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

By Hannah L Wills, on 19 October 2017

By Hannah Wills

 

 

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

What are UCL museums for?

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

 

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

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

 

What was the role of museums in the past?

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

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

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

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

 

How do museums think about their function today?

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

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

What will the museum of the future be like?

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

 

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

 

References:

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

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

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

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

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

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

Materials & Objects: What do researchers at UCL study?

By Hannah L Wills, on 2 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Thursday 18 May 2017, UCL Art Museum, 2-4pm.

Taking a look at the range of posts we’ve had on our blog just recently, I’m struck by how many different kinds of materials we work with as researchers at UCL. From brains to archives, from skeletons to manuscripts, there’s a whole range of ‘stuff’ that forms the core of our research as PhD students, not to mention the objects we engage and interact with while we work in the museums, chatting about our research with the public.

In two weeks, a group of student engagers are getting together for an afternoon of short talks in the Art Museum, presenting and explaining their research based around the theme of materials and objects. Each short talk will give an insight into some of the research that happens at UCL, in departments ranging from Security and Crime Science to the Institute of Archaeology.

Arendse Lund, whose blog posts have explored unusual book-bindings as well as medieval twitter, will be ‘Marvelling at Medieval Manuscripts’ and their makeup.

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Face-to-face with medieval manuscripts (Image credit: Bamberg, Staatsbibliothek, Msc. Patr. 4, f. 69r)

Speaking about my work on eighteenth-century notebooks and diaries, I’ll be explaining how eighteenth-century paper was made, and how it was used by note-takers.

Kyle Lee-Crossett, who reflected last month on the absence of people in images of archives, will be delving into ‘Invisible Boxes’, exploring the materials of archives and collections.

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Feeling disoriented yet? (Image credit: Kyle Lee-Crossett)

Cerys Bradley, who has written about her work on the museum audio guide project, will be speaking at the event about her work studying illegal objects on the Dark Web.

Citlali Helenes González will be exploring the material of the body, in her talk ‘How to Build a Brain in the Lab’. You can find out more about Citlali’s fascinating research, and building brains, here.

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Gordon Museum Brain Collection at the Grant Museum at UCL (Image credit: Grant Museum)

Josie Mills, who has written recently about her work on Neanderthal landscape use and migration, will be revealing in her talk just where the Neanderthals got their stuff.

Stacy Hackner, whose work focuses on the tibia, will be explaining how bone reacts to activity in her talk, ‘Standing on One Foot’.

 

Our ‘Materials & Objects’ event will be happening on Thursday 18 May in the UCL Art Museum, from 2-4pm. Do join us if you can—the event will conclude with tea and refreshments, and an opportunity to meet the researchers. You can find out more and view our poster for the event here.

The event is FREE to attend, but online booking is suggested via: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/event-ticketing/booking?ev=16160

 

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

By Kevin Guyan, on 28 June 2016

By Hannah Wills

 

 

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

Blagden

Sir Charles Blagden, photo credit: Wikipedia.

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

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

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

Cookier Cutter Shark Jaw

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

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

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

 

Stress: Using Oral History Interviews

By Felicity M B Winkley, on 11 November 2015

Profileby Felicity Winkley 

This post is associated with our exhibit Stress: Approaches to the First World War, open October 12-November 20.

 

 

A visitor to Stress last week commented that the objects on display weren’t what she expected, that she had anticipated they would show much more directly the obvious effects, or stresses, of the First World War on men, women and children.

I wasn’t surprised by this response. We knew when we curated Stress that the interpretation of the objects was more convoluted than most traditional museum displays – the object labels are longer than best practice advises, the visual links between the cases difficult for the visitor to immediately grasp.

Part of this is owed to the fact that the objects have been chosen from the UCL collections – geology, pathology and science specimens among others – rather than from a military history assemblage. In equal measure, it is also because the objects have been chosen not only because of their relevance to the exhibition, but also according to the individual research interests of the curators.

One element of the exhibition breaks this mould however – the audio installation which plays two oral history interviews from the archives of the National Army Museum, recollections of two individuals who served in the First World War. For me, this part of the exhibition provides the visitor with the most direct link to the conflict – an immediate and very powerful ‘place-setting’ via the experiences being narrated, quite apart from the objects on display.

Although the audio is on a permanent loop, no matter at what stage you join in the story you are transported: with Adelaide Marian Davies, who served with the Women’s Army Aux Corps in France, you can picture the scene as she describes the dances held for troops at the Front, where it was forbidden for her rank to dance with the officers; with L/Cpl Billy Meade, you might join him at the Dardanelles, Ypres or later at the prisoner of war camp where he tasted Schnapps for the first time.

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The Oral History Listening Post at Stress

The resonance of these anecdotes illustrates just why oral history interviews are important, and why they are such a useful element to incorporate in exhibitions, or indeed many kinds of research. As opposed to much of the written historical record, oral histories are collected directly from the source and feel so much more authentic for it. For the purposes of my PhD, I used a ‘go-along’ interview technique, which involved talking to respondents whilst walking, in order to glean accurate insight to their experience of being in that environment. More recently, I volunteered as an oral history interviewer for the London Bubble’s After Hiroshima project which explores the responses of Londoners to the dropping of the first atomic bomb on 6 August 1945, both in the immediate aftermath and throughout the peace movement of the 1950s and 60s.

Oral histories lend themselves to many situations, not only to provide a means for gathering unique, illuminating and personal records and reflections, but also – in the process of their collection – to involve a wider community in research and offer an opportunity for participation in history and heritage in practice. We were thrilled to be joined on the Stress opening night by the family of Billy Meade, including his daughter (now 84), who had never before heard his recording.

Stress: Building an Exhibition

By Kevin Guyan, on 20 July 2015


Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

 

With the announcement of the Student Engagers’ autumn exhibition, here is the first in a series of blog posts that share personal insights into the curatorial process.

 

Stress offers the student engagement team an opportunity to curate an exhibition that counters the traditional view of museums and galleries as fixed spaces that display objects that convey a message. Instead – I see this as a chance for us to experiment with bold and exciting ways to share knowledge and create a space on campus for three-way conversations between curators, objects and the public.

The inception of our exhibition first found life in the summer of 2014 during a conversation between the student engagement team and the UCL Art Museum. Over one year later and, as design ideas and draft event listings are shared via email, the exhibition at last feels like it is coming together.

As our more experienced colleagues in UCL Museums and Public and Cultural Engagement warned, ‘exhibition time’ runs significantly slower than ‘normal time’ and we now appreciate starting this project with 16 months to spare. I remember looking at action plans with distant dates and the feeling that our plans were a lifetime away. Those dates have now come and gone as we hurtle through 2015 and towards our opening night on Friday 9 October.

The meat and bones of the student engagement project is the presence of researchers in UCL’s three public museums. Therefore, one of the key hopes for Stress was to import this practice and create an exhibition where a researcher was always present, waiting and ready for conversation.

The researcher’s presence will also create a way to feed-back information from visitors into the planning of events, pre-empting many questions and queries fielded and offering a more tailored visitor experience. It further gives us opportunities to adapt the exhibition during its run. For example, conversations between engagers and visitors will inform the writing of blog articles that will then shape how future visitors perceive the objects on display.

Like our previous events and exhibitions, Movement, LandSCAPE and Foreign Bodies, the theme of Stress brings together the research interests of a diverse group of PhD students under one overarching theme. This means that the visitor experience will differ according to the researcher in the exhibition space and their interpretation of the objects on display.

North Lodge

UCL’s North Lodge will house a team of postgraduate researchers throughout the exhibition.

I am excited to see how this works in reality – the continual presence of a researcher in the North Lodge exhibition space may prove overbearing and turn-off visitors looking for a space of solitude in busy Bloomsbury. More optimistically, the space will become a talking shop at the entrance to UCL’s campus and create a different, yet equally enriching, experience for visitors.

For me, public engagement is about more than sharing research ideas with other people. The benefits should reach far further than dissemination alone and empower researchers to enter into dialogues with people from different backgrounds. The process of sharing ideas with people unfamiliar with our own field will foster new and unexpected connections and force us to change the way we share our work, ultimately resulting in a deeper understanding for everyone involved.

We are attempting to build an exhibition with public engagement as a foundational building block and create a space that gives researchers and visitors opportunities to follow pathways unaware where they might lead. This is very much the ethos of the student engagement project – let’s see how our ideas work in reality.

National Gallery of Ireland Research Day

By Kevin Guyan, on 9 March 2015

Kevin GuyanBy Kevin Guyan

The Student Engagement project was the subject of a paper presented to an audience of museum and gallery professionals, researchers and members of the public at the National Gallery of Ireland Research Day on 6 March 2015.

The day’s theme was Conditions of Display: Research & Practice and preceded the reopening of the gallery in 2016, in which curators will make a number of decisions on rehanging and reimagining the collection.  It was therefore an ideal opportunity to share the ongoing link between researchers and public engagement taking place across UCL Museums and the possibilities the Student Engagement project presents for museums and galleries in both the UK and Ireland.

Artists and researchers from a number of UK and Irish universities and art colleges shared their experiences of devising, organising and interpreting exhibitions, as well as the public’s experience of these exhibitions once they go ‘live’.

Sean Rainbird, Director of the NGI, opened the day noting the need to consider the ‘physical experience of humans in space’ when thinking about museums and galleries.  Adding that this not only included the arrangement of space and objects but also the management of sound.

Gemma Tipton, known for her commentary on art, architecture and aspects of Irish culture for The Irish Times and regular contributions to TV and radio, raised interesting points about what the exterior of galleries say about the content within.  This instantly conjured up the very different entrances to the Grant Museum and Petrie Museum, and whether this shapes people’s interpretations of museum objects prior to their arrival in the museum.

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Entrances to the Grant Museum (left) and Petrie Museum (right).

Paul Green, PhD Candidate in the School of Art and Media at the University of Plymouth, shared the ongoing work of Cork’s South Presentation Heritage and the conversion of a convent into a public heritage site.  The need to ‘future proof’ the site so that it is ready for unforeseen uses and forms of engagements was insightful, as well as the involvement of design students in devising ways for the public to interact with the objects and space.

Mirjami Schuppert, PhD Candidate at Ulster University, examined the role of the curator in mediating artistic interventions.  She drew a distinction between ‘conventional curating’ and ‘contemporary curating’, which revolves around ‘creative authorship and discursive coproduction’, and expressed the need for those working with archives to give something back in return.

Saidhbhín Gibson, Masters in Fine Art-Sculpture Candidate at the National College of Art and Design, shared her artistic interventions in permanent collections at The Natural History Museum and The Lab, Dublin.  She also raised questions over the level of interpretation presented in museums, and the exciting possibilities that emerge when visitors are not given directions on how they should or should not understand an object on display.

Sabina MacMahon, Masters in Museum Studies Candidate at the University of Leicester, discussed her creation of the fictitious South Down Society of Modern Art and exhibition of its work.

Kevin Guyan concluded the day’s papers by sharing the case study of the Student Engagement project and how two-way discussions with visitors helped promote his work as well as reconsider views towards his own research.  He argued that curators should build strategies for engagement, like the Student Engagement project, into the planning of exhibitions and hanging of collections from the offset, as it brings a number of benefits for researchers and the public.

Conditions of Display

The Research Day discussed new ways to share collections.

A panel discussion followed that examined a number of these themes in further depth.  One person questioned the expandability of the Student Engagement project to larger, non-university spaces.  Though the focus of the project has thus far been UCL’s three campus museums, it seems likely that elements of this project could transfer to differently sized museums not linked to universities.  Another person asked whether this style of engagement was dependent on the layout of the museum space?  As Student Engagers report differing levels of success in different parts of UCL museums, environment undoubtedly plays a role in people’s willingness to converse.

People clustered afterwards to share their thoughts, both positive and negative, on the Student Engagement project.  A few audience members found the idea of a researcher approaching them when contemplating a painting or museum object an unwelcome idea, though admitted that others may enjoy this opportunity to share their opinion on the collection.  Others identified the two-way benefits of bringing researchers into the museum or gallery space and were excited by the project’s potential to serve as a training platform for students.  Expanding the skillset of PhD students, while also bringing into museums and galleries new methods of public engagement, interested many of those in attendance and it is hoped that elements of the work taking place at UCL appears in other museums and galleries.

Why Talk to Engagers?

By Stacy Hackner, on 9 February 2015

engaging

by Stacy Hackner

Most of my engagements, regardless of the museum, are quite short. Visitors ask a few questions, I talk theirs ears off about bones and Nubians for about ten minutes, we banter, and then they leave. It’s not their fault or, I hope, mine; I know people have places to go and didn’t schedule in the requisite half hour an over-enthusiastic archaeologist  needs to fully explain the intricacies of bone cells, astronauts exercising in space, perceptions of Egyptian hegemony, and working within the Human Tissue Act. Occasionally, though, I happen upon that rare individual or group who is/are both fascinated and unfettered by a strict schedule of museum tourism. These engagements can last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours and, while intellectually exhausting, really accomplish the Student Engagers’ goals of learning just as much from the public as they do from us. Once people learn that they are not bothering us and that our work is simply to discuss research with them, the museum turns into a salon of ideas and facts.

Beyond my PhD work, I consider myself a perpetual student. I’m always learning, reading, interpreting, evaluating data from numerous sources. I’m actually a little afraid of graduating and not being able to call myself a student, as I plan to continue learning despite my future job title, whatever it may be. Engaging with such fascinating people gives me hope that I’ll be able to continue learning from the general public (almost total strangers) because we live in world with really interesting people who are full of knowledge and eager to share. I’d like to describe a few of my best engagement sessions over the past two years.

In the Grant, I met a gentleman dressed in 100% vintage 60s rocker garb, including a fantastically feathered hat. After I introduced myself, he identified my American accent and asked where I was from. I said Chicago. “Chicago!” He exclaimed. “I love it there – I went to film Wayne’s World.” He worked in the music business and was a “band member” in the movie. We talked about the music scene and Chicago museums and the doubtful art of identifying skeletal remains of musicians by extra bone on their fingers. I feel like I got a unique insight into the London music scene in the 70s and 80s, which I love to listen to but have never considered ethnographically. A year later, I saw him again and he recognised me.

In the Petrie, I met an American woman with two children. The kids, age 11 and 13, wanted to know all about mummies. I feed off others’ enthusiasm, especially kids’, since everything is new and amazing to them. The older boy had been studying ancient cultures in school and we had a great time talking about what counts as “history”. They were also interested in the hieroglyph charts, which I explained isn’t a one-to-one correlation with English letters, but ideographic symbols: for instance, if you spell the name Max, you need to put a little drawing of a boy next to it to symbolize that it’s the boy called Max. Otherwise it could represent the maximum amount or, with a king sign, the Pharaoh Max. When the kids went on a Petrie trail, I learned that both their parents are film producers in town for a shoot.

Only a few weeks ago in the Grant, I met a couple who can only be described as vociferous enthusiasts of the natural world. The lady, originally from Tasmania, used to foster wombats and bandicoots; from her I learned of a number of marsupials (or macropods), all new to me, as well as the natural history of Tasmania. Did you know there are two types of koalas? And one of the smallest marsupials, the potoroo, was also unknown to me; there were four species, three of which are endangered and one of which is extinct. Her companion is a fish epidemiologist – probably the only career that gets more raised eyebrows outside the scientific community than bioarchaeologist – and studies infectious disease of fish. What infects fish, I asked? Many things! Fish can get parasites and viruses just like humans; bereft of an example of waterborne bacteria, he pointed out cholera, the obvious example. This couple comes down to London from Scotland every few months to enjoy its dual pleasures of natural history museums and dim sum, which tie together quite nicely considering the unusual species found in both. I was totally enthralled, and felt like I’d just had a lesson in the best mixture of history and old-fashioned naturalism and bacteriology.

Heather, Sandy and Benjamin, Freycinet (704)

Thanks to TW for this picture of a baby wombat!

Really, museums are not just places for learning: they are the center of an exchange of ideas. Whether that involves looking at old things in new ways, new things in old ways, or opening someone’s eyes to a totally different perspective, I really appreciate my interactions with visitors. Please come down to the museums and talk to the Engagers – we’d love to be enlightened!

Question of the Week: Do boys and girls enjoy different museum exhibits/items?

By Stacy Hackner, on 26 March 2014

Stacy Hackner_Thumbnail

By Stacy Hackner

This is actually a more complicated question than one would think, especially considering the recent controversies regarding “pink is for girls, blue is for boys” toys, the Independent’s refusal to review children’s books aimed at a particular gender, and Waterstones‘ refusal to sell such books. It’s also an interesting question to ask as most of us would consider museums fairly gender-neutral spaces. According to research, museum visitors are more likely to be female, educated, older, and white — but that’s a fairly narrow demographic. Clearly there are many visitors who are male or other genders, not in (or after) higher education, young, and of varying ethnicities. There are also two competing (but false) ideologies: that girls would prefer museums because they like quiet learning and being indoors, and that boys will prefer museums because they can interact with objects and tend to like “the gross stuff”. Studies from the 1990s showed that while boys and girls both visited all exhibits at a science museum, they interacted with the exhibits in different ways and for different amounts of time – i.e. boys preferred the water jets and girls preferred face paint. (What these activities have to do with science is unclear.) The researchers showed that children display “typical gender roles” when playing and advise museums to design displays accordingly. Another article encourages girls to visit science museums because they’re an informal and thus less intimidating environment than the classroom. However, it’s important to consider these articles in the context of the views of gender held at the time – I’d hope we’re less stereotypical these days.

In my experience in the Petrie and the Grant, I’ve found both of these stereotypes completely untrue. All kids who come to the Grant like “the gross stuff”, or as they’re properly termed, the wet specimens. I’ve had both boys and girls come up to ask me questions about dinosaurs and bones and worms and mummies and jewelry and the jar of moles. Both boys and girls want to dress up in the Petrie’s reproduction Egyptian clothing, especially the loincloth. Teenage boys, including a Scouts troop I engaged with, are particularly fascinated by the baculum — but then, so were a duo of thirty-year-old women. Above all, kids of all genders are natural scientists: curious, inquisitive, and unafraid to ask crazy questions. Children who visit museums are happier and, in a country where most museums are free, it’s always worthwhile for them to come and explore.

 

Sources

Falk, JH. 2009. Identity and the Museum Visitor Experience. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

Kremer, KB and GW Mullins. 1992. Children’s Gender Behavior at Science Museum Exhibits. Curator: The Museum Journal Volume 35, Issue 1, pages 39–48.

Ramey-Gassert, L, HJ Walberg III, and HJ Walberg. 1994. Reexamining connections: Museums as science learning environments. Science Education, Volume 78, Issue 4, pages 345–363.

Question(s) of the Week: What is a toilet spoon and did you kill that

By Lisa Plotkin, on 26 February 2014

Lisa PlotkinIt’s been almost two years since I began working in UCL’s three public museums as a student engager and in that time I’ve been asked a lot of amusing questions, ranging from “did you kill that?” (most often asked by children visiting the Grant) to “would you like to grab a drink?” (most often asked by visitors on Friday afternoons who don’t realize I actually work at the museum which is why I have stopped to have a chat with them) to “Is that for sale?” (asked by one visitor at the Petrie while pointing at a faience figurine dating from the middle kingdom).

As a student engager it is my job to talk to the visitors and engage them with the collection as well as my own doctoral research, which is on the nineteenth century history of gender and medicine. And by talking with the visitors I inevitably get asked a lot of questions, some of which I have absolutely no clue how to answer. I do know for certain that I didn’t kill any of the animals that currently occupy the many jars that fill the Grant Museum of Zoology. However, I don’t know how all those animals got there (a rather macabre thought) nor do I know what a toilet spoon is, or at least I didn’t until I was asked by a boy and his father during my shift at the Petrie last month. Turns out toilet spoons, or cosmetic spoons, were used to store perfumes for makeup in ancient Egyptian society.

dancing-girl-cosmetic-spoon

Toilet spoon

There were also objects called toilet trays, which are small bowls made from stone and thought to be produced as offerings in the cult of Isis. Beautifully and intricately decorated, Petrie classified these trays as “cosmetic” in function- although that remains in doubt. Needless to say the little boy was a bit disappointed that the toilet spoon (and its tray sister) did not have another function in the ancient world.

And that I think is the best part of my job- learning from the visitors as much they (hopefully!) learn from me. So please come by one of our museums from 1:30 to 4:30, look for the people wearing “UCL Museums” name tags and wandering all around the museum floor and ask away! You may be surprised about what you learn- I know I will be.

 

 

Engaging in an Art Museum: Engagement Reflection

By Sarah Savage Hanney, on 17 February 2014

For most visitors to an art museum, there is an unwritten code of conduct that involves silence and whispers when appropriate. As a Researcher in Museums in UCL’s Art Museum, my job is to engage with visitors to discuss the museum and my research. So in a society where museum etiquette is ingrained, how does one get visitors to speak up and engage in a space that is traditionally quiet? When I ask most visitors how they are enjoying the museum and exhibitions, I receive a polite whisper of “It’s good/nice.” In a museum with restricted space availability and therefore few works out on display, it is difficult to engage with a visitor about a collection that is largely stored away.

A significant portion of any museum experience is being able to see, or even touch an object and use one’s senses to interpret the object. So many times I have witnessed visitors to the Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology touch their own scalp after viewing a mummy’s brunette wig and blonde scalp located in the Main Room.  Through visual or audio stimulation, a visitor can make a connection with an object or work whether it’s an emotional response, opinion, or even indifference.  It can be such a powerful experience examining a work and feeling a rush of emotion.

Thanks to the great research appointments at the Art Museum, I previously had access to works related to my research on epidemics. Surprisingly, the works that felt most relevant were not the anatomical sketches, but abstract prints from the Slade School of Fine Art. When I do convince visitors to express their opinions of the Art Museum, I always offer to show them a sampling of photocopied works I have deemed relevant to my research.

The study of epidemics involves both examining the experiences of those affected and the spread of the pathogen. By having visitors examine works that evoke emotions of despair and confusion while I explain the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, I can more effectively convey individual’s experiences during those epidemics. During the Spanish Influenza pandemic (1918-19), families worldwide felt a variety of emotions as members of their families died quickly and painfully from an influenza outbreak that health professionals could neither control nor determine an origin of contamination.  Although Encephalitis Lethargica [EL] affected tens of thousands of people versus millions with Spanish Influenza, EL left the international medical community in a state of utter confusion without a known cause.

Alphonse Legros Copyright Alphonse Legros UCL Art Museum Object Number 8112 La Mort du Vagabond 1875

Alphonse Legros
Copyright Alphonse Legros
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8112
La Mort du Vagabond
1875

Julia Farrer Copyright Julia Farrer UCL Art Museum Object Number 8977 Navigation I 1971

Julia Farrer
Copyright Julia Farrer
UCL Art Museum
Object Number 8977
Navigation I
1971

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two of the most popular and powerful works in my art selection are Julia Farrer’s 1971 Navigation I and Alphonse Legros’ 1875 La Mort du Vagabond.  Both the works, in the medium of etching and aquatint, are magnificent in person and provoke emotion from the viewer. I interpret Navigation I in a similar way to when I study epidemics. The intersecting lines, red dots and smaller groupings of dots on the work could represent disease spreading through a population with multiple contamination points. La Mort du Vagabond invokes feelings of isolation and helplessness, similar feelings that victims of many epidemics have experienced. By using both of these works in my museum engagements, I can better draw links between my own research and the UCL Art Museum collection.

As I continue with my research and working as a UCL Researcher in Museums, I hope to utilize more objects from the UCL Museum’s Collection in the future.  With over 10,000 works in the Art Museum alone, there is so much potential to use public engagement opportunities to connect the public with the collections.