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Season’s (Philosophical) Feastings

By Hannah L Wills, on 13 December 2017

Christmas is a time for overindulgence, so let’s have some tales of eighteenth-century feasting, with a twist from the history of science.

In my research, I examine the diary of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), physician, natural philosopher, and secretary to London’s Royal Society. One of the things I’ve been most struck by in my work on Blagden’s diary is the ever-presence of food and feasting within the social and scientific worlds of the late eighteenth century. Blagden’s diary reveals a near-daily itinerary of dining engagements where politicians, fellows of the Royal Society, and members of London’s well-to-do gathered to discuss news, politics, and the latest developments in natural knowledge over a range of lavish and often exotic meals. 

Scientific gatherings and feasts

A typical day for Blagden in the year 1795 began with a trip to the London home of Sir Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, for breakfast. Though the diary gives little indication of the food on offer, it does reveal that at these gatherings participants discussed news, politics, and natural philosophy, all over breakfast. On some occasions, Blagden and Banks conducted experiments, as revealed in Blagden’s diary entry for 19 February 1795: ‘Breakfasted at Sir Joseph Banks’s. all civil: made some experiments on crystallisation of nitre’.[i] This experiment was one that investigated the properties of a key ingredient in the manufacture of saltpetre (potassium nitrate) used in the manufacture of explosives.

On Thursdays, before the weekly meetings of the Royal Society, Blagden attended the Royal Society Club, a dining club for fellows of the Society held at the Crown and Anchor Inn on the Strand. While meetings of the club were intended to be social, scientific matters were inevitably discussed while members feasted on a variety of foods.[ii] The Royal Society archives contain some of the menus from these meetings, which at a dinner held on 23 October 1783 included ‘A Turtle’, which had for several days before the dinner been allowed to roam at Banks’s London home, ‘Scate’ (the fish skate), ‘Harricot of Mutton’ (a mutton stew), ‘a Hare’, ‘another dish of Turtle’, ‘Potatoes’, ‘Cold Ribs of Lamb’, ‘Breast of Veal’, ‘Haddock’ and finally ‘more of the Turtle’.[iii]

Feasting as research

As well as being a convivial aid to the discussion of natural philosophical topics, eating was also a central part of investigating nature. At gatherings hosted by Banks, visitors indulged in the consumption of various plants and animals, many sourced from exotic locations. One entry in Blagden’s diary reveals a particular gathering during which guests enjoyed several nuts brought by the botanist Richard Molesworth, named in Blagden’s diary as ‘Buticosa’ and ‘Sawena’. Blagden described them as ‘both pleasant to eat; one a sort of buttery nut, the other larger & more like walnut’.[iv]

Such behaviour might seem eccentric and even dangerous to us depending on the kinds of exotic fare on offer. Banks was frequently targeted by contemporary satire with his ‘philosophical’ feasting caricatured in a sketch by the artist Thomas Rowlandson. In ‘The Fish Supper’ (below) we see Banks’s guests, possibly including Blagden, eagerly preparing to devour an alligator specimen, while Banks, on the right-hand side of the image, greedily gnaws on a snake.

Thomas Rowlandson, Sir Joseph Banks about to Eat an Alligator (‘The Fish Supper’), 1788, ink and watercolour on paper (Image credit: © Tate (2014), CC-BY-NC-ND 3.0 Unported)

 

Festive feasting, with a bang

Experiments combined with dining did on occasion produce dangerous results. For a final festive example, we turn to an anecdote of the earlier eighteenth century. On Christmas Day 1750, Blagden’s contemporary Benjamin Franklin conducted an ill-fated experiment in cooking a turkey. Though today perhaps best known as one of the founding fathers of America, Franklin was also a renowned natural philosopher, famed for his electrical experiments. In April 1749, Franklin wrote a letter detailing an experiment he intended to make where ‘A turkey is to be killed for our dinner by the electrical shock, and roasted by the electrical jack’.[v] Franklin repeated this experiment on Christmas Day the following year with disastrous results, describing it as:

an Experiment in Electricity that I desire never to repeat… I inadvertently took the whole [shock] thro’ my own Arms and Body… the flash was very great and the crack as loud as a Pistol; yet my Senses being instantly gone, I neither Saw the one nor heard the other’.[vi]

Franklin’s turkey cooking is definitely a dining experiment not to be tried at home!

 

 

References:

[i] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 19 Feb 1795, f. 47r.

[ii] For more information on the dining clubs of the Royal Society, including its membership, see T. E. Allibone, The Royal Society and Its Dining Clubs (Oxford: Pergamon Press, 1976).

[iii] Ibid., 121.

[iv] Royal Society Library, Charles Blagden’s Diary Vol 3, entry dated 17 Oct 1795, f. 70v.

[v] Meredith Man, ‘Ben Franklin on Cooking Turkey… with Electricity’, blog post for the New York Public Library website, published on 24 Nov 2014.

[vi] Ronald Clark, Benjamin Franklin: A Biography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicholson, 1983), 76.

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.

Adventures in Eighteenth-century Papermaking

By Hannah L Wills, on 21 July 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

Earlier this summer, I gave a talk with some of the other engagers at our ‘Materials & Objects’ event at the UCL Art Museum. In preparing for the event, we were all challenged to think about the objects, materials, and physical ‘stuff’ that we work with on a daily basis. As I’ve written about before, my research focuses on the notebooks and diaries of a late eighteenth-century physician and natural philosopher, Charles Blagden (1748-1820), who served as secretary to the Royal Society. One of the things I’m interested in is how Blagden used his notebooks and diaries to keep track of his day-to-day activities, as well as the business of one of London’s major learned societies. Record keeping and note taking was a central part of Blagden’s life, and it’s owing to his impressive record keeping habit that there’s one material I handle in my research more than any other: eighteenth-century paper.

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 - MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

A selection of Blagden’s many notebooks, held at the Wellcome Library. (Image credit: Charles Blagden, L0068242 Lectures on chemistry, Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images, MSS 1219 – MSS1227. CC BY 4.0)

 

When I began preparing my talk for ‘Materials & Objects’, I started to think about how I might bring paper, a relatively mundane material, to life. My initial reading on the craft of papermaking told me that despite it being a 2000-year old process, making paper by hand has changed relatively little between then and now.[i] Out of curiosity, I decided to do an experiment, and to see if I could replicate some of the processes of eighteenth-century papermaking at home, in my kitchen.

The first stage in the papermaking process is to select the material from which the paper is going to be made. In the eighteenth century, this would typically have been cotton and linen rags. Towards the end of the century, shortages of rags, in part caused by an increased use of paper for printing, meant that makers began to experiment with other materials. In 1801, the very first book printed on recycled paper was published in London—that is, paper that had been printed on once before already.[ii]

Having selected the material, the next step is to break it down, making it into a pulp. When papermaking was first introduced in Europe in the twelfth century, rags were wetted, pressed into balls, and then left to ferment. After this, the rags were macerated in large water-powered stamping mills.[iii] In the eighteenth century, a beating engine, or a Hollander, was used to tear up the material, creating a wet pulp by circulating rags around a large tub with a cylinder fitted with cutting bars (see below).[iv] For my purposes, I found a kitchen blender worked well to break up scraps of used paper from my recycling bin at home, ready to make into new blank sheets.

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) Eighteenth-century illustration of a beating engine, from Diderot and d’Alembert’s Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, vol. 5, Paris, 1767. (Right) A kitchen blender achieves roughly the same effect, breaking up old used paper soaked in water to create a pulp. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate VIII” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. Translated by Abigail Wendler Bainbridge. Ann Arbor: Michigan Publishing, University of Michigan Library, 2013. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

Having been broken down, the liquid pulp mixture is then transferred to a container. In the eighteenth century, someone known as the ‘vatman’ would have stood over this container and dipped a mould into the solution at a near-perpendicular angle. Turning the mould face upwards in the solution before lifting it out horizontally, the vatman would have pulled out the mould to find an even covering of macerated fibres assembled across its surface. It is these fibres that would later form the finished sheet of paper.[v]

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

An eighteenth-century vatman dipping the mould into the vat. (Image credit: Detail “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

The moulds used in papermaking determine several features of the finished sheets of paper, including shape, texture and appearance. The type of mould first used in European papermaking was known as a ‘laid’ mould. This mould typically featured wires laced horizontally into vertical wooden ribs, meaning that when the mould was pulled out of the vat, the pulp would lie heavier on either size of the wooden ribs, giving vertical dark patches and the characteristic markings of ‘laid’ paper.[vi]

Screenshot 2017-07-20 11.16.04

A laid mould, with vertical wooden ribs and horizontal wires. A design and marker’s name are visible sewn into the mould, and will leave what is known as the ‘watermark’ on individual sheets of paper. (Image credit: Laid mold and deckle, Denmark – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

Screenshot 2017-07-20 15.10.07

Characteristic ‘link and chain’ pattern found on laid paper, left by the ribs and wires. This piece is a modern imitation of antique laid paper. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

In mid-eighteenth century Britain, a new type of mould became widely used, developed by the Whatman papermakers based in Kent. This mould was known as a ‘wove’ mould, and had a much smoother surface, consisting of a fine brass screening that was woven like cloth. These moulds imparted a more uniform and fabric-like texture to individual sheets.[vii]

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England - Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

A wove mould, featuring two large watermark designs. Between the watermarks the smooth surface of the woven screening is visible, which leaves the paper with a fabric-like textured appearance, without the prominent horizontal and vertical lines of laid paper. (Image credit: Wove mould made by J. Brewer, London, England – Robert C. Williams Paper Museum, CC0 1.0)

 

For my own papermaking, I chose to dip a piece of fine sieve-like material into my makeshift vat, aiming to replicate partially the texture and appearance of a ‘wove’ mould. The implement I chose for this was a small kitchen pan splatter guard, made up of fine mesh that when pulled out of the vat would hold a layer of fibres on its surface.

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My chosen mould, a kitchen pan splatter guard, made from fine sieve-like material. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

Dipping the mould into the vat and removing slowly, fibres are left on the surface of the mould. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

After the mould was pulled from the vat, the eighteenth-century vatman would pass it on to a coucher who would remove the sheet from the mould, before pressing it between felts to remove the water.[viii]

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

On the left, the vatman pulls the mould from the vat, before passing it to the coucher on the right hand side of the image, who removes the sheet from the mould before pressing a number of sheets at the same time in a large press. (Image credit: “Papermaking. Plate X” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0)

 

In order to remove my sheet of paper from the mould, I placed another sieve-material implement over the top of the fibres and pressed down with a sponge. With a tea towel placed underneath, this worked to remove much of the water without the need for a proper press. Pulling the top piece of sieve away from the bottom, I was left with a drier surface of fibres, which could be carefully lifted off the mould, and set aside to dry.

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

(Left) Pressing the sheet of fibres between two splatter guards. (Right) After the top guard is removed, the pressed sheet of paper is revealed. The circular shape is due to the shape of the mould. (Image credits: Both Hannah Wills)

 

At this point in the eighteenth-century process, sheets were ‘sized’—dipped into a gelatinous substance made from animal hides that made the sheet stronger and water resistant.[ix] After my sheets had been left to one side to dry for a few hours, I decided to experiment by writing on them. I had not applied size to any of my sheets, so found that when I wrote on them the ink spread out, giving a sort of blotting paper effect.

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI" The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d'Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

(Left) After pressing, the sheets are dipped into large tub containing size. This step is important if the paper is to have a slightly waterproof quality that enables it to be written on without the ink spreading. (Right) Writing with ink on untreated sheets results in the ink spreading out across the paper. (Image credits: Left “Papermaking. Plate XI” The Encyclopedia of Diderot & d’Alembert Collaborative Translation Project. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0. Right Hannah Wills)

 

After having size applied, sheets in an eighteenth-century papermill would have undergone a number of finishing stages. These included polishing and surfacing, processes that gave the paper a more uniform appearance.[x] With my own sheets of paper, I found passing a warm iron over the surface achieved a similar effect, removing some of the creases and wrinkles that had appeared during drying.

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

My finished sheet of paper, trimmed down into a small square ready for use. (Image credit: Hannah Wills)

 

It is after these final finishing and drying processes that sheets of paper are ready to be packaged up and sent to the stationer’s.

Replicating historic crafts and processes is not new within the discipline of history. One of my favourite examples is a paper that was published in 1995, in which the historian Heinz Otto Sibum recreated the experiments of the scientist James Prescott Joule (1818-1889) in determining the mechanical equivalent of heat. By trying to recreate the experiment from Joule’s notes, Sibum revealed that Joule made frequent use of the bodily skills he developed while working in the brewing industry, such as the ability to measure temperatures remarkably accurately by using only his elbow.[xi] Often, attempting to replicate an experiment or craft will reveal just how much it relies upon implicit bodily skills, or tacit knowledge, the kinds of ‘knacks’ that are not written down but are simply known to those who perform an activity regularly.

In attempting to replicate the craft of eighteenth-century papermaking, I really only approximated the process, making substitutions for equipment and improvising a number of techniques, particularly when it came to removing my delicate wet sheets of paper from the mould. I think the biggest lesson I learnt was to have a greater appreciation of the material, and just how many skills and processes went into crafting each sheet of paper in the eighteenth century. Characteristics of individual sheets such as colour, texture and markings had not caught my attention in the archives previously, but I now find them fascinating for what they can reveal about the nature of the fibres used, the construction of the paper mould, and the processes followed by each individual papermaker.

 

 

References:

[i] Dard Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft (New York: Dover, 1978), 178.

[ii] Ibid., 309-33.

[iii] Ibid., 153-55.

[iv] Theresa Fairbanks and Scott Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills (New Haven: Yale Center for British Art in association with Yale University Press, 2006), 68.

[v] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 177.

[vi] Ibid., 114-23.

[vii] Ibid., 125-27. See also Fairbanks and Wilcox, Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills.

[viii] Papermaking and the Art of Watercolour in Eighteenth-Century Britain: Paul Sandby and the Whatman Paper Mills, 71.

[ix] Hunter, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft, 194.

[x] Ibid., 196-99.

[xi] Heinz Otto Sibum, “Reworking the Mechanical Value of Heat,” Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A 26, no. 1 (1995): 73-106.

 

Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century

By Hannah L Wills, on 7 March 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

Hannah’s lunch hour talk, ‘Legacy in Conversation: Scrapbooks, Albums and Diaries in the 18th century’, will take place on Tuesday 14 March, 1-2pm, in the UCL Art Museum

 

 
How did people organise their notes and thoughts in the eighteenth century? This question is something that my research aims to get to grips with as I explore the diary and manuscript notebooks of Charles Blagden (1748-1820), an eighteenth-century natural philosopher, and secretary to the major scientific institution, the Royal Society. Whilst working on this strand of my research, which focuses on early modern information storage, retrieval and management, I’ve come across several synergies with the Art Museum’s current exhibition, entitled Legacy: Richard Cooper Jnr and the Artist’s Album.  

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

Blagden’s diary, vol 4, 3 Apr. 1802, Royal Society. Photo credit: Royal Society

 

Legacy presents, for the first time, a number of albums produced by Richard Cooper Jnr, a little known eighteenth-century artist and innovative printmaker. As this exhibition shows, Cooper used his albums as repositories for sketches of artworks produced by other artists, as well as his own ideas and compositions. This use of the artist’s album closely mirrors another form of notebook popular in the eighteenth century, known as the ‘commonplace book’. These notebooks, whose origins can be traced back to the Renaissance, served as a kind of textual scrapbook, as a repository for favourite passages copied from other texts, as well as a note-taker’s own thoughts and anecdotes. Such notebooks enabled individuals to retrieve information, and were often used to help the note-taker pen their own prose compositions, including poems and essays.[i]

 

Album

One of Richard Cooper Jnr’s albums on display in the exhibition, UCL Art Museum. Photo credit: UCL Art Museum.

 

Next week, I’ll be giving a lunch hour talk at the Art Museum, exploring some of the connections between the albums of Richard Cooper Jnr and the diaries and commonplace book of Charles Blagden. Described as ‘visual diaries’, I’ll explore how Cooper’s albums are similar to Blagden’s own diary, as devices for storing important ideas, memories and information. Exploring both the text and images found within Blagden’s commonplace book, I’ll take at look at how these notebooks functioned as a kind of textual analogue to the artist’s album, and how albums, diaries and notebooks contribute to notions of ‘legacy’.

 

 

[i] Mark Towsey, Reading the Scottish Enlightenment: Books and Their Readers in Provincial Scotland, 1750-1820 (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2010), 182.

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.

 

 

 

 

The Power of the Image – Museum Engaging and Visual Sources

By Kevin Guyan, on 1 September 2014

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

In the first of two blog posts exploring Student Engagers’ experiences of using images when sharing research in museums, Kevin Guyan discusses the enthusiasm he has experienced and the two-way conversations created from photographs of homes in the 1940s and 1950s.

I was conscious of the importance of visual material in the sharing of my research since commencing the PhD process, with photographs possessing the power to transform dense moments of a presentation into something more accessible and engaging. However, a recent change in direction in my approach to engaging across UCL Museums has illustrated the power of the image even more than I had first imagined.

I am a PhD student in History and my research explores the ideas of experts planning the design of social housing in London in the decades following the Second World War.  I specifically question how planners understood men’s actions and behaviours within the home and attempted to reconfigure these performances through design and planning.  To summarise these ideas in a visual form I brought with me to the museum eight photographs: architects, planners and Royal attendees at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit (below); images from the Live Architecture exhibition at the 1951 Festival of Britain; designs from the 1940s for how living spaces should be arranged and photographs of ‘model homes’ from the 1950s.

 

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

King George VI, Queen Elizabeth and an assortment of postwar planners at the 1943 County of London Plan exhibit. University of Liverpool archive [D113/3/3/40].

Upon display of the images, the heightened level of response from museum visitors surprised me.  Without the need for me to even look particularly inviting – visitors assembled at my table and questioned, ‘Well, what do we have here?’  This expression of interest enabled me to explain the Researchers in Museums project, give a brief outline of my research and explain why I am based in the museum for the afternoon.

The images offered a starting-point for conversation, with several of the visitors quick to draw links between the photographs and experiences from their own lives.  One visitor asked questions on racial differences in postwar domestic practices, citing a BBC documentary on the historical significance of the Front Room for black families in the latter half of the 20th century.  Another visitor examined the current arrangement of their own home – questioning where Dad relaxes after a day at work, in which room children do their homework and the location of where meals are eaten.  Memories of previous homes also featured in our conversations, with one visitor proudly sharing the forward-looking mindset of her Father who would always assist with the household chores or assist the children with their homework in the living room.  People were thinking about their own homes, both past and present, in a new way, while also educating me on their experiences and opinions towards my research.

This deeper engagement is exactly what I was hoping to achieve with my afternoon and made clear the value of public engagement when it operates as a two-way discussion, in which both the museum visitor and myself left feeling better informed about the subject.  This approach to museum engaging also enabled me to avoid disturbing visitors keen to explore the collections on their own, with no wish to engage in conversation.  This approach therefore circumnavigated this problem, with my assortment of images acting as a magnet for those in the museum that wish to engage in a personal conversation and learn more from their visit.

The use of images has made me think further about how those working in museums could expand upon this approach.  How can researchers discuss their work in ways that go beyond talking?  I am aware of other Student Engagers that have used sounds to spark conversations – I feel encouraged to explore ways to bring the smells of early 20th century housing into the museums, or evoke conversation through the tasting of certain foods and drinks.  History is a sensory journey into the past and there is a need for myself and others sharing their research with the public to look across the senses to make their research as accessible and engaging as possible.

Movement Taster – Blockages in the system: health research in postwar Britain

By Kevin Guyan, on 19 May 2014

Kevin GuyanRuth

 

 

 

 

 

By Kevin Guyan and Ruth Blackburn

This taster is from a larger presentation, Blockages in the system: health research in postwar Britain, which forms part of the Student Engagers’ Movement event taking place at UCL on Friday 23 May. What follows is a sample of the interdisciplinary work by PhD students Kevin Guyan, Department of History, and Ruth Blackburn, Department of Primary Care and Population Health, linking their interests in 20th century British history and health sciences. Movement will also relate these ideas to objects from UCL Collections as well as giving attendees an audiovisual experience of travelling on a London Routemaster bus.

 

Bus driver and conductor © Transport for London

Bus driver and conductor © Transport for London

 

The links between good physical health and exercise have only relatively recently been established. In the postwar decades there was particular interest in investigating heart disease: an increasingly common ailment with causes that were poorly understood at the time.  Jerry Morris (1910-2009), Emeritus Professor of Public Health at London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and commonly referred to as the father of exercise epidemiology, was the first to establish proof that the frequency and severity of heart disease was reduced among workers who did more active jobs.

He made this discovery in the late 1940s by conducting an innovative and efficient ‘experiment’ that studied the behaviour and indicators of physical health in several thousand London Transport employees; particularly focusing on health differences between bus drivers and conductors. The selection of the two study groups was critical for the success of the experiment. This is because the bus drivers and conductors were very similar groups of people in most respects (e.g. age, socio-economic status and diet) but differed in terms of the amount of physical activity that was undertaken whilst at work.

By studying differences in the rates of cardiovascular disease between these two groups the ‘bus men study’ showed that the additional physical activity that bus conductors undertook whilst at work was associated with a 50 per cent reduction in heart disease. This finding was the first real evidence to demonstrate that being more active brought substantial health benefits and highlighted the importance of exercise as a public health intervention.

It is now time to position Jerry Morris’s study within the wider context of postwar London, showing that his research on the health of London transport workers was a product of its time and is an interesting example of broader changes in how ‘experts’ were understanding and explaining human action and behaviour.

Morris addressing the 1954 World Conference of Cardiology in Washington DC © The Telegraph

Jerry Morris in 1954 © The Telegraph

The decades following the Second World War experienced a widening of ‘expert knowledge’, particularly within fields linked to the physical and social health and well-being of citizens.  The esteem of qualities associated with experts also underwent a shift: moving from the predominance of highbrow cultures (for example, the humanities) to also include masters of science, skill and technology. This period was witness to the rise of the scientific and technical expert.

The belief that experts were striving for a ‘New Jerusalem’, a utopian ideal removed from the realities of postwar austerity, often distract discussions of British planning.  However, there was undoubtedly a political dimension to these projects, reflecting the politics of the Left, Fabianism and the Labour Party. It is not coincidental that Morris was a Socialist and championed the need for state intervention to improve the welfare of the population throughout his life’s research. In his work, the line between science and politics is often blurred – expressing the view that positivist forms of science work in tandem with socialist principles.  In this political vision of a New Britain, the rational and modern nation would require the successful management of health and disease.  Morris and his expert knowledge of epidemiology would therefore position him as a central figure in this imagined future.

This interest in the political led to what is arguably the most interesting development in his work: his definition of the individual. Morris did not focus on moral deviancy or communities positioned on the edge of society; nor, in his ‘bus men study’, was his primary focus the influences of class or social situation.  Instead, his chief research interests were individual actions and ways of living, removed from their social and economic contexts.

By moving the focus of one’s likelihood to encounter disease away from social class or community and instead considering the activities that individuals perform, although throughout his life’s work Morris was deeply interested in how socioeconomic factors affect the activities people perform, the ‘bus men study’ differed from the approach of scientists before him.  Importantly, the fluid nature of modern life was also acknowledged and the need to view subjects as ‘changing people’ operating in changing social environments. As experts grew more willing to challenge the influences of social class and instead consider the complex effects of social and biological relations, ‘ways of living’ emerged as a primary factor in the study of health and disease.  The offshoot of this finding was groundbreaking: a call for the reform of everyday lifestyles. With this conclusion, Morris’s ‘bus men study’ should not only be viewed as a key text in epidemiology but also as part of a wider shift in 20th century Britain over the role of scientific expertise and definitions of the individual.

Health and the male body

Health and the male body

Stealing from Peter to Pay Paul: Satirising Slave Compensation in the Radical Prints of C. J. Grant

By Alicia Thornton, on 28 August 2012

by Katie Donington

 

C. J. Grant, ‘Slave Emancipation; Or, John Bull Gulled Out Of Twenty Millions’, Woodcut printed and published by G. Drake, 12 Houghton Street, Clare Market, London (1833-35). Image © UCL Art Collection, UCL, EPC8032.

From left to right the caricatured figures represent a West Indian slave-owner, a Whig politician, a character called ‘John Bull’ who was used to represent the British public, an abolitionist and a crudely racialised group of enslaved people.

The captions read:

Slave-owner: ‘We slave robbers must have compensation for our loss. As to how the money’s got, what the devil do we know, so long as we get it.  John Bull’s a well known flat, and don’t much care how he’s robbed so long as he can get grub to eat and straw to lay on.’

Whig politician: ‘Only see how neatly I take it out of his pocket. We Whigs are dapper hands at taking swag.’

John Bull: ‘Yes, Philosopher, I do begrudge it, and most damnably too: and I can tell ye, that if ye do have it, it won’t be a voluntary grant on my part, but a complete extortion on your’s and your pals. You call ’em dear, do ye? Yes and so do I, infernal dear. You call ’em suffering slaves too, and that in the face of our poor innocent factory children for whom you hav’nt one small part of pity. To them emancipation would be an absolute blessing, but to these bishop looking niggers it’ll only be a curse.’

Abolitionist: ‘Here’s a gratifying sight for ye, Johnny Bull. Freedom for the poor dear half-starved suffering slaves. Surely after such a joyous and affecting scene as this, I know your GENEROUS disposition too well to think that you would begrudge the paltry pittance of £20,000,000 for their emancipation!!’

1st Enslaved: ‘You black teef, do you know what mancipation mean’

2nd Enslaved: ‘No nor I no no care. I know dat Massa Bull pays for it, and it must be good.’

3rd Enslaved: ‘Ha Jonny Bull you be one dam fool.’

My PhD is attached to a major new research project – The Legacies of British Slave-Ownership Project .  Launched by the History department at UCL in 2009, the project team consists of Professor Catherine Hall , Dr. Nick Draper and Keith McClelland .  The team have been investigating the relationship between slave-ownership and the formation of modern Britain. In 1833 the government brokered a deal with the slave-owners to secure emancipation for the enslaved in the British West Indies. The package involved both an apprenticeship period for the enslaved as well as the payment of £20,000,000 worth of compensation to the slave-owners. In order to receive compensation people had to register their claims, this bureaucratic process left behind a comprehensive documentation of who the slave-owners were in 1838 when the lists were compiled. This data forms the empirical basis of the project which is using the information to build a publically accessible online encyclopaedia of British slave-ownership.

The C. J. Grant image is the project’s logo and is from the UCL Art Museum Collection.  Printed on cheap paper and sold for a penny, the image satirises the controversial decision to pay the slave-owners compensation, depicting it as a theft from the public pocket. Grant was not alone in this view – the Poor Man’s Guardian claimed that compensation would be ‘extracted from the bones of the white slaves’ in Britain[1].  Grant’s prints were aimed at the socially and politically conscious working classes. In the image ‘John Bull’ speaks for working people but they are not represented pictorially. This is an interesting absence – with no parliamentary political representation at the time the image suggests that they could only achieve a political voice by proxy. It also demonstrates the way in which Grant perceived the working poor as being excluded from debates around slavery, freedom and labour conditions.

The largely middle class abolitionist leadership led some radicals to suggest that their concern for the enslaved in the colony led to the neglect of the industrial working poor at home. This form of what was described as ‘telescopic philanthropy’ had also been seized upon by the slave-owners. Radicals like Grant had to tread a fine line between their critique of the abolitionists, their support for emancipation and the language of the anti-abolition West India lobby. Sometimes this failed – the depiction of the enslaved in this image speaks straight to proslavery myth of the infantilised, happy and contented slave for whom freedom would be ‘a curse’.

After nearly fifty years of polarised discussion, the representation of the slave-owner and the abolitionist reflects a frustration with both the greed and gluttony of the former and the sanctimonious piety of the latter. The opulent flesh of the planter becomes a symbol for the unfettered indulgence and idleness of plantation life whilst the pinched frame and clerical garb of the abolitionist signifies the unceasing virtuous self-restraint of the morally puritanical Evangelical ‘Saints’, who alongside their campaign for abolition had also launched a reformation on the manners of the working classes.

The slave-owner stretches out his hand expectantly waiting for the government to bail him out; the knowing gesture an indication of the long-standing relationship between big sugar in the Caribbean and the government at home. The slave-owners argued that they had invested in ‘property in men’ under a system which was sanctioned and regulated by the government. By ending slavery the government was effectively confiscating their legitimate property and they were therefore entitled to compensation.

The abolitionists were divided over the issue of compensation. Some of them contested the principle that there could ever be ‘property in men’ and in doing so attempted to undermine the central tenet of slave compensation. However, at a time when property was held as sacred, some of them agreed that compensation should be paid. They suggested that as the nation as a whole had benefitted from slavery, then everyone should pay for salvation from what they described as the ‘national sin’. It was thought that paying the price of emancipation would expunge the stain of slavery replacing it instead with the image of an anti-slavery nation – liberal, benevolent and freedom loving.

Compensation for the enslaved was never seriously debated in 1833 and indeed by being forced to work for free for a further five years of apprenticeship – until 1838 – the enslaved effectively paid in part towards their own emancipation. At the ending of slavery there was no land redistribution and wealth remained in the hands of a small elite. The deeply divisive issue of reparations for slavery is one that has been raised with most nation states who were involved in the slavery business. No former slaving nation has as of yet paid any compensation to the descendants of those who endured Transatlantic slavery although it was declared a crime against humanity in 2001.

Have your say…

  • Should the British government pay reparations?
  • How would the process work?
  • Who would the reparations be given to?

Further reading:

  • Exhibition Catalogue: C.J. Grant’s ‘Political Drama’, a radical satirist rediscovered, ed. Richard Pound (UCL, 1998).
  • Nicholas Draper, The Price of Emancipation: Slave-Ownership, Compensation and British Society at the End of Slavery (Cambridge University Press, 2009).
  • http://www.jis.gov.jm/special_sections/reparations/ Government website looking at the reparations debate in Jamaica.

[1] Poor Man’s Guardian, 6 July 1833.

Art Not Words: Female Figure Standing, 1913

By Gemma Angel, on 13 August 2012

Lisa Plotkinby Lisa Plotkin

 

 

 

 

 

1913 was an interesting year for British women. Militant suffragette violence had reached an all-time high, with dozens of women sent to prison each week in the name of female suffrage. The deeds of the suffragettes became more and more outrageous as time went on, with many smashing windows, setting fires, attacking members of parliament, and just generally causing havoc by doing things that women simply were not supposed to do. Under their militant slogan “deeds not words!” thousands of women joined the cause.

By 1913 women were doing and not just saying. They may not have had political representation, but they were making political news. They were heavily involved in local politics; they were nurses in larger numbers and doctors in fewer; they were teachers and factory workers; reformers at home and missionaries abroad. In short, they were as diverse in occupation then as women are now. And they were also artists.

Thia was a fact that UCL’s Art Museum left me no doubt of during their most recent exhibition, in which work from the affiliated Slade School of Art was showcased. Founded in 1871, the Slade School followed UCL’s proud tradition of gender equality and admitted men and women on equal footing, seven years before the University of London allowed women to take examinations.

In 1913 women’s output was limited, constrained by legislative factors and social mores. But in 1913 their artistic output from the Slade was nothing short of astonishing, both in quantity and quality. The featured artists in the recent UCL Art Museum exhibition were tasked with taking historical pieces from the UCL collections, and producing works that somehow comments or speaks to the earlier works.

The two easels grabbed my eye immediately – in fact for me they were really central to the whole exhibition. As you can see from the image below – the piece (by current Slade student Laura Kuch) features two almost completely identical paintings of the backs of nude women. Kuch positioned them as though they were facing back-to-back – their double always invisible – but standing just behind them.

Laura Kuch, Dopplegängers, 2012. Two wooden easels, Dora Carrington, Female Figure Standing, 1913 (framed), Fanny J Fletcher, Female Figure Standing, 1913. © Laura Kuch. Installation shot photographed by Mary Hinkley, UCL Media Services.


But Kuch herself was not the painter of these two works; she discovered them tucked away in UCL storage. This surprised Kuch. Why were there two identical paintings, both labeled “Female Figure Standing, 1913” and why were they attributed to two different artists?

It was later discovered that the two artists, both women students at the Slade in 1913, painted this female figure standing as part of a competition. These two paintings were the first and second place winners. As an historian of Victorian and Edwardian Britain, these two female nudes speak to me. Women artists painted this woman 99 years ago. They competed in a university competition 99 years ago. A woman took off her clothes for a group of artists 99 years ago. Those are all statements about the status of women 99 years ago. It might seem divorced from the larger Woman Question of the time, but it wasn’t.

The great, late poet author Adrienne Rich once wrote: “We are not the Woman Question asked by somebody else; we are the women who ask the questions.”[1] The women artists of the Slade from the 1870s until today posed their questions and stated their answers, through art. Not deeds, not words, but art. And now almost one hundred years later we still get to enjoy it.


References:

[1] Adrienne Rich, “Notes Towards a Politics of Location” in in Blood, Bread, and Poetry: Selected Prose, 1979–1985 (New York: W. W. Norton, 1986).

Dem Bones, Dem Bones, Dem Dry Bones … Excavating Memory, Digging up the Past

By Gemma Angel, on 16 July 2012

by Katie Donington

 

 

 

 

Above all, he must not be afraid to return again and again to the same matter; to scatter it as one scatters earth, to turn it over as one turns over soil. For the ‘matter itself’ is no more than the strata which yield their long-sought secrets only to the most meticulous investigation. That is to say, they yield those images that, severed from all earlier associations, reside as treasures in the sober rooms of our later insights – like torsos in a collector’s gallery.[1]

The Buried on Campus exhibition at the Grant Museum ran from April 23rd to July 13th 2012. Following the 2010 discovery of human remains beneath the Main Quad of UCL, research was undertaken to determine the reason for their presence. Forensic anatomist Wendy Birch and forensic anthropologist Christine King, members of the UCL Anatomy Lab, were able to date the bones which were over a hundred years old. The bones themselves also gave clues to the reason for their presence. Several items had numbers written on them and others displayed signs of medical incisions. This led the team to the conclusion that the bones represented a portion of the UCL Anatomy Collection which had been buried at some point after 1886.

The issue of displaying human remains in a museum of zoology was discussed by Jack Ashby, Grant Museum Manager in a recent blog post:

The whole topic of displaying human remains has to be considered carefully and handled sensitively… One of the questions we asked our visitors last term on a QRator iPad was “Should human and animal remains be treated any differently in museums like this?” and the majority of the responses were in favour of humans being displayed, with the sensible caveats of consent and sensitivity.[2]

The discovery and exhibition of human remains raises interesting questions about the relationship between archaeology, history, science, memory and identity. It also links into debates over the ethics of display in relation to human beings. Who were these people? Why did their bodies end up in an anatomy collection? Did they consent or were they compelled? Is it possible or desirable to attempt to retrieve or reconstruct the object as subject?

The case of the bones buried on campus reminds me of another example in which the physical act of excavation was transformed into an act of historical re-inscription. In 1991, workmen digging the foundations of a new federal building close to Wall Street uncovered the remains of 419 men, women and children. Archaeologists, historians and scientists were called in and they were able to identify the area as a 6.6 acre site used for the burial of free and enslaved Africans by examining maps from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

The Maerschalck Map of 1754, showing the Negro Burial Grounds near the “Fresh Water” (the Collect Pond). Image © The African Burial Ground Project.

 

 

 

 

 

The bones offered specific information which helped to give a partial identity to the people interred. Using ‘skeletal biology’[3] it was possible in some cases to pin point where in Africa individuals had come from – Congo, Ghana, Ashanti and Benin, as well as revealing whether they had been transported via the Caribbean. Bone analysis spoke of the appalling conditions of slavery; fractured, broken, malformed and diseased bones articulated stories of unrelenting labour, nutritional deficiency and coercive violence.

Objects found inside some of the burials created a sense of the uniqueness of each person as well as the care taken by loved ones as they performed burial rituals. The lack of items found also indicated the social status of the majority of people buried on the site.

This pendant (image courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project) was recovered from burial 254, a child aged between 3 ½ and 5 ½ years old. It was found near the child’s jaw and may have been either an earring or part of a necklace. The objects and bones represented a visceral historic link to the African American community in New York. The sense of ownership they felt towards this history and the individuals who had emerged from the soil, led to active community engagement in the project. In line with the wishes of the African American community, all original items were facsimiled before being reinterred along with all 419 ancestral remains in a ceremony in 2003. A memorial and museum were also built on the site (see image below, courtesy of the African Burial Ground Project).

The emergence of the skeletons was interpreted by some as a literal rendering of the way in which America has been haunted by its relationship with slavery. As physical anthropologist Michael Blakely, who worked on the site explained; ‘with the African Burial Ground we found ourselves standing with a community that wanted to know things that had been hidden from view, buried, about who we are and what this society has been.’[4]

The context of the two sites is of course very different. However, a comparison of them does raise questions about the uses of human remains and their relationship to history, memory and identity. The bones at UCL formed part of an anatomical teaching collection; a composite of individuals whose bodies somehow became the property of medical institutions. Those people often consisted of those on the margins of society; the poor, the criminal and the exoticised ‘others’ of empire.[5] Debates over the repatriation of human remains in museum collections highlight their importance to people’s sense of identity and history. Without family or community groups to claim the individuals discovered at UCL, it seems that they are destined to remain object rather than subject – ‘severed from all earlier associations… torsos in a collector’s gallery’.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

Have your say – what do you think should happen to the bones at UCL?


[1] Walter Benjamin, ‘Excavation and Memory’, in Selected Writings, Vol. 2, Part 2 (1931–1934),ed. by Marcus Paul Bullock, Michael William Jennings, Howard Eiland, and Gary Smith, (Massachusetts, Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005), p. 576.

[2] http://blogs.ucl.ac.uk/museums/2012/04/24/buried-on-campus-has-opened/

[3] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[4] http://www.archaeology.org/online/interviews/blakey/

[5] Sadiah Qureshi, ‘Displaying Sara Baartman, The Hottentot Venus’, History of Science, Volume 42 (2004), pp.233-257.

http://www.negri-froci-giudei.com/public/pdfs/qureshi-baartman.pdf