The eternal question with no clear answer. With 99% of our DNA shared with chimps, scientists still struggle to explain the vast difference between human language ability, memory, creativity, and sense of self in comparison to other animals. Although we don’t have all the answers, UCL Culture will explore and celebrate what makes us uniquely human through a series of exhibitions and events this autumn and winter.
Our starting and ending point is Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher and guiding force for the founders of UCL. The auto-icon of Bentham sits proudly at the centre of UCL’s campus. This was by design: Bentham requested that his skeleton bedressed in a suit of his own clothes, , in his will. Many have speculated as to why Bentham chose to preserve and display his body in this way. Was it the act of someone with an overwhelming sense of self-importance? Or an attempt to question the religious sensibilities and taboos around death?Auto-icon Jeremy Bentham, wax head by Jacques Talrich ©UCL
Our Octagon Gallery exhibition What Does It Mean To Be Human? Curating Heads at UCL(2 October 2017–28 February 2018) will explore these questions from both a scientific and cultural perspective. The centre piece of the exhibition is Jeremy Bentham’s actual preserved head, which will be displayed for the first time in decades. Professor Mark Thomasand Dr. Lucy van Dorp were funded by UCL’s Grand Challenges programme to use new genetic testing methods to analyse the DNA of Bentham and famous UCL Egyptologist William Flinders Petrie (source of UCL Culture’s Petrie Museumcollection). The exhibition will explore how new technology offers unprecedented insight into who we are as humans. Beyond the science, the exhibition considers the social aspects of dying: why we grieve, the rituals we use to mark death, and what we chose to leave behind.Van de Weyer Mourning Ring, containing the hair of Jeremy Bentham ©UCL
Many in the scientific community focus on how we differ from other animals to define us a humans. But maybe the answer lies in how we interact with them. UCL Culture’s Grant Museum of Zoology presents an exhibition called The Museum of Ordinary Animals (21 September — 22 December 2017) which looks at the impact animals such as cats, dogs, chickens and cows have had on humanity. Ordinary animals are everywhere: we have invited them into our homes as pets; they have become part of our diets and changed us biologically; they are critical to modern medicine; and they hold symbolic value in many cultures. Events such as Is It okay to be a cat guy? will examine the role animals play in gender identity. The (Ordinary) Animals Showoff will be an evening of comedy celebrating boring beasts.Frogs legs © UCL Grant Museum of Zoology & Oliver Siddons
Creativity is often cited as a distinguishing factor in what makes us human. UCL Art Museum supports emerging artists in reaching their creative potential through its annual Slade Art School residency programme. Chiming with the themes explored in the Octagon exhibition, this year’s show, The composition has been reversed: (26 September — 15 December 2017), explores why we conserve certain things for posterity and dispose of others through the work of artists Sonya Derviz, Cyrus Hung, Eloise Lawson, Amanda Rice and Grace Richardson.
We are also distinct in our ability as humans to move between being part of complex interdependent societies and acting as individuals. We celebrate our ability to express our individuality on Saturday 21 October when UCL hosts Bloomsbury Festival. The theme is Being Independent: The Art and Science of Living Well. In addition to a range of dance, music and performances, UCL Culture will present a variety of research-based activities and events on topics such as personal empowerment, individual and group identity, and how digital technology aids both connectivity and individuality. The Bloomsbury Theatre Studio will host a series of shows over the entire five days of the Festival.Bloomsbury Festival returns to UCL — Sat 21 October
In November, we will explore the issue of legacy. Who do we seek to memorialise when they die? Bricks and Mortals (13 November — 22 December 2017) is a podcast-guided exhibition and walking tour of UCL buildings named after celebrated academics. While people like Francis Galton and Karl Pearson are well known for their contributions to biology and statistics, they are less known for their contributions to eugenics. The podcast will describe the evolution of eugenics as well as open up discussion about what we do when statues, monuments and buildings commemorate people who are associated with periods of history we would rather forget. Recognising that sometimes the best way to reflect on uncomfortable issues is through laughter, there will be a stand-up comedy event to launch the exhibition.
Our journey ends with a Wake for Jeremy Bentham (15 February 2018). UCL will say hail and farewell to Bentham, as his auto-icon goes on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for a temporary exhibition. On his birthday, we will invite a series of speakers to toast Bentham and reflect on his contributions to society.
In line with the UCL Culture Manifesto, this series of events aims to open discussion, light sparks and mobilise people who seek to advance our collective humanity.
Please watch our animation.. but wait… you know what, before you do — here’s a little bit of history!
In the run up to launching our Manifesto last year, I began thinking about how I could animate our work in a very literal sense. I had worked for months with our branding agency Undivided to pull together the ideas that flowed through our incredible department, who work in so many different ways with publics, researchers and artists at UCL into our development of this Manifesto. This document was a labour of love, and flowered into life with the wonderful design and determined work of this agency.
My time in the RSA’s events team — working with the producers that created the RSA Animates in collaboration with Andrew Park from Cognitive Media and the RSA shorts had been two of the most inspiring years in my working life. I’d also worked closely with the Student Design Team and championed the pilot brief we ran that year, to get animation into the process of that incredible competition.
With this inspiration at my back, I could see how the Manifesto lent itself so naturally to animation. I decided it would be a key piece of work that I’d look to do in the year after our launch. I wanted to use it to show off a small selection of amazing research and creative practice that we at UCL Culture get to see because of the unique way we work with UCL academics and studentshttps://medium.com/media/906925a4bbaddfc672d8a2d919f92b00/href
My collaborators on the animation were people who had already worked with UCL Culture and had helped me with the launch in some way.
Will Spratley and Naomi Fitzsimmons were students had been involved with UCL Culture through the relationship we have with the Slade School of Art. Naomi had a summer residency working with the collections within UCL Art Museum. Will had been one of a handful of students working with the Grant Museum on the Skullpture residency. This residency had been developed with Kieren Reed and had engaged students with the working practices and archives of a museum. Then there were the relationships that sprang out of incredible collaborations with performers like Dr. Chiara Ambrosio and Impropera. (Catch Impropera — back at the Grant in November for Muso — get your tickets here!) Finally there was the moment when our long lost curator — the fabulous Nick Booth — invited Adam Roberts to bring his incredible swab and send project to UCL’s very own Jeremy Bentham.
At the end of our videos — we now have the line ‘this is just a small selection of the work we do’. This is no hyperbole. UCL Culture is perfectly positioned, on many crossing points throughout the university, coming into contact with curios and the curious, connecting collections to thinking and animating ideas in the process.
I’ve enjoyed the huge double challenge of developing a new website and a new visual identity, working with so many ideas and collaborating with two agencies, UCL academics and students and artists inside and outside the university in the process. I take all the knowledge gained in the process into my new Creative Director role at the human rights charity RightsInfo, but I’ll be keeping my eye on what UCL Culture does next. And so should you.
This is any bit of land where there is a communal responsibility to maintain and manage the space so that it remains useful and accessible to all commoners. A green where people might once have collectively grazed the livestock they owned, might now be a children’s adventure park. It therefore can be just as easy to accept that we have a collective responsibility to nurture and share knowledge as a communal resource. This is something that empowers us, builds a greater understanding of the world and helps us to tackle issues of mutual benefit and concern and arguably form on of the pillars of civil society.
One of my favourite stalls at the event was run by a group who collected and reproduced manifestos. They also produced button badges carrying various slogans from these manifestos and I picked up one of these which read:
‘Knowledge cannot check power by being true, but only by being converted into agency’
In my previous blog I wrote about how those engaged with research and the creation of knowledge needed to step up their game in our post-truth, alternative fact society, to break open the echo chambers of social media and reconfirm the value and relevance of knowledge. But as my badge suggests it simply isn’t enough for knowledge to be ‘true’, for it to be really effective we must give that knowledge agency. Our UCL Culture Manifesto embraces this concept through one of our three aims to Mobilise people. UCL Culture works with academics and students to enable them to mobilise people to engage with their research. This action converts knowledge into agency.
We believe that good quality engagements between universities and publics should be the norm and that agency should sit as much with publics and communities as it sits with universities. This goes beyond the traditional broadcast and receive model of the public lecture or video, and can be seen instead as a two-way engagement. We recognise and celebrate those people at UCL who mobilise people and give them agency through our annual Provosts Awards for Public Engagement.
For example Hephzi Angela Tagoe delivered a Wellcome-funded project engaging 116 pupils from 16 public high schools in Accra, Ghana. Hepzhi challenged these pupils to find innovative solutions to addressing health conditions with environmental triggers in their community, not through a traditional pedagogical approach but by teaming them up with undergraduate students and professional science mentors who empowered them to identify challenges and build solutions. The aim was to show that all kids could excel if given the opportunity, regardless of their background and to also create an avenue for scientists to engage with the public.© 2017 Virginia Mantouvalou
Virginia Mantouvalou, Reader in Human Rights and Labour Law and Co-Director of the UCL Institute for Human Rights engaged with Kalayaan. Kalayaan is an NGO formed to campaign for the formal recognition of migrant domestic workers in the UK, to challenge their mistreatment, and to enforce their human and labour rights. Virginia developed a project that actively engaged and involved those suffering abuse enabling them to better challenge and respond to their treatment through law. She gave a agency to this largely unheard and hard to reach group through listening and reporting their plight in key law journals from which government and legislation is influenced and informed.
These are just two brief examples of projects that were either shortlisted or winners of the Provost’s Awards for Public Engagement. We’ve just launched a new ‘Spotlight’ series in which these exemplars of engagement talk about their work in more detail. (You can read the first one here)
Their work is inspiring and demonstrates how knowledge and understanding might be converted to agency. This kind of action can challenge negative assumptions about ‘research’ and demonstrate that experts can and do improve people’s lives through the mutual generation and sharing of knowledge. This in turn empowers people to make informed choices and inspires them to achieve their goals. These are not just laudable values, they are values that are recognised at UCL through for example the UCL Grand Challenges and that are lived and delivered by UCL academics and students through their outstanding work.
We at UCL Culture also live these values and engage with academics, students, communities and publics using our assets, knowledge and understanding to Open Up the institution, Light Sparks and create connections between academics, students and publics to Mobilise People to convert knowledge and understanding into agency.
You will find the Spotlight articles on our website. Our first Spotlight featured Rafael Prieto Curiel, a mathematician from Mexico. Alongside his studies, Rafael has created Chalkdust — a magazine “for the mathematically curious”. In the August next month’s will be Virginia’s. You can keep up to date with all of them and other news from UCL Culture by signing up to one of our newsletters.
As Director of UCL Culture, I am kicking off this blog which will be picked up by my colleagues in the department and hopefully some guests over the coming weeks and months.https://medium.com/media/906925a4bbaddfc672d8a2d919f92b00/href
When we launched UCL Culture with our Manifesto last November we were reeling from the outcome of the Brexit vote in June and the Election of The Donald in November. Things have moved on since then and not necessarily for the better, but my sense is that this is an opportunity for those of us concerned with the glue that binds society. At UCL Culture, we see that glue as being a powerful mix of all the things we identify as culture. Defining culture is always contentious but Brian Eno suggested that culture is ‘everything that you don’t have to do’ in his 2015 John Peel Lecture, a line I think he lifted from elsewhere. He went on to elaborate that his definition referred to culture as all those things that are not required for our basic sustenance. He expresses the sentiment that culture is hard to pin down as a term, but this wide and all-encompassing definition is one that we at UCL Culture recognise and dare I say, embrace.
We know that politicians and governments struggle with the concepts of culture as illustrated in the triptych of the Department of Culture, Media and Sport created by the Blair government whose nerve clearly failed when they had the chance to recognise the power and importance of culture as an office of government in its own right. The subsequent, ongoing and increasingly reductive, arguments about cultural value, its monetisation and the creation of ‘hard metrics’ to measure its value speak to a country who clearly love their culture (any number of measures, museum and gallery visits, theatre attendance, wider arts engagement etc. support this view) but who are not yet prepared to say it really matters, like money matters.
I heard David Willetts, former Minister of State for Universities and Science speak last year at an event where he said ‘you can find the boundaries of art more quickly than you can science’. I’m not sure I agree with the statement but what is suggests to me is that there remains a division between science (hard facts) and culture, which can be also be hard but in a very different way but which is perceived as soft and of less real value. Surely the point is that both science and culture require rigour and critique when they are at their best and both help us to understand and deal with the world we live in. One is not more important than the other and this idea is expressed through our Manifesto which is both a response and a challenge to UCL’s mission.Naomi Fitzsimmons — Manifesto performance, launch night — November 2016 “I will always be open”
We believe that it starts with ‘the power of open’; open to sharing and developing knowledge, open to discussion and debate and vitally, open in terms of access to that knowledge. If we are open we light sparks of inspiration, create new interactions and connections between academics, students and the world they seek to influence and improve through their work. Most importantly we want to mobilise people through enabling and empowering them to make a difference, to challenge and to change the way the world is.
These aims combined with our Manifesto themes, Culture = Health, Museum = Lab and Performance = Knowledge reflect the institutional culture of UCL, which is why we created UCL Culture, a department at large across the institution, starting conversations, creating connections and giving that creative push.
As we deal with the phenomena of fake news, alternative facts and different truths in our post-truth society, the role of academics, students and universities has never been more important. Michael Gove might not have time for such ‘experts’ but it is through the development, synthesis, exploration and critique of knowledge that we can understand that truths are matters of opinion and perspective but facts are well, facts, testable, reproducible, durable, irrevocable, and we have the power to distinguish between truths and facts and to make our own minds up. While I would have preferred to launch our Manifesto in less tumultuous times I have to say that it felt right that we should reference the long tradition of committing to print our beliefs and values and sharing them as widely as possible. It was after all the invention of the printing press that opened up knowledge to the masses and gave them a means of communicating outside of the establishment. Monarchs, dictators, politicians and governments have sought to restrict that freedom to varying degrees ever since through taxation, through law and through censorship. Yet the people still find ways to make their voices heard, to use knowledge to speak truth to power and to hold those who would silence them to account.
And that is what we think matters about the work we do in UCL Culture. UCL is concerned with how the world is and about making it a better place through the co-creating and sharing of knowledge even if that sometimes makes us and others uncomfortable and we are committed to that mission.