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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


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 C 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.


[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.