Guest blogger: Kholood Al-Fahad
How can Ancient art be brought to life by contemporary art? Is there a connection between ancient and new?
Tomb Raiders is the place were such questions should have an answer.
Get inspired by the intelligent ideas of the nine artists from the Central Saint Martin School. In May 14th the Petrie Museum, UCL, will present an exhibition in collaboration with Central St. Martin’s artists. A partnership which demonstrates how education plays a great role in the transformation and translation of the knowledge in museums. This exhibition brings the past back through contemporary works of the students of fine art. It sets an example of the power the objects of a museum hold within them in inspiring the minds of their examiners. It sheds light on the continuity of the meaning and significance of the objects after they end up in a museum.
The artists were closely exposed to the objects from the Museum’s collection and were given the chance to study, search and create their own works. Their works reflected their interpretation of the objects they examined. Artists were inspired in different ways; Some were inspired by the ancient art objects themselves Like Florence Lam. Inspired by the idea of eternity of the ancient objects that stood the test of time by conservation and restoration work , Florence used balloons that die in a very short time to create non eternal sculptures. A juxtaposition between the eternal objects of the museum and the modern non-eternal sculptures. Others had different approach in interpretation. Lauren Jetty, for instance, was inspired by the methodology Petrie Flinders has used in establishing the museum linking it to the material world in the museum. She went on photographing everything she owns creating a collection that talks about her. A collection that piles up to compose a story.
Alongside the direct engagement with the objects, the artists used different techniques and methods to reflect their interpretation of the ancient art works in implementing talented works and intelligent exhibits in a contemporary way of thinking. They used various materials and different media to express their thoughts and tell their own stories. They did drawings, took photographs created animations and audios and used unusual materials like balloons in creating the message they applied to their works. They proved the continuity of the lives of the objects after being acquisitioned in a museum. Through their works they tell us silently that the past and present are linked forever.
Don’t miss the chance. Come and explore how very small details can create great works.
Kholood is an intern at the Petrie Museum, studying at UCL Qatar.
Rarely are the Grant Museum team allowed out. At the end of a typical day we’re stuffed back into our respective cases until the next morning when zoologising begins at dawn. Last night was an exception however as the team headed down to the illustrious premises of 8 Northumberland for the 11th Museums and Heritage Awards, the Oscars of the museum world if you will.
We were shortlisted for the Culture Pros Pick Award for the most inspiring museum or heritage visitor attraction. Over 500 nominations were received and the five museums that received the most nominations were put through to a public vote. This is the first time one of the Museums and Heritage Awards has been voted for by the public and we were suitably edge-of-our-seats with anticipation for most of last night. Our fellow nominees were Amlwch Copper Bins, Dorking Museum & Heritage Centre, Museum of London, and Stow Maries Aerodrome.
However, if you read the title of this post then you may already gathered that we won it! To prove it, here’s Scary Monkey with the award, complete with our grubby fingerprints from last night:
We actually picked up two awards last night, we were accidentally given the Innovations Award trophy (again, we won this award last year), the evening’s host Sue Perkins mixed up the awards but eventually we managed to get the right trophy.
Winning this award is very exciting for the team, particularly as it was voted for by the public. We heartily thank all of our film buffs, twitter followers, animal lovers, lunch hour browsers, colleagues, peers, students, families, artists and young dinosaur geeks who made the effort to vote for us in this category. We pour our hearts and souls into the work we do at the Grant Museum and this award is evidence that we’re doing a good job of it. After all, without our visitors and users we’re just a room of stuff. The day to day running of the museum is done by a team of five, some of who are part time, but we have hundreds of colleagues from our department, UCL Museums and Public Engagement, across UCL and the wider university and museums sectors we work with who we want to thank for supporting and inspiring us.
You can see the full list of winners, commendations and nominees from last night’s awards here.
With last year’s award and this one we hopefully have a breeding pair, as I type this Grant Museum manager Jack Ashby and Director of Museums and Public Engagement Sally MacDonald are on their way to Belgium as the Grant Museum is nominated for the European Museum of the Year Award, the ceremony for which is this Saturday so don’t uncross your fingers just yet!
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology
UPDATE 17/05/2013: Added the image from the awards ceremony.
On the 1st May last week, something incredibly exciting happened. Save the Rhino International deemed UCL worthy enough (for the second year running I might add), to host the unfathomably important Rhino May Day- the must-be-at yearly event for rhino conservationists and enthusiasts. It is essentially for discussing the issues facing the rhino’s continued existence on the planet, from large-scale issues such as poaching for rhino horn, down to programme specific problems ‘in the field’. The purpose of the charity Save the Rhino is to fundraise in order to provide support for 17 rhino programmes in Africa and Asia, and Rhino May Day was an opportunity to find out how some of these projects were getting along. It also provided an important tangent into the auctioning of rhino horns and a lesson on how to take a full grown white rhino for a walk.
The day began with a mixture of lectures that ranged from ‘Here’s a rhino I saved earlier’, through heart-breaking yet seemingly inevitable stories of the repercussions of poaching, with some amazing footage from the BBC thrown for lots of ooohs and ahhhs. Have you ever seen a rhino fly? Jo Scofield has, and now thanks to her and the BBC Natural World, so has an auditorium of suitably impressed rhinoceros lovers.
One of the conservation programmes in Kenya was represented at the event by Michael Dyer, the Managing Director no less. He gave recounted a brilliantly red-tape-less anecdote of their solution to when a vagabond rhino wander into an area at an unsuitable point in time. After some ums and ahs, they decided the best course of action was to treat her like the lady she was and use the art of gentle persuasion to… well, get rid of her. They lightly sedated her so that she was up and about but very sleepy and a little disoriented. They then blindfolded her to minimise spooking, tied a rope around her neck, and led her gently back to her habitat as easily as if they were taking a small puppy for a walk. Brilliant.
In a side-splittingly entertaining talk by John Payne from the Borneo Rhino Alliance, mostly we discovered that if you are important enough and entertaining enough, you can go off on as many rhino tangents as you like and still keep the audience captivated. In what was definitely the most thought-provoking talk of the day for me, John explained that it *may* just be the case that even if mankind disappeared today, thus severely easing the habitat destruction and poaching rates, the Sumatran rhino may well still go extinct. I would assume we all know that to continue your species, you need to produce baby versions of yourself, which grow up and take over when you pass on. It seems that Sumatran rhinos may not have worked this out. Here is the evidence:
1) If you put two Sumatran rhinos together (mm, mf, ff) they will fight. To the death if they so choose. Except for about two magical days of non-legally-recognised matrimonial bliss, only occurring about once every 22-28 days.
2) Evidence suggests that male Sumatran rhinos in general have a low sperm count
3) Even if they had an epic sperm count, over 50% of Sumatran rhino females appear to have severe reproductive tract pathologies. The cysts that build up in the female’s internal organs making reproduction difficult is, ironically, caused by a lack of pregnancies. Ahh nature, thou art a fickle menace.
I would like to spend my entire day writing you a stupendously long blog on everything we heard and learnt at Rhino May Day but I’d probably get in trouble with my Manager for not doing any other work (plus technically I don’t think a piece of writing qualifies as a blog any longer when it is a a trillion billion words long). Just before I wrap up though, boosting the informational corner of the Javan rhino was Save the Rhino’s very own director Cathy Dean. Check this out for a stop in your tracks what-has-mankind-reduced-the-world-to fact:
Jeepers. That seems like enough to make anyone get out their chequebook and save some species.
Emma-Louise Nicholls is the Museum Assistant at the Grant Museum of Zoology
Though an ever popular species with visitors to the Grant Museum, this week’s Specimen of the Week elicits some interesting reactions ranging from immediate recognition, through outlandish phylogenetic inaccuracies (mainly from children, but it’s fine either way), through to bog standard raised eyebrows. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**The Short-Nosed Echidna**
1) The echidna is a special sort of creature for the unequivocally rare party trick (amongst mammals) of laying eggs (clearly not rare overall in the animal kingdom) rather than giving birth to live young. These sorts of super unique mammals are called Monotremes. There are only five species of egg laying mammal in the entire (modern) world. These are split into two major groups; the platypus (of which there is one lone species, awww) and the echidna. There are at least four species of echidna: the short-nosed, the eastern long-nosed, the western long-nosed and the Attenborough’s long-nosed (also called the Sir David’s long-nosed. No points for guessing who it is named after).
2) Our featured mammalian egg-layer is of the short-nosed variety. The scientific name for this species is Tachyglossus aculeatus which means ‘quick tongue’. (Stop it). It was named in 1792 by a natural historian called Shaw.
3) The echidna’s spines are made of keratin (like your finger nails and… rhino horn for example) and are longer than the fur beneath so that they protrude. The spines form an obvious defense mechanism from passing predators.
4) All five species of monotreme (or every egg laying mammal naturally occurring in the wild, if you like) are to be found in either Australia, New Guinea, or on a number of the neighbouring small islands. The short-nosed echidna is the only echidna species to inhabit mainland Australia however.
5) The short nosed echidna (which is also known as the short-beaked echidna, common echidna, and the spiny ant eater, just FYI) inhabits areas that are covered in forest, rocky areas or sandy plains. They feed, as you may have guessed from the previous bracketed tangent) on ants and termites. Oh and grubs… so really it should be known as the spiny-ant-termite-grub-and-probably-other-invertebrates-as-well-eater. Echidnas rely on their long sticky tongues to catch their prey and are entirely lacking in teeth.
It seems to be a week for thinking about Art vs. Science this week. Of course the whole idea or art vs. science is a fallacy but increasingly I meet artists and scientists who want to live up to the stereotype of being in either camp and rejecting outright the other one. As a university museum we work very hard to ensure that our collections support the research of the academic community not just here at UCL and it isn’t just science researchers who are ‘allowed’ in.
Natural history and art have a shared history and for a long time were the same thing. Trace the origins of an interest in the natural world and biology back to its roots and description, observation, inspiration and illustration are natural history. You couldn’t prise the ‘art’ or the ‘science’ bits out of it without undermining the whole endeavor. This tradition continues today, if we think about the Wildlife photographer of the year, the imagery employed by conservation agencies, the latest Wellcome collection exhibition, the works of Mark Dion or even the plates and graphs from scientific journal papers they can be considered both art and science. Particularly, with the pervasive use of the Internet, visual media is increasingly how we communicate our ideas, agendas and passions. Be it a powerful image that sums up the plight of Orang Utans, a meme that causes us to chuckle over a tea break or the sheer beauty of what is called ‘data porn’, that is, a nice infographic that shows rather than tells the story.
So on any given day at the Grant Museum we could have visiting scientific researchers who may be measuring the dimensions of a skull or looking for the differences between fossils. Alternatively we could have an artist creating an installation for our Foyer and we’re excited to see the reactions to the museum for our upcoming sculpture season collaboration with the Slade School of Fine Arts. Rarely is there a day where we don’t have an art group or individual artists sketching or photographing specimens on display. All of the above are equally valid uses of museum collections and this post follows a day out for one of our specimens down to the Royal College of Art.
A number of weeks ago, MA Sculpture student at the Royal College of Art, Claire Poulter approached the museum wanting to look at our elephant specimens. We have a number of elephant remains here not just the dried heart and the three skulls on display but a number of skeletal parts, a series of teeth, plaster casts, fossils, microscope slides and wet specimens (including a section through a trunk). Claire was interested in teeth so we arranged an appointment for her to come and see them.
Claire was inspired by elephant teeth because she heard that once elephants use up their finite teeth sets, they can, if otherwise healthy, starve to death. Elephants are also linked to memory and Claire was driven by exploring the origins of things. Where did these teeth come from and what role do they now have in a museum of zoology? Elephant teeth are also highly curious objects which is why we use them a lot here in our teaching and handling activities. Elephant teeth are very tactile and recognisable but at the same time alien and many of our visitors are amazed at the size, shape and weight of these teeth, particularly when they see how elephants have to carry around four of these dense, heavy teeth in addition to the two tusks they are sadly hunted for. Whilst Claire was here I accidentally slipped into science communication mode and started to bring out some of our specimens that show what makes up an elephant tooth including this series of tooth plates, the hard enamel plates that form the grinding surface in teeth which can be dissolved out of a tooth or found in the fossil record.
Claire was really taken with these tooth plates and was keen to incorporate teeth and these plates into her work. Initially we discussed making casts of some of our specimens but this puts specimens at increased risk of damage and can be quite invasive, particularly for subfossil and fossil teeth with are peppered with cracks and crevices. Instead, Claire modelled the tooth for a larger sculpture in iron and decided to scan the tooth plates to create a 3D model with which she could work with.
Last week I packed the objects up and whisked them over to the Rapidform facility at the Royal College of Art to scan them in. Whilst there technician Hannah Terry and Claire scanned in the tooth plates using a handheld scanner to create a 3 dimensional model.
I was also lucky enough to get a tour of the facility at the Royal College of Art and the ongoing link between art and science was very much on show. Not only was this the facility that produced the handling replicas at the Natural History Museum’s Treasures Gallery but there were various printed animal remains, human body parts from palaeoanthropological reconstructions of fossil remains and rapid prototype replicas of important specimens. Also scattered around the various machines at the facility were impossible printed abstract sculptures, engineering parts, printed designs for car parts and haunting human face masks printed in plaster, paper, titanium and a host of other substrates. Again, in this facility it’s impossible to draw the line between art and science or to say how one can possibly exist without the other.
I’m excited to see what Claire produces in the latest of the ongoing conversation with artists taking inspiration from the natural world and in turn those sculptures, prints, paintings, drawings and films inspiring the next generations of scientists and artists.
Here at the Grant Museum we display our objects taxonomically (and have done since Grant founded the collection in 1828), objects are grouped together to reflect their evolutionary relationship to each other. This method of viewing the natural world has been with us since the Swedish naturalist Carl Linneaus introduced his work that classified the natural world, Systema naturalis, in the 18th Century. This method of classification has changed over time to reflect and accommodate current thinking in science, but primarily the principle has remained unchanged, grouping animals based on shared characteristics.
Artist researcher Gemma Anderson and a group of the public took another view of our collection based on her concept of Isomorphology.
By Gemma Anderson
As an artist, my interest spans zoological, mineralogical and botanical collections I spend a lot of time drawing specimens and observing form – which has led to an awareness of the resemblances between species of separate kingdoms. As I work, I have become aware that there is no specific documentation of cross-kingdom resemblances between the animal, the vegetable and the mineral. With further thought, I have realized that behind these perceived resemblances are various geometric forms and symmetries. These form the basis of the concept of ‘Isomorphology’ – a new term which I have coined. It is derived from ‘Isomorphism’; a mathematical and biological concept.
Isomorphology is a comparative, drawing based method of enquiry into the shared forms of animal, mineral and vegetable morphologies. As a holistic and visual approach to classification, Isomorphology runs parallel to scientific practice while belonging to the domain of artistic creation. It is complementary to science, addressing relationships that are left out of the scientific classification of animal, vegetable and mineral morphologies.
Working with a group of 22 members of the public of various backgrounds from art students to mathematicians we explored Isomorphology in the context of the Grant Museum’s collections. I re-classified certain zoological specimens in the cabinets and mineral specimens on the tables into the visual categories of Isomorphology (Hexagonal, Five Fold symmetry
etc), I then invited participants to make drawings from these specimens. Afterwards we came to discuss the possibilities of joining different forms and symmetries together, to create a chimera joining zoological and mineral specimens, based on their shared forms and symmetries. This led to some amazing creations, salamander seahorses, coral tail bones, and zoological chimeras composed of countless anatomical features.
Sharing with the public my concept of Isomorphology and leading this workshop raised some interesting questions, from the visitors, for me to reflect on, here are a choice few.
‘Why draw the specimen when I could take a photograph?’
This led to discussions about observation, the value of spending time with specimens, and how the selective process of drawing emphasizes morphological features, and makes forms easier to compare with one another.
‘How did you start working with scientists?’
My own process of working with museums in London began in 2005, always motivated by drawing and observing new forms, and slowly building relationsh
ips with individual scientists and institutions. I believe that ideas and questions can take you anywhere, and through drawing you can learn about anything.
‘Why do these forms and symmetries re-occur across animal, mineral and vegetable species?’
There is no simple answer……some forms are efficient structures, some are the result of convergent evolution, some of genetics and chemistry. There are many ways to respond to this question, but all the explanations are partial, and many aspects remain mysterious (even to scientists).
Our session at the Museum ended by discussing the potential to think about observation as a creative way to engage with the natural world and to practice this approach, not only in the context of the museum, but on the street, in the park and the garden.
Gemma Anderson has been developing Isomorphology as a practice based PhD research project and creative educational model (www.isomorphology.com). She has been interested in the Grant Museums collections since she was an MA student at the Royal College of Art in 2005. Many of the specimens from the Grant Museum collections and UCL’s Geology collections appear in her work, most notably in the Wellcome Trust Arts Award project ‘Portraits: Patients and Psychiatrists’ 2010-2011 (www.gemma-anderson.co.uk/portraits).
Dean Veall is Learning Officer at the Grant Museum of Zoology
This is the second of our Culture Vulture exhibition reviews (the first is here) As I mentioned in an earlier article about whether a degree in museum studies was worth it it’s very important for museum professionals in all kinds of roles to not just act as guardians of material culture but also to go out and consume it. Visiting exhibitions is a great way to ummm ‘borrow’ ideas in exhibition design and if an exhibition is doing its job well then you’ll come away with a mind full of new thoughts and ideas.
I’ve been along to Ice Age Art: arrival of the modern mind at the British Museum and was excited to see how the museum would interpret a narrative which is equal parts natural history, archaeology and art history. When it comes to academia it seems that humans love to find ways of boxing in disciplines and practices rather than accept that they are all interconnected. This can be seen in the names of departments, museums and the conferences that we attend but in my opinion it’s cross disciplinary interactions that can be the most interesting. Two big camps, traditionally pitched as antagonists are ‘Art’ and ‘Science’. Does Ice Age Art cater for both of these audiences or has one group (you have to carry a card) had more of a say?
Ice Age Art, cleverly billed as an exhibition 40,000 years in the making; a rather quick turn around for most exhibitions, brings together an amazing collection of artefacts created by anatomically modern humans between 40,000 and 10,000 years old. If you’ve ever had a passing interest in the subject of early art then there’s no doubt that you’ll be able to find the objects that bring the subject to life in this exhibition. From the Lion Man of the Hohlenstein Stadel* through to the ‘donii’ figures that illustrate guilty pleasure read Jean M.Auel’s Earth’s Children series. It really is through the discovery of these objects that palaeontology bleeds into archaeology and anthropology and for the first time in history people are creating objects that are more than just the tools for day to day survival. It’s an astonishing accomplishment to have been able to bring this array of objects together and unless this exhibition travels it will be the last time in our lifetime that you’ll be able to see these objects all in one place.
I think that this exhibition could have easily been on the ground floor of the old reading room space that currently hosts the big exhibitions at the British Museum, instead it is in the smaller raised gallery in the Great Court. Trying to book tickets for this exhibition and talking to colleagues trying to do the same, it seems that the exhibition has been very popular and whilst I was there one had to adopt the slow penguin shuffle to get around the exhibition and see all the objects. It’s hard to criticise an exhibition for being too popular and hopefully the success of this one will lead to other exhibitions on the topic.
Throughout the exhibition works of ‘recent’ art are controversially juxtaposed with the Ice Age works perhaps to illustrate that some topics and subjects have always inspired artists. My take on it was that some recent artists are just riffing of the 40,000 year old originals. Either way, from what I saw, the works of Matisse and Moore went largely ignored the ancient objects themselves proving more than enough of a draw.
I would have liked to have seen more about the production techniques and what must have been painstaking effort that went into turning a tusk, tooth or tyne into an intricately carved figure, portrait or landscape scene. There is a short video at the beginning of the exhibition but it didn’t quite have the same impact as the analagous section in the Bronze exhibition that recently ran at the Royal Academy of Arts. However, what was excellent were the illustrations showing exactly where inside a tusk, tooth or horn some of the sculptures came from which really hit home the planning and skill that was needed to produce such works.
As with all interpretations of works or art, but particularly for works whos creators we are so separated from in time, a certain amount of speculation is required about the intentions of the artist and meaning of the creations. Occasionally, on one or two labels, the speculation goes a bit too far. Works that were exploded during the process of firing are unnecessarily interpreted as performance pieces and two rearing horse sculptures separated in time by thousands of years and across space by a number of miles are needlessly speculated as being the same horse. Fortunately though, by and large the interpretation is descriptive and informative and thankfully not just a ‘tombstone’ label you are likely to encounter in a modern art gallery.
Overall there is a good balance between the science and the art side of things and hopefully those who are more art inclined will be inspired by the science bits as much as I was inspired by the arty bits. The exhibition runs until the 2nd of June, if you can get tickets I’d advise you go and if your wallet can take it there’s a lovely catalogue of the exhibition we’d love you to donate to the Grant Museum archives.
* It’s a minor point hence why it’s down here but after visiting the exhibition and raving about some of the objects I was told that some of them, including this piece, were replicas. Replicas per se aren’t a problem after all the material in this exhibition is extremely fragile and truly irreplaceable however cryptically labeling the object as a replica, as was the case with the Lion Man, is almost as bad as not labeling them at all. Naughty.
Mark Carnall is the Curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology
It is a well known fact – based on on numerous scientifically accurate feature films – that in the event of the end of the world some people will survive the initial devastation only to find themselves barely surviving in some post-apocalyptic hell. Here I’m exploring whether zoologists would fare better than the average survivor. If the answer is yes, perhaps university biology admissions tutors can add a slide to their recruitment presentations to highlight this additional benefit in what is already the best subject in the world.
I spent this weekend on a survivalist course deep in the Dorset wilderness for an old friend’s stag do. As kids, along with his two brothers, we had spent our time building shelters in the woods, making fires, distilling mud, firing bows and arrows and generally acting as if the world had already been taken over by luminous slime mould from the future. As teens and students (and occasionally still) we spent our holidays walking in the mountains and not really engaging much with humanity. Wildlife and wild-living have stuck with us all: the stag is now an ecologist, I run a zoology museum (and spend a couple of months a year living in a tent in outback Australia) and his brothers are biology and geography teachers. As a result we are all pretty cocky when it comes to hanging around in woodland areas. This weekend’s course made us all question our ability to actually survive.
Should a virus/aliens/a powerful strain of concrete decay/zombies/frozen dinosaurs/Simon Cowell/nuclear war cause us to abandon human dwellings, shelter, water and food are the priorities. Would my academic and professional experiences as a zoologist make me Dennis Quaid?
On the face of it there is nothing in any zoology textbook that will help you stay out of the wind and rain. However very many zoologists do spend a lot of time in the field and hopefully this would stand us in good stead. We are more likely to know about prevailing winds (to chose which side of a natural structure to begin building), but this knowledge is by no means specialist. I’d like to think our experience of remote-living during fieldwork would give us an edge over the hoi polloi when it came to mentally dealing with the future that lay ahead, and the kinds of questions we’d be asking ourselves when it came to working out how to survive. What’s more, zoologists are generally quite prepared to sit still in the rain for long periods without moaning. So while our facts and science will not save us here, hopefully our experience might.
[there are of course situations when zoology would save you: the ability to recognise - and avoid - a bear's den, for example. Or the presence of a particular species of frog that indicates a cave is prone to flash flooding. But such eventualities are probably too unlikely to hang on to].
Here is somewhere that training in the ways of animals could save your life – both in terms of finding water and deciding whether it is fit to drink. Animals are excellent indicators of water, particularly herbivores, some insects and smaller birds. It’s reasonable to say that zoologists are likely to be able to recognise the signs of animals in an area. Score one for us. Following animal trails downhill and noticing if birds and are flying in a straight line without stopping are great clues of where water is.
Certain bugs will tell a trained eye whether water is stagnant or polluted (and zoologists are probably more likely to be encouraged by the presence of lots of most species of pond insects to indicate water quality, rather than put off by it).
Zoologists should also be able to tell you how to get water out of an animal (blood, eyes, fish spine etc).
Here you would think this is where we come into our own. Surely animal-experts are the go-to-guys when it comes to tracking down animals to eat. Many of us also know how to trap and handle them from our field experience. Dissection is a dying part of zoological training (in schools and universities), but such know-how surely would help you get the best out of a kill.
Knowing how animals live and function can be a big help – which bit of a crab, for example, could accumulate all the nasty chemicals humans use, and should be avoided? Why would it be a bad idea to eat a cat’s liver, but not a deer’s?
So in the short term that all sounds good. Looking at longer periods we might be able to predict when migrating animals will arrive. There’s also the general biology stuff we know when it comes to understanding why and how our own bodies are failing, and perhaps what to do about it.
Should we still be around when farming needed to be re-invented, pre-made experts in animal behaviour (or indeed the specific science of domestication) would be as valuable as a lighter.
If you know about animals, you also need to know a bit about plants. There’d be some knowledge of ones to avoid, but it’s unlikely that zoology alone could save us here when it came to rediscovering the full gambit of bushfood which has been all but forgotten in Britain since the arrival of bananas.
Despite all the help zoology gives the hunter/gatherer, it was the issue of food that my friends and I decided would eventually kill us. Finding enough of everything needed to survive for a length of time is an extraordinarily tall order, even if you can tell the difference between a seal and a sea lion.
That said, I’d like to think we’d outlive the palaeontologists. And as for the accountants…
Jack Ashby is Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology
The sun is here!! Wow, I had genuinely forgotten what being warm outdoors felt like. Other than the sweaty sort of warmth that comes from running for buses. Being rather more reptilian than the average Homo sapiens I am very much a hot weather person. My DNA decided at an early stage of my life to go against the grain of our hominid evolutionary path, the result of which is that I am a shockingly inefficient endotherm. Over the years I have spent any moment I am able, out of the UK, inserting myself wherever possible into a country with greater levels of UV. One of my favourite placements was at the Florida Museum of Natural History where I worked on a shark exhibition. Whilst there I saw and fell head over heels in love with a certain species that unquestionably warrants the use of words such as ‘beautiful’, ‘awe-inspiring’ and ‘breath taking’. We happen to have a foetus of this species in the collection, which makes for a good excuse to tell you all about this magnificent animal. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**The Killer Whale Foetus**
1) The killer whale, rumour has it, is a name coined by fishermen in ye olde days that witnessed them killing whales, and subsequently named it ‘killer whale’. In the modern day however, many conservationists feel that the name ‘killer whale’ gives the animal negative connotations and prefer to use the name orca. This doesn’t seem unreasonable and so our specimen shall henceforth be known as the orca foetus.
2) It is reported by some, for whom I do not vouch, that the orca is the most geographically widespread mammal after humans. I would expect say, rats and mice, to have something to squeak about that, for example. Orca are found throughout the world’s oceans, and in semi enclosed areas such as the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of California, the Red Sea and the Arabian Gulf. Bizarrely not minding cooler waters, they inhabit areas from the poles to the equator.
3) Despite being somewhat ubiquitous, orcas are sadly endangered. The culprit is of course us. Above and beyond direct affects such as hunting, we also are really quite prolific at destorying oceanic habitats and even, sadly, ramming them with boats. Collisions with boats is common in the world of aquatic animals, and many whales, dolphins and sharks (for example) show scarring due to propeller blades. Many more, aren’t that lucky.
4) Orca hunt using echolocation, a bit like a monochromatic overgrown wingless bat. If you like. Although, as with most mammals, they will pick and choose what they eat depending on what comes along at the time, orca mostly prefer other mammals such as seals, sea lions and dolphins. It is the only cetacean (whales and dolphins) to routinely do so. They are also noteworthy in the cetacean world for their comparative fin ratio. Whilst researching for this blog I had a ‘holy baloney’ moment when I read that the dorsal fin of a male orca can grow up to an extremely impressive 1.8 metres in height. That is taller than me darn it! Perhaps needless to say, that is the largest dorsal fin of any cetacean. Respect.
5) Although orca will begin to be sexually useful at the age of 15, they will continue to grow until their 21st birthday. Give or take. Whilst there is no set breeding season, within the northern hemisphere calves tend to be born between October and March, whereas in the Southern hemisphere it appears to be year round. The beautiful monochromatic appearance of the orca becomes more distinctive with age, as the white areas of a calf’s body tend to be slightly orange in colour. One of the reasons that hunting is an issue for orca populations is because females will only give birth once every 3 to 8 years and births in females over the age of forty have never been recorded, severely limiting the number of children a female orca can have in her lifetime. For the remaining 50 or so years of their lives, the female orcas assume a grand-parental role in which they pass on experience, and influence the behaviour of the younger individuals within their pod.
by Chris Webb
Although a James Bond reference may be a tenuous link to the Petrie Museum, it is the literal, or rather chronological, duration of the shiny, super-hard compressed allotropes of carbon that had us titillated at the recent timekeeper event. On the evening of the 25th April, we welcomed back our resident Timekeeper Cathy Haynes who was joined by the Creative Director of the Institute of Making, Zoe Laughlin. The Institute is a multidisciplinary research club for those interested in the made world, and incidentally, our neighbours at UCL. The objective: to examine the material world of time and decay, and gain a better understanding of the way the world views time.
Cathy and Zoe guided us through an experimental evening making models of time, presiding over the 2 stages of the evening. The first section was posed as a series of questions surrounding our ideas of physical signs and symbols of time-keeping or perhaps that should be time-losing…? For instance: how do the properties of modern materials, from spinning glass marbles to slow-shifting silly putty and experiments with pitch, lend themselves to thinking about time? In the ancient world materials held different qualities of time. For example, stone contained the idea of eternity, and clay the short-lived and corrupt.
Using spatial and material entities (including concrete impregnated with dormant bacteria, shape-memory alloy and radioactive teeth!) we delved into the world of time and object temporality. The relationship between the past and the future was soundly thrashed into yielding its secrets. We achieved this by challenging the idea of time as a linear stream. Fluidic, in flux and flexible, time certainly proved a tricky beast to contain… Examples from the history of time included a cube of Oak, a discussion on rust and fire, rusty steel, and a University’s control over tree-growing over hundreds of years in order to furnish its own dining room.
Time is indeed relative, and at the end of our introductory session those in the audience were invited to experiment and produce their own alternative manifestations models of time. Unleashed onto a veritable buffet of play-do, brightly coloured crayons, glue and sticky paper, our appropriate temporary memory material in the wrong hands could have been mistaken for a 1980’s Blue Peter episode. However, manipulated by our ever-enthusiastic (and as it turned out, visionary!) audience, these materials morphed into remarkable physical objects that contained their own perceptions of what time, for them, looked like.
We closed the evening discussing the physical and poetic potential of everyday materials, as we gazed lovingly across the table, resplendent with our offerings to the time gods! A very enjoyable evening was had by all, and we are very much looking forward to the next instalment…
Sometimes I think I’d quite like to be an insect. No bills, no social anxieties or inadequacies, I wouldn’t mind the commute to work because I would of course make sure I was a species that could fly, and best of all I could eat all day and no-one would care. I’d have no concerns any more intense than ‘which of these delightful shrubs shall I eat today’ or ‘shall I sit here to enjoy the sun or shall I hop over there to enjoy it?’. Brilliant. Unfortunately I’m not an insect. But this week’s Specimen of the Week is…
*The Eastern Lubbers**
1) Hands up. How many of you read the above line and then glanced straight to the image to see what in Earth’s animal kingdom a ‘lubber’ might be? Well, I would have. If I hadn’t written that is. Grasshoppers, ah now that sounds a familiar critter, but lubbers? Nope, I hadn’t heard that word until I started writing this blog. These grasshoppers are in fact called Eastern lubbers (being from eastern and southeastern USA), indicating to those on the ball that there is more than type. The Eastern lubber is a large and colourful little fellow, that lacks the ability to fly.
2) For a grasshopper, the Eastern lubber is really rather large. Unfortunately, this makes them a bit of a nuisance to farmers given that a larger lubber tummy requires a larger amount of farmers crop to fill it. Add that to the fact that lubbers travel in packs (or swarms if you’d rather be scientific and accurate than interpretative and story-telling-y) and you have at least the potential for a veritable plague on your hands. Populations can explode (in terms of increasing numbers, not fireworks) if a variety of phenomena occur in a certain order, such as such as weather and rates of parasitism by beneficial insects that would otherwise limit the growth of the lubber populations.
3) Lubbers only breed once each year, meaning that the populations see a lull during the colder periods of autumn and winter whilst a baby lubber boom occurs towards the end of the summer. The Eastern lubber mostly prefers to live in low-lying, moist environments but is known to overflow into neighboring habitats as it fancies.
4) The Eastern lubber is a strict vegetarian. It is happy to eat quite a wide variety of plantlife, which makes it a very adaptable species. However it particularly enjoys a bit of the extremely pretty amaryllis or if that isn’t available, then any of its close relatives.
5) After mating during the summer, the female chooses a patch of soil and displays exemplary dexterity with the tip of her abdomen to create a small hole around 5 cm deep. Up to 50 eggs, contained within a light foamy froth are then laid in the hole. As you probably know, grasshoppers have an exoskeleton, or hard outer ‘skin’ if you will. Therefore to grow, they will successively molt, each time producing a larger exoskeleton. The Eastern lubber will molt five times, with each stage lasting between 15 and 20 days each. At each of these stages the lubber us called a nymph, until it finally transforms into its adult morph.
Guest Blogger: Chris Webb
The 18th April saw another fascinating event in the Petrie Museum’s popular timekeeper series, hosted by our own timekeeper in residence, Cathy Haynes. We were asked; how easy do you find it to remember the details and order of past events? Many people through history have pondered on this… Indeed, when Mark Twain wanted to teach his children history he invented a new kind of 3-D timeline by plotting out historical events in his garden and walking them through it, oddly, this was based on the monarchs of England!
The Petrie welcomed leading memory expert Ed Cooke, author of Remember, Remember: Learn the Stuff You Thought You Never Could, who explored how objects and images hold our memories. Ed spend the evening demonstrating how we remember things and with a little audience interaction, how to improve our recollection techniques. The session included exercises to help you invent memory maps to capture what you do not want to forget.
The evening started with Cathy Haynes taking us through a history of memory, which included the history of the monument at Charing Cross and why the statue of William Gladstone has a red hand. An interesting paradox was brought up; the idea of permanently reminders of forgetting. We were then treated to a veritable banquet of remembrance and visualisation methods. Although Ed started with the immortal line “Nothing I am about to say should be taken too seriously”, his guidance though memory palaces enabled some of us to ‘see’ a memory and even recall something thought lost in the haze of one’s own sub-conscious. A clearer idea of perception and thought, interwoven in the linear fabric of memory, was now our quarry. Under the direction of the memory master, we were guided to plum the very depths of our remembrance.
Different cultures have their own thoughts of memory and recollection, and we examined an offbeat selection of different contexts and patterns throughout our evening. Putting various methods into practice the audience responded brilliantly to the challenge of remembering their fellow members’ names and an arrangement of animal evolution. Visualisation, internalising, spatial association and sensory metaphor were all reined in to assist our memory mapping adventure. The formation of images using association of animals and spaces was my personal favourite technique, although I am currently working on a system with its structure firmly planted in the visualisation of cakes to assist remembering. The final point Ed left us with was a great idea. An email to the future you. What would it say? What do you think you will need reminding of in 1 month? 1 year? 10 years? What would you have forgotten? The audience were great sports and we all thoroughly enjoyed our evening and adventure into the world of recollection and memory.
Now, where are my car keys…?
We recently updated our Bentham webpages on the UCL Museums site. Among the new features is a conservation page that lists all the known inspections of the auto-icon; a Myth and Legends page that deals with some of the more popular stories concerning the auto-icon; and a new History page. This last one features a couple of pieces of data visualisation that we have tried out. This blog focuses on one of these, a Google map that shows how far Bentham and his auto-icon have traveled.
All the information used here can be found on a downloadable spread sheet on the History Page of UCL Museums website on the auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham. All distances are as-the- crow-flies, and are likely to be an underestimate.
The auto-icon of Jeremy Bentham resides in the South Cloisters of the Wilkins Building at UCL. Although he looks pretty sedate now, he only arrived in this location after the Second World War, and has in the past has been to a number of locations in London, and even out of the country (twice).
View Bentham’s Post-Mortem Travels in a larger map
Jeremy Bentham Died on the 6th June, 1832, at his house in Queens Square Place, London. He was 84. His friends followed the instructions in his will and his body was taken under charge by his Dr Southwood-Smith and delivered to the Webb Street School of Anatomy and Medicine, Southwark (From Death to Dissection, a distance of 2.26 miles). Here Bentham was dissected in front of his friends and disciples by Southwood-Smith , appropriately enough during a lightening storm. It must have been quite a sight!
After the dissection the body was prepared by Southwood-Smith, or at his direction (we aren’t sure which), presumably at the Webb Street School. The skeleton was de-fleshed (though not completely, there is still a greasy feel to it) and articulated with copper wire and pins. Then it was moved to the doctor’s medical practice, at 36 New Broad Street (From Dissection to Display, a distance of 1.49 miles).
It stayed with the doctor even when he moved his consulting rooms, at an unknown date, to 38 Finsbury Square (From House to House, 1271 feet).
In 1850 Dr Southwood-Smith wanted to retire, and offered the auto-icon to University College London. It was accepted and moved from his home in Finsbury Square to a temporary storage location (we aren’t sure why) at 36 Percy Street (From Doctor to Temporary Home, 2 miles). From there it made the 2363 foot journey to University College London (From Temporary Home to Spiritual Home) . It is assumed it came to the Wilkins Building, and the distance is correct to the domed roof.
So from Jeremy Bentham’s death in 1832 until his arrival at UCL in 1850 his body / auto-icon had travelled a total of at least 6.44 miles, presumably by hand and cart, had crossed the Thames twice and stayed at 5 locations. His exact location within UCL is unknown, however Dr Southwood-Smith complained in 1857 that “no publicity is given to the fact that Bentham reposes there in some back room. The authorities seem to be afraid or ashamed of their own possession.”
The next recorded location of the auto-icon is during an 1898 inspection, when he was located in the Anatomy Museum, which at that time was housed in the area to the north of the Flaxman Gallery in the Wilkins Building, now part of the library. The Museum moved from this location prior to 1907. In 1926, on the university’s centenary, he is recorded as having been moved into the custody of the Library. However we don’t know if this was a physical or an admin move…perhaps a bit of both?
The next time we know for certain that the auto-icon moved was at the start of the Second World War (1939) when he was moved out to Stanstead Bury, Standstead Abbotts, near Ware (From UCL to Country Retreat, 38 miles return trip). It’s a good thing that he did as many of the UCL buildings were badly damaged in the Blitz.
On his return he was temporarily stored in the Professors’ Common Room in the Wilkins Building. Common rooms were segregated until 1969 so it is assumed that he was kept in the male common room, rather than the female. From here he was moved to his current position in the South Cloisters (From Common Room to Cloister, 362 feet).
In a 95 year period the auto-icon moved an approximate total of 38.07 miles, for the first time moving outside London (presumably traveling by automobile for the first time) and surviving two world wars.
After coming to rest in the South Cloisters, the auto-icon seems to have had a fairly sedentary life, with the possible exception of having its head stolen (see here for evidence of this brutal crime). This has not been formally recorded in the history of the auto-icon because we are still waiting for confirmation of when and how (and indeed if) this actually happened. It is possible this has led to the myth that the ‘real’ head was stolen and found in a luggage locker in Aberdeen.
In 1981 the auto-icon was moved from its location in the cloisters to the Textile Conservation Centre, then housed at Hampton Court Palace, for treatment to its clothes (From Cloister to Palace, 24 Miles return). One of the staff who did this remembers driving him down Marylebone road in a red Marina Car, sitting on the back seat (still in his chair) covered in a sheet.
The next two recorded movements of the auto-icon are the largest by distance and mark the first time that the auto-icon was put on public display outside of UCL since 1850. In 1992 the wax head and clothes (but not the skeleton) were loaned to the Villa Hugel, near Essen in Germany, an approximate trip of 616 miles return (From Cloister to Villa). Then again in 2002 the same items were lent to (coincidentally) the Ruhrlandmuseum in Essen (From Cloister to Ruhrlandmuseum, 614 miles).
Following on from the auto-icon’s trips to Germany it was next moved to the English Heritage real time x-ray facility at Fort Cumberland, Portsmouth (From Cloister to Fort, 128 mile return). This marks the last time the auto-icon travelled outside UCL, and since 2002 he has only moved a combined total of 308 feet (From Cloister to Garden Room and From Cloister to Geology Museum) for a couple of inspections and photo opportunities.
From 1945 until the present day the auto-icon has travelled a total of 1,382.06 miles, been to Germany twice, been x-rayed by the sea and been inspected at least three times in three different locations. He has travelled by automobile and plane, but sadly (as far as we know) not by train.
In all, the mortal remains of Jeremy Bentham (full body and auto-icon) have travelled approximately 1426.57 miles since his death. They have left London four times, twice to Germany and once each time to Hampshire and Hertfordshire. In life Jeremy Bentham visited Russia via Nice, Florence, Constantinople, and then by sea to the Crimea, before going overland to Krichev (the journey took seven months), and also travelled across Northern England between 1814 and 1818. It seems reasonable to assume that his auto-icon still has a way to go before it travels greater distance than Bentham himself, but perhaps one day…
The UCL Museum Webpages can be visited here, and the spread sheet giving the known history of the auto-icon can be found on this page. We are always looking for interesting ideas for data visualisation. Think you can do something good? Let us know!
Yesterday I ran the London Marathon. Today, I cannot walk properly. I’m hobbling around like an old lady who put her zimmer frame in a ‘safe place’ and promptly forgot where that might be. I should explain that I was absolutely unable to do any training due to circumstances completely beyond my control, and it was not in the slightest bit down to the fact that I just never got around to it. That would be ludicrously silly, and being a biologist, I’d never be that naive about my body’s capabilities. Errrr…, yeah. Still, despite the aching thighs, a couple of blisters and a knee that I suspect will never get me down another flight of stairs again, I raised money for charity and got a shiny medal- yay. Wandering (slowly) (and painfully) around the Museum this morning to choose my Specimen of the Week, it got me thinking about how incredible the vertebrate body is, and how we have evolved to be able to undertake outrageous activities such as the London Marathon. I therefore decided to take you back to our roots, and talk about a very primitive species indeed, a sort of ‘where it all began’… if you like. This week’s Specimen of the Week is…
**The African Lungfish**
1) Fishes (fishes not fish because I am referring to multiple species) are split into ray-finned fishes and lobe-finned fishes. Names which pretty much do as they say on the tin, so I shall explain no further. Lungfish are a type of lobe-finned fish. They are super cool as they are ‘survivors’ as it were, of a very ancient group of fish. being a palaeontologist, that impresses me.
2) The ancestors of the lungfish include the first vertebrates that decided they’d had enough of water and thought that they’d try their fin at flopping about on land, and as we know, they made a good go of it. From these early fishes, came tetrapods (vertebrates with four limbs, i.e. not fish, as fins are not considered limbs… plus most fish have more than four fins) which as you can see, did pretty well.
3) There are two modern families of lungfish; the Australian lungfish (or Ceratodidaem, if you want to be fancy) and the South American and African lungfishes (the Lepidosirenidae, which is my favourite sounding genus… of lungfish). Lungfish are named as such because, unlike most fish who get oxygen by passing water through their gills, lungfish can actually breath air. An impressed ‘Wooooo’ please. They do have gills, but in a wartime-esque belt and braces effort to overcome the odds, they also have lungs similar to those found in primitive amphibians. These lungs comprise an area of the gut containing numerous thin-walled blood vessels that make it possible to take oxygen into the blood, just like a lung.
4) Lungfish are predators, so I like them. Lungfish do not have a specialised diet meaning they will eat whatever they come across, so long as it fits in their mouth. Much like myself. Mostly though, they go for other fish and frogs. Unlike myself.
5) African lungfish live in both swamps and small rivers in West and southern Africa. These environments have a niggling habit of inconveniently drying up from time to time. African lungfish have therefore developed a super technique for surviving in very little water. They will dig a hole in the mud (impressive enough if all you are equipped with is fins) which they cover with a layer of mucus (a bit gross, but whatever). The fish can then stay there until the water levels rise again. Their metabolic rate decreases and they break down muscle tissue to supply their bodies with energy. In this way, lungfish can survive up to FOUR YEARS at a time. I felt that was worthy of capitals.
Firstly, I need to apologise for the lack of immediacy in writing a blog about the year 8 “spring school” that I ran on behalf of UCL’s Museums and Collections last week. With my teenage years a distant memory, a bit of R and R was required to recover from the energy of 38 constantly excited 13 year olds.
That aside, it was certainly a week to remember! Participants witnessed a barber surgeon in action, analysed animal poo, and created their own alien dissection, all in the name of education. They discussed the ethics of human display, philosophised over what makes us human, and took great pleasure in analysing the “worth” of a dismembered foot that had been consumed with dry gangrene.
In case you haven’t yet guessed (but I’m sure you have), the school was themed on “The Body”. Participants took part in a weeklong programme that gave them the opportunity to, not only learn in museums and with objects in an interactive way, but also to find out more about university and the range of subjects that are available at university level. Importantly, the workshops were structured in a way in which to instigate debate, often through handling objects or discussing museum displays.
This gave participants the opportunity to have a greater input in the direction of workshops then they would normally have at school and encouraged students to actively engage in their own learning.In addition to the benefits of the educational workshops in museums and with objects, the fact that our museums and collections exist as part of UCL offered the students additional experiences. Out of the students who attended, none had visited UCL or UCL’s museums before and only 9 of the 38 students had previously visited a university. The majority are first in their family to consider higher education. The school proved to be a fun and interesting way of informing these students of their possible future pathways, as well as give them an open forum to ask any questions that they may have about higher education.
The evaluations proved that we have definitely done something right: 100% of the participants would like to visit us again, some students asked if we could run the week every school holiday, and many confirmed that it provided them with the information they needed to make better informed choices about their future. To end, I thought I would leave you with an email that I got from one of the participants the Sunday after The Body School finished: “It has only been two days, but I miss UCL already”.
Alice Salmon is a Senior Access Officer for UCL Museums and Collections
I’m writing this second review in the predictably punned “Book Worm” occasional series whilst in the desert town of Alice Springs. As I like to match my reading with my surroundings, I’m reviewing Kangaroo by John Simons, published in December as part of Reaktion’s Animal Series.
What this book seems to attempt to do is tackle the kangaroo from a variety of angles – biological, ecolgical, historical and anthropological. It is extremely generously illustrated (on nearly every page). There is sometimes, however, no obvious connection between the image and the neighbouring text which can make things a bit confusing, particularly when he is describing a specific visual scene without providing the appropriate image.
Where the book succeeds well is the coverage of kangaroos’ European history. There are some interesting insights into how the kangaroo was portrayed following Cook and Banks’ voyage, and the subsequent portrait by George Stubbs. Two coincidences here. One is that I wrote a piece about the failure of Cook to accurately describe kangaroos, relying too heavily on familiar species as comparisons. Second is that the famous Stubbs painting in question is currently being held under an export bar by the British Government whilst the Australian National Gallery is trying to acquire it. The inevitable difference in press coverage in the two countries is worthy of its own article.
I digress – the point Simons makes is that this Stubbs painting is in fact the avatar of the kangaroo that Europeans adopt, in the place of actual kangaroo. Some of the arguments have holes, but it makes for an interesting discussion.
Other valuable historical information involves the first arrivals of living kangaroos into Europe and how they were portrayed. The book forms a useful account of this story.
Unfortunately the other approaches to kangaroos I wanted to read about left me significantly wanting. A discussion on the controversy of modern kangaroo culling in Australia should be essential for such a book. Despite claims to the contrary on the back cover, the account barely goes beyond “kangaroo culling is a very devisive issue in Australia”, which is as uniformative as it is irritating. Simons also avoids any significant discussion of indiginous Australian relationships with kangaroos by saying that others are more capable of him of giving an account. Whilst that is no doubt the case, the book’s blurb suggests it is included.
A significant portion of the book is given over to making the obvious point that few/any other animals worldwide have become so emblamatic of a country than the roo is to Australia. Simons does this with a long account of the many companies, sports teams and government initiatives that famously (too famously to even bother mentioning) use kangaroos in Australia. I don’t think anyone with an interest in kangaroos wants to spend too much time reading that they feature on the Qantas logo or that the national soccer team are the Socceroos. Sadly all this takes the space that could be used to expand on their many notable biological adaptations or their evolutionary history.
At £9.99 the European history of the kangaroo makes it worth a read, but to my mind I was more disappointed with the opportunities missed than I was interested in the stories told.
In this series of monthly blogs we take the opportunity to reflect on an underwhelming fossil fish from the Grant Museum’s collections. Gazing at an underwhelming fossil fish helps puts the Universe into perspective and increases global fishteracy, sometimes as much as a percent.
This month’s underwhelming fossil fish is a looker. It’s the POPULAR ATTRACTIVE ICON of the fossil fish world. I’m in two minds about posting this because I can guarantee that as soon as it goes out we’re going to be fighting through crowds of screaming fans to get into the museum in the morning. We’ll be getting underwear and flowers in the post for it. Eventually, this fossil fish will become a UN peace ambassador, the face of a popular coffee brand and no doubt launch a perfume range and Brad Pitt will do the voice over (suggested range names- Taphonomy, Permineralisation, Facies (for men). Please suggest others in the comments). You were here when it started, your grandchildren will ask you if you remember where you were when this blog was posted. You will smile, look into the mid distance and profess “I was there“.
What a beaut! But be warned there may be more to this specimen than meets the eye. The head of this fish is preserved in not-quite three dimensions, I think it has been flattened somewhat, but the rest of this specimen has been prepped to trick the eye into believing that we have a whole fish here sitting on a plate of plaster. Interpreting and understanding fossils is a tricky business; organisms get preserved in a multitude of different ways from flat smudges to exquisite three dimensional preservation and occasionally it’s very easy to get caught out by skillfully created fakes, composites and casts. I took the time to closely examine this specimen and it’s very hard to see where the fossil ends and where the preparator of this fossil’s reconstruction begins. The area around the tail and fins has obviously been exaggerated to make the fish conform into a fish shape. The reverse of this specimen has been reconstructed with plaster so the specimen lays flat but I can’t quite make out whether the ‘plate’ this specimen is sitting on is reconstructed plaster or a very pure chalk matrix that looks like plaster. It would be quite a feat to fill the mouth of this specimen with plaster without damaging or distorting the specimen and without a microscope it’s impossible to distinguish between what’s real and what isn’t.
According to the label, the identity of this beautiful specimen is Hoplopteryx lewesiensis and this specimen is a rather nice example of one (here’s a comparative specimen from Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution). This species of fish is one that is well known from the Upper Cretaceous. Comparing this fossil with diagrams in the literature from the scales and head this identification seems robust. The fins have been destroyed by preparation or weren’t preserved in the first place and in life would have been much longer and broader, particularly the tail which forms a wide very fish shaped fan. This specimen is one of the many specimens that came to the Grant Museum from Imperial College London and is from Gravesend in Kent. Originally it was identified as Beryx ornatus, presumed to be related to today’s amazingly named alfonsinos but this name is consider to be a synonym for Hoplopteryx lewesiensis.
Preservation Aside from missing fins this 80 million year old specimen is amazingly well preserved. You can see some of the ribs showing along the back of the specimen indicating that this fish may have started to decompose but to find so many of the scales preserved in what we presume to be near life positions means this fish was buried before it began to fall apart, get picked apart by scavengers or rolled apart by currents. The specimen is preserved in chalk which is why determining where the plaster in fill has been used is so tricky but it a Kevin Bacon kind of way chalk and the Cretaceous are interlinked. The Cretaceous is so called because of the chalk deposits across Northern Europe, derived from the latin creta. There is also a suburb of Gravesend and is the name of a lithostratigraphic unit so if you feel so inclined you can go and collect some chalk from the chalk in Chalk.
Research There are surprisingly few research references to this species although there have been as many as eleven conflicting names for these specimens over the years making a comprehensive search difficult. Interestingly, some of the big names in palaeontology have researched fossils of this species. Gideon Mantell first described this species in 1822, naming it after his home town of Lewes in Sussex, another place where chalk deposits are exposed, identifying it as a species of dory. Twelve years later Louis Agassiz redescribed it as a species of alfonsino and periodically it was mis and re-identified eventually settling in the genus Hoplopteryx in 1919 (Patterson 1964). Since then this species is occasionally name checked as an example of a fairly standard and common fossil Beryciform fish. Which would be fine except the group Beryciformes is somewhat of a ‘dumping ground’- a place where taxonomists put a hodge podge of different taxa that are united by having excellent names. This currently includes alfonsinos, soldierfishes, pineconefishes, squirrelfishes, lanterneyes, fangtooths, spinyfins, pineapple fishes, roughies, nannygais and slime heads.
In SocietyBefore today Hoplopteryx lewesiensis has had no impact on society at large. It’s up to us now to create the legacy of this not particularly noteworthy fish. The small changes you make to your life could help raise awareness of Hoplopteryx lewesiensis. Perhaps you could name your child Hoplopteryx? Alternatively, you could create an offshore bank account under the name. Musicians you can chip in too Hoplopteryx lewesiensis is a fine name for an album and will help you stand out from the crowd. It’s on us now.
In Society 0
ReferencesPatterson, C. 1964. A Review of Mesozoic Acanthopterygian Fishes, with Special Reference to Those of the English Chalk. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, Vol. 247, No. 739. pp. 213-482
To join our six lovely postcards on sale here at the Grant Museum, we’ve recently gone digital with our series of 16 new free Grant Museum e-cards. The e-card images show the variety of specimens the Grant Museum collection comprises, highlighting some of our most prized specimens including the Negus collection of bisected heads and our Blaschka glass models of invertebrates.
If you’ve not already guessed, yes, the jar of moles have their own e-card too.
Once users have selected their e-card image, they are invited to choose an interesting fact about the object to share with the recipient. Each object offers a selection from three facts relating to the natural history of the object, or the significance of the object to the Museum. For example, the quagga skeleton, which is only one of seven quagga skeletons in existence, was originally thought to be a plains zebra until it was re-identified as a quagga in 1972.
We hope to add to our range of e-cards and our postcards available in the Museum, so keep an eye out. If you’ve got a specimen you’d like to see as a postcard or e-card, please let us know.
A review of the current exhibition at the Wellcome Trust.
This exhibition showcases over 400 artworks from 46 self-taught artists living and working within social welfare facilities across Japan. The title Souzou, not directly translatable into English, has two meanings it can mean ‘creativity’ but also ‘imagination.’ Often under-represented within mainstream museums and galleries, this a very professionally staged exhibition which shows the wealth of creative work being produced and also hints at the value of art-making for well-being.
However we feel about the term ‘outsider art,’ the exhibition is a celebration of brilliance. Curated by Shamita Sharmacharja, the exhibition is split into sections which loosely explore six themes – ‘language’, ‘making’, ‘representation’, ‘relationships’, ‘culture’ and ‘possibly.’ This does well to show the broad range of cultural and social interests of these artists, refuting the idea that marginal artists are only interested in their own interior lives. The exhibition is very professionally mounted and overall I get the sense that the artworks have been allowed to ‘speak’ for themselves.
By far my favourite pieces are the imaginary maps created by Norimitsu Kokubo. These fictional cityscapes depict places that the artist has never visited but has constructed in his mind’s eye from fragments and soundbites heard through the media. Carefully drawn in pen and spanning over 5 meters on a huge roll of paper the piece is a testament to Kokubo’s visionary imagination. Not dissimilar to a huge, immersive doodle – for me, this piece is a reminder of the joy of focused attention in the creative moment. We should all make some time in our lives to be creative, even something as simple as a doodle.
Shingo Ikeda’s work also represents the manifesting power of imagination. Ikeda is fascinated by the power of calculations, and the way mathematical procedures can appear to produce perfect predictions. His notebooks depict journeys through series of calculations which explore seemingly mundane aspects of daily life, such as taking the Tokyo metro. Mathematical calculations are drawn with delicacy, almost decorative, as Ikeda’s work display the beauty that comes in searching for the unknown.
Too often art from so-called marginal groups is over-interpreted, explained almost into nothingness, or the label of ‘marginal’ takes centre stage. The extremely professional staging of this work means viewers can, if they so desire, forget the label ‘outsider.’ What I wonder is, what does this term bring to the exhibition? How helpful is it in our understanding of the artwork?
Coined by art historian Roger Cardinal in 1972, the phrase was invented to apply to what French painter Jean Dubuffet called ‘art brut’ – raw or rough art. Raw in the sense that it hasn’t been ‘cooked’ by the art institutions, colleges, galleries and media that dominate the mainstream art world. Over time it has come to be applied to artists who have received little or no training, who seldom have an inclination to be part of the mainstream ‘art world.’ This has meant that it is applied to many ‘marginal’ groups such as those receiving state care or experiencing mental or physical distress. Whereas Europe and America outsider art has become well-recognised and there is a niche art market for this kind of work, in Japan Outsider Art has been more closely aligned with postwar health policy.
The use of the term ‘outsider art’ in the exhibition title can act as a nod and a wink to those in the know. Many museum and gallery funding bids are written using terms ‘outsider’ and ‘marginal’ for mental health art groups. How does this interact with debates around mental health stigma? At a recent conference at the NPG, focus groups argued that funders need to address the way they perceive mental health. If they don’t, these artists will be continually tied to this label. I believe it is a personal issue for each artist. In my experience some artists find these words celebratory, and some stigmatising. The question is, how useful is the label? Is health status important in this context? Each artist needs to able to address these issues on an individual-by-individual basis. My feeling is that this information is unnecessary, but I may be being too extreme. Perhaps, these labels can be inclusive – encouraging each of us to do something creative, whatever our background.
This post is a bit inside baseball, but then so is the metaphor inside baseball.
We get asked the above question at the Grant Museum frequently by aspiring museum professionals and volunteers and it’s a question that isn’t simply answered. I can’t say that my view on whether it helps or not is the definitive view but as an employer (sadly not as often as we’d like to be) here’s my personal thoughts on whether or not it helps.
First, I’d advise looking at the job specification and application form. If ‘Must have a Museum Studies degree’ is an essential criterion then, yes absolutely, you will need a museum studies degree to get shortlisted for the job. At the Grant Museum we try to steer away from this absolute requirement so as to encourage individuals with many years of working in museums and in other sectors to apply but you do still see it on job adverts.
If the possession of a museum studies degree (or equivalent) is desirable or not specifically asked for here’s what I look for on a job application.
There are a number of Museum Studies courses out there. UCL has a good one (full disclosure- which I teach on) and they are definitely an interesting thing to study (full disclosure- I studied Museum Studies at UCL). There are a couple of instances in which I’d strongly recommend doing one; if you’re in two minds about whether museums are for you or not and if you ended up in a particular museum via a circuitous route and would like to develop your career in museums. The first instance may sound like an expensive way to test the waters for a life in museums but working in a museum isn’t just swanning around appearing erudite to the masses and occasionally dusting specimens. A good museum studies course will expose you to all the aspects of museums that you need to be familiar with/put up with/have to learn if you want to get employed. The latter instance is something I see a lot less of these days. Before the professionalization of a career in museums there were many ways to get into working in a museum without a background in working in museums. Each museum works differently and it’s very easy to become ‘institutionalised’ without being exposed to the bigger picture. A museum studies course is a great way to really understand what museums are, how they came about and importantly, how museums work together locally, nationally and internationally in the museum sector. I really value this sense of perspective and aspiration to change practice beyond the walls of one institution and it’s key to understanding the fundamentals of why museums do the things they do rather than why the museum I work at does the things it does. This distinction is subtle but very important (I think).
Another thing that is perhaps more important than undertaking a degree in museum studies is what else you did at the same time. I’m not saying it’s easy to get a museum studies degree but studying a museum studies degree to develop your specific area of interest is a wonderful opportunity and is what will set you apart from your classmates. Volunteer or get a work placement in a number of museums whilst you study. If you’re interested in natural history museums then undertake all your assignments in natural history museums. Perhaps most importantly, go and see as many museums and exhibitions as possible (the free ones at least). Studying in London was particularly exciting to me as there are so many great museums on your doorstep and the volunteer and work placement opportunities provided by my course shaped my future career and work ethos. If you have studied a museum studies degree then it’s this activity that I like to see on an application above and beyond getting a degree awarded.
This sounds hugely unfair. And it is unfair. Museum jobs are hotly contested and you have to be so many things; an excellent manager, a public engager, a subject specialist, an advocate, a networker, a conservator, a public speaker, a writer, a porter, a photographer, a researcher, a historian, a technician, a designer, an interpreter.. the list goes on and you probably have to be in the right place at the right time to secure that sought after job. Most of these you need just to get a foot in the door on a short contract or a volunteer position. You might also wish to consider finding yourself a wealthy partner too because the pay pales when compared to equally qualified professionals in many other fields and the career ladder doesn’t have many rungs at all. Sadly this is the reality of the sector but the pay off is that the job is incredibly rewarding.
Is a museum studies degree more important than years worth of experience in the sector? Absolutely not. If you have worked in a range of museums either as paid staff or as a volunteer and understand the bigger picture and can answer all the whats/whys/wheres/hows of museums then that’s more than enough experience. There’s quite a gap between museum history and theory and practice and in my experience the best candidates understand what the theoretical gold standard is (in conservation, management structures, engagement practice) and why most museums ignore a lot of these standards because they are incompatible with day to day practice. In addition, there are many careers outside of museums that work in a similar way and provide people with identical skill sets plus there’s the advantage of being willing to think outside of the box or bring knowledge and skills that are in crucial shortage within museums (e.g. advocacy, political lobbying, fund raising, marketing, IT/digital, commercial activity and development).
Once again this is just my perspective on whether a museum studies degree is needed or not to get a job in museums, other employers may well have different perspectives (feel free to drop a comment if you have any other advice) but hopefully this article will give some guidance for people toying with undertaking one.