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Heritage in Flames

By Hannah B Page, on 7 September 2018

I was shattered this week to read about the catastrophic fire in Rio de Janeiro’s National Museum in Brazil (Fig 1). The 200-year-old museum housed an enormous collection of archaeological, anthropological and natural historical objects (more than 20 million) including Luzia woman (Fig 2), an Upper Palaeolithic skeleton and the oldest ever found in the Americas (11,500 years old). The museum also housed extensive collections from the indigenous Brazilian people as well as Egyptian and Greco-Roman artefacts.  The loss of these objects is one tragedy, but more devastating is the harm done to the decades of diligent work and research by countless people all working to a single end: to preserve and protect the social, cultural and natural heritage of Brazil and the world for the world. Some of the most upsetting photographs were of academics and museum staff in front of the burning museum, frantically trying to save what they could.

Fig 1. Brazil’s National Museum in flames (Source: Ricardo Moraes/Reuters)

For me, the real privilege of working in museums is seeing just how important they are for all kinds of people. Every person experiences museums in a unique way: they are drawn to different objects, and they each bring something new away from their experience. Museums are a way for people to connect with their past, to learn about the heritage of others, and to appreciate the art and nature of our world. Without museums we risk the disconnection from cultural and natural heritage and ultimately, a loss of identity.

Fig. 2: Luzia Woman (Source: BBC TWO)

Unfortunately this type of news is not new. In recent years we have seen distressing headlines revealing the damage to world heritage sites. From the destruction of parts of archaeological sites such as Palmyra in Syria, the burning of the Kasubi Tombs (Fig. 3)—the burial ground for the kings of the Buganda—in Uganda, to coral bleaching on the Great Barrier Reef in Australia. These events all have two major features in common: first, the importance of the locations as natural and cultural heritage sites for millions of people, and second, that in some way political agendas can be held responsible for their damage. Political agendas it seems, whether driven by money, religion or an indifference to the value of culture and history, are the biggest threat to our heritage sites.

Fig. 3: The Kasubi Tombs in Uganda (Source: Lazare Eloundou Assomo, © UNESCO)

The burning of Brazil’s National Museum has highlighted the increasing neglect of the heritage sector by governments, which is trickling down to affect research, conservation of artefacts and sites, the honouring of cultural identity, and ultimately the connection with our past and present.

Museums are a celebration of us, and without them, and the research that occurs within those walls we lose much more than just a beautiful building and some aesthetically pleasing objects.

Words cannot describe the pain that must be felt by the hundreds of people directly connected with the museum and the countless more affected by what this loss represents to them.

All I can hope, probably naively, is that governments might wake up and see that an investment in the arts and heritage is an investment in their people, and there is little more important than that.

Colours of Ancient Egypt – Introduction

By Anna Pokorska, on 18 August 2018

When viewing exhibitions of objects from ancient Egypt (or any ancient civilisation for that matter) we are used to seeing the beige and grey appearance of bare stone. Indeed, we have come to appreciate the simplicity and purity of ancient sculptures, reliefs and carvings, perpetuated by the numerous plaster casts made and distributed both for research or as works of art in their own right (case in point – the Plaster Court at the Victoria and Albert Museum).

However, this is quite far from the truth. In fact, colour was not only common but of great symbolic importance in Egypt. This is hardly surprising as we use colour to communicate every day even in the modern era (with the most obvious and striking example of the traffic light system, or the wearing of black in many cultures to signal mourning). Although some traditional meanings will have changed over the centuries and varied between cultures, the principle still remains and is widely studied and exploited in a fascinating way in such fields as psychology, marketing and advertising. But I digress…

Let us return to ancient Egypt. To date, many attempts have been made to restore the original colours of artefacts. One such example is the virtual restoration of the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York where experts have a created a colour projection to be overlaid on top of the damaged hieroglyphs. An article on the whole project, called Color the Temple, can be read here.

Some people object to these types of intervention, sceptical of how well they recreate and represent the work of the artist, especially if little physical evidence of the original colours in a particular artefact exists. And indeed, we must always be careful when it comes to any type of restoration to take it only for what it is – someone else’s idea of what the object would have originally looked like (often dependent on the restorer’s skill). Although they might still have a way to go, I personally find these virtual restoration techniques intriguing and full of potential. They certainly help my imagination and understanding of the ancient Egyptian civilisation.

But we can find authentic and undamaged examples of colour even in the Petrie Museum collection. One of the first objects one sees when entering the main exhibition is a limestone wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara, its beautiful hieroglyphs tinted in green (below).

Wall block fragment from the pyramid of King Pepy I at Saqqara. (Petrie Museum, UC14540)

Painted wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris. (Petrie Museum, UC14226)

 

While on the other side of the display is a painted, rather than carved, wooden stela of Neskhons, wife of the High Priest of Amun Pinedjem (II) making an offering to Osiris (above).

Egyptian artists would have had at their disposal mostly pigments made from grinding common (as well as some not-so-common) minerals and earths. Hidden away in the Petrie Museum storage is a drawer full of exactly those kinds of pigments (below).

Pigment drawer in storage at the Petrie Museum. (Photo: Anna Pokorska)

 

The yellowed typed note reads:

‘The pigments used by the ancient Egyptians for their paintings have been analysed and are mostly made from naturally occurring minerals, finely ground, or from natural substances.

Black – some form of carbon, usually soot.

Blue – originally azurite, a blue carbonate of copper found locally. From the IVth Dynasty on artificial frit was used composed of a crystalline compound of silica, copper and calcium.

Brown – generally ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

Green – powdered malachite (a natural ore of copper), and an artificial frit analogous to the blue frit described above.

Pink – an oxide of iron.

Red – red ochre, a natural oxide of iron.

White – either calcium carbonate (whiting) or calcium sulphate (gypsum).

Yellow – yellow ochre, an oxide of iron and less often orpiment a natural sulphide of arsenic.

The pigments were pounded in to a fine powder, mixed with water to which a little size, gum or albumen was added to make the whole adhesive.’

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), this subject is too broad and interesting to fit into a single blog post and I’ve decided to explore it further, perhaps expanding beyond Egypt and the ancient times. We shall see where this journey takes me, but I hope you will join me as I investigate individual colours in my future posts.

 

The End of Art is Peace

By Mark V Kearney, on 2 August 2018

The title of this blog refers to a favourite line from Seamus Heaney’s The Harvest Bow, a poem that explores the humanity of the writer’s father as he crafts a decorative knot made of woven straw reeds, a traditional Irish custom strongly linked with courtship and marriage (you can see my own example below).

The end of art is peace….

A post shared by Mark (@mark_v_k_) on

Since beginning the role of Student Engager earlier this year, I have found myself thinking of this poem more frequently; one reason for this is that the Petrie Museum holds in its collection an example of a woven basket, in front of which I always stand during my shifts. The similarities of form between two objects separated by both thousands of years and miles has made me wonder just how universally pervasive the skill was.

Woven basket which is on display and the inspiration for this blog post (Petrie Museum, 7494).

Let me just mention one other important fact about all this… I’ve a background in physics and my current PhD research is based on the decay of modern materials like plastics in museums. Basket making — especially the ancient form — is a little out of my comfort zone!

It therefore came as a shock to me that the weaving skills I learnt in the classroom (as every Irish child does) can be traced back to before the use of pottery. As Carolyn McDowall mentions, many weaving techniques reflect the geographical location of the many and varied culturally different groups”. The beauty of traditional skills such as these is they can offer a connection, via our hands, to the past as little has changed in the way we construct them over thousands of years.

From a personal viewpoint, I’ve always been drawn to geometric objects such as these; its possibly the physicist in me attracted to their symmetry (or in certain cases, lack thereof). My research trip down the rabbit hole for this blog lead me to some interesting reading about the mathematics of weaving. One thing is for sure, that the resulting patterns are pleasing to the eye, and the inclusion of dyed, or painted elements into the structure elevates a simple commodity into a piece of folk art. It’s also clear that the resulting symmetrical patterns are universally pleasing – why else would we find decorative patterns in weaving in Egypt, southern Africa, and from the peoples of Native American tribes.

My research also led me to a theory about something that have always wondered – if you walk around the pottery displays in the Petrie Museum, you will notice that many of the objects have geometric patterns baked into them. I’ve never understood why they would go to the added trouble of imprinting the pattern. If, however, you acknowledge that patternation is a universal trait, and that basket weaving pre-dates pottery then the herringbone patterns found on some pottery could be the makers attempt to copy the form of woven baskets. I asked fellow engager Hannah, who’s PhD focuses on sub-Saharan African ceramics, about my theory recently. Hannah told me that “some academics have suggested that in these cases these decorated ceramics can imply that vessels made from natural fibres were also made and used in these time periods”. So it seems I’m onto something with the theory!

An example from the collection showing a herringbone pattern that Hannah says would have been applied with a stick or pointed object which the clay had been air-dried. (Petrie Museum, 14165)

The Petrie Museum has other examples of weaving skills. There are examples of sandals –

More examples of weaving from the Collection (Petrie Museum, UC769 Above & UC 16557 Below).

And Rope –

(Petrie Museum, UC7420).

One thing that stuck me is that these products must have created trade between the groups, promoting both an early economy and the spread of their technologies. Could this be why some of the patterns are common to all or could the base mathematics of weaving be a common universal trait somehow hardwired into our brains? Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to answer this question during my research. I’ll have to keep digging for the answer, but in the end, I am left with an even deeper understanding and connection to the past, and an object that as Heaney says, “is burnished by its passage, and still warm”.

Myths in the Museum: The Dugong and the Mermaid

By Jen Datiles, on 21 July 2018

There’s a 2.7-meter-long skeleton of a big underwater creature in the Grant Museum of Zoology, right when you enter the main room. On my first Saturday shift as a PhD museum engager, a 7-year-old boy stopped to point and ask his mom what this monster was, and why it had hands. The mom glanced at the display label, read its name, DUGONG, and then stopped and looked at me — what on earth was this note about this animal starting the myth of mermaids? Was it for real?

The dugong skeleton making waves (Grant Museum, Z33)

As Rita Dal Martello has written on our blog before, dugongs and manatees both belong to the animal genus Sirenia, and share the common name ‘sea cow’. The mammary glands of females in the Sirenia genus are located on their upper bodies near their armpits, which are likely to have contributed to the reported ‘mermaid’ sightings of explorers and sailors. While manatees can be found in estuarine and fresh waters, dugongs are strictly marine mammals. They also possess a dolphin fluke-like tail. Dugongs are slimmer than their cousins, but this is relative — they still can grow to 3 meters in length and weigh up to a whopping 1000 kg! It’s not surprising, then, that sailors spotted these animals from their ship’s deck. And mistaking them for beautiful humanlike creatures is not entirely far-fetched… when one considers these men could have been at sea for years at a time and knew every tall tale of fantastical ocean creatures in the book.

The myth of humanlike water spirits has perpetuated over the centuries. The first depiction of a half human-half fish creature is thought to be of the Babylonian water god Oannes as far back as 5000 BCE. The ancient Greek sirens, which originally were described with human heads on birds’ bodies, have also often been portrayed with fishtails. Pliny the Elder dedicated an entire chapter of his 1st century book The Natural History to write on the forms of tritons and nereids, describing that “in them, the portion of the body that resembles the human figure is still rough all over with scales.” In the pacific island nation of Palau, where a 3,000-year-old cave drawing of dugongs was found, legends of young women transforming into sea creatures have been passed down over the years; the word dugong, in fact, derives from Malay for ‘lady of the sea’. Christopher Columbus reported seeing mermaids near Haiti in 1493, and the English explorer Henry Hudson (namesake of New York’s Hudson River) gave a vivid description of the mermaid his crew apparently saw off the coast of Greenland in 1608:

“From the navill upward her backe and breasts were like a woman’s,
as they say they saw her, but her body as big as one of us. Her
skin very white, and long haire hanging downe behind of colour
blacke. In her going downe they saw her tayle, which was like the
tayle of a porposse, and speckled like a macrell.”

An 1817 coloured engraving of mermaids. (Credit: Wellcome Collection)

Captain Hailborne at St. Johns Newfoundland, from Newe Welt und Americanische Historian by Ludwig Gottfried, 1655. (Credit: The Mariners’ Museum)

In the 18th and 19th centuries, mermaid specimens held a particular grip on Western popular imagination. The hype began when several astonishingly realistic mermaid ‘specimens’ from Asia — primarily from Japan — made their way to Europe during Japan’s isolation policy under the Tokugawa shogunate. When this ended in 1854, these ningyo (which translates to ‘man-fish’), began to circulate as objects of good fortune, supernatural potency, and — perhaps above all — as a means to spark the curiosity of the public. Mermaids were sought after by collectors and showmen alike to draw crowds, as P.T. Barnum famously did with the ‘Feejee Mermaid’.

A Mermaid by John Waterhouse, 1900. (Credit: Royal Academy)

The “mermaid” from the Horniman Museum. (Photo: Heini Schneebeli)

Henry Wellcome (1853-1936), whose massive collection has been distributed over the years to various museums including our own Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology, saw mermaids worth purchasing for their anthropological value; his two specimens are now housed in the Science Museum over in South Kensington, and in the Buxton Museum. Even the British Museum down the road boasts having its own mermaid. And these ‘Japanese mermaids’ continue to captivate our interest into the present day, not only out of curiosity but for science and conservation studies; researchers at the nearby Wellcome Collection recently investigated what two of these cleverly constructed specimens (long assumed to be a monkey head sewn to a fish body) are actually made of. The answer, it turns out, is stuffed papier-mache, wire, fish teeth, scales, carved bone and wood!

So next time you’re at the Grant Museum, take a look at the dugong skeleton. It may not look like it now, but just think of how this creature inspired sailors, shamans, and showmen to perpetuate myths of mermaids across the world, and over hundreds of years!

 

Not a mermaid. (Photo: Julien Willem)

Additional Reading:

Viscardi P, Hollinshead A, MacFarlane R, Moffatt J, 2014. Mermaids Uncovered. Journal of Museum Ethnography, (27): 98-116.

 

We’re Hiring Student Engagers!

By Arendse I Lund, on 24 January 2018

Are you a UCL student and excited to share your PhD research with the world? Can you find connections between your research and museum collections? Come join our Student Engager team!

Citlali Helenes Gonzalez presents during the Materials & Objects event in the UCL Art Museum last spring.

 

Who We Are

We’re a interdisciplinary team of PhD students from across UCL who are interested in public engagement and sharing our doctoral research with the world. We come from different backgrounds and departments and study everything from medieval law to neuroscience to the Dark Web. You might spot us in the UCL Art Museum, Grant Museum of Zoology, or Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology any day of the week talking about our research and how it relates to the museum collections.

We love talking to people, sharing expertise, and making new connections that benefit both the public and our own research. Sometimes we also host events such as Foreign Bodies, LandSCAPE, Stress: Approaches to the First World War, and Materials & Objects.

 

Are You the One?

We’re hiring! If you’re a first or second-year PhD student interested in working in the three UCL museums, sharing your knowledge, engaging the public in dialogue, and enhancing visitors’ experiences of UCL, then we want to hear from you. We think this is the best gig ever and we want equally enthusiastic people to come join us. We’ve also written extensively on this blog about what the Student Engager experience is like and highly recommend you take a look around if you’re interested in joining us.

For the practical side, here’s a full job description (PDF); you should email your CV and cover letter to Celine West (celine.west@ucl.ac.uk) by 16 February.

If you have any questions, tweet us or find us in one of the UCL museums.

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.

The wonderful world of primate poo (and why it really matters)

By Catryn Williams, on 17 August 2017

As a biology PhD student, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some studies in science that, whilst interesting, can leave you questioning who comes up with these and why they (and we) should care so much.  If you, like me, are the kind of person who loves these kinds of things, the list of past Ig Nobel prize winners is a cornucopia of great examples.  Often, though, all it takes is delving a little deeper to find the importance in what seems like a pointless topic.  My PhD involves collecting primate poo samples to look at their gut bacteria, and so does occasionally elicit the classic and very valid question: “But what’s the point of it?” from people, so I thought for this week’s blog post I’d try and answer exactly that.

Primates are our closest relatives and, in fact, your closest relatives are also primates, as are you yourself.  We’ve known about the anatomical similarities between humans and other, non-human primates for hundreds of years.  The Grant Museum of Zoology plays host to what used to be a teaching collection for doctors studying at UCL, where the bones and structures of animals from non-human primates to fish would be studied to understand how our own bodies developed from the ancestors we shared with other organisms.  Then, in the 1980s, with the birth of molecular sequencing techniques, we gained the ability to study the DNA of animals.  From this we began to understand just how closely related to other primates we really are, leading us to the famous fact that we are 98% genetically identical to chimpanzees, our closest relative.

ChimpanzeeSkeleton

A juvenile chimpanzee skeleton from the Grant Museum of Zoology, accession number Z449

The next big step, in my (admittedly, probably biased) opinion, in our understanding of the human body and how it works has been our realisation that gut bacteria are hugely important to human health and disease.  We might tend to think of bacteria as harmful or infectious, but actually the bugs that live in your intestine are a normal part of a healthy human body.  They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1, making us 90% bacteria in terms of cell numbers alone (although our own cells are much larger, which is why by mass we’re still mostly human), break down parts of our food that we ourselves can’t digest and even provide us with many hormones (such as 90% of our serotonin, the “happiness” hormone).  In addition, gut bacteria has lately been linked to everything from keeping us lean or helping to make us obese, to maintaining normal bowel functions or exacerbating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

So where do non-human primates come into this?  Well, as with the Grant Museum’s collection all those years ago, it’s nothing new to study our relatives in order to understand more about ourselves.  While understanding the gut bacteria of primates across the whole primate evolutionary tree lets us take a look at how gut bacteria have evolved alongside us to create a mutualistic relationship, primates in particular are a very interesting group of animals.  Within the Primate Order there is huge variation in the ways that these animals live their lives, and it is by considering these differences that we can begin to understand how the variations between different human lifestyles affect our gut bacteria and so our health.  For example, by comparing primates that eat mostly vegetation to species that eat fruit or meat or even gum like lorises, we can start to ask questions about how much our diet affects what bacteria can survive in the gut.  Looking at animals that are highly social, such as chimpanzees or baboons, vs. those that are mostly solitary creatures such as bushbabies can tell us how gut bacteria is spread and shared between individuals, communities and even between different species living in the same area (this is not as crazy as you think – humans have been found to share skin bacteria with their pet dogs).

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal's gut bacteria

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal’s gut bacteria. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0

But it’s not just ourselves that we can learn things about when we study non-human primates.  One large aspect of my PhD looks at how life in captivity affects the gut microbiomes of primates.  Whilst life in captivity is not ideal for any animal, raising them in zoos and centres can have benefits for endangered species.  Studying the gut bacteria has the potential to offer suggestions on how we might be able to enrich the diets of captive animals to ensure they maintain healthy gut bacteria whilst living in zoos.  Furthermore, by looking at what nutrients are necessary to keep a healthy set of bacteria, we might be able to start thinking about conservations issues such as which plants are highly important to conserve alongside these endangered animals.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that gut bacteria are important, that my area of research has the potential to be of great help, and above all, that primate poo is a great thing to study.

Should human remains be displayed in museums?

By Julia R Deathridge, on 28 March 2017

If you have ever visited the Petrie Museum you are unlikely to have missed the man buried in a pot. In the past the pragmatic scientist in me had just regarded this as a skeleton in a pot; spending most of my time studying it to see how many of the different human bones I could still name from my undergraduate anatomy class (not that many it turns out!). However, a group of visiting American college students made me think about it differently. They were discussing the use of human remains in museum collections, their purpose, and the importance of displaying them respectfully. This opened up an interesting debate: how should human remains be displayed and should they even be displayed at all?

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari UC14856-8

Pot burial from Hemamieh, near the village of Badari. UC14856-8

In the past human remains were regularly collected from excavation sites and displayed in museum cases with little thought put into the person that they once were. However, feelings towards the use of human remains in the UK have begun to change in recent years. In 2005 the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) released a “Guidance for the Care of Human Remains in Museums” outlining a code of practice for the handling and displaying of human remains. Consequently, human remains have been given a unique status within collections and are no longer treated as objects.

Repatriation of human remains has also become more common with many indigenous communities requesting the return of their ancestors. Since 1996 both the UK and Australian governments have been committed to the return of indigenous remains to Australia and New Zealand. Over 1000 remains have been returned including 13 skulls and one limb, which were repatriated from UCL in 2007.

A display that has caused a large amount of controversy is the skeleton of “The Irish Giant” Charles Byrne. To avoid being dissected and used for medical research, Charles Byrne requested to be buried at sea. His request was ignored and his skeleton currently resides in a cabinet at the Huntarian Museum. Many have advocated for the return of his bones from the Huntarian allowing his burial wishes to be fulfilled. The Huntarian Museum, however, claim there is no direct evidence of his burial wishes and the educational benefits he provides to living and future generations of visitors is of greater value.

This brings up another important question: Does the educational benefit of human remains outweigh the rights of the dead? Human remains are an important teaching tool for anthropology and archaeology and are vital to the study of medical sciences. Use of human remains in exhibitions can also greatly stimulate a learning experience, allowing a much stronger connection to the culture that is being represented. A survey by English Heritage showed that only 9% of people opposed the display of human bones in museums suggesting there is still high demand for public display of human remains in museums. However, museums must be careful to utilise human remains in an appropriate context in order to educate rather than just to attract audiences.

Charles Byrne's skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean

Charles Byrne’s skeleton on display in the Huntarian Museum. (Photo credit: CC image courtesy of Paul Dean)

Many people do not consider the ethical issues of how the dead should be displayed in a collection until they are asked: what if that was your grandfather or great-great grandmother? Would you still consider this respectful? However, for many of the ancient human remains collected, including the man buried in the pot, their ancestry has been lost and we cannot know how their descendants, or they themselves, would feel about how their body is being used in the name of education. Although admittedly it is hard to argue that this is what the ancient Egyptians would have wanted.

In our current legal system we rely on our family and loved ones to carry out our burial wishes. But in their absence we too would have no control over this, much like the ancient Egyptians on display. I’m not sure I would be willing for my skeleton to be used to educate future generation about the irreversible impact mobile phones had on our postures and spines (I’m imagining my skeleton hunched over my iPhone whilst scrolling through Instagram). But others might feel differently.

As attitudes towards the displaying of human remains change, museum’s policies will have to adapt. Maybe in the future forms of consent will be required, similar to signing up for organ donation. But how many people will actually be willing to donate their bodies to museums? I guess only time will tell.

 

The value of ‘offline’ cultural heritage

By Kevin Guyan, on 19 September 2016

By Anna Rudnicka

SPF 50By Anna Rudnicka

Observing a small child approach a museum object and squeak with joy is perhaps the most rewarding part of working in UCL’s museums. I still remember how long it took for medieval kings to put on their Sunday best – just under an hour, apparently, at least in Central Europe – a fact I learnt during a primary school trip to the local castle. Children and adults tend to acquire knowledge more easily when the information is supported by ‘hands-on’ experience of handling or observing an object.

Nowadays, an increasing amount of culture consumption happens online. Will children go to castles in 20 years’ time? Or will they learn history solely from online textbooks and virtual reality tutorials? It has been argued that museums may struggle to compete with virtual reality. The speed with which technology progresses makes it difficult to speculate about the future of the heritage sector. For now, numerous heritage institutions have made an effort to create digital collections. Paintings, sculptures, old books and even historic houses are represented online in digital format – they are often videotaped, photographed or, in case of texts, transcribed. Then, linked by a theme or a story, they become collections. Because of the cost and time commitment required, institutions have been delegating some of these tasks to online volunteers. We are yet to understand how this may affect job prospects, or indeed the security of jobs for those currently employed within the sector.

Digital resources provide us with many new opportunities: we can discover art and historic objects from museums situated thousands of miles away, while sitting at the computer in our comfortable slippers. We benefit from speed of access and lower costs (no plane fare needed) even when conducting extensive online research. Finally, there is the advantage of flexibility. Themes and stories can take precedence over geographic location: objects stored or displayed in remote parts of the world are now only as far as a click or a swipe. We learn contextually.

Although popularity of digital resources could make them seem devoid of drawbacks, the number of British citizens that lack either Internet access or the IT skills required to perform searches in Internet databases, is still high. UCL’s Melissa Terras (Director of UCL Centre for Digital Humanities and Professor of Digital Humanities in the Department of Information Studies) cautions that ‘digital’ does not equal ‘accessible’. It will take time for researchers to achieve a good understanding of what different social and age groups want, and need, form their experience of online heritage.

In the same way that most of us prefer to eat ice cream than to look at it, the experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits. Regular library users are more likely to report higher life satisfaction and better overall health. This finding remains valid when many other factors relevant for our wellbeing are controlled for. Learning opportunities afforded by visiting a museum can surpass those inside a classroom. A large study conducted at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has shown that a trip to the museum resulted in improved ability to think critically about art, and that this effect was particularly pronounced for students from underprivileged backgrounds.


“The experience of material – offline – heritage, can offer us some unique, irreplaceable benefits”


As reminded by Jones and Holden in their seminal pamphlet, we live in a material world. Interestingly, factors such as air pollution, high levels of UV radiation or presence of microbes, are detrimental both to materials that make up our heritage, and to our own health. Perhaps, if we paid more attention to conservation needs of heritage objects, it could result in improved environmental awareness? Since learning about the impact of UV radiation on paintings and other objects prone to fading of colours – I have been a lot more diligent in applying my SPF cream. I am also more interested in pro-environmental initiatives. While heavy Internet consumption may be a sign of the times, it is the material world and material heritage objects that illustrate the consequences of unsustainable behaviours.

Finally, the role of providing access to cultural heritage objects and collections goes beyond personal interests, entertainment, academic study or even the natural environment. By showing us how our ancestors lived, thought and created in the past, heritage institutions teach us the history of humanity. We learn about the things we all have in common, and we are exposed to mistakes that we can learn from. Material objects play a crucial role in educating about the Holocaust. It is their physical real-ness that provides us with an accurate insight into the course of events. Their tangibility and material form offer an experience that is very different from the glamorized version of Holocaust so often depicted by Hollywood or the Holocaust as a generalised concept surrounded by myths and inaccuracies.

Although providing us with new opportunities, online heritage collections are far from perfect: we still need unified description systems, databases that are easier to navigate, and a better understanding of people’s Internet behaviours. Digital heritage and cultural resources allow fast and cost-effective access to information, however, in their current shape and form, we cannot rely on them to provide equal access for all members of the society or to fulfil our duty of honouring the past. It is difficult to foresee the impact that the next few decades may have on the heritage sector, or whether technologies such as virtual reality might bridge the gap between online and offline collections. In the meantime, I encourage you to support your local libraries and museums, especially if they are affected by cuts in funding. You can do this by speaking to your local MP, or by joining an online campaign. The values of material cultural heritage – and the human interaction and learning opportunities afforded by trained staff – should not be taken for granted. My guess is, if we found them gone once we had unglued ourselves from our computers, we would not know how to do without them.

Anna works as a Student Engager and is currently conducting an experiment at UCL’s Octagon Gallery into fading. Anyone visiting the gallery is encouraged to take a photo of the colour chart and tweet it to @HeritageCitSci.

Research engager goes abroad

By Ann E M Liljas, on 7 September 2015

Ann

By Ann Liljas

 

Our research engager Ann has explored exhibitions about ancient Egypt in Rome and Dublin.

In the last few months I have been to Rome and Dublin. In Rome I visited the Vatican Museums which consists of several museums of which one is about ancient Egypt. In Dublin I spent a couple of hours at the National Museum of Ireland where visitors are introduced to ancient Egypt. In this blog post I present a couple of items on display at these two exhibitions. If you want to find out more, visit Petrie museum in London part of your preparations for your trip to Rome or Dublin.

One of the first things you get to explore when entering the Vatican Museums is the museum about ancient Egypt. It was founded by Pope Gregory XVI in 1839 and has several interesting shabtisartefacts for those interested in the complex civilisation of ancient Egypt. Highlights include statues, papyruses, animal mummies and reproductions of the Book of the Dead. During my visit I took a closer look at the collection of small statues called Shabtis. The word Shabti refers to “respond” or “answer” and these statues of adult male or female form were supposed to carry out tasks on behalf of a person in the afterlife such as heavy manual work. The Shabti figures on display vary in size and some are made of stone and others of wood. A sign next to them tells the visitor that they were wrapped in bandages like mummies and the number of shabtis in a burial could be as many as one for every day of the year. The use of shabtis increased over time but during the Ptolemaic Period the use of these statues gradually disappeared. Now, the good news is that you do not have to go all the way to Rome to see Shabtis as there are several of them on display at the Petrie museum in London.

The exhibition at the National Museum of Ireland includes four mummies, jewellery and other personal adornments portraying life and death in ancient Egypt. The collection consists imageof artefacts from several excavations throughout the Valley and Delta led by Flinders Petrie. I really liked a painted wooden model of a Nile boat with rowers and armed guard from c.1900 BC. The model was found in a tomb and boat models of different types were often included in Middle Kingdom tomb equipment. Boats were important as they were the swiftest and most reliable mode of transport and communication. In contrast to many other models found this one includes an armed man with speckled cowhide shield. An informative sign next to the model suggests it may be that he is the officer and the crew a troop of soldiers. Military features in burials around this time may reflect the civil wars of the First Intermediate Period which ended c. 2025 BC.

Have you been to any of these exhibitions or any other exhibition about ancient Egypt outside the UK? Share your experience with me and the other research engagers next time you visit Petrie museum. Research engagers are PhD students at UCL who regularly spend time at the museums speaking to visitors about their research. We are also interested in hearing your thoughts on the imagecollections as well as research at UCL. And we love when visitors ask us questions! Although we may not be experts on ancient Egypt as our field of study ranges from mechanical engineering to epidemiology, we will try our best to answer your questions. Questions that we think are interesting to share with others may be published here on our website. We look forward to speaking to you at your next visit.