Exhibition Themes

The scale of current ecological change is often difficult to perceive. Non-humans including animals and insects can be overlooked in their significance and impact upon the Earth’s eco-system.  This part of the exhibition looks at the interplay between natural history and animal worlds. It examines the use of animals in agriculture and farming, and asks: how will food be provided for a growing population of 9 billion people in 2050?
The drive for energy and resources crosses both human and non-human histories. Forms of movement, extraction and displacement of natural resources create a multiplicity of effects. This part of the exhibition showcases the impact of fossil fuel extraction and burning, alongside the entangled military-industrial collisions of war and trade. It asks: when did humans begin to radically alter the Earth and what historical narratives have been created to explain our behaviour?
Technology is often thought of as a human-centered pursuit and skill. Yet nature has not only inspired the rise of technology, it is materially involved in the production of digital culture. This part of the exhibition focuses on the blurring of technology and the natural world. It reveals the invisible connections that we have come to depend upon and asks: will the technology of today be the fossils of tomorrow?
Afterlives- Extinctions
With the earth’s resources dwindling possible futures emerge from a posthuman planet. Our own limits must be confronted in order to reassemble speculative scenarios. This cabinet connects the inevitability of finitude and the possible worlds it may bring. It asks how will we prepare for the future and will our anthropogenic legacies transmit to other beings and planets?

Image Gallery

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A series of salon style events will start in September to further explore issues raised in the exhibition. The salons will reveal profound connections across time and matter, and question the materiality of artefacts within the geopolitical web of contemporary life, and its possible futures.
Salon #1: Navigation. Drawing on research from the Carandini and Saleem Laboratories here at UCL, this salon will explore how we move, how we plan movement, and how we locate ourselves in the world. The metaphor of navigation is then used to explore our collections at UCL,  using objects to generate new narratives that challenge our understanding and ask questions about the sustainability and future world.  7 September, 6-8pm, UCL Haldane Room, Gower Street
Salon #2: Animal/Agriculture.  This salon to accompany the current Octagon exhibition Cabinets of Consequence will explore the relationship between non-humans, including animals and insects and their impact on the Earth’s eco-system – just what are their rights in relation to their contributions to our survival. This salon features guest speakers Dr Gavin Broad from the Natural History Museum and the UCL Grant’s own curator Paolo Viscardi plus others in a light-take on this topic taking place in 27 October 2016  Grant Museum, Rockefeller Building, 21 University Street, London, WC1E 6DE.
Salon #3 This third salon will explore how heritage and related domains (including nuclear waste management) make futures.  How do we use material culture to stitch futures from pasts? What do we conserve? What do we get rid of? What do we allow to change? This Salon will be staged as a series of conversations across various themes currently being explored within the Heritage Futures project, a large, collaborative international research project led by Professor Rodney Harrison at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. 2 March, 2017 -6.30-8pm venue to be confirmed at UCL- email h.pike@ucl.ac.uk to register interest in attending.



Research Team

Simon L. Lewis

Professor Simon L. Lewis is chair of global change science at UCL. In 2014, he was listed as one of the world’s most highly cited scientists in the Environment/Ecology field.  His research and writing on the concept of the Anthropocene, which denotes the period of time when human activity started to have significant  geological impact, provides the overarching frame for the exhibition. According to Lewis,”The Anthropocene probably began when species jumped continents, starting when the Old World met the New. We humans are now a geological power in our own right – as Earth-changing as a meteorite strike.”




Matterlurgy is an artistic research collaboration initiated by Helena Hunter and Mark Peter Wright.  Their work emphasises cross-disciplinary collaborations which are disseminated through exhibitions, performance, workshops and events. Drawing on research from across UCL, Matterlurgy worked closely with UCL Museums and Collections to develop the curatorial approach and design of the exhibition. According to the artists, “The central challenge for us was to hold onto the vibrancy of objects, whilst simultaneously showing their ethico-political milieu. We want the aesthetics of exhibition to not only work backwards through history, but also forwards, through the present and its possible futures.”



Rodney Harrison

Rodney Harrison is Professor of Heritage Studies at the UCL Institute of Archaeology. He is Principal Investigator for a large international research project called Heritage Futures, which takes a comparative approach to understanding different forms of natural and cultural heritage conservation as future-making practices. His research most heavily influenced the Afterlives-Extinctions section of the exhibition. Professor Harrison has provided a number of objects for the exhibition, including seed pouches from the Svalbard Global Seed Vault which stores seed samples from world’s crop collection for future generations. http://www.heritage-futures.org

Helen Hailes

Helen Hailes is a Professor of Chemical Biology with a focus on synthetic organic chemistry. Her research has influenced the Energies-Resources section of the exhibition.  She is currently leading an investigation of how waste biomass (such as sugar beet pulp) can be used as an alternative for fossil fuels as starting material for bulk chemicals used in the pharmaceutical and agrochemical industries.


Jane Gilbert

Dr. Jane Gilbert is a Senior Lecturer in the Department of French.  Her areas of  interest include translation and metamorphosis, legendary histories and their relation to fiction, ways of thinking about community, and prophecy. Her research influenced the Afterlives-Extinctions section of the exhibition, particularly biblical and pictorial representations of prophecies and apocalyptic futures. 

Carandini and Saleem Laboratories

Professor Matteo Carandini and Dr. Aman Saleem work closely at UCL’s Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience to better understand the brain’s ability to map and navigate space. Their research influenced the questions that underpin the exhibition:  how does human movement affect the environment and how does technology facilitate greater human movement around the world?

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Mark Helena workspace

Helen Hailes: Using enzymes or sustainable starting materials to synthesise biologically active compounds

The chemical industry faces many current challenges in the preparation of compounds for use as bulk chemicals and in the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and speciality chemical industries. At present there is a high reliance on the use of fossil fuels to provide starting materials, although there is now a move towards the use of renewable resources to provide the chemical building blocks, and reagents to transform these building blocks into desired products. Waste biomass is an attractive material to use for the synthesis of chemicals, biomaterials and biofuels. In addition, in a growing bio-based economy biological catalysts (biocatalysts) such as those obtained from microorganisms and plants provide advantages over many chemical catalysts. Notably, they have been recognised as environmentally friendly, sustainable, and can be used under mild reaction conditions as well as exhibiting exquisite reaction selectivities. (more…)

Rodney Harrison: Heritage Futures

What do nuclear waste disposal, built heritage conservation, endangered language preservation, museum collecting, and the curation of family heirlooms have in common?

Heritage Futures is a 4-year research programme (2015-2019) funded by a UK Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Large Grant based in the UCL Institute of Archaeology, and supported additionally by its four host universities and 21 partner organisations. The project is carrying out ambitious interdisciplinary research to explore the potential for innovation and creative exchange across a broad range of heritage and related fields, in partnership with a number of academic and non-academic institutions and interest groups.


Jane Gilbert: Metamorphosis

My research into medieval literatures has for long moved into, out of, and around questions of metamorphosis, or the self’s radical transformation. Metamorphosis comes to the Middle Ages through three paths. It is the subject of one of the most famous poems by the Latin poet Ovid (43BCE-17/18CE), whose work medieval writers were obsessed with imitating, rivalling, and transforming. Rewriting metamorphosis in this mode was a prestige-winning act in a culture which wanted to be the equal of Greece and Rome. Metamorphosis also occurs in folk and fairy tales, in voices from cultural and social strata ‘below’ that of educated writers and courtly audiences. In this mode, it expresses the exoticism of land and people, the ‘other within’. Finally, Christianity: a religion whose central figure was a god transformed into a man encouraged dreams of radical transformation, of fallen angels and sinners become saints.


Simon Lewis: The Anthropocene

We live in epoch making times. I mean this literally, rather than as a tool to dramatise our seemingly perpetual global economic crisis or latest political scandal. Long spans of time are described by geologists as eons, eras, periods, and epochs. An epoch therefore describes a unit of geological time. The end of the last glaciation, some 11,000 years ago, saw the transition from the cool Pleistocene to the warmer Holocene. This relatively stable epoch saw humans turn to agriculture and our population rise considerably. Now geologists, ecologists and climate scientists, myself included, are stating that we have entered a new and much less stable geological epoch: the Anthropocene.


Carandini and Saleem Laboratories: Brain Mapping

As we move around, we have a sense of where we are and we are able to plan where we need to go. The brain provides us with this sense thanks to a map of the local space. This map was discovered in the 1970s here at UCL by John O’Keefe, who received a Nobel Prize for it last year. The brain keeps this map in a region called the Hippocampus. The map is made of neurons, each of which fire when navigation traverses a certain location in space. The brain maintains and updates this map using multiple cues. One of these cues is by counting steps from a known location. Another cue is given by the landmarks that our eyes see. But how does the brain go from images of landmarks on the eyes to a sense of location in the world?




 This exhibition has been brought to you by UCL’s Public and Cultural Engagement (PACE) department.  The mission of PACE is to represent the creative community at large across UCL. Our job is to use our collections, connections, our content and our creativity to spark connections between UCL research and the outside world. From our range of museums, exhibitions, theatre shows, research projects and learning workshops, we aim to be an open door for all visitors to see the range of cultural initiatives we have going on, and to inspire people to get involved. 


The Octagon Gallery is located at the centre of UCL’s main campus in the Wilkins Building.  The closest Underground stations are Euston Square (Hammersmith & City Line), Warren Street (Victoria & Northern Lines), Euston (Victoria & Northern Lines), and Goodge Street (Northern Line).

The exhibition is FREE and open to all from 9am – 7pm daily.