EVENT: Gavin Francis: The Anatomy of Curiosity

The Anatomy of Curiosity – a personal tour of Edinburgh University’s anatomical collections

The Anatomical Collections of Edinburgh University are immense and varied, gathered over more than five centuries. They vary from anthropological specimens from the colonial era, to early-modern curiosities such as human horns alongside narwhal horns. There are roomfuls of animal specimens, collected in an attempt to conjure order from the commotion of life. There’s the skull of George Buchanan and the skeleton of William Burke. Gavin Francis isn’t a curator, but a doctor and writer who has found inspiration in the collection. His illustrated lecture will be a personal journey around some of the highlights of the collection.

The event is free to attend but please reserve a place via our Eventbrite page.

Gavin Francis practices medicine in Edinburgh and is the author of three books True North, Travels in Arctic Europe (2008, 2010), Empire Antarctica, Ice, Silence & Emperor Penguins (2012) which was Scottish Book of the Year 2013 and shortlisted for the Costa, Ondaatje, Banff, & Saltire Prizes, and Adventures in Human Being (2015), which won Saltire Non-Fiction Book of the Year 2015, was the Observer’s Science Book of the Year, and was a winner in the BMA Book Awards. His fourth book Shapeshifters: A journey through the changing human body will be published in 2018.

More on Gavin’s writings (including further essays) and work can be found on his website.

The Details

When: 18:00, 18 January 2018.

Where? Kelvin Hall Lecture Theatre, 1445 Argyle Street, Glasgow, G3 8AW.

Cost? It’s free! But please do reserve a place via our Eventbrite page:  https://www.eventbrite.com/e/gavin-francis-the-anatomy-of-curiosity-tickets-41115628953?aff=eac2 .

We hope that you will be able to join us for our first Collections event of 2018!


Frankfurt Once? Frankfurt Now! A visit to the Historisches Museum Frankfurt

Mona O’Brien

That is what makes our city unique – the fact that, within this patchwork, the contrasts, the dirt and the beauty, the coldness and lovability are crowded together more densely here than anywhere else in Germany.

Dies macht die Einzigartigkeit dieser Stadt aus, dass in diesem Flickwerk die Kontraste, der Dreck und die Schönheit, Kälte und Liebenswürdigkeit so dicht aneinander gefügt sind wie nirgendwo sonst in Deutschland.

Dieter Bartetzko, Frankfurt journalist, 1991.

IMG_20171104_111437926_HDRFrankfurt am Main (Nov. 2017).

The first time I came to Frankfurt, and still when I return there, I am struck by its contrasts. The skyscrapers, bastions of the modern economic religion, reaching far higher than the tops of the cathedral and the old town. Down on the street there are expensive cars and expensive suits, but also cosy cafés, languages from all over the world, and warm smiles on the walk by the Main river.

IMG_20171106_154713377Altstadt/Old Town, Frankfurt.

And that is just Frankfurt today, as I sit in the archive of the Institut für Stadtgeschichte, poring over the city’s records for the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, another world of contrasts (and conflicts) emerges: religious dispute and discrimination, trade and wealth, poverty and begging, all encased within the city walls.

I only know Frankfurt today, and Frankfurt in the years c.1450-1600. A lot has come before these times, very much between them, and looking at the cranes that dot the skyline, a lot more is to come.

No place is static. No place is simple.

Many cities across Germany, indeed across the world, possess a museum for the history of the city, in Frankfurt it is the Historisches Museum. But I have often wondered: how can a single institution hope to tell the history of a place? A place is made of many histories, many identities. Is it possible for a single institution to tell them all? Does any institution want to do that?

Museums are constructs, they work with the collections they possess. Museums are not neutral; they actively decide how they tell their stories. This is why I am sceptical about city history museums which, in my experience, so frequently emphasise the triumphs and treasures of their city without paying any significant attention to daily life in the past or present. This is why I very nearly did not go to the Historisches Museum Frankfurt. But, I reasoned to myself that perhaps I would find something relevant to my PhD research, and promised myself that if it was utterly terrible I would buy a huge slice of cake as compensation for wasted time.

Happily, an afternoon in the Historisches Museum is anything but wasted time.

Having no prior knowledge of the Museum or its exhibitions, the first section that I decided to visit was the Sammlermuseum (the Collector’s Museum) as I thought this sounded quite appropriate given my position on the ‘Collections’ project. Frankfurt contrasts with many other towns and cities as its oldest collections originate not from kings and courts but from private collectors, many of whom bequeathed their collections to the town and (since 1878) the Historisches Museum. The Sammlermuseum consists of twelve rooms dedicated to exhibiting a selection of Frankfurt collectors and donors and the items that they collected, in addition to a thirteenth room ( the 13th Collector) which holds special exhibitions. The first room explores the librarian Johann Martin Waldschmidt (1650-1706), under whom the city library collected not only books but also objects including portraits, coins and globes. The final collector represented is Wilhelm Kratz (1873-1945) who specialised in Frankfurt faience of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Every room has a “collector’s book” with information about the collector, their interests, the objects displayed and the history of the collection. The rooms are very well set out, and contain everything from butterflies to armour to miniature paintings. As an explanation piece in the museum states, the rooms representing the collectors display their ‘individual preferences’. Throughout, there is a clear recognition that collections are the product of their collector’s interests, perceptions and prejudices. Certainly, for anyone interested in the history of collecting practices or the interests of the financial and cultural elites across the early modern to modern periods this is surely a treasure trove.

IMG_20171107_141639398 Stairs in the Sammlermuseum.

A great complement to the Sammlermuseum was the current special exhibition (7 October 2017 – 15 July 2018): Ein neues Museum für FrankfurtThe Making of the HMF. The exhibition charts the HMF’s physical development from the demolition of the concrete building in 1972 to the creation of the new sections that just opened this year. It also charts the museum’s conceptual development and how it deals with its collections and exhibitions. The photos combined with the statistics posted on the wall give a very striking insight into the logistics involved in building, and rebuilding a home for the Museum’s sizeable collection. There was also a great video installation on the themes of ‘objects’, ‘milestones’ and ‘models’, which provides a rare glimpse into the behind-the-scenes goings on of a museum.

IMG_20171107_143936912 Ein neues Museum für Frankfurt – The Making of the HMF, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

IMG_20171107_144012963 Ein neues Museum für Frankfurt – The Making of the HMF, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

My favourite sections of the museum were two of the permanent exhibitions: Frankfurt Einst? and Frankfrut Jetzt! I was immediately endeared to Frankfurt Einst? (Frankfurt Once?) because of the use of the question mark in the exhibition’s title as, for me, this reflects the many questions surrounding how “knowable” the past is, and how it is deeply contingent on individual or institutional interpretations.

The exhibition is not chronological, but instead ‘is separated according to the characteristics that defined Frankfurt in the past and continue to define it today’, and the exhibits in certain sections are regularly changed. There is something very relieving about it not being chronological, you don’t feel that you are getting the entire history of the universe (well, Frankfurt) in condensed format. The themes are quite broad and join epochs together well. There is also the 100 x Frankfurt section which gives an overview of the city’s history in everything from gold goblets, umbrellas, and a uniform from a concentration camp. There is no claim that the exhibition covers every aspect of the city’s history, but there is a very genuine attempt to cover the city’s spectrum from great achievements, to daily life, to its darkest and more shameful moments.

It is also in Frankfurt Einst? that I found my favourite display in the museum, One of Each by the Frankfurt artist Karten Bott. Bott collects everyday objects, and in this particular piece one finds an object-inventory of everyday life in central Europe over the past 50 years. There is nothing exclusive about this piece, it is not some delicate ancient object that was only ever possessed by a few. The items are arranged by theme and the artist has sought to create a display that prompts memories and a questioning of what items belong in the Museum. As someone more interested in the everyday than the elite, I loved this piece because it incorporates what is routine, the mundane things that comprise so much of our lives. For me it is a statement on the importance of little things, and the beauty of the everyday.

IMG_20171107_144835248Karten Bott, One of Each. An artistic inventory of everyday things, Historisches Museum Frankfurt.

The permanent Frankfurt Jetzt! (Frankfurt Now!) exhibition was the first time I have encountered an attempt to represent the present in any “historical” museum that I have visited. The 1,000 m2 space is lined with portraits of the city’s population, each capturing something of the lives of the groups and individuals represented. For a non-Frankfurter it provided a fascinating insight into how the people see their own city. This is achieved particularly through the model of the city built by the artist Herman Helle. This huge construction is based on the opinions provided by 1,166 Frankfurters, and built with all kinds of materials and incorporating sound and video, it aims to represent the peoples’ – often contrasting and contradictory – perceptions of their Frankfurt. There is a very good brief film of the city and the model that captures it available here.

The Frankfurt Jetzt! space is more than an archive of the present too, it is also a home for the Stadlabor (City Lab), a project that has been going since 2010 which routinely ventures out beyond the confines of the Museum to engage with the Frankfurters and create exhibitions and events based on this interaction. Perhaps it is initiatives such as this, the Museum’s very active involvement with its context, that makes this feel like a living place, a place that reminds us that history is not over, but being made, and made by us, the everyday people, not just governments, banks or militaries.

Frankfurt (on the left you can see the green top of the Paulskirche where the capital of Germany was decided after WWII; in the centre the spire of the Cathedral; to the centre right the European Central Bank; in the foreground: everyday life).

No institution can ever tell the entire history or the entire present reality of its city, yet in the Historisches Museum Frankfurt, I believe we find a sincere attempt to represent Frankfurt then and now realistically and from many angles. It privileges the everyday alongside the extraordinary (both good and bad) and it actively engages with its context. This is a place that is so much more than an assemblage of display cases, this is a place that is alive and openly recognises that it will change with factors including curation, collecting, and – most importantly – its city. This is a Museum that has made me rethink the purpose and potential of city history museums.

IMG_20171107_125741146 I still had my cake… not as compensation, but celebration (Cafe Sugar Mama, Frankfurt).


Tapeworms in/as Body in Early Modern Europe – Talk with Lianne McTavish

All are warmly invited to the second talk in our free public Collections Lecture Series to hear Professor Lianne McTavish of the University of Alberta speak on the fascinating topic of ‘Tapeworms in/as Body in Early Modern Europe’ . The event will take place in the Kelvin Hall Lecture Theatre, Glasgow on 7 July 2017 from 5:30-8:00pm, including a wine reception.

Attendance is free but please click here to book a place.

Full description and details

Join us for what promises to be a fascinating talk with art historian Lianne McTavish from the University of Alberta, on representations of tapeworms and the body in Early Modern Europe.

How can the written and visual contents in early modern treatises on tapeworms shed new light on understandings of reproduction, pregnancy, and digestion during this period?

Tapeworms were regularly described in terms of pregnancy, for instance, with swollen bodies that perceived internal movement before “delivering” one or more worms. In some of these stories, mostly written by physicians, the worms are portrayed as harmful invaders, but other accounts praise the worms as inevitable cohabitants that helpfully feast on excess humours, providing health benefits. This talk explores the ways in which worms were subjects of fascination during the early modern period, considered both part of and other than the human body.

The talk will take place in the Kelvin Hall lecture theatre, Glasgow on Friday 7th July 2017. There will be a Q&A after the talk followed by a reception with refreshments. This event is free but spaces are limited so please so register to ensure a space!


Saving the Mona Lisa: Misdiagnosis and Historical Malpractice

Something from our Mona O’Brien on retrospective diagnosis, da Vinci’s Mona Lisa and, of course, the great pox.

A Network Of Lines

On February 6 Jonathan Jones asked ‘Did the Mona Lisa have syphilis?
The answer is, very simply, no.

Leonardo da Vinci, Mona Lisa (1503-1506).  Attributed to Albrecht Dürer, Syphilitic Man (c.1496).

Indeed, nobody in the sixteenth century had ‘syphilis’. What they did have was a disease that went by a host of names including the great pox, the French disease, the plague of Job and the sickness of Naples. They did not have ‘syphilis’ a name which, though coined in the sixteenth century, only came into common usage around the nineteenth century.

To be able to definitively state that Mona Lisa, Henry VIII, or any other early modern individual had ‘syphilis’, the disease caused by the Treponema pallidum bacterium, you would need the results of a scientific analysis on their remains, something which can prove notoriously difficult at times. Show me positive results from such a test and…

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Genetics and the use of the ‘Holy Grail’ metaphor: Virtue or Sin?


Have we chosen wisely?


By Michelle McGachie

The culmination of 50 years of work into genetics by researchers in multiple fields resulted in the discovery of the double helix structure and the constitution of genes in 1953. The discovery was considered the ‘holy grail’ of biological thought.

At the turn of the 21st century, sequencing of the human genome itself was again described as the new ‘grail’ of molecular genetics. Like the grail itself, it was elusive, ‘invisible’. As popularised by Dan Brown’s ‘Da Vinci Code’ and other theorists, for some, the grail embodied inheritance itself.

The comparison between the quest for greater genetic knowledge and the quest for the Holy Grail has been impressed into the public psyche for the past 20 years. Anderson explored this phenomenon in 2002 in his paper entitled ‘In search of the Holy Grail: Media discourse and the new human genetics’. He notes ‘frequently geneticists are portrayed as on a quest for the ‘Holy Grail’, giving the scientific process an air of mystique and authority’.

It is true that the developments in the last half-century have deeply impacted and changed the landscape of human biology and health. Serefini points out the importance of this discovery as being ‘the first time science had an explanation of how Mendel’s laws of heredity operated at the deepest level of the biological organism’. It was both the end of classical genetics and the beginning of molecular genetics. DNA studies would go on to dominate biological research for the rest of the century; ‘the story of life’ was said to be unfolding and DNA was the book.

However, has this mystique surrounding genetics allowed it to become something beyond mere mortal understanding? Does the elevation of such discoveries to divine heights aid researchers in making genomics a publicly accessible subject? Surely comparing ‘pure’ scientific discovery to popular myth seems contradictory to scientific aims. It could be argued that the ‘Holy Grail’ as a turn of phrase has lost its religious sentiment – yet it’s shadow still suggests something fantastical.

Or, on the other hand, should we continue to use this metaphor to impress the life-changing implications of genetic knowledge on the public? A reminder that this knowledge allows scientists to change the very chemistry of life. One virtue of the Holy Grail metaphor is its ability to suggest an otherworldly power considered beyond humanity’s grasp. Does this metaphor actually support an ethical viewing of genetic knowledge?


Michelle McGachie

John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London at the Victoria and Albert Museum

For some current collections reading, with thoughts on collecting crafts here’s Lydia‘s review of John Lockwood Kipling: Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Definitely one to see!


My blog posts have been sporadic across the two years I’ve been the sole writer viewreviewrepeat.wordpress.com. My output has been anything between one a day, one a week, one a month, one a quarter even. Sometimes I have a real itch to write about a recent public history experience, at other times I just want to write. My post today sits somewhere in between these motivators. On the one hand, the John Lockwood Kipling exhibition at the V&A was a visual triumph and totally relevant to my PhD research, and, on the other, I’ve had five days off in London and I really want to commit something productive to the screen.

Now then, to something more important than my incentives for writing today after a lengthy absence, the exhibition itself. I went to see Arts and Crafts in the Punjab and London mainly because my PhD research centres on Indian material…

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Human Constellations: Collecting Collections in the 21st Century

A brief review of our first public event.*


Collections, from archives, to medical data, to peaks bagged by mountaineers, range widely in form and method of accumulation, and raise infinite possibilities and questions. The Leverhulme Trust-funded Human Constellations project is being undertaken by the Collections Research Group working across the humanities and social sciences. Through collaboration the group seeks to develop interdisciplinary methodologies and produce new insights into theories of collections and collecting.

On 19 October 2016 the group held their first public event at Kelvin Hall. The evening was led by a lecture from Professor Hayden Lorimer on ‘Finders, Keepers’: Possession and the Nature of Collections. This explored the diverse types of collections we can encounter, from pet graveyards to the summits of munros, and the meanings that these collections can have for those who form and research them.

The Leverhulme Scholars who began their PhDs in 2015 also delivered two collaborative presentations. Using gift exchange theory Alicia and Michelle illustrated how theoretical links can be drawn between their vastly different research projects into William Hunter’s collection of anatomical drawings and issues of consent in collection of genetic data.


Mona and Dominic, who both work extensively with early modern and modern legal sources, presented a paper examining how bodies, particularly injured or sick bodies, constitute collections and how these bodies are treated as individual cases and symptoms of societal problems within legal systems.


The evening provided a fascinating insight into how the theme of collections can produce new approaches and new areas for collaborative research. The points and questions raised during the evening made it an extremely productive and exciting event, and the group wishes to extend its thanks to all who attended.

* Item first appeared in the University of Glasgow College of Arts Newsletter, February 2017.

Re-collections: The beautiful sadness of a black dog and second-hand books

Mona O’Brien on the life-cycles of personal collections, looking at dispersal and re-collection.

A Network Of Lines

On a recent Sunday I found myself standing in an antique shop in Frankfurt, close to the Römer. There was the usual random assortment of things, old furniture, crockery, photographs… Browsing through the warren of rooms, which extended much further back than the shop’s modest exterior suggested, I caught site of a framed photograph lying on the floor.


It is a photograph of no particular artistic merit. The shopkeeper certainly hadn’t given it pride of place, but obviously hoped to get a few euros for it. I was struck by it because it reminded me of the countless photographs that I’ve taken of my beloved cat, Shots. My photos are equally unartistic, and they capture a beast devoid grace or nobility. Shots is a cuddly (fat), lazy, cowardly cat. But he’s my cat, and the photo of him that is blue-tacked to my office wall makes me smile when work…

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Honeywood Lodge, Carshalton

The most recent post from our Lydia Murtezaoglu’s excellent blog – a must read for any ‘Culture-Vultures’ out there, covering museums, galleries, cultural goings on, books, fillms and more!


Honeywood Lodge is my local museum at home in Greater London and, as such, it holds a special place in my heritage heart. That said my first visit wasn’t until 2014 following the shameful trend that the closest things are often the least likely to be visited. To this day I’ve never been to Whitehall in Cheam, despite the fact I went to school there for seven (long) years. Yet I’ve visited museums on the other side of the world, odd really.

I’m aware Carshalton might seem like quite a niche market, but Honeywood Lodge is situated next to the really lovely Carshalton Ponds. The Ponds, regardless of the traffic, are rather charming once you’ve dodged around the over-enthusiastic duck feeders and that one swan with a really mean look in its eye. Perhaps the location is especially appealing because it is so unexpected in Zone 5; a hop, skip…

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