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The Stories Behind Objects

By Hannah L Wills, on 14 February 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

During my most recent engagement session at the Petrie Museum, I got the chance to take a look at their new exhibition ‘Exporting Egypt: Where? Why? Whose?’. This fascinating exhibition charts the journeys of some of the objects from British excavations in Egypt, conducted between the 1880s and 1980s, following these objects from the sites where they were found, to institutions around the globe. As this exhibition reveals, each and every object we encounter in a museum has a history, a past life, shaped by the circumstances of its acquisition, and an often complex mesh of politics, agendas and negotiations.

Taking a look around the exhibition got me thinking about my own research, which examines the work of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), secretary to the Royal Society under the presidency of Joseph Banks (1743-1820). Joseph Banks made his name by taking part in Captain James Cook’s first voyage aboard HMS Endeavour, which lasted from 1768 until 1771, visiting Brazil, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia. During the voyage, Banks and his team, comprised of naturalists and artists, collected specimens including fish, crustaceans, birds and plants, which were described and preserved on board the ship. These collections, when they returned to England, were taken directly to Banks’s own home in New Burlington Street, and were to form the basis of his own collection later stored in his residence at 32 Soho Square.[i]

Sir Joseph Banks (1743-1820), photo credit: Wikipedia

Having made his name on board the Endeavour voyage, Banks also played a central role in organising other expeditions, providing specific instructions for what was to be collected. Cook’s subsequent two voyages resulted in the collection of many more specimens, which, despite Banks not participating directly in the voyages, all passed through Banks as a kind of ‘hub’ for the dispersal of material. These specimens were subsequently to end up in institutions such as the Royal College of Surgeons, the Linnean Society and the British Museum.[ii]

Charles Blagden, the key figure in my research, also collected natural history specimens, which, as the historian Reginald Howe has suggested, may also have ended up in the British Museum. Whilst serving as a surgeon aboard a hospital ship during the American War of Independence, Blagden was asked to collect a number of specimens from America for his friend and fellow naturalist Daines Barrington, to be given to his friend Sir Ashton Lever for display in his museum.[iii] Perhaps not wanting to slight his friend and patron Joseph Banks, Blagden decided to send his collection, comprised of preserved animals collected from Rhode Island, jointly to both Barrington and Banks. The specimens, preserved in kegs of rum and transported aboard the Brigantine Betsy, a navy victualing ship, were to be shared “six kegs apiece” between the two men, and either kept or disposed of as each saw fit.[iv]

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever's Museum in Leicester Square, London March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Perspective interior view of Sir Ashton Lever’s Museum in Leicester Square, London, March 30 1785. Watercolour by Sarah Stone. Photo credit: State Library of New South Wales.

Some of the ways in which animal specimens made it back to Britain from far-flung shores in the eighteenth century are described in the Short directions for collecting, preserving and transporting, all kinds of natural history curiosities, published by the naturalist Johann Reinhold Forster in 1771. “All Quadrupeds of a great bulk”, Forster wrote, were to be “skinned” and “washed or brushed over with a liquor” made of Sal Ammoniac (ammonium chloride), water and mercury, before a complex procedure of stuffing and drying. “Small Quadrupeds”, on the other hand, were to be “plunged into a keg of brandy, rack or rum, and thus sent over”. For birds, to be prepared in a similar way, Forster was keen to note that the shot used to kill the animal should be “proportioned to their size”, and that “Young birds… must not be taken”.[v]

The Petrie Museum’s new exhibition is great for getting visitors to think about questions of ownership, collecting and transport—the things that I’ll often forget about as I wander through a museum admiring beautiful or intriguing objects. In the Grant Museum too, it can be easy to forget that each and every specimen has its own journey, a story to tell about who collected it and why, as well as the more gruesome tale of its preparation, storage and transport. The historian Samuel Alberti has written about the notion of object biographies in relation to museum artefacts, arguing that museums serve as a “vessel for the bundle of relationships enacted through each of the thousands of specimens on display and in store”.[vi] But the story of the object does not end when it enters the collection, as Alberti notes. As viewers we react to objects in a range of different ways, according to our memories, associations, and feelings.[vii] By hearing the reactions of visitors in UCL’s museums, I enjoy seeing how these ‘object stories’ continue to develop.

 

‘Exporting Egypt: where, why, whose?’ is on at the Petrie Museum from Tuesday 31 January to Saturday 29 April 2017, Tues-Sat 1-5pm.

[i] David Philip Miller, “Joseph Banks, Empire and ‘Centres of Calculation’ in Late Hanoverian London,” in Visions of Empire : Voyages, Botany, and Representations of Nature, ed. David Philip Miller and Peter Hanns Reill (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 27.

[ii] Ibid., 29-30.

[iii] Reginald Heber Howe, “Sir Charles Blagden, Earliest of Rhode Island Ornithologists,” The American Naturalist 39, no. 462 (1905), 398.

[iv] Letter from Charles Blagden to Joseph Banks, 28 Oct 1777, quoted in Howe “Sir Charles Blagden”, 398.

[v] Johann Reinhold Forster, A Catalogue of the Animals of North America. Containing, an Enumeration of the Known Quadrupeds, Birds, Reptiles, Fish, Insects, Crustaceous and Testaceous Animals; Many of Which Are New, and Never Described Before. To Which Are Added, Short Directions for Collecting, Preserving, and Transporting, All Kinds of Natural History Curiosities (London: B. White, 1771), 35-37.

[vi] Samuel Alberti, “Objects and the Museum,” Isis 96, no. 4 (2005): 561.

[vii] Ibid., 569.

 

 

 

 

Painted Skins & Butterfly Wings

By Gemma Angel, on 1 April 2013

Gemma Angelby Gemma Angel

 

 

 

 

 

When I first began my doctoral research into tattoo preservation three and a half years ago, I assumed that tattoo collections such as those held by the Science Museum in London were rare. Whilst collections of inked human skin are most definitely unusual, I was soon surprised and intrigued to discover that such objects exist in almost every museum archive, university anatomy department, or pathology collection that I have visited over the course of my research. The largest collections, of which the Wellcome Collection is the major exemplar, are dry-preserved and date from the 19th century – similar collections can be found across Europe, and the MNHN in Paris has a collection of 56 tattoos which are very similar to those in the Wellcome collection. Historically, these collections may be medical, anthropological, or criminological in origin.

In anatomy and pathology collections, tattoo specimens tend to be wet-preserved and date more recently, usually from the early part of the 20th century anywhere up to around the 1980s. But why are these objects preserved in anatomy and pathology departments at all? There is of course nothing pathological about tattooed skin in itself – so it seems strange that specimens like the one pictured below are displayed alongside other pathological skin specimens such as cutaneous anthrax, fibromas, keloids and glanders. What, if anything, can be learned from these tattoos in medical terms? Or are these striking collections of decorated human skin merely objects of curiosity? Often, the simple answer is that they are a little bit of both…

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections. Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Tattooed human skin specimen. UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

The collection of tattoos pictured here are a case in point. These particular tattoos belonged to one individual, whose very brief case notes have been recorded and retained along with the specimen in UCL Pathology Collections. The notes provide an intriguing glimpse into the life of the individual to whom the tattoos belonged, as well as revealing something of the clinical interests and collecting practices of the doctor who preserved them:

From a man aged 79 years who had earned his living for many years as the Tattooed Man in a circus. His entire body, except for the head and neck, hands and soles of his feet, was covered with elaborate tattoo designs. He died of peritonitis due to a perforation of an anastomatic ulcer … In tattooing, fine particles of pigment are introduced through the skin, taken up by histiocytes and become lodged in the tissue spaces of the dermis. Pigment also passes to the regional lymph glands via the lymphatics. In this case, all the superficial lymph nodes were heavily pigmented.

It is clear from these brief comments that the nature and extent of this man’s tattoos were indeed of anatomical interest to the medical practitioner: The tattooed man had been so extensively tattooed that gradual migration of ink particles resulted in the collection of pigment in the lymph glands. This demonstrates that although tattoo ink is trapped permanently under the skin following healing, it does actually travel within the body over time, filtering into the body’s tissue drainage system, and collecting in the lymph glands. Whilst this is certainly an interesting anatomical observation, it is not the pigmented lymph glands that the doctor has chosen to preserve, but rather the tattooed skin itself. Without these accompanying case notes, we would never have known that this man’s tattoos had exerted any effect on another of the body’s organs and systems at all.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin specimen Z6,  showing tattoos of a butterfly and a flying fish.UCL Pathology Collections.Photograph © Gemma Angel.

Reverse panel of tattooed human skin
specimen Z6, showing tattoos of a
butterfly and a flying fish.
UCL Pathology Collections.
Photograph © Gemma Angel.

It would be equally impossible to know whether or not these were the only tattoos he possessed – or indeed, if they all necessarily belonged to the same person. There are strong stylistic similarities between the butterfly motifs, suggesting the work of a single tattooist, or perhaps that the individual motifs were part of a larger design. But just how large or complex the design may have been, we certainly cannot tell just by looking at these 5 small tattoos. We know that they belonged to a 79-year-old man, who made his living as a Tattooed Man, only because the doctor tells us so. He or she also tells us that his body was covered in tattoos – yet only 5 small pieces have been preserved. Five carefully selected motifs, chosen by the doctor from an already complete collection, which provided the livelihood and told the life story of one unnamed man. What selection criteria did the pathologist adopt when deciding which tattoos to preserve, and which to consign to the grave? The manner in which the specimens have been excised and mounted are strikingly reminiscent of a lepidopterist‘s collection of butterflies – could this reflect the personal collecting interests of the pathologist, or perhaps even the Tattooed Man himself? Both the pathologist and Tattooed Man alike chose these butterflies – did they also share a passion for lepidoptery?

Many people will be familiar with the kind of insect specimen displays that are a staple of natural history collections – the old 19th century museum cases containing neat rows of pinned and mounted moths and butterflies, neatly organised according to subspecies and morphological characteristics. The tattooed butterflies share some remarkable similarities with these entomology collections; they are arranged one above another, and “pinned” to a support with small surgical stitches. Unusually for specimens found in pathology collections, this support is a slightly translucent black. This appears to be a deliberate choice on the part of the pathologist – the black perspex provides a contrasting ground for the display of tattoos on opposite sides of the vitrine, such that they do not visually detract from one another. These aesthetic choices suggest a nuanced interest in the collection and display of these specimens, which goes far beyond a straightforward medical interest in the anatomy of the tattoo. From the limited case notes and analysis of the specimen itself, we can learn something about the pathologist’s interest in the tattoo, but we are still no closer to being able to answer the fundamental question – why collect tattoos at all?

Butterfly display at UCL's Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

Lepidoptera display at UCL’s Grant Museum. Photograph © UCL, Grant Museum of Zoology.

There is no part of the body able to register the history of a life lived so much as the skin: wrinkles, scars and lines all map out our lives on the surface of our bodies as we age. The tattoo reinforces this unique capacity of the skin to record the traces of our experience, in the conscious act of permanently inscribing memory in skin. The pathologist, uniquely acquainted with death by virtue of their specialism, is perhaps best positioned amongst medical professionals to appreciate the peculiar relationship of the tattoo with mortality. It is a trace of the subjectivity of the deceased that is capable of outliving them, akin to a photograph or written memoir. From this point of view, it no longer seems surprising that tattoos are so often found in pathology collections; perhaps the pathologist who collected the Tattooed Man’s butterflies simply wished to preserve a small part of a colourful and remarkable life.

 

From Delphi to the Dodo: Finding Links Between Archaeology and Natural History

By Gemma Angel, on 1 October 2012

by Felicity Winkley

 

 

 

 

 

Initially, my response to the challenge of finding a link between my research and the zoological specimens in the Grant Museum was one of dread and panic. Such a thing could simply not be done – it would be impossible to engage a member of the public for long enough to travel the conversational distance from a dissected Thylacine to British archaeology. On closer inspection, however, I was to find that the museum which houses Grant’s collection of some 67,000 zoological specimens, is not, in fact, dissimilar to those great anthropological collections that were also assembled during the 19th century. The shadowy corners and densely-packed glass cases are reminiscent, certainly, of those at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, where the shelves overflow with ethnological artefacts.

And yet the similarities go beyond the simply aesthetic. Both Robert Edmund Grant ( 1793-1874  – pictured left) and Lieutenant-General Augustus Pitt Rivers (1827-1900 – pictured below) were undoubtedly, if unconsciously, influenced by a long-established tradition of collecting in England, which since the 17th century had been a gentlemanly pursuit acceptable to the social elite [1]. Indeed, for ambitious scholars it was even a method of propelling oneself up the social charts. Elias Ashmole (1617-1692) was the son of a saddler, but with a good eye and some wily investing he was able to accumulate a collection that when bequeathed to Oxford University (along with its own custom-made premises), would provide a lasting legacy to maintain both the collection and his own prestige [1]. But Ashmole was only one of any number of ‘Antiquarians’ as these collectors were soon to become known; men who, for Sweet, “were important actors in that explosion of print and ideas, that thirst for knowledge and understanding with some have called the British Enlightenment” [2].

The rise of the antiquarian popularised the collection of all kinds of objects and artefacts, from coins and medals, to maps and even fossils; the over-arching motivation was simply a thirst for information about the past, and particularly information that was not provided by the historical record. This lack of concern for the ‘what’ that was being studied, often meant that focus was instead placed upon the ‘where’, so that authors would compile an in-depth study of the local parish or county – a regional framework which brought their work into obvious connection with natural historians compiling similar studies. The connection between antiquaries and natural historians was cemented further still by their agreement on epistemological models, and a sympathetic “culture of inquiry” according to Sweet [2].

In order to find a link between my own research and the Grant Museum collections, I determined to find out whether this undeniable spirit of discovery which so connected antiquarians and natural historians during the 17th and 18th century persisted into the 19th century also – and I was very happy to discover that it did. Whilst the methodology had been modernised into a recognisable early archaeology, and the investigative locations had moved from the local county to the more exotic, there was still an undeniable relationship between antiquarian and natural historical research. Just as the history of the local parish had been a relative unknown several hundred years previously, by the 19th century researchers had begun travelling further afield to collect archaeological information alongside samples of foreign flora and fauna. And this is where Darwin comes in.

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had studied under Robert Grant during the 1820s and was much influenced by his ideas; however, his focus was by no means limited to the comparative anatomical interest they both shared. Written records show that even later on in his career, Darwin was contributing to funding for voyages that would provide evidence for archaeological investigations as well as natural-historical studies. A trip, funded in part by the Royal Society (then The Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge), to Borneo in 1878, had the archaeological aim of finding evidence for early human occupation, but plainly also had great implications for Darwin and his colleague Alfred Russell Wallace as a potential source for proving the evolution of anthropoid apes [3]. Wallace had already visited Borneo in 1855, where his observation of orangutans native only to that island and neighbouring Sumatra, prompted his composition of the very paper that would inspire Darwin’s Origin of the Species. Darwin pledged a sum of twenty pounds to the voyage [3]. Any discovery, whether made by an archaeologist, anatomist, collector or naturalist, was seen as a contribution to enlightenment. As testament to the limitless horizons of this quest for knowledge, signing off his letter, Darwin adds:

“I wish someone as energetic as yourself [John Evans] would organise an expedition to the triassic lacustrine beds in S. Africa, where the cliffs are said to be almost composed of bones.”

Evidently, he was already planning the next adventure! [3]

 

[1] Swann, M. (2001) Curiosities and Texts: The Culture of Collecting in Early Modern England Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press

[2] Sweet, R. (2004) Antiquaries: The Discovery of the Past in Eighteenth-Century Britain London: Hambledon and London (pp. xiv)

[3] Sherratt, A. (2002) Darwin among the archaeologists: The John Evans nexus and the Borneo Caves Antiquity 76 pp.151-157