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Question of the Week: What’s this Museum For?

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

A couple of weeks ago, whilst engaging in the Grant Museum, I started talking to some secondary school students on a group visit to the museum. During their visit, the students had been asked to think about a number of questions, one of which was “what is the purpose of this museum?” When asked by some of the students, I started by telling them a little about the history of the museum, why the collection had been assembled, and how visitors and members of UCL use the museum today. As we continued chatting, I started to think about the question in more detail. How did visitors experience the role of museums in the past? How do museums themselves understand their role in today’s world? What could museums be in the future? It was only during our discussion that I realised quite how big this question was, and it is one I have continued to think about since.

What are UCL museums for?

The Grant Museum, in a similar way to both the Petrie and Art Museums, was founded in 1828 as a teaching collection. Named after Robert Grant, the first professor of zoology and comparative anatomy at UCL, the collection was originally assembled in order to teach students. Today, the museum is the last surviving university zoological museum in London, and is still used as a teaching resource, alongside being a public museum. As well as finding classes of biology and zoology students in the museum, you’re also likely to encounter artists, historians and students from a variety of other disciplines, using the museum as a place to get inspiration and to encounter new ideas. Alongside their roles as spaces for teaching and learning, UCL museums are also places for conversation, comedy, film screenings and interactive workshops — a whole host of activities that might not have taken place when these museums were first created. As student engagers, we are part of this process, bringing our own research, from a variety of disciplines not all naturally associated with the content of each of the museums, into the museum space.

 

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

A Murder-Mystery Night at the Grant Museum (Image credit: Grant Museum / Matt Clayton)

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

Taking a look at the seventeenth and eighteenth-century roots of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford and the British Museum in London, it is possible to see how markedly the role and function of the museum has changed over time. These museums were originally only open to elite visitors. The 1697 statues of the Ashmolean Museum required that ‘Every Person’ wishing to see the museum pay ‘Six Pence… for the Space of One Hour’.[i] In its early days, the British Museum was only open to the public on weekdays at restricted times, effectively excluding anyone except the leisured upper classes from attending.[ii]

Another feature of these early museums was the ubiquity of the sense of touch within the visitor experience, as revealed in contemporary visitor accounts. The role of these early museums was to serve as a place for learning about objects and the world through sensory experience, something that, although present in museum activities including handling workshops, tactile displays, and projects such as ‘Heritage in Hospitals’, is not typically associated with the modern visitor experience. Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach (1683-1784), a distinguished German collector, recorded his visit to Oxford in 1710, and his handling of a range of museum specimens. Of his interactions with a Turkish goat specimen, Uffenbach wrote, ‘it is very large, yellowish-white, with… crinkled hair… as soft as silk’.[iii] As Constance Classen has argued, the early museum experience resembled that of the private ‘house tour’, where the museum keeper, assuming the role of the ‘gracious host’, was expected to offer objects up to be touched, with the elite visitor showing polite and learned interest by handling the proffered objects.[iv]

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature - a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

Aristocratic visitors handle objects and books in a Dutch cabinet of curiosities, Levinus Vincent, Illustration from the book, Wondertooneel der Nature – a Cabinet of Curiosities or Wunderkammern in Holland. c. 1706-1715 (Image credit: Universities of Strasbourg)

 

How do museums think about their function today?

In understanding how museums think about their role in the present, it can be useful to examine the kind of language museums employ when describing visitor experiences. The British Museum regularly publishes exhibition evaluation reports on its website, detailing visitor attendance, identity, motivation and experience. These reports are fascinating, particularly in the way they classify different visitor types and motivations for visiting a museum. Visitor motivations are broken down into four categories: ‘Spiritual’, ‘Emotional’, ‘Intellectual’ and ‘Social’, with each connected to a different type of museum function.[v]

Those who are driven by spiritual motivations are described as seeing the museum as a Church — a place ‘to escape and recharge, food for the soul’. Those motivated by emotion are understood as searching for ‘Ambience, deep sensory and intellectual experience’, the role of the museum being described as akin to that of a spa. For the intellectually motivated, the museum’s role is conceptualised as that of an archive, a place to develop knowledge and conduct a ‘journey of discovery’. For social visitors, the museum is an attraction, an ‘enjoyable place to spend time’ where facilitates, services and welcoming staff improve the experience. Visitors are by no means homogenous, their unique needs and expectations varying between every visit they make, as the Museum’s surveys point out. Nevertheless, the language of these motivations reveals how museum professionals and evaluation experts envisage the role of the modern museum, a place which serves multiple functions in line with what a visitor might expect to gain from the time they spend there.

What will the museum of the future be like?

In an article published in Frieze magazine a couple of years ago, Sam Thorne, director of Nottingham Contemporary, invited a group of curators to share their visions on the future of museums. Responses ranged from the notion of the museum as a ‘necessary sanctuary for the freedom of ideas’, to more dystopian fears of increased corporate funding and the museum as a ‘business’.[vi] These ways of approaching the role of the museum are by no means exclusive; there are countless other ways that museums have been used, can be used, and may be used in the future. My thinking after the conversation I had in the Grant Museum focussed on my own research and experience with museums, but this is a discussion that can and should be had by everyone — those who work in museums, those who go to museums, and those who might never have visited a museum before.

 

What do you think a museum is for? Tweet us @ResearchEngager or come and find us in the UCL museums and carry on the discussion!

 

References:

[i] R. F. Ovenell, The Ashmolean Museum 1683-1894 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1986), 87.

[ii] Fiona Candlin has written on the class politics of early museums, in “Museums, Modernity and the Class Politics of Touching Objects,” in Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, ed. Helen Chatterjee, et al. (Oxford: Berg, 2008).

[iii] Zacharias Konrad von Uffenbach, Oxford in 1710: From the Travels of Zacharias Conrad von Uffenbach, trans. W. H. Quarrell and W. J. C. Quarrell (Oxford: Blackwell, 1928), 28.

[iv] Constance Classen, “Touch in the Museum,” in The Book of Touch, ed. Constance Classen (Oxford Berg, 2005), 275.

[v] For this post I took a look at ‘More than mummies A summative report of Egypt: faith after the pharaohs at the British Museum May 2016’, Appendix A: Understanding motivations, 27.

[vi] Sam Thorne, “What is the Future of the Museum?” Frieze 175, (2015), accessed online.

Label Detective: Are Bacteria ‘Ordinary Animals?’

By Kyle Lee-Crossett, on 17 October 2017

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

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

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

IMG_1102

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

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

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

Picture1

Darwin’s Ordinary Tree of Pigeons. Photos by author

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

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

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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

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

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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

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

 

 

Notes

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

What’s a monkey, what’s a primate?

By Catryn Williams, on 8 October 2017

I have something to admit. Before starting my PhD researching the primate gut microbiome, I didn’t completely know the difference between the terms “monkey” and “primate”. Perhaps this is somewhat forgivable given that I was primarily a microbiologist, but I remember still feeling a sort of sneaky shame in googling the differences after I read the project title, like it was something I should definitely know.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

This is a monkey (a Gibraltar macaque). Licensed under CC0 3.0.

As it turns out, the rules of what’s what in the primate tree are pretty simple once you know them. The evolutionary history of primates can be traced back to between 63 – 74 million years ago (MYA), and as they stand today can be divided into two main branches, named Strepsirrhini and Haplorrhini, which based on molecular studies are hypothesised to have branched away from each other around 64 MYA. Interestingly, the two groups are named after their noses, with Strepsirrhini meaning “wet-nosed” and Haplorrhini meaning “dry-nosed” and were called so by a French naturalist friend of Robert Grant, named Étienne Geoffroy Saint-Hilaire.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as "prosimians", although this is an outdated term now. Licenced under CC0 1.0.

A simple primate evolutionary tree showing the major branchings. Strepsirrhini were formerly known colloquially as “prosimians”, although this is an outdated term now. Licensed under CC0 1.0.

Strepsirrhini primates (unsurprisingly) tend to have wet noses, as well as a more pointed, almost dog-like snout rather than the flatter faces of their Haplorrhini cousins, and are thought to be most similar in appearance to the first primates. The clades that make up the Strepsirrhini primates are the lemurs of Madagascar, the lorises from South East Asia and India, and the pottos and galagos (or bushbabies) of Africa. Until recently, tarsiers were also thought to belong to Strepsirrhini, however now they’ve been moved to the sister clade of Haplorrhini.

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the whole clade. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A selection of strepsirrhines spanning the clade. Licensed under CC0 3.0

If you’ve been wondering up to this point where the monkeys are, you need look no further than the Haplorrhines. In terms of number of species, this clade is almost entirely monkeys. The major two branches within this clade are between Catarrhini (meaning “down-nosed”), or Old World monkeys and apes found across Africa and Asia, and Platyrrhini (meaning “flat-nosed”), or New Wold monkeys found in Central and South America.

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licenced under CC0 3.0

A map showing the distribution of monkeys across the globe, with Old World monkeys coloured in red and New World monkeys coloured in orange. Licensed under CC0 3.0

Within the catarrhines, the apes, or Hominoidea, comprise gibbons, orang-utans, gorillas, chimpanzees and, of course, us. Apes are thought to have formed their own distinct clade from Old World monkeys (or Cercopithecoidea) around 29MYA, so if you wanted to get really technical, and you were the kind of person who happily accepts birds as being modern day dinosaurs, it wouldn’t be entirely wrong to say that apes are actually monkeys too.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

An orang-utan in Borneo, Malaysia. Licensed under CC0 3.0.

So, hopefully the next time you get stuck wondering whether the primate you’re looking at is a monkey or not, you’ll be a little more clued in.

 

If a salamander can grow back a limb, why can’t I?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 29 August 2017

Regeneration has been the deemed the “Holy Grail” of scientific and medical research: the ability to regrow a limb, replace damaged tissue and heal without scars would completely change the face of modern medicine. Whilst regeneration, on a large scale, still precludes us Homo sapiens, other members of the animal kingdom are light years ahead.

W584

Accession no. W584

Not wanting to completely disregard humans, it is important so say that we are capable of a small degree of regeneration. We can heal the upper layer of our skin without scarring, regenerate parts of our gut lining, expand our liver to replace damaged parts, and can even regenerate the very tips of our fingers. However, if you go to the far left corner of the Grant museum you will come face to face with an axolotl salamander, whose regenerative powers are worthy of a science fiction character.

Like many salamander species, the axolotl has the remarkable ability of re-growing lost limbs. An axolotl’s leg can be amputated hundreds of times and it will continue to grow back perfectly! However, what makes axolotls so unique is that as well as regenerating their limbs they can also regenerate their jaw, tail, heart and spinal cord, all without scarring. If you want to find out more about the extraordinary features of the axolotl, read this post from the Grant Museums’ Specimen of the Week blog.

To recreate the limb the axolotl, and other salamander species, need to be able to regrow everything – bone, muscle, blood vessels, nerves – and all of this needs to be built from scratch. So, how do they do this?

Regeneration relies on the formation of highly pluripotent cells that have the capacity to develop into multiple cell types. These types of cells are known as stem cells, and they are the building blocks of all embryo development. As stem cells mature during development, they become restricted to a defined cell fate and lose the ability to become multiple cell types. However, salamanders, and other creatures that can regenerate, are able to revert defined cells, at the site of the lost limb, back to this immature stem-like state by a process known as de-differentiation. Once in an immature state these cells congregate together to form a blastema, which is capable of growing into all the different cell types of the missing limb

CC: Wikipedia

Salamander. CC: Wikipedia

Despite our understanding the basic steps of regeneration, the intricacies of each step are extremely complicated and a lot of questions still remain unanswered. Imagine having to reconstruct an entirely new building from previously used disassembled building materials, without any blueprint or instructions. How would you know what to make and where each building material goes? This is the exact dilemma facing the cells of the regenerating limb, and how exactly they overcome this hurdle continues to puzzle scientists.

OK there are a lot of complex mechanisms involved – but surely if a simple salamander can regrow a limb we should be able to as well?

Well actually our increased complexity could be what’s stopping us from regenerating. All our cell behaviours need to be tightly regulated in order to maintain the function of our complex organ systems and prevent aberrant growth. If cells are reverted back to their immature state they will be more difficult to control and thus more likely to misbehave, which could result in the formation of a tumour or loss of organ function. With less complex animals, such as the salamander, these misbehaving cells are unlikely to inflict as much damage and cause as much of a problem.

Some researchers have proposed that we have the capacity to regenerate but, for unknown reasons, this mechanism was switched off during evolution. The theory is that if our genetic code allowed us to develop entire limbs and structures in the womb, then that information must still exist inside of us. It could be as simple as switching on a few genes and – hey presto – you’ve built yourself a limb! Furthermore, recent discoveries have identified genes involved in the regeneration process of the axolotl that are turned off in humans. Could these hold the key to regeneration?

Accession no. S369

Accession no. S369

Another theory is that it is easier for amphibians to regenerate, as they are cold blooded and therefore have fewer metabolic requirements. A salamander can hide away for months without eating, waiting for their limb to grow back. However, this would be a death sentence for mammals that would need to heal much faster in order to keep up with their metabolic demands. Moreover, the regeneration time of the axolotl is far from rapid, if humans were to regenerate at the same rate it would take up to 15-20 years to regrow a full limb! Therefore, alternative medical interventions are likely to provide a more pragmatic solution.

The axolotl and other salamanders are not the only animals that can regenerate. Hydras, starfish, flat worms, zebrafish, and even the African spiny mouse all have the capacity to regenerate themselves to a certain degree. So next time you encounter one of these creatures whilst exploring the Grant Museum, remember that although they may look simple these animals have science fiction powers that, right now, humans can only dream about.

 

The Museal and the Museum: Two Case Studies in Death

By Niall Sreenan, on 30 March 2017

It will not be lost upon anybody that visits the Grant Museum of Zoology or the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology at UCL that these are places of death. Both are a kind of necropolis, containing preserved remains. The remains of the biologically dead, in the former; in the latter, the preserved remains – biological and cultural – of the long deceased people of ancient North African civilisations, many of which are themselves vessels or tokens designed to smooth the passage of the dead to another, immaterial realm.

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology

The morbid nature of these museums and the objects they house would not be lost on the 20th Century German philosopher Theodor Adorno. The word “museum” derives from the Greek mouseion, meaning “seat of the muses”, a fact which emphasises the supposedly inspirational nature of these cultural institutions. But for Adorno, the creativity-inspiring significance of the museum had in contemporary Western society been eclipsed by its material and cultural function. In his essay “Valéry Proust Museum”, Adorno dwells upon the macabre nature of the museum, and the art gallery. The German term museal (“museum-like), he tells us, is a suggestively pejorative one used to describe the character of certain artefacts: objects to which the observer or museum-goer ‘no longer has a vital relationship and which are in the process of dying’. We come close to this in the English language when, by saying something or someone “belongs in a museum”, we describe people, technologies, institutions, or ideas that have far exceeded their sell-by date and have become decrepit.

Adorno’s observation is literally true in many cases. Walk through the atria of the Science Museum in South Kensington and you will see installed behind glass a host of superannuated but undeniably contemporary artefacts – Bakelite telephones, Atari computers, horsehair toothbrushes, and so forth. We are being told: by virtue of being useless, these objects are displayed in this museum. Or perhaps: by installing these objects in a museum, these objects should now be considered obsolete (even if they are still technically useful).

The same could be said about art. Once installed in a museum or gallery, a painting, print, or sculpture becomes a commodity whose value is defined primarily by its capacity to create profit – for the museum, the artist, the collector, or the dealer. The life of that artwork – its social, spiritual, philosophical, aesthetic value outside that of commerce or “cultural capital” – has been destroyed by the same process of display operative in the Science Museum, which by selecting and displaying objects consigns them to the grave. Art is on display because it is monetarily valuable; being in a museum ascribes monetary value to art. Forget the muses, Adorno says: ‘Museum and mausoleum are connected by more than phonetic association. Museums are like the family sepulchres of works of art. They testify to the neutralisation of culture.’

This conception of the museum as mausoleum can illuminate two apparently divergent kinds of museum display, both of which can be understood to drain the life from the objects they seek to exhibit. First, any attempt to place works of art in so-called “authentic”, historical settings is not only a shabby form of nostalgia. Such a move, in a desperate attempt to claw back an irretrievable cultural tradition, reduces to a form of historical citation the artwork it seeks to celebrate. This can lead only to melancholy. For such a purely referential and reverential effort to recuperate the past will always fail, leaving us to lament uselessly the passing of historical time. We resign ourselves to the fact that the historical context that gave life to the artwork is lost to us; and that, therefore, the artwork is itself dead.

The seemingly contrasting practice of deliberately wrenching art from its historical and aesthetic context – such as in the contemporary fashion for “white cube” galleries – can be understood as equally unsatisfactory and inauthentic, since this form of exhibition strips art of its history altogether. Historical nostalgia might at lead us, at least, to a despairing and therefore critical conception of the impossibility of grasping the life of art in undistorted historical context. Decontextualisation wears inauthenticity as a badge of honour. The false trappings of tradition and the over-serious officiousness of the desire for authenticity of which it is symptomatic squeezes the life from art entirely. Willing dilettantism denies us the opportunity of understanding the historical nature of art — however incomplete that understanding might be.

This double bind is a useful way of understanding the objects we see in the Grant Museum in UCL. Adorno’s analysis in “Valery Proust Museum” is aimed at art and art museums primarily. But reading in this way, for example, the literally dead animals in a museum of zoology can illuminate how, through being displayed, they have become museal. How does one display a dead animal? In a mock-up of its original habitat – a tawdry and macabre mirror of the attempt to display art in “authentic” context? Or should we simply display it in a glass box, stripped of context – continuing the violent logic of ecological, geographical displacement that resulted in that animal’s death and preservation?

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew (Z2789)

A taxidermic preservation of an African Elephant Shrew, The Grant Museum (Z2789)

The former, at least, by offering us a glimpse into the original habitat of a species might offer us an unintended critique of how in British museums of zoology many of the species on display are relics of a violent colonial past: animals whose death and passage to Britain was made possible by an imperial infrastructure of scientists, surgeons, and interested amateurs, scattered across British dominions. However, even the act of preservation itself is a false kind of de-contextualisation. While the skeletons, preserved, and stuffed species that line the walls of the Grant Museum were intended first for scientific education and research, as a spectacle they take on a distinctly melancholy aspect. This is especially true for the display of extinct species; thylacine parts, dodo bones, a quagga skeleton: these are embodiments of a desire to preserve what is dead, to recuperate – through entirely artificial means – what is irretrievably lost.

Could we not apply a similar logic to the objects in the Petrie Museum? How do we display the remains of a dead civilisation, and in what way a do we render them historically or immediately lifeless? The set of Fayum mummy portraits housed in this museum pose a suggestive example of just such a problem. Excavated by Flinders Petrie in the late-19th and early-20th centuries, these strikingly naturalist portraits were ‘part of the funerary equipment needed for entry into the afterlife’ for elite members of the Fayum people who lived in Egypt under Roman rule. Such information, we might think, animates these portraits; they are a record of the funerary practices of an ancient people, bringing to life the death-rituals of the past. However, the manner in which these portraits are displayed now and were displayed originally suggests something else.

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Mummy Portrait, Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology (UC19611)

Today, these panels sit alongside each other in a row: a set of faces painted in Greco-Roman style lined up in sequence, like the photo album of an ancient family. And Petrie himself first displayed these as if they were European art portraits, set upon the walls of a London room in 1889. Crucially, these two forms of display are made possible by the fact that these portraits are torn out from their funerary and material contexts. Each portrait was literally cut from the mummy to which they belonged. These portraits exist in a museum only by virtue of an act of violent de-contextualisation, which no amount of historical or cultural context can reverse or palliate. What was alive for the dead in the past, has been exhumed for the living today and in turn made museal.

Adorno’s reflections on “the museal” raise important questions about how we display objects in museums, the forms of contextualisation and de-contextualisation to which we submit these objects, and the historical and cultural forces their display reflects. It also mirrors long-running debates in the Humanities about how we should interpret all forms of cultural production. Rita Felski puts it this way: ‘Critics […] find themselves zigzagging between dichotomies of text versus context, word versus world, internalist versus externalist explanations of works of art.’ Scholars in the humanities simply do not agree about whether we should stick primarily to interpreting the objects themselves, or whether we need to focus on the social, political, linguistic, and historical contexts that gave rise to those objects.

This essay will not attempt to resolve these problems, but instead has attempted to draw attention to the way in which objects in a museum are involved in a seemingly irresolvable tension. What is easy to ignore, however, is how visitors to museums themselves respond to objects in ways that go beyond the pinched contestations of academic critique. Over four years of engaging with visitors across UCL’s three public museums, I have seen people respond the museum collections in ways that categorisation and critique cannot always account for. Visitors to the Grant Museum respond with both intellectual wonder and personal revulsion to the often grotesque preserved remains of 19th century science’s subjects; in the Petrie museum I have talked with people reflecting upon a divided sense of historical vertigo, ruminating upon the impossibility of knowing the lives of Ancient Egyptians, while at the same time marvelling at the uncanny sense of intimacy evoked by one’s proximity to the hair combs, sandals, and kohl pots of ordinary ancients. Responses to objects in UCL’s museums are never absolutely historically critical nor completely naïve. They are complex aggregates of both; mixtures or compounds of thinking, feeling, scepticism, and wonder. If I have learned anything from working in these museums it is that the necessary but sometimes leaden abstractions of academic criticism must always return to the organic complexity of living responses to museum objects.

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.

 

 

 

 

A Novel Idea: Popular Culture Influences in Zoology

By Arendse I Lund, on 18 August 2016

ArendseBy Arendse Lund

Hidden in one of the far cabinets in the Grant Museum, nestled amongst parasites and other unusual filter feeders, sits a much overlooked worm. This invertebrate marine creature is known as a Chaetopterus and is unusual because it has lived its whole adult life in a tube constructed from underwater sediment and attached to a rock. More colloquially though, the Chaetopterus is referred to as a parchment worm.

Parchment Worm

This worm (image on the right, Grant Museum, G52) has actually nothing in common with parchment, which usually is made of calf-, sheep-, or goatskin and used to create manuscripts. Nor does it have anything to do with those worms that destroy manuscripts to the detriment of scholarship everywhere. Actually, it takes its name from the papery, parchment-like burrows it lives in.

Similar to how visitors who are fans of Pokémon are thrilled to espy some of the animals the monsters are based on, book-loving visitors to the museum seem to take great delight in this worm’s name, granting it a celebrity status higher than it might otherwise have. A worm, by any other name, might not be as popular.

Literary lovers will also be happy that spiders and other arachnids have book lungs, respiratory organs unrelated to the lungs of humans. This diagram from John Henry Comstock’s aptly titled The Spider Book depicts a cross section of a spider’s book lung. These lungs are arranged with horizontal, leaf-like folds. Composed of stacks of alternating air pockets, these “pages” usually do not need to move to work. Similarly, horseshoe crabs have book gills, which are external appendages rather than internal organs.

Spider Book Lung

Figure 2: A spider’s book lung with the #3 marking the leaves of the book lung (Comstock, The Spider Book, pg. 146)

Luckily for fans of whimsy, there is a fair amount of freedom involved in describing or naming species. The International Code of Zoological Nomenclature instructs that: “Authors should exercise reasonable care and consideration in forming new names to ensure that they are chosen with their subsequent users in mind and that, as far as possible, they are appropriate, compact, euphonious, memorable, and do not cause offence.” This leniency with naming animals, in comparison to naming astronomical bodies, has allowed for newly discovered species to be named after expedition benefactors, popular celebrities, and even mythical creatures.

In the late 1990s, a species of turtle was dubbed Psephophorus terrypratchetti after Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series takes place on that back of a giant turtle. A species of ancient lizard was given the moniker Clevosaurus sectumsemper as an allusion to the vicious spell Severus Snape invents in the Harry Potter series. Similarly, a 66 million year-old dinosaur was named Dracorex Hogwartsia, or the “Dragon King of Hogwarts,” and resembles the fictional Hungarian Horntail. Dragons seem to be a popular source of naming inspiration: Two recently discovered ants were even named after Daenerys Targaryen’s dragons from Game of Thrones: Pheidole drogon and Pheidole viserion.

Pheidole Viserion

Figure 3: Pheidole viserion, whose spiked appearance and blonde color caused it to be named after the dragon from Game of Thrones. (Photo: Okinawa Institute of Science and Technology).

While all these are fairly straight-forward allusions to fictional works, one paleontologist took it even further when she discovered a fossil tetrapod near a quarry in Scotland. She developed a name which only works in translation: Eucritta melanolimnetes, or “the true creature from the black lagoon.”

Sometimes that creativity fails though. An early twentieth-century biologist, overwhelmed at the prospect of naming a whole slew of new moth species at once, decided on: Eucosma bobana, E. cocana, E. dodana, E. fofana, E. hohana, E. kokana, E. lolana and E. momana.

But with thousands of new species discovered a year, perhaps that’s understandable.

On the Origin of Pokémon Species

By Arendse I Lund, on 27 July 2016

Arendseby Arendse Lund

Last week, I was in the Grant Museum of Zoology when a cry came that a Pokémon had been spotted! Mobiles out, the visitors advanced on the creature and succeeded in capturing it. Surrounded by zoological specimens meticulously collected over centuries, here were people amassing their own digital collection of creatures. From a mouse that shoots lightning bolts to a shellfish that poisons with its lick, these creatures, collectively called Pokémon, take a variety of forms and all have different abilities. Many of these Pokémon are based on real animals.

TapirFor example, take Drowzee: These psychic Pokémon eat dreams and are based on the chiefly nocturnal tapirs, animals indigenous to tropical America and Southeast Asia. Tapirs have short legs and the Malayan tapirs are two-toned just like their virtual counterparts; they also have long, flexible snouts which allow them to grab foliage beyond their reach and even act as a snorkel when swimming. The Japanese word for tapir, baku, refers to both the zoological animal and a spirit in folklore which consumes dreams—just like its Pokémon counterpart.

PangolinAnother example are Sandslash, which have long claws for burrowing, feature brown quills covering their bodies, and will roll into a ball in order to defend themselves from attack. These Pokémon take their inspiration from the pangolin, which are sometimes referred to as scaly anteaters. However, they are more closely related to giant pandas. The name derives from the Malay word pengguling, meaning “something that rolls up.” They have overlapping keratin scales armoring their backs, with tails strong enough to hang from trees, and a tongue that, when extended, is longer than its body. These incredible creatures are found in Asia and Africa but are sadly the most trafficked animals in the world.

DugongThen there’s Seel, which evolves into Dewgong. In these two Pokémon, everything’s in the names: The former is based off of a seal and the latter a dugong. In appearance, dugongs are similar to manatees but both male and female dugongs grow two tusks—this is reflected in its adorable Pokémon counterpart. The semi-nomadic dugongs’ habitat extends throughout the Indo-West Pacific but they mostly stay in the bays around Australia; their conservation status is listed as vulnerable due to overdevelopment of the coastal areas and excessive fishing. Dugongs derive their name from the Malay word duyung, meaning “lady of the sea” and the species is possibly the origin of the mermaid myth.

There are many more examples of the real-life basis for Pokémon: axolotl for Mudkip, tadpoles for Poliwag, and racoons for Zigzagoon, to name just a few. The creator of Pokémon, Satoshi Tajiri, was heavily influenced by the type of creatures he found while insect collecting as a child. He used to sneak out into rice paddies and look under rocks for beetles. In a 1999 interview, he bemoaned the disappearance of those paddies and said of his love for the outdoors, “As a child, I wanted to be an entomologist. Insects fascinated me. Every new insect was a wonderful mystery. And as I searched for more, I would find more. If I put my hand in a river, I would get a crayfish. Put a stick underwater and make a hole, look for bubbles and there were more creatures.” These findings influenced many of the creatures that would make up the Pokémon world.

As both the Grant and Petrie Museums are PokéStops, it’s great to see people encouraged to check out the museum collections as they pursue their Pokémon. Perhaps most fascinating of all, these virtual Pokémon collections now spark conversations with strangers over techniques and the best places to acquire rarer species in a strikingly similar way to amassing physical collections of any sort.

And any avid collector, be it of stamps or insects, can understand the lure of the Pokémon slogan: “Gotta catch ‘em all!”

Engaging Conversations: What do a shift in the Grant Museum and the diaries of Charles Blagden have in common?

By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills

 

 

I’m thrilled to have recently joined the team of student engagers at UCL, and to have had my very first shift in the Grant Museum this month. As a historian of science, working on Charles Blagden (1748-1820), Royal Society secretary to the famous naturalist and patron of science Joseph Banks, I instantly found connections between the museum’s natural history specimens and my own subject interests. However, during my very first shift, I discovered another more personal link between my own PhD research and my experiences as a student engager.

Blagden

Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

My work on Charles Blagden involves reading and transcribing some of his extensive diary, which he kept for most of his life, now looked after in the archives of the Royal Society. In his diary, Blagden recorded a daily inventory of his activities: where he went, whom he saw, and whom he dined with (Blagden was never one to miss out on a gastronomic get-together!).

Within this inventory-style diary are often records of the actual conversations had around the breakfast, lunch or dinner table. A friend of naturalists, botanists and all manner of scientific fellows of the Royal Society, Blagden frequently had conversations about exotic looking artefacts from fascinating and far away places, collected during the latest voyages of exploration. What’s more, many of these conversations took place with the objects of discussion right before the eyes of the company. During my first shift as a student engager, it struck me how chatting to visitors about strange and exotic creatures—ones which we had right before our eyes—seemed to echo what Blagden got up to on a nearly daily basis, over 200 years ago.

Something I’ve particularly noticed in Blagden’s dinner-table conversations is the use of comparison, and a fascination with the exotic. When in conversation about animal husbandry in China, Blagden was thrilled to learn how buffaloes, instead of horses, were used to plough fields—a very strange sight indeed! When talking about different species of nut, collected by naturalists on various voyages, Blagden and his friends compared them in size, shape and even taste, to those they had seen before, allowing them to make sense of new and exciting flora and fauna in relation to those they already understood.

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

Cookie Cutter Shark Jaw, photo credit: Grant Museum of Zoology (V415).

Chatting to visitors in front of exotic looking specimens in the Grant Museum, I noticed just how often we made use of comparisons between a strange looking skeleton and something we both knew well. Sometimes this comparison was suggested by the name of the creature. Standing in front of the cookiecutter shark jaw with one visitor, we both shuddered with a kind of macabre delight at how this animal uses its cookie-cutter like teeth to cut round lumps of flesh out of its victims, just as a real cookie-cutter is used to cut shapes out of a piece of dough.

There is definitely a thrill to seeing something new and exotic, something from far away, or something more mundane that you’ve simply never noticed before. As a student engager, I’m really looking forward to my next shifts in the Grant, Petrie and Art museums—not least for the opportunities I’ll get to see and learn about something completely new, and to chat about it with visitors, just as Blagden and his friends discussed the latest curiosities that made their way to London in the late eighteenth century.

 

Question of the week:

How do older people benefit from domestic animals?

By Ann E M Liljas, on 3 June 2015

A conversation with a visitor at the Grant museum about my research on ageing led to the question ‘How do older people benefit from domestic animals?’

Human-animal interaction is a field of study that has been scientifically explored since the 1980’s and has ever since has a great focus on the emotional and positive aspects of pets including health benefits. However animals have been used as an aid in treating mental and physical health problems since late 16th century. Research studies have shown that animals are great at keeping people company, providing emotional support and a sense of physical and psychological wellbeing. This is particularly important to older people who are more likely to be disabled than younger adults and this may lead to difficulties doing things and meeting friends which can result in poorer quality of life including low mood and feeling lonely. Pets can play a very useful role making people feel happier and research has shown that older people who have a pet socialise and talk more, not only with the pet but with other people too. Pets can also help us feeling less anxious and can even improve our abstract thinking, concentration and motivation.

Another common health problem in older people is dementia. Someone with dementia has problems with thinking or memory and could for example struggle to recall events that happened recently, find it difficult to plan and organise things, and lose track of the day. This is because their brains are not fully functioning. Interestingly, spending time with a pet can in just a few months’ time improve brain activity in people suffering from dementia. This make researchers think that pets may help slowing down the development of dementia.

References:
Odendaal, JSJ. Animal-assisted therapy – magic or medicine? Journal of Psychosomatic Research. 2000;49(4):275-280

Kawamura, N. et al. Long-term evaluation of animal-assisted therapy for institutionalized elderly people: a preliminary result. Psychogeriatrics. 2007;(7): 8–13

Bernabei, V. et al. Animal-assisted interventions for elderly patients affected by dementia or psychiatric disorders: a review. Journal of Psychiatric Research. 2013;(47):762-773

Domestic cat

 

 

 

 

Picture: domestic cat on display at Grant museum