illuminated in ultraviolet, visible and infrared light, in order to reveal features, such as faded text and underdrawings, that cannot be seen by the naked eye. My PhD research will optimise the workflow of multispectral imaging of heritage artefacts to enable heritage practitioners to capture and process images of their own collections without the need for a specialist imaging scientist.

 

Caz Thompson:

I am a PhD student studying the patterns and drivers of gibbon decline in China and Myanmar. Gibbons are the smallest of the apes known for their ability to sing and move gracefully through the trees. Nineteen of the twenty known species are on the brink of extinction, yet in the shadow of their great ape cousins, gibbons receive less funding and research attention. By adopting an interdisciplinary approach, involving both biological and social sciences, I aim to understand the relationship between co-existing humans and gibbons. I currently focus on two species threatened by habitat loss and hunting: the Hainan gibbon, which is the rarest primate in the world with only 26 individuals, and the newly discovered Skywalker Hoolock gibbon with only 200 individuals remaining.

Jen Datiles:

I am 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, my research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

 

Welcome to the team!

Why did Ancient Egyptians Love Cats?

By Josephine Mills, on 17 April 2018

You really wouldn’t want to get into a cat versus dog argument with me (cats are superior obviously) and as it turns out the Ancient Egyptians agree! Ancient Egyptian iconography is packed with representations of cats — from tomb paintings to statues, their feline friends were everywhere. But did they always love cats? And why did they love them so much?

It’s thought that humans and cats began interacting in Ancient Egypt after 4000 BCE as this is when cats start to appear in visual representations like hieroglyphs and tomb paintings. It’s unlikely that these cats were fully domesticated and were probably one of the two species of wild cat that existed in Egypt at the time: the Jungle Cat and the African Wild Cat. Interestingly, although there was more than one type of cat, Egyptians only had a single word for feline, the onomatopoeic ‘miu’ or ‘miit’, meaning literally ‘he or she who mews’.

 

A fragment of the wall painting from the tomb of Nebamun, which is dated to 1350 BCE. The scene shows Nebamun fishing in the marshes with his wife and daughter. Just to the left of his right knee is a cat amongst the wildfowl. (Courtesy of the British Museum © The Trustees of the British Museum. Museum number EA37977)

 

Between 4000 – 2000 BC humans and cats gradually began to live in closer company. Archaeologists believe that the main driving force behind initial cat domestication was their usefulness as pest control. Ancient Egyptian economy was largely based on farming with grain and its distribution was important to many Egyptians livelihoods. Grain was held in buildings called granaries and people realised that granaries visited by roaming cats had fewer problems with vermin. These cats, who had initially just stopped off to snack on mice, were encouraged to stick around and treated with kindness — finally slinking their way into the domestic home around 2000 BC.

However, cats didn’t just chow down on small vermin like rodents; they were also known to kill poisonous snakes. Snakes were a real issue in Ancient Egypt and the presence of cats reduced the threat of poisoning. Through this behaviour, cats were perceived to have a protective nature which, combined with their ability to have lots of kittens, made them a symbol of the home, women, and fertility. Tomb paintings dated to the New Kingdom often feature cats as dedicated companions of women, usually seated under their chairs.

 

This image shows a wall painting from the tomb of Ipuy, at Deir el-Medina. Ipuy has a small kitten sitting on his lap whilst a cat sits under his wife’s chair (Image credit: https://www.nilemagazine.com.au/march-2015-archive/2015/3/22/ancient-egypts-best-dressed-cats)

 

Their representation in popular culture and usefulness around the home and workplace gave cats a prominent position in Egyptian society. Some people were even named after cats, Miut and Miit, Ta-mitt (female cat) and Pa-mitt (tom cat). Killing a cat was punishable by death, even if it was an accident, and when a family cat died it was common for its owners to shave their eyebrows as part of the mourning process. See I wasn’t kitten when I told you cats were important!

Cats also had a significant impact on religion in Ancient Egypt, despite being a relatively late addition to the Pantheon (c. 2000 – 1000 BC). The earliest representation of a cat or lion in Egyptian religion  was the fur-midable Mafdet, a cat-like deity associated with justice and execution. Interestingly Mafdet probably translates as ‘runner’, and it’s possible she embodied a cheetah or jaguar.

Mafdet was followed by Sekhmet, meaning strength and ferocity, a lion-headed goddess. She played a key part in the Egyptian creation myth when Hathor, daughter of Ra, was transformed into Sekhmet to remind humans of the God’s power (seriously gruesome events ensued). She has a reputation as a ferocious deity but also a stalwart protector of the innocent.

Bastet is probably the most famous cat-headed goddess. Much more moderate than her predecessors, she was associated with fertility, womanhood, and the home. Bastet was a very popular goddess through to the Ptolemaic and Roman Periods in Egypt; she even had a cult centre of worship called Bubastis.

The Cult of the Cat was not restricted to Bubastis and spread across Ancient Egypt with large temples dedicated to the cat goddesses, which house and cared for hundreds of cats. Cats were even mummified in a similar way to humans and placed in temples after their death. The Petrie Museum has its very own mummified cat (sort of), which is part of the Langton Collection, a substantial bequest of artefacts that are all cat related. They were originally brought together by Mr and Mrs Langton, who excavated and worked in Egypt in the early twentieth century, who wanted to highlight the importance of the Cult of the Cat!

 

Mummified remains inside linen bandages shaped to look like a cat. An x-ray of this artefact revealed that it only contained two leg bones! Dated to the Late/Roman Period (Petrie Museum, 45976)

 

The popularity of cats in a religious context peaked during the Ptolemaic period (332 – 30 BC), when political unrest was rife across Egypt. One of the reasons that I know about this period (when I should really be concentrating on Neanderthals) is through playing the video game Assassin’s Creed Origins, which is set during the reign of the Ptolemies. The game is incredibly accurate and a recent update allows you to play in discovery mode, effectively turning Ancient Egypt into a virtual museum. One of my favourite features of the game are the little cats that weave around your feet as you explore towns and villages. These cats have sandy, light red brown or striped coats inspired by cats painted in tombs. Hilariously, and much to my initial frustration, cats can choose whether to interact with you or not! In my opinion greatly adding to the realistic nature of the game…

 

On the left a cat petting fail, on the right a cat petting success! Screenshots taken from Assassin’s Creed Origins made by Ubisoft

 

There’s ample evidence that Ancient Egyptians loved cats and the prominent role they played in day-to-day life and religious worship. Five thousand years later I’m not sure how much has changed. Incidentally if you’d like to read more about cats in a medieval context (of course you would!) check out my fellow engager Arendse’s blog post.

References

Challis, D. 2015. Miw: the Langton Cat Collection. In: Stevenson, A (ed.) Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology Characters and Collections. UCL Press: London 72-74

Malek, J. 1993. The Cat in Ancient Egypt. British Museum Press: London

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cats_in_ancient_Egypt

 

Move over priceless artefacts – 3 interventions that show labels are the most important aspect of museums

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 10 April 2018

Welcome back to Label Detective, a blog series that flips things around by investigating how museum labels can reveal fundamental principles about how museums are put together.

Labels may not get much attention, but they’re one of the key things that make a museum feel like a museum—along with features like glass cases, and special lighting. Take those away, and it’s not a museum but a garage. One of my favourite examples of the impact of labels comes from this tweet:

Although it’s not a museum setting, this shows how the layering of museum features like a label and a frame can radically change the context and the feel of something. In this case, they transform the frustrating evidence of a child defacing your walls to a mock-celebrated piece of artwork that’s been shared on the internet over 120,000 times.

Changing or altering the expected format or content of ‘normal’ museum labels can also have dramatic impact on how objects are perceived. I’ve picked three of my favorite examples of label interventions, starting chronologically with:

 

1. The work of artist Fred Wilson

Since his 1992 exhibition, ‘Mining the Museum’ at the Maryland Historical Society, Fred Wilson’s artistic interventions into the interpretation of race and American history have had a huge impact on the museum world. In ‘Mining the Museum’, Wilson re-organised and re-installed the Maryland Historical Society’s collection, creating labels for objects that draw attention to how everyday racism made both shocking presences and absences in the collection. Many of his labels sound innocuous. A case labeled ‘Metalwork 1793-1880’ displays an ornate silver tea set alongside a pair of slave shackles. ‘Cabinetmaking 1820-1860’ arranges a series of elaborate side chairs and armchairs to face a whipping post. In another area, pedestals with busts of Henry Clay, Napoleon Bonaparte and Andrew Jackson are mirrored by empty pedestals, labelled with the names of Benjamin Banneker, Harriet Tubman, and Frederick Douglass.

Check out interviews with Wilson and more pictures of his work here and here.

 

2. ‘The Past is Now’ at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (on until 24 June)

‘The Past is Now’ addresses the city of Birmingham’s relationship to the British Empire. The exhibition was co-curated by the museum and a group of local activists who worked to challenge the ‘neutral’ tone of museum interpretation, which often assumes a white writer talking to a white audience. Sumaya Kassim, one of the co-curators, describes how this not only meant bringing new stories into the museum but also sharing fuller and more accurate stories about what was already there. When addressing the legacy of Joseph Chamberlain, often called the ‘father’ of the city of Birmingham, Kassim writes, ‘we gave [Chamberlain] room to explain his imperialist, racist ideology, exploring how his social reforms in Birmingham were made at the expense of the colonies’ (italics mine).

Read more about Kassim’s experience of co-curating the exhibition here.

 

3. The Museum of Transology at Brighton Museum (ongoing until summer 2018)

The Museum of Transology’s curator E-J Scott didn’t have an existing collection to reinterpret because there was no major collection of transgender material before he started soliciting donations. The majority of the Museum of Transology’s objects are extremely ordinary, made up of contemporary mass-produced artefacts like makeup, clothing, and printed ephemera. However, each object has a unique label tags, written by the person who donated the object, that contextualize and elevate them out of the everyday. Each handwritten tag shares informative, funny, and touching stories about trans identity and expression. In the Museum of Transology, the labels and objects are truly interdependent—neither could be in the museum without the other.

A tag next to a tube of lipstick says, ‘This lipstick was from my wonderful sister who was the first family member to accept and support my transition’. The tag on a pair of purple-striped boxer shorts reads: ‘Stripey Monstrosity. At the start of my transition I asked my mom for boxers and she came up with this! As lovely as she is, I couldn’t wait to pluck up the courage to buy something less tragic!’.

More on the Museum of Transology here and here.

 

Next time I’ll be exploring three more interventions on a similar theme. In the meantime, you can read past Label Detective blogs, on topics from the legacy of eugenics in Egyptian archaeology, why a Portuguese Man O’War isn’t an individual, evolutionary theory, and more.