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Friday, 18 December 2015

UCL Geology Collection: December's #hipstermuseum

A few days ago people across Britain and the world watched Tim Peake shoot into space on his mission to the International Space Station. At the same time, we were investigating some 'out-of-this world' objects a little closer to home, that is, at the UCL Geology collection. From meteors to dinosaur fossils and even previous metals, UCL houses an extensive collection of all things geological, as well as the UK's only NASA archive. And unlike the other cool rocks n'stuff collections you might see in London ( we are living the NHM's recent redisplay) here you can actually touch the stuff! We met curator Nick Booth to find out more about what they've got and how you can see in in this edition of #hipstermuseums.

UCL Museums always seems like a bit of a mystery. Aside from the few collections that have publicly accessible gallery spaces like the Petrie Museum and the Art Museum, you'd never really know how extensive their object holdings are. Although the rotating displays in the Collonade go some way to bringing together the amazing collections that each university department holds; the current one on industry, making and dangers is particularly interesting. While it once occupied a much larger dedicated space, the Geology Collection is confined more or less to one room in the South Colonnade, and several hall displays. The room is always open to Earth Science students who use it for teaching and socialising, and is available to the public from 1-3 on a Friday afternoon.


While timing might sound restrictive, it's because the Geology Collection is UCL's own cabinet of curiosities. Since rocks are well, rocks, to most observers anyway, its really much more interesting if you can pick them up and have someone there to talk them over with you. Without all our new fangled labelling, the geology collection calls for a much more personal approach. 

Nick shows of a meteor slice from the early nineteenth century
People say they don't know anything about geology, but actually people can be surprised how interesting and relevant it is, Nick Booth tells us. From ammonites to fossils, meteors and crystals, geology is, well, surprisingly cool. The natural world comes up in all sorts of strange ways- the materials Old Masters used to make their paints, the components of our smart phones, the building stones of our city, and the basis of industry. Who doesn't love space and fossils? 

Pieces of the Giant's Causeway
I'll level with you, I know absolutely nothing about about geology. Or rather, I thought I didn't - but as Nick revealed you'd be surprised how everyone has their geological interests. While I tried to ask some intelligent questions, really I had no idea about ancient algae, or even the exciting meteors. But actually I found out while we were there, museum people think about geological issues all the time. While we were there, we met a few conservators who were using the university's SEM to analyse paint fragments, which brought to mind the National Gallery's recent exhibition. What about radioactivity? Radioactive elements turn into glassware, paints, and a load of other things that we deal with in storing, handling and displaying collections.



But if there was one thing that really got my attention, it was all the asbestos. Any museum collections person (I suppose unless you are dealing purely with fine art) knows something about asbestos, and its many hazards. More importantly, we have to get good at identifying it. Amongst my friends, we like to play a game of going into antique shops and spotting the asbestos - because we are cool like that. So I get a little too excited about their collection of interesting asbestos and asbesoform from around the world (don't worry, in properly sealed boxes).

Check out the fibres on this blue asbestos


Huge sample from Asbestos, Canada on display in the Colonnade
I did promise you some space as well. Since Nick looks after all the Science collections, he also works with the Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL, famously founded by NASA in the 1970s and containing prints and copies of images from space from the last 30 years. Most famously, the Centre looks after images and maps of Venus taken during a Russian expedition, the last time man visited the planet. 


So while the 2 hour a week opening time is a pain, a visit to UCL Geology is definitely worth the effort. If you wanted to have a poke around outside those hours, you could always contact Nick and see if something could be arranged. UCL also runs some great public events with evening open hours, and from the sounds of it there could be a pop up exhibition in the works- and what is really more hipster than that?

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