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Researchers in Museums


Engaging the public with research & collections


Event: Migration through (Pre)History

By Josie Mills, on 28 January 2019

Migration through (Pre)History, an evening of short talks by UCL’s Student Engagers, will be taking place on Thursday, 7 February 2019, from 6:30-9pm in UCL Art Museum

Coming up in UCL Art Museum, we’re hosting a series of talks around the theme of migration, and with Brexit coming up, there’s no wonder that’s what’s on our mind!

We’d like to welcome you to join UCL’s Student Engagers Josie Mills, Hannah Page, and Jen Datiles, current PhD researchers, to explore the migration of people and the movement of objects through time and space. Inspired by the Octagon Gallery’s 2019 exhibit Moving Objects, Student Engagers will use UCL Art Museum as a space to investigate the movement of people across disciplines. Highlights include migration in prehistory and the spread of botanicals in the nineteenth century. Stick around for some wine and snacks afterward!

The event is free and will be held at UCL Art Museum on Thursday 7th of February from 6.30 – 9.00 pm.

The speakers are:

Josie Mills is a PhD candidate in the Institute of Archaeology specialising in prehistoric archaeology, applying scientific techniques to stone tools made by Neanderthals. In her PhD she is studying where flint used to make lithic artefacts comes from in order to look at movement and landscape use during the Middle Palaeolithic. She is also interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division often drawn between us and other species.

Hannah Page is a fourth year part-time PhD student in the Archaeology department. Her thesis focuses on sociocultural and political organisation and change in the early 2nd millennium AD in Uganda. Her research aims to reconstruct key aspects of life at the site of Ntuusi through the detailed archaeometric (scientific) analysis of pottery. This type of ceramic analysis can be used to understand scale and organisation of production practices, identify cultural groups and understand networks of local and long-distance trade and exchange. She is also active in running excavations and coordinating field schools and outreach events in the UK and sub-saharan Africa.

Jen Datiles is a PhD student at the UCL School of Pharmacy studying food and medicinal plants that were exchanged between Asia and the Americas via the Spanish Galleon Trade (1565-1815). Using selected plant species as case studies, her research aims to link historical documentation with modern use-knowledge of traditional food-medicines through fieldwork and work in various archives and herbaria.

As usual our events in the museum aim to be inclusive and interactive, with lighthearted discussion about the topic of the event and how this might relate to our own research areas. You can book the event by clicking here. Booking is encouraged but not essential.

We look forward to welcoming you on the night!

For more information please email josephine.mills.10@ucl.ac.uk or follow us on Twitter @ResearchEngager

“Chief City of Airstrip One”: George Orwell and London

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 14 January 2019

George Sidney Shepherd (1784-1861). London University from Old Gower Muse (1835) (UCL Art Museum 4587)

Migrating Words, a creative writing workshop inspired by literary and artistic representations of London, will take place at UCL Art Museum on Wednesday, 16 January 2019 from 6 to 8 pm.

In the opening pages of George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), the novel’s protagonist, Winston Smith, gazes at a scene of urban decay:

He tried to squeeze out some childhood memory that should tell him whether London had always been quite like this. Were there always these vistas of rotting nineteenth-century houses, their sides shored up with baulks of timber, their windows patched with cardboard, and their roofs with corrugated iron […]? And the bombed sites where the plaster dust swirled in the air […]? (5)

Though Orwell was born in Bengal, and preferred life on an isolated Scottish island to the bustle of the city, he is inextricably linked to London. An investigative journalist as well as a novelist, he is famous for having gone “native in his own country.” That anthropological expedition involved transgressing geographic, as well as class, boundaries. “I wanted to submerge myself,” he writes in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), “to get right down among the oppressed, to be one of them and on their side against their tyrants” (148).

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). The Limeburner (1859) (UCL Art Museum 8606).

Orwell’s novels and non-fiction return continually to London and provide a cross-section of its places and people through prosperity, depression, and war. UCL Culture’s upcoming creative writing workshop, Migrating Words, takes its inspiration from Orwell’s texts, and the representations of the city in UCL Art Museum’s collection. The words and images align and diverge, contradict and complement one another in their portrayal of a centre that began as a far-flung outpost of a dying empire, and became a global centre. The world has come to London.

* * *

Orwell’s novels of the 1930s engage directly with urban poverty. Dorothy Hare, Orwell’s heroine in the 1935 novel A Clergyman’s Daughter, is recently returned from hop picking in Kent and desperately seeking shelter:

It was not until the evening that Dorothy managed to find herself a room. For something like ten hours she was wandering up and down, from Bermondsey into Southwark, from Southwark into Lambeth, through labyrinthine streets where snotty-nosed children played at hop-scotch on pavements horrible with banana skins and decaying cabbage leaves. At every house she tried it was the same story—the landlady refused point-blank to take her in. (95)

The narrator’s description of conditions near the Thames contrasts sharply with seventeenth-century artist Wenceslaus Hollar’s rendering of the glory of Lambeth Palace.

Wenceslaus Hollar (1607-1677). A View of Lambeth Palace (1647) (UCL Art Museum 1229).

In Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), failed writer Gordon Comstock, who lives a life of principled penury, wanders drunkenly through central London. While James Dickson Innes’s 1908 oil painting portrays the elegance of aristocrats’ night at the theatre, Gordon’s hatred of the “money god” and the strictures of work and wealth casts a deathly pall on the West End:

“We’d better walk up to Piccadilly Circus,” he said. “There’ll be plenty of taxis there.”

The theatres were emptying. Crowds of people and streams of cars flowed to and fro in the frightful corpse-light. (192)

James Dickson Innes (1887-1914). A Scene in a Theatre: A Performance Seen from a Box in which Three Figures are Standing (1908) (. UCL Art Museum 5263).


Both Orwell and Fairlie Harmar had an intimate knowledge of London accommodations for the poor. The latter created the undated watercolour Old and Helpless—Saint Pancras Workhouse, while Orwell describes the conditions in the institutions’ casual wards, termed “spikes,” in a 1931 essay; he also refers to workhouses in his first book-length publication, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933):

At half-past eight Paddy took me to the Embankment, where a clergyman was known to distribute meal tickets once a week. Under Charing Cross Bridge fifty men were waiting, mirrored in the shivering puddles. Some of them were truly appalling specimens–they were Embankment sleepers, and the Embankment dredges up worse types than the spike. (198)

Fairlie Harmar (1876-1945). Old and Helpless- Saint Pancras Workhouse (UCL Art Museum 3208).

Also in Down and Out, Orwell describes a day’s idling in the Thames district. James Whistler portrays a similarly ramshackle, chaotic river life in Black Lion Wharf, an etching he completed in 1859.

All day I loafed in the streets, east as far as Wapping, west as far as Whitechapel. It was queer after Paris; everything was so much cleaner and quieter and drearier. […] In Whitechapel somebody called The Singing Evangel undertook to save you from hell for the charge of sixpence. In the East India Dock Road the Salvation Army were holding a service. […] On Tower Hill two Mormons were trying to address a meeting.” (143-144)

James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). Black Lion Wharf (1859)(UCL Art Museum 8604).

John Flaxman was one of the foremost funerary sculptors of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and casts of his Greco-Roman style monuments are a cornerstone of UCL Art Museum’s collections. His pen and ink drawings, however, often diverge from neoclassical subjects. A Man in a Cloak Asleep on the Plinth of a Building (undated) co-locates indigency and architectural grandeur. Orwell does the same in A Clergyman’s Daughter, drawing the wandering Dorothy to London’s triumphal center:

Dorothy turned to the left, up the Waterloo Road, towards the river. On the iron footbridge she halted for a moment. The night wind was blowing. Deep banks of mist, like dunes, were rising from the river, and, as the wind caught them, swirling north-eastward across the town. A swirl of mist enveloped Dorothy, penetrating her thin clothes and making her shudder with a sudden foretaste of the night’s cold. She walked on and arrived, by the process of gravitation that draws all roofless people to the same spot, at Trafalgar Square.” (100)

John Flaxman (1755-1826). A Man in a Cloak Asleep on the Plinth of a Building (undated)(UCL Art Museum 776).

It is Rome, rather than London, that is called the Eternal City. Orwell, however, never visited Italy. Instead, he lived, loved, suffered, was celebrated, and most importantly, wrote in London; it is his city of the past, and the future. For the capital endures even in the nightmare world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. While Winston struggles to remember life before Big Brother—everything, including the names of countries, had been different then (34)—he remains certain that London has always been London.

Join me for Migrating Words, UCL Culture’s creative writing workshop examining London, Orwell, and the works of the UCL Art Museum collection.


A Tale of Two Exhibitions: Auguste Rodin, Gwen John, and the Torsos of Antiquity

By Sarah M Gibbs, on 4 June 2018

By Sarah Gibbs

What do you get when you combine a French sculptor, an English painter, and a bunch of statues that lost their heads (literally) on the journey from antiquity to the twentieth century? Amazing exhibitions at the British Museum, which just opened the show Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece, and the UCL Art Museum, where visitors can enjoy Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918!

Left: Auguste Rodin (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan); right: Gwen John. Self-Portrait, 1900 (Oxford Dictionary of National Biography)

The British Museum’s exhibition examines the profound influence on the artist’s work of classical sculpture, in particular, the Parthenon figures in the British Museum. Of Pheidias, the ancient sculptor responsible for the Parthenon’s adornment, as well as the giant statue of the goddess Athena that resided within, Rodin declared in 1911: “No artist will ever surpass [him]… The greatest of the sculptors, who appeared at the time when the entire human dream could be contained in the pediment of a temple, will never be equalled.”

Rodin’s purpose-built antiquities museum at Meudon (British Museum / Musée Rodin; Jean de Calan)

In homage to the works of antiquity, Rodin removed the heads and extremities from many of his own sculptures. In so doing, he created a new sub-genre of art: the headless, limbless torso (because beauty, after all, is in the eye of the beholder—of abdominals). Among the photographs included in the British Museum’s displays is an image of Gwen John, an English painter and Rodin’s lover, and a featured artist in another local exhibition.

While the UCL Art Museum’s Prize & Prejudice doesn’t include any paintings of Colin Firth’s Mr. Darcy emerging from the lake at Pemberley, it is an in-depth examination of the work of the female artists who swept the Slade School’s annual prizes in 1918. Among the portraits, drapery studies, and drawings from life is a composition by Gwen John, a student at the Slade between 1895 and 1898. John’s piece includes a figure sketch after Raphael and the exhibit’s accompanying text notes that: “Like her peers she would have been encouraged to visit the Print Room at the British Museum in order to closely examine the [Old Masters’] originals in person.”

Drawing from casts of headless, limbless classical torsos was also part of the Slade students’ training. Perhaps John and Rodin passed one another in the British Museum’s hallowed halls before they met in France in 1904.

The British Museum and the UCL Art Museum’s exhibitions are a beautiful double feature for any art lover with a free afternoon in Bloomsbury. Rodin diverged from classical models in his desire to show the sculpting process—tool marks and rough edges remain on his works—and in his interest in pieces which appeared unfinished. Likewise, Prize & Prejudice’s drawings and paintings are artefacts of art in progress: the efforts of practitioners honing their craft and learning from the masters who preceded them.

Rodin and the Art of Ancient Greece; until 29 July 2018 (British Museum)

Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918; until 8 June 2018 (UCL Art Museum)



British Museum. Rodin & the Art of Ancient Greece. 2018. London. http://www.britishmuseum.org/whats_on/exhibitions/rodin-1.aspx

Langdale, Cecily. “John, Gwendolen Mary [Gwen], (1876–1939).” Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2004, https://doi.org/10.1093/ref:odnb/37610

UCL Art Museum. Prize & Prejudice: The Slade Class of 1918. 2018. London.

Event: What do you need to create a justice system?

By Arendse I Lund, on 14 March 2018

What do you need to create a justice system, an evening of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, will be taking place on Tuesday, 20 March 2018, UCL Art Museum 6:30-8pm


Our upcoming event “What do you need to create a justice system?” is next Tuesday — come join us for an evening of short talks focussed on the justice systems, or lack thereof, in early farming communities, amongst the Anglo-Saxons, and in the Dark Net. Think there’s no connection at all between these disparate time periods? You might be surprised!



The speakers are:

Josie Mills – a third-year PhD in Archaeology at UCL specialising in applying scientific techniques, like mass spectrometry, to understand more about stone tools made by Neanderthals. She’s particularly interested in how we, as modern humans, perceive prehistoric behaviour and the division we draw between us and other species.

Arendse Lund – a PhD student in the UCL English department. She traces the development of an Old English legal language and how rulers use this legal terminology to shape perceptions of their authority. She is funded by the London Arts and Humanities Partnership.

Cerys Bradley – a PhD student in the crime and security science department at UCL. They study the people who buy drugs on the internet and how they react to different law enforcement interventions.

The event is being hosted in the UCL Art Museum, an intimate space in what used to be the old print room. The three talks are 15 minutes each and are followed by questions. Then attendees are welcome to join the presenters for a wine reception. No booking is necessary but space is limited.

We look forward to seeing you there!

An Afternoon with Materials & Objects

By Arendse I Lund, on 25 May 2017

Materials & Objects, an afternoon of short talks by UCL’s student engagers, took place on Thursday, 18 May 2017, in the UCL Art Museum.

The first manuscript I ever handled was the Vercelli Book. I was on an archival research trip to the Capitulary Library of Vercelli, just outside of Milan, and I couldn’t believe that the librarian would entrust me with this. Awe struck and fangirling, I oh-so-very-carefully flipped my way through the large manuscript. I had written papers and looked at digital versions of the manuscript but nothing could compare to handling and studying it in person.

The  Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross

The Vercelli Book and Vercelli Cross


The Vercelli Book is a late 10th-century work, compiled of both prose and poetry, and written in Old English on parchment. How it got down to Vercelli is still something scholars debate. It’s not the largest work I’ve ever handled, and depending on your perspective, not the rarest either; I’ve handled manuscripts that are technically saints’ relics. The Vercelli Book holds a special place in my heart and I’ve never lost my awe for handling the objects behind my research.

Talking about the manuscripts with the public is one way I try to share my enthusiasm for what an incredible field of studies I’m in and how exciting it is to be a medievalist. Last week’s Materials & Objects event was the first event we’ve put on since I’ve joined the fabulous Student Engagement team here at UCL and one in which I got to speak all about manuscripts and what they’re made of. Thanks to everyone who turned up, the UCL Art Museum was packed — we even had to place out more chairs! — and the presentations sparked fascinating questions about aspects of research that showed everyone was really engaged with the speakers.

In a way it’s humbling to hear about all the incredible and life changing research that my fellow PhD students are performing. Hannah took the audience step-by-step through recreating the process of 18th-century paper making in her kitchen, and Kyle talked about depictions of archives and their diversity problems (something he’s also written about on this blog). Cerys spoke about researching the Dark Web to aid law enforcement, and Citlali walked the audience through the difficulties and possibilities of growing brains in labs. Josie defended Neanderthals (something she’s done here as well) and handed around flint examples for everyone to feel; finally, Stacy subtly gave the concluding talk standing on one leg to demonstrate how our day-to-day activities shape our bone growth.

Thanks to everyone who came out and participated in our event — leave us a comment and let us know what you thought. If you missed the afternoon, don’t fret; many of the talks will appear in blog post form here before too long and you’re always welcome to come into any of the UCL museums and talk to us more in person!

Follow @Arendse on Twitter or read more of her blog posts here.