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Dangerous Diaries: Octagon Gallery

An interdisciplinary group of researchers, makers and materials enthusiasts from around UCL and beyond have put together the ‘Dangerous Diaries’ exhibition at the Octagon Gallery.

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Further Information

The exhibition explores the risks and rewards involved in fabrication by delving into the daily lives of a group of materials and making enthusiasts, including a chemist, conservator, ceramicist, geoarchaeologist, printmaker, sculptor, anthropologist and a historian. This interdisciplinary team has kept diaries recording their experiences of the pleasures and perils of production. In conversation with varied artefacts from ten different UCL Collections, our dangerous diarists reflect on how perceptions of risk and approaches to hands-on engagement with materials have changed over time.

Open: 22 September 2015 - 18 March 2016

Location: Octagon Gallery, Ground Floor of Wilkins Building, UCL, Gower Street

'Dangerous Diaries’ brings together artefacts as varied as a taxidermied woolly monkey, a jaw with carcinoma and Sir William Ramsay’s mildly radioactive laboratory notebooks to reflect on changing perceptions of the risks involved in scientific and artistic production over time.

1. Woolly Monkey (Lagothrix sp.)

Image 1: UCL Grant Museum: Z1104

Due to the protein content of mounted animal specimens, natural history collections provide a ready source of food for insects. Historically the most common insecticides used for taxidermy were arsenic oxides and mercury salts, both toxic materials that cause poisoning in animals and humans via inhalation or skin absorption. Although taxidermy itself often appears innocuous to humans, the use of these invisible insecticides demonstrates the importance of understanding how an object was fabricated.

2. Jaw With Carcinoma

Image 2: UCL Pathology: RFH L16

At one time thought to be medicinal, the dangers of radium paint became public in the 1920s during a lawsuit filed by the Radium Girls. Painting the luminous dials, these women achieved an extremely fine point on their brush by drawing it through pursed lips. This technique, known as ‘lippointing’, resulted in a large number of deaths due to head and bone cancers, infections of the jawbone and anaemia.

3. Sir William Ramsay’s Dangerous Diary

Image 3: UCL Geology

An extract from Ramsay’s laboratory notebook, Chair of Chemistry at UCL 1887-1913, describes the process of generating rare gases from radium bromide. Ramsay and others believed that helium was evolved from the radioactive decay of radium. It was later demonstrated that the elements with high atomic weight undergo spontaneous transformation through the emission of high energy particles, ultimately forming smaller more stable elements.

These and many other ‘Dangerous Diaries’ exhibits can be viewed at the UCL Octagon Gallery until the end of March 2016.

Emma Richardson

Art historian and conservator, Dept. of History

Sarah Wilkes

Anthropologist, Institute of Making

Daryl Ballard


Puja Bharadia

Heritage Chemist

Ellie Doney


Carla Flack

Sculpture Conservator

Stuart Hartley


Emilia Kingham


Eleanor Morgan


Hilary Powell


Ruth Siddall

Geologist / geoarchaeologist

Simon Werrett

Historian of Science