UCL News


UCL in the News: The museum oddities the public rarely gets to see

15 March 2008

Nancy Durrant, 'The Times' Curators and researchers are nothing if not enthusiasts - they love to show their beloved collections and … almost anything can be taken from its drawer and displayed to the curious visitor.

We have picked out five weird and wonderful artefacts that will delight the determined treasure-seeker. …


Galton Collection, UCL

This sinister-looking black box contains a selection of 19th-century glass eyes. It is part of the 500-item Galton Collection, housed in the biology department at UCL. Francis Galton, a Victorian polymath, is a controversial figure. He is known as the inventor of fingerprint identification but this work formed part of his lifelong research into eugenics, a term that he coined. …

These eyes were used to make comparisons with Galton's research subjects: he would note down which their eyes most closely resembled.

The collection is an odd hoard, including the buckle of Darwin's cloak, fingerprinting equipment (the novelist Émile Zola's hand is said to be recorded among the thousands of cards that survive) and several unknown death masks, one of which carries a helpful label noting that he was a murderer.

Another favourite is the thumb-pricker, a thimble-like device with a tiny skewer that Galton used in his surveys. In one survey, he set out to discover where the most attractive women in the UK were to be found. He would sit in a town with a long strip of paper, one end marked "beautiful" and the other "repellent". Every time a woman passed he would use his thumb-pricker to poke a hole in the chart where he felt she belonged on the scale. Natasha McEnroe, the curator, says, "Unfortunately we don't have any of the strips of paper, but we know from his notes that the most beautiful women were in London and the most repellent in Aberdeen."