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A Capital Visit

14 Sep

Ah London, the capital city.  I was just a day tripper but I was greeted by the usual spectacle: the cacophony of car horns, the multitude of legs pounding the pavement and the incessant drizzle of the rain.  It all helped to provide a fine backdrop to this most hectic of cities.  It was the first visit for me to that bastion of the bibliophile, the British Library, a mere stones throw from King’s Cross.  Primarily here to view the ‘Propaganda‘ exhibition, I was left with a tangible taste of excitement upon seeing a copy of the Magna Carta (who knew there were 4 copies surviving?).   I was further left in awe whilst viewing the actual hand writing of Henry the VIII, of a letter sent to friends from Sir Isaac Newton in the midst of a probable mental breakdown during his mid 50’s, and on being able to read a note wrote by Darwin when answering his mounting correspondence and queries after the publication of ‘On The Origin of Species‘.  The detailed drawing of the dimensions of the human body by Albrecht Dürer, and the doodles of ideas and architectural fancies by Leonardo, on display were certainly worth the train journey down alone and it was hard to believe that these diagrams were over, or nearing, 500 years of age.  The propaganda exhibition was good (worth a look certainly, just bring some money), but it was these historic pages upstairs in the free to enter Sir John Ritblat Gallery that fired my imagination.

It was great to be able to read Elizabeth the I’s delicate but iron script, of the two examples juxtaposed next to each other: a letter she wrote from her days a young princess to a royal friend sitting quietly next to a death warrant she signed as Queen, both with the same elegant swaying ‘z’ of her signature.  Furthermore the exhibition made me realise the value of the written word, of the official documents and the personal papers that we leave behind, of our own letter trail that lasts long after our own deaths.

But also of the non-physical words we read each day, of the digital.  This blog will leave no material or physical self behind once it has gone.  I may have to print out copies of the posts themselves for my own future reference.  (I have also briefly considered printing the Skeletal Series posts out and making them into some sort of mini-manual to be posted out for free for any interested people, after they have been revised/edited of course).  But this is a tangent for another post, on the value and longevity of blogging.  Of course I could not leave the Library without first grabbing a new work of literature to read, and, true to the theme of the propaganda exhibition, I chose to indulge in some Soviet literature in the form of Platonov’s The Foundation Pit*.  Although not published in the Soviet Union during Platonov’s lifetime (1899-1951) due to his views, the book, and his canon of work, have gone on to acclaim despite his sidelining during the Soviet years.

After leaving the grand British Library we ambled over to the Wellcome Trust’s permanent exhibition entitled ‘Medicine Now‘, located at the Trust’s base on Euston Road.  A vibrant mix of art and science, the exhibition introduces challenging and rewarding concepts in the field of human biology, particularly in the individual perception of the body itself.  The exhibition itself, though small, makes the visitors interact with the displays themselves, actively encouraging participation and learning.  Science itself is intensely creative, whether in research or in it’s application, and the exhibition helped to demonstrate this most important of facts repeatedly.

So if you find yourself on a wet and gray day with a few hours free in central London, I’d highly recommend you check out the British Library and the Wellcome Trust for the free exhibitions on offer.

* I have since finished reading ‘The Foundation Pit’, and I highly recommend reading it.

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Guest Post: ‘Bones in the Backyard: Bringing Forensic Anthropology into the Science Classroom’ by Shivani Lamba.

18 Jun

Shivani Lamba is the Company Director of Forensic Outreach, based in London, which she initially joined as Programme Coordinator in 2009. She spearheaded the organisation’s initiative to create public engagement experiences online. The organisation was established in 2001, and has long been a dynamic and active part of the science curriculum in classrooms throughout the UK and EU. It was conceived to introduce forensic science as an integrative and cross-disciplinary approach to science education, and has delivered programmes to over one-hundred academic institutions and charities.


The Stories They Tell

There are, to put it mildly, some rather surreal moments in my time as a Forensic Outreach instructor.  I’ve cataloged medieval skeletal remains on the wooden office floor, sifting through them next to a newly-qualified doctor with an almost preternatural ability to instantly recognise bone types on sight. These specimens had been selected for shipping to the fabled Bone Room in Albany, California – and the task of wrapping and labelling led us late into the evening.  There were the innumerable times a small portion of our collection had been carefully packaged into a rolling suitcase, transported along with our instructors on the London underground, ready to be handled by keen children and adults across the country (and later the continent). And finally, there was the rather macabre experience of opening a new shipment to encounter a beautiful rib cage specimen – without any prior warning, of course.

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Bodies and Bones, read more at Forensic Outreach.

When I’m pressed by my students to tell these stories, it’s with mixed feelings: concern that this is all too bizarre an existence (for two years, the office housed another medieval skeleton affectionately named Horace) and strangely, gratitude.  Reassuringly, it’s in part because of our small collection that Forensic Outreach has engaged children and adults alike – where possible, we allow our audiences to handle them, to turn them about, to draw themselves close to these bits and pieces.  There’s no better way to inspire an interest in forensic anthropology than to ensure that our students come to grips with it – quite literally – and understand the experiences real field anthropologists have everyday.  In actuality, the forensic anthropology component of our workshops is usually just that: part of a larger day which includes other “forensic” exercises, or a component of a class series.

Still, for years, we’ve found that forensic anthropology – and the bones – are perhaps the most compelling sessions we offer.  It begs the question: just what is it about this field that has everyone intrigued?

Looking Closely at Bonefied Amazement

On a serious note, I’d venture to say it has a bit to do with audiences actually examining their own mortality. Our older audiences, for some reason, seem particularly engrossed. They are eager to ask who these individuals were, and where in time their lives were situated. Our specimens were initially supplied by a company located in the charming old-world Bloomsbury, London, which specialised in models and skeletons for use in medical school lecture theaters. We didn’t know much about their persona lives, other than the fact that their remains had been dated to the High Middle Age (which began after AD 1000). There’s a certain fascination in facing the inevitability of it all — the fact that this is an individual who existed centuries ago, and that perhaps we all face a similar fate as history relegates us to our true position. Of course, this isn’t the case in forensic anthropology, which of course involves the recently-deceased.

Another aspect (also speculative) may be that this is the closest our audiences will come to analysing the “most valuable piece of evidence” or the body itself.  There are no dissection rooms open to the public – for good reason – and a gap therefore exists in their practical understanding of why the body is so significant in criminal investigations. Forensic anthropology usually follows an introductory workshop on death and decomposition when delivered as part of a masterclass; or at the very least, some indication of what normally precedes the “drying out” of the corpse.  Afterwards, our students are told they will have an opportunity to get up-close and personal with real skeletal remains, and examine them for clues that betray the gender, age and health of the individuals in question.  Out they come, then, the plastic containers with pieces of our collection laid neatly inside, surprisingly hardy and prepared for anything.

STEM, Public Engagement and Why We Do It

The aim of our lectures, workshops and other programmes is to encourage an interest in STEM, as well as to improve public understanding of what forensic science entails and what the discipline truly entails. Our organisation originally began as a Widening Participation initiative, and was designed to inspire children from socioeconomically-disadvantaged backgrounds to embrace new career paths in the sciences.  Eventually, the responsibilities became too great for a University department to manage single-handedly, and Forensic Outreach spun off in its own direction – with links to UCL (and now the Jill Dando Institute of  Security and Crime Science) intact.  We’re fortunate to have the autonomy to continue developing our own innovative programmes without institutional limitations, but close ties to ensure that joint-activities are still possible.

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Careers and Classroom, read more about science education at Forensic Outreach.

Without waxing lyrical about CSI syndrome, there is also a legitimate concern that for the layman, forensic science is entirely informed by popular media: Bones, Dexter and even more unfortunately, CSI.  There’s therefore a focus on ensuring accurate information is disseminated – and where possible (especially in our online activities) we integrate the recommendations and suggestions of forensic scientists who watch us to improve our outreach.

Further Information:

If you’re interested in finding more about Forensic Outreach, please visit our website. We also run a Twitter feed (@forensicfix), where we provide a seemingly endless drip of forensic trivia. Considering booking an event with us? Write to hello@forensicoutreach.com.