What Happened to the UCL Galton Collection?

Hand Dynanometer - UCL Galton Collection GALT 038 Copyright 2015 UCL Creative Services
Hand Dynanometer - UCL Galton Collection GALT 038 Copyright 2015 UCL Creative Services

UCL Galton Collection is hard to find. It has been made increasingly invisible. This has happened through actions taken by its caretakers to depreciate its digital access, ignore communities of interest, and pretend it no longer exists except for a few sensationalised attractions. This vanishing was done slowly and quietly. The key accumulative impacts are to narrow engagement and close debate, which are precisely opposite what UCL Culture claims in its marketing materials to want to achieve.

In this post, I discuss my concerns about the growing invisibility of the Galton Collection, and I speculate on possible reasons why this has occurred. I focus my attention on the digital presence for UCL Galton Collection, which I think was rendered unusable in 2017. Curatorial staff assigned to this collection did nothing to correct this situation. Though the Galton Collection was a subject of much discussion during the UCL Eugenics Inquiry (2018-2020), the unit which manages it has offered little by way of digital curation to help people learn what’s actually in this collection.

Vanishing continues in 2021. The UCL Culture Strategy 2020-25 doesn’t mention the Galton Collection. The new Public Engagement Strategy (published in 2021) doesn’t mention it, either. Digital assets are no better than they were five years ago. Is there a Jedi mind-trick going on? “These are not the collections you’re looking for.” Or, have there been decisions made behind closed doors without consultation just to make this problem go away?

UCL Galton Collection is Controversial

Francis Galton has been a focal point for protest at University College London (UCL). The institution was said to “celebrate” the Victorian British figure through naming a lecture theatre, a laboratory, and a professorship in his honour, as well as dedicating resources to promoting a museum collection dedicated to his memory. Galton promoted eugenics and developed technologies in the pursuit of scientific racism, misogyny, and anti-Semitism.

Retraction across UCL has been underway for some time. The Galton Laboratory was closed in 2000. The Galton Lecture Theatre was de-named in 2020. The professorship was retitled in 1954 and likely will be fully de-named shortly. Whatever remains of the financial gift Galton made to the university (which staff in the Galton Laboratory later grew entrepreneur-ally through profits from publishing) is being re-tasked to support the study of racialisation.

The UCL Galton Collection is a more complicated story. At the closure of UCL’s Eugenics Inquiry 2018-2020, the MORE report (submitted by the committee’s majority) recommended the university de-name this collection:

“8. UCL must work towards removing Galton’s name from other assets associated with the university, such as the Galton Collection …”

In contrast, the chair’s final report (submitted without the approval of the Inquiry committee) specifically recommended boosting access for the collection.

“8. UCL to improve the ability for investigation of its institutional history through a) investment in enabling those from BAME, disabled and other groups targeted by eugenics to become experts in this area and b) investment in its archives and collections, library and museums.

The task force organised to reconcile conflicting recommendations from the committee majority and the chair reported in February 2021 to UCL’s Academic Board. That report is not yet public. Rumour has it this will recommend not renaming the Galton Collection. [Note added September 2021: See Postscript 2 below.]

No matter what the decisions of that task force, UCL has a problem with accessibility over the Galton Collection. In sum, it’s a hidden collection. Information about it is hard to find and the quality of that information is poor. Access is heavily controlled. It’s hard to understand how anyone except specialist curators can use the collection for research and study. It’s a vicious circle: you have to know what to ask for, but to do that you have to know it’s relevant, and to decide relevance, you have to know what’s in the collection.

What’s in the Galton Collection?

It’s surprisingly hard to answer the question: what’s in the UCL Galton Collection? At least, it’s hard to answer with much confidence. The Galton Collection is not on public display. There is no printed guide or summary for the collection. A guide online doesn’t exist, either. 

Not having a guide is unexpected. Ever been to a gallery exhibition? Guides and catalogues are standard tools in the museum world to give an overview of holdings. Guides help people understanding a collection as a whole; to see the woods, rather than the trees. Not having a guide available leads me to think an institution doesn’t want me to understand what’s in a collection. It’s a form of obstruction, especially when there is no public display.

Figure 1. First page of results from Google search for “UCL Galton Collection” as viewed 9 July 2021.
Figure 1. First page of results from Google search for “UCL Galton Collection” as viewed 9 July 2021.

What about a digital presence for the Galton Collection? For comparison, it’s easy to find out a lot about UCL’s collections in zoology, art, and archaeology – each has lots of online information. The Geology Collection gets attention, too. Same for the Pathology Collection. I wouldn’t say this information is perfect, but it’s helpful.

There is no comparable digital presence for the Galton Collection. Search “UCL Galton Collection” online and what is returned is a mish-mash of materials, only 3 of 10 are related (Figure 1). My search today returned (in order):

  1. UCL Galton Collection’ Online Catalogue – a database dating from 2015 or 2017, more on this below
  2. Galton Laboratory Collection | Library Services – UCL – a separate UCL collection; more on this below
  3. Galton Collection | UCL UCL Culture Blog – a blog with the last relevant entry from 2017
  4. Search Form – UCL Galton Collection’ Online Catalogue – part of the database in (1)
  5. Galton Collection, UCL | Culture24 – not UCL – a directory listing, dating about 2010
  6. Archives and References – The Galton Institute – not UCL
  7. Galton Collection – Museums Data Laundry – not UCL, personal blog discussing Galton Collection
  8. The Galton Collection UCL (Gower Street, London WC1E) – not UCL, a directory listing
  9. UCL renames three facilities that honoured prominent … – not UCL, news article
  10. Galton Laboratory – Wikipedia – wikipedia article of something else

    Figure 2. Landing page for “The Galton Collection” at URL: https://galtcat.museums.ucl.ac.uk as viewed 9 July 2021.
    Figure 2. Landing page for “The Galton Collection” at URL: https://galtcat.museums.ucl.ac.uk as viewed 9 July 2021.

What about public activities and programmes to view material in the collection? Some of the museums and collections at UCL have robust public programmes, even during the later phases of COVID. Those activities gave members of the public opportunities to view materials in the collections, further their own explorations, talk with experts, and join in wider conversations. This doesn’t seem to be happening for the Galton Collection. If the Galton Collection has had a public programme in recent years, it’s left no digital footprint.

If you know where to look

If you know where to look, you can find out what’s in the Galton Collection. Probably. Mostly. Maybe. Not sure. This takes effort, and not all the information is publicly available.

Search “UCL Galton Collection” online, and one of the first sites returned is a database of objects. This is an old database produced by UCL Museums and Collections. The banner says it’s the “UCL Ethnographic Collections’ Catalogue” but that doesn’t make sense. (There is an ethnographic collection at UCL, but the stuff in this database isn’t in that collection.) It’s not clear how old this information is, or how complete the database is. This site appears to be abandoned, given the differences in style between it and the holding unit’s website at UCL Culture. Since at least 2018, the front page has had the undated notice, “We are in the process of updating our online catalogue. During this time some information about our collections may be out of date” (Figure 2). There is no interpretive or contextual information to guide the user on what to do using this database; there’s no help for the non-expert.

Figure 3. Data returned from searching for “Travelling mirror with mahogany cover” in the Galton Collection’s database as viewed 9 July 2021.
Figure 3. Data returned from searching for “Travelling mirror with mahogany cover” in the Galton Collection’s database as viewed 9 July 2021.

This particular database is for searching, not browsing. For instance, if you want to examine Galton’s “Travelling mirror with mahogany cover” (Figure 3) you need to know that’s what you’re looking for, or you need to know it’s item 101 in the collection. By trial and error, I discovered the insider’s hack for browsing: enter a blank space into the “basic search” field, then click “search”. What is returned is the whole database. There’s no information saying the whole database represents the whole of the Galton Collection, but let’s consider it a good start.

Each entry in this database provides a small amount of factual information about the object, typically a physical description and a date (though it’s not clear what this date refers to: manufacture, acquisition by Galton, acquisition by someone else, or something else). Images of objects are provided, though these are dated 2015 and are now rather poor resolution. I couldn’t read anything on the objects using these images, so they’re essentially decorative.

I don’t find this database to be user friendly or accessible. It offers a view of trees. Probably most trees. But no view of the woods. The first (seeming, the only) answer to the question, “what’s in that shop?” should not be a long list of everything that’s physically in the shop. On it’s own, that’s inadequate.

There is a second source of information about the Galton Collection, but it’s only available to people in the UCL community. It is hidden away in a remote digital corner, and it is not advertised by UCL Culture. This resource is a set of higher-quality images for some of the objects in the Galton Collection. Look in the institutional Imagestore (UCL password required). Last time I accessed this resource, the folder “UCL images/ UCL Culture” included 84 high-resolution images with short descriptions (Figure 4). This contrasts the above database (101 items and low-resolution images). In the Imagestore, for comparison, UCL Grant Museum posts 5390 images, the Petrie Museum posts 2336 images, the Ethnographic Collection posts 362 images, and the Geology Collection posts 151 images. I did not compare the contents of Imagestore and the catalogue database to ascertain overlap. I shouldn’t need to.

Figure 4. Sample returned from search for Galton Collection images in UCL ImageStore as viewed on 9 July 2021.
Figure 4. Sample returned from search for Galton Collection images in UCL ImageStore as viewed on 9 July 2021.

A change kept very, very quiet

In July 2017, UCL Culture, the professional services unit managing the Galton Collection for the UCL community, quietly deleted this collection’s digital presence. It was there on 26 July 2017; gone 09 Aug 2017. Deletion was sloppy, and fragments remain strewn about the unit’s website, reminding visitors something is missing. One link on the UCL Culture site to the Galton Collection led to significantly out-of-date material. Another led to a broken link. There’s an old blog archive (last post in October 2017). In the footer of the UCL Culture website, there’s a pull-up menu with quick links that still lists the “Galton Collection” as an option (Figure 5). Click on it and you’re returned to the main landing page.

Persistent searching led to some discovery. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection eventually returned the message: “The requested page ‘/culture/user?destination=node/20″ could not be found’”. However, as a hack, enter that URL into a search engine and some orphaned pages are returned.

For example:

  1. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galton-and-anthropometrics
  2. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galton-and-criminology
  3. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galton-and-alphonse-bertillon
  4. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galton-and-travel
  5. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galtons-hyperscope
  6. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galtons-quincunx
  7. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galtons-counting-gloves
  8. https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/galton-collection/galton-memorabilia
Figure 5. Remnant of a “Galton Collection” mother page that is now missing. The “Take me to” option returned the visitor to the main landing page for this UCL unit.
Figure 5. Remnant of a “Galton Collection” mother page that is now missing. The “Take me to” option returned the visitor to the main landing page for this UCL unit.

These pages appear to speak to single issues related either to objects in the Galton Collection or to relevant subjects. Again, these appear abandoned, as some refer to images and objects that don’t display on the page and some connections appear to be broken. In sum, it looks like these orphan pages linked to a missing mother.

I’m guessing the official reason for the deletion of a digital presence for the Galton Collection will be said to be merely bureaucratic. In 2017, UCL Culture was planning a controversial “restructure”. Amongst much other shifting of deck chairs and posts, objects in the Galton Collection seem to have been re-designated as part of a supervening Science Collection. Perhaps, this was simply an innocent consolidation.

Perhaps, not. Protests against Galton’s presence around UCL had been underway for several years before 2017, and the situation was heating up at the time planning for this restructure was underway. The Galton Collection was becoming a focus on considerable attention and criticism in mid 2017. Shortly thereafter, all hell broke loose at the university when it was learned the London Conference on Intelligence had convened in campus facilities. Investigations followed, but a satisfactory understanding of events still has not been made public. Whatever was deleted from UCL Culture’s digital presence could easily have been restored at any point after its removal, such as to help with engagement about the history and legacy of eugenics at UCL, in line with the unit’s strategic plan. But it wasn’t. Perhaps inaction in this case was action, preserving invisibility rather than information.

This change was done quietly. UCL has a consulting committee for “Museums, Heritage, and Museums” to which UCL Culture is expected to report. Minutes for those committee meetings are a dull read and a lot of mere reporting is described. But downgrading the Galton Collection is not discussed. At the 09 March 2017 meeting, the committee was told the Galton Collection was “much used” and “used extensively by departments for teaching”. The next meeting, in July 2017 didn’t mention the downgrading. Nor was it mentioned in November 2017, March 2018, or July 2018. The minutes don’t record any report that the Galton Collection was being assimilated into something else, either. The type of changes described above related to the Galton Collection strike me as topics meriting discussion with a consulting committee. Omission is surprising.

Whether the controversial, much protested restructure was wise or not, the external effect of this new arrangement was to sharply decrease the visibility of the Galton Collection. The silence surrounding this re-arrangement is surprising, too. This professional services unit has had energetic communications for all sorts of activities, and it claims to be “opening minds and sparking connections”. It has staff specifically tasked with communications. If the unit produced an announcement of its new arrangement for the Galton Collection in 2017, that announcement has since disappeared from online search engines.

Figure 6. Return from clicking on “Download, Delve, Discover” option on UCL Science Collections mother page visited 9 July 2021.
Figure 6. Return from clicking on “Download, Delve, Discover” option on UCL Science Collections mother page <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/ucl-science-collections> visited 9 July 2021.

What Can Be Learned with a Search of UCL Science Collection?

The Galton Collection is now assimilated into UCL Science Collection. What can be learned about objects from the Galton Collection through a targeted search of the UCL Science Collection? 

Not much. 

The UCL Culture page for the UCL Science Collection includes a list to “Top 10 objects”. Two derive from the old Galton Collection: the quincunx (compare with the old page still available) and the hair colour gauge. There is no other information about other objects formerly in the Galton Collection.

To find more, I clicked on the page’s “download, delve, discover” option, but I didn’t find much of a catalogue. Instead, I “discovered” a nomination form for a 2019-20 prize, instructions on how to adopt a specimen in UCL Grant Museum, and 239 other posts. Filtering the set for “Galton Collection” (one of the options provided) returned 0 results (Figure 6). I clicked on the “Find out about ALL our work” option, which offered 198 posts. The same filtering gave 0 results.

I wanted help, so I clicked on the “talk to the team” option. The response told me it was “Showing 0 Staff Members from UCL Science Collections” (Figure 7). The response was the same for UCL Galton Collection.

I used search engines in an attempt to locate a catalogue of the Science Collection. This located one database. But I don’t think it’s the right service for the Galton Collection. I searched it for “Galton” and nothing was returned. I tried Pearson, same result. I tried “hair,” because “Eugen Fischer’s Hair Colour Gauge” is shown on the UCL Culture website to be part of the Science Collection, and I know it previously was in the Galton Collection. The search for “hair” returned 5 items associated with “Fleming valve” but no hair colour gauge. This database seems to have 800 objects, mostly objects from chemistry and engineering. I didn’t see anything previously held by the Galton Collection. If the Galton Collection was assimilated into the Science Collection in 2017, an updated database is not public.

Back to UCL Imagestore. Items appearing under “Science Collection” do not include items previously in “Galton Collection”.

Overall, finding information about what’s in the UCL Galton Collection remains difficult and messy. The digital presence is poor. In whatever way it’s been assimilated into UCL Science Collection, that assimilation is not reflected in resources available to people outside the unit. 

Figure 7. Return from clicking on “Talk to the Team” option on UCL Science Collections mother page visited 9 July 2021.
Figure 7. Return from clicking on “Talk to the Team” option on UCL Science Collections mother page <https://www.ucl.ac.uk/culture/ucl-science-collections> visited 9 July 2021.

Alternative: Try This First

The invisibility of the Galton Collection is surprising. I find it shocking. Indeed, I find it obstructive, given the institutional discussions surrounding Galton and the historical links between him, his patronage, and the history of eugenics at UCL. What comes to mind is those closing scenes in Spielberg’s (1981) film, Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981).

Until some kind of workable solution appears, an old paper alternative is available. To learn what’s in the Galton Collection – or, at least what was in the Galton Collection before UCL Culture started managing it – consider a pamphlet circulated in 1976 by UCL Galton Laboratory (now defunct). That pamphlet is an inventory of objects collected by Karl Pearson and passed down through successive Galton Professors at UCL:

  • Thoday, Alfred George (compiler) (1976). A list of the apparatus of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) held in the Galton Laboratory, University College, London (London: Galton Laboratory). ISBN 090563800X. British Library UIN BLL01007433380. (Archive.org) (UCL Library)

This list is not perfect. Additional material came into the Galton Collection later, and I think some items have since gone missing. However, this list offers a much needed first-order overview. If you want to know what’s in UCL Galton Collection, start with Thoday then check it against that old database.

Curiously, Thoday’s (1976) list has nothing to do with UCL Culture. It also shows how straightforward such a list can be to create and circulate. I hereby offer to work with curators to produce a successor to Thoday (1976).

Compare Two Collections of Galton Material Held by UCL

UCL Culture’s poor handling of the Galton Collection is in marked contrast with the way a different unit at UCL treats Galton-related material under its management. The difference is striking. 

UCL Special Collections (part of UCL Library Services) holds a much larger collection of Galton-related material. This includes mainly paper records – correspondence, photographs, ledgers, books, and related materials – organised into a resource it calls the “Galton Papers”. This is a vast collection. It is far from hidden. A basic finding aid is available online from them. A more detailed catalogue is available through the Wellcome Collection, and that catalogue includes some digitised materials that are viewable and downloadable. Visitors can study original material in a specialist reading room at UCL Library, by appointment.

The same project that led to Thoday’s (1976) inventory of Galton Collection (objects) also produced a  handlist for the Galton Papers (archives). 

  • Merrington, M. and Jacqueline Golden (compiled). 1976. A list of the papers and correspondence of Sir Francis Galton (1822-1911) held in the Manuscripts Room, the Library, University College London (London: Galton Laboratory, University College London).

It is available online via galton.org. A second impression was made available in 1978. Archivists at UCL now describe Merrington and Golden (1976) as “obsolete”. I find skimming it gives an approximate overview of the collection, and it helps me know where I want to dive in for detail.

Information about UCL Galton Papers (archives) was the third item listed in search engine queries when I sought “UCL Galton Collection” (shown above).

Two related collections are available as well. UCL Special Collections maintains the “Galton Laboratory Records,” which are records from the activities within the UCL unit created by Karl Pearson with funds donated by Galton. UCL Library Services also maintains the “Galton Laboratory Collection” a collection of approximately 5000 books accumulated by the Galton Laboratory. Its core represents Galton’s personal library. Books can be sought through the standard UCL Library search tool, Explore (enter “GALTONLABORATORY” into the search field).

My overall impression of the materials available through UCL Library Services is that the material under their management is well organised, well curated, and up-to-date. I get the sense of an overview – what’s generally in the collection – and I get the sense I can find out more if I seek it. I don’t get the sense anyone is telling me how to interpret what I’m seeing. I also get the sense of clear contact points, visitor information, and a guide on how to use things. It also helps that some materials are duplicated in easy-to-use digital archives through Wellcome Collection. I don’t think this is perfect, but in contrast to the object-based collection managed by UCL Culture, this is significantly better.

Why is it so hard to learn about the UCL Galton Collection? 

UCL Culture has a large curatorial staff associated with its museums and collections and lots of layers of management. The invisibility of the Galton Collection is not a staffing problem. Their curators are part of a large professional services unit running museums as a core part of their strategic plan, so it’s not a resourcing problem and it’s a key thing they’re supposed to be doing. This unit has a public engagement strategy, so they say they want to be useful. Why is it so hard?

My answer to this question has two parts. 

Part 1. Information is power. Reorganising a collection is an act of power. So is deletion of information. So is neglect, such as leaving information to drift. Invisibility might be seen to help a unit within an institution quash controversy, or simply to avoid it. I have a hard time thinking it’s a coincidence the digital presence for the Galton Collection collapsed accidentally at the same time controversy over Galton was heating up. 

Part 2. Allowing information to be tightly controlled puts power in the hands of controllers. Anthropologists call this “control by gate keepers”. Curators become critical gatekeepers when the only way to access a collection is through them. Not only can gatekeepers control access to materials. They also control the inventories – the overviews – telling us what’s available and what isn’t. More important, gate keepers can frame our interpretation when the privilege of access finally arrives, possibly manipulating the experience visitors have with the objects. Access only through gatekeepers diminishes other people’s ability to fact check. It allows rumour and myth-making to persist. Access is power. 

I think UCL Galton Collection (UCL Culture) is so hard to find because it has suited (maybe, still suits) some people to increase its invisibility. I think it has suited (maybe, still suits) some people to control access. Imagine a different setting: what if the only way to work with rare material is to work through me; the only way to get a sense of what’s available is through what I tell you; and I get paid to promote my own interpretation without really doing much to help you. If that is the culture of UCL Culture, it needs to change.

Don’t blame COVID. Don’t blame staff furloughs. Closures during the pandemic have only amplified the invisibility and gatekeeping developing for the Galton Collection in preceding years. Those same closures have shown the value of a strong digital presence for the Galton Papers in UCL Special Collections and available through Wellcome Collection.

Cultures of tight control are deemed to be unprofessional in museum and archives circles. Sadly, they are not as rare as they should be. In my own research area of history of palaeontology, several notorious examples are often cited to explain how knowledge does and doesn’t sometimes travel. Tight control and invisibility contradict the messaging produced by UCL Culture in its glossy self-promotional literature.

As an institution, UCL has moved far in the direction of free and open access of primary research materials and professionally curated academic research. Collections now in the care of UCL Culture were heading in the same direction in 2015 (databases) and early 2017 (Imagestore). What’s happened with the Galton Collection since 2017 has amounted to a move in the opposite direction. Not only is this institutionally embarrassing, it is contrary to the spirit of free, open, and disruptive thinking so firmly championed by the UCL academic community. It makes a mockery of the unit’s claim to lead on public engagement.

Postscript 1

In private communication, I am told a new and improved collections database for UCL Science Collection is in development. This is one step forward. However, a research-focused database alone is not good enough. That’s all trees and still no woods. A guide or catalogue is required. A digital presence is required. Critical debate over interpretation is required. I also would like an explanation for why we find ourselves in this situation: quiet acts of burial, gatekeeping rather than curation, and clear signs of neglect or abandonment. This strikes me as more a failure of executive management and strategy than some kind of shortage of funds and staff time. It’s a question of leadership and forthcomingness.

Postscript 2

Note added September 2021: The “UCL Eugenics Inquiry Response Group” submitted its final report in June 2021 to UCL Academic Board. It has been made public through a Freedom Information request. On the Galton Collection, the Group’s report concluded, “The Response Group considers that the name of the Galton Collection is factual rather than a token of honour and aids identification and access to the collection, so does not propose that it should be renamed.” (p. 8)

Personally, I’m on the other side of this view and would rather see re-naming. At the same time, I note with considerable surprise the confusion caused by UCL Culture staff over the status of this material. The evidence clearly shows that in 2017, the Galton Collection was dissolved administratively and objects reclassified into the UCL Science Collection. Yet, at the 2018-2020 Inquiry, the committee included staff from UCL Culture who treated the Galton Collection as an extant unit. Likewise, the Response Group notes two members of UCL Culture staff among its list of people who gave “expert advice and consultation,” and its conclusions show no evidence it was made aware of this reclassification, either. Something isn’t right here.s