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Report on Audience Sensitivity
to the Display of Biological
Specimens at UCL
This report presents the findings and recommendations from a front-end evaluation
conducted as part of the development of a Museum Studies temporary exhibition in the
Leventis Gallery at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology in 2016. This
evaluation was conducted to understand audience sensitivity to the potential display of
certain biological specimens at UCL. Participants were visitors and non-visitors and were
recruited in Bloomsbury.
The Audience Research Team: Allison Kopplin, Brittany Curtis, Qing Qin
Table of Contents
I. Executive Summary
II. Context for the Evaluation
III. Purpose of the Evaluation and Evaluation Questions
V. Presentation of Key Findings
a. Sensitivity to the human brain
b. Sensitivity to the human skull
c. Sensitivity to animal testing
VI. Conclusions and Recommendations
1. Executive Summary
This evaluation was conducted in order to gather audience feedback on the display
of biological specimens at UCL. These findings will be used to inform the MA
Museum Studies Exhibition Project in acquisitioning objects for display in their
developing exhibition in the Leventis Gallery of the Institute of Archaeology.
The key findings include:
● A small portion of participants are opposed to the display of a human brain
because they find it too “gruesome;” however, there was little opposition to
the display of human skulls or biological specimens.
● A small portion of participants were aware UCL is currently conducting
scientific research on animals.
● Animal testing is a sensitive subject for ethical reasons.
The Audience Research Team recommends that:
● The human brain specimen or animal testing should only be displayed or
discussed if it is absolutely essential to the exhibition’s narrative.
● If acquired, the human brain should not be a key object in any case;
additionally, the Design Team should to mitigate the visual impact of the brain
for visitors who find it too gruesome.
● If the human brain is used as a key object, it should be justified as a narrative
necessity and should provide visitors with adequate information as to its
display and transparent in its sourcing.
● Objects relating to animal testing should only be displayed or discussed if it is
absolutely essential to the exhibition’s narrative as this topic is difficult to
effectively navigate in the context of this exhibition.
● The Exhibition Project Team must meet all university ethical requirements
regarding the display of human remains.
2. Context for the Evaluation Project and Its Target Audience
For the development of their temporary exhibition, the Exhibition Project Team is
exploring the history of the human mind in terms of location, access, function, and
neuroscientific theories. Case two highlights topics of trepanning and current
neuroscience research. The display of biological specimens and the discussion of
animal testing would be required to explain both topics holistically.
In order to visually represent these subjects, the team is considering loaning
biological specimens including a human skull and brain specimen from UCL’s
Pathology Collection. The collection holds a Human Tissue License and displays
these specimens elsewhere on campus. The current locations where these
specimens are displayed are enclosed and provide a warning to visitors before they
enter. The Leventis Gallery in contrast, has more than one entrance and is used as a
corridor to a lecture hall, a staff office, and access to the basement of the IoA; often
visitors come to the space out of necessity and not choice.
2.2 Target Audience
Visitors to the Leventis Gallery and individuals around UCL’s campus were the target
audience for this evaluation due to their connection to the university and their
probability of visiting the Leventis Gallery in the next year.
3. Purpose of the Evaluation and Evaluation Questions
The purpose of this evaluation is to investigate visitor and non-visitor sensitivity to the
potential objects for display (a human brain specimen, human skulls, and other
biological specimens) and the potential discussion of animal testing in the exhibition.
3.2 Visitor Interview Questions
● Are visitors uncomfortable seeing a human brain, skull or other biological
specimens on display in this space?
● Are visitors uncomfortable seeing objects relating to animal testing on display
in this space?
3.3 Non-Visitor Interview Questions
● Are individuals uncomfortable with UCL exhibition displaying a human brain,
skull or other biological specimens on campus?
● Are individuals uncomfortable with a UCL exhibition displaying objects related
to animal testing on campus?
The evaluation consisted of face-to-face interviews of both visitors and non-visitors.
The data was collected on 15 March 2016. The visitor interviews were conducted
within the Leventis Gallery; non-visitor interviews were conducted in various locations
surrounding the IoA around the Bloomsbury campus including:
• UCL residence hall
• Print Room Café
• Mallet Street
• IoA Common Room
Interview questions were predetermined, maintaining consistency across interviews
(see VII. A). Answers were recorded on a single table held by the evaluator, rather
than individual sheets per participant. The questions were quantitative, although
evaluators were instructed to encourage participants to expand on their opinions.
When asked about their comfort level with brain specimens, participants were shown
an image of the brain specimen that will potentially be in the exhibition (see VII. B).
These were taped onto the plain space on the top of an exhibition case and
respondents were asked to indicate their “Most Favorite” and “Least Favorite”
considering the exhibition concept ‘the human mind.’
Visitor participants were recruited as they entered Leventis Gallery, approaching
every visitor until the gallery became too crowded to conduct an interview. Non-visitor
participants were recruited around Bloomsbury; individual evaluators determined her
own recruitment process.
Evaluators input the data into a spreadsheet for statistical and qualitative analysis;
recurring themes and significant outliers were noted.
5. Key Findings
5.1 Sample Size
In total, 72 participants were interviewed, 33 visitors and 39 non-visitors, the majority
of which were our target audience: UCL Students (see table below). Participants
included 33 men and 39 women, making gender irrelevant in data analysis.
UCL Staff 1
UCL Students 50
5.2 Audience Sensitivity to Brain Specimens, Skulls, and Biological Specimens
1 visitor expressed discomfort with the image of the brain; 3 were undecided (Figure
1). While 1 respondent expressed an ethical concern regarding the source of the
brain specimen, the comments from respondents indicate that largely any concern
regarding the display of the brain specimen would be aesthetic in nature. No
respondents expressed concern with the human skulls or biological specimens.
Figure 1. Participants Uncomfortable with Brain Specimens, Skulls, or Biological Specimens
Brain/Skull/Biological Specimen Notable Uncomfortable Comments:
● [uncomfortable with the brain specimen, but the skull is] “okay for some
reason, I don’t know why.”
● “As long as we are explicit about where the bodies came from [(i.e. gifted to
● “I won’t look at the brain closely, the other two are fine.”
● “Not for me”
● “It’s okay, but not nice.”
● “It’s slightly weird.”
Brain/Skull/Biological Specimen Notable Comfortable Comments:
● “If you go to an exhibition about that topic, that’s what you expect.”
● “Doesn’t bother me, everyone has one.”
● “It’s to learn.”
● “It makes it interesting; exciting!”
● “It’s a conversation starter.”
● “I love it.”
● “I love brains.”
● “It makes me think it doesn’t make me uncomfortable as long as it is ethically
● “Not at all” x2
5.3 Audience Sensitivity to Animal Testing
More participants expressed discomfort with displaying or discussing animal testing
in the exhibition. 16 of the 72 participants said they would be uncomfortable: 6
visitors and 10 non-visitors, while 2 were undecided (Figure 2). Justifications for not
displaying animal testing were primarily ethical in nature. 4 respondents expressed a
desire for transparency in the display, stating the topic should be discussed as it is a
part of neuroscience.
Figure 2. Participants Uncomfortable with Objects Relating to Animal Testing
Animal Testing Notable Uncomfortable Comments:
● “A little uncomfortable, it isn’t morally acceptable.”
● “The ethical concerns.”
● “It’s the worst.”
● “Don’t do that.”
● “Don’t like it, it will be crude.”
● “No animal testing!”
● “I don’t want to see a rat with flappy [sic] ears.”
● “It makes me uncomfortable unless the purpose is to prohibit it.”
● “Depends if it is for scientific purposes; not objects retrieved in cruelty, which I
don’t know how you’d do.”
● “More uncomfortable, I probably wouldn’t walk there.”
Animal Testing Notable Comfortable Comments:
● “If it’s something small, not too graphic.”
● “Why not if we’re [UCL] doing the experiments no (no point in not discussing
● [Curses] “no!”
● “As long as it is contextualized.”
● “I would rather find out about it.”
● “I would rather know about it.”
● “But it’s okay if it’s just rats.”
● “It won’t be uncomfortable, but a little sad. You need to explain why you
display them here.”
● “As little as possible.”
● “It’s okay if it’s for research.”
● “I’m find, but maybe others.”
● “It’s not great, but that’s what happens, everybody knows that.”
● “I want to see animals transform.”
● “If it was describing a scientific purpose.”
● “Probably makes sense. People decide to go there. A sign would be good to
● “As long as there is a warning.”
6. Conclusions and Recommendations
A small portion of visitors would not like to see a human brain because they find them
too “gruesome.” While the number of participants who indicated they were
uncomfortable with animal testing do not represent a majority of the total sample, it is
significant enough to cause concern for this Exhibition Team. Animal testing is a
sensitive subject for ethical reasons, and would be a difficult subject to navigate in
the context provided.
If animal testing is included in the exhibition, the Exhibition Project Team could be
seen as supporting or even promoting the practice, potentially upsetting a portion of
visitors. A focus on animal testing could detract from the central focus of ‘the human
This Audience Research Team recommends the following to the Exhibition Project
● Animal testing should only be displayed or discussed if it is absolutely
essential to the exhibition’s narrative.
● If animal testing is displayed or discussed, adequate contextualization should
be provided in order to alleviate moral issues potential visitors would have
with the subject and present transparency in UCL’s research.
● The human brain specimen should only be displayed if it is deemed essential
to the exhibition narrative.
● If displayed, the human brain should not be a gateway object in any case in
order to allow visitors who do not wish to see the specimen to understand the
● Design would need to mitigate the visual impact of the brain, including placing
it in the case farthest from the benches where visitors often eat.
● Content should indicate the sourcing of the brain specimen if known.
● The exhibition designers must meet all university requirements regarding the
display of human remains.
● The Collections Team has consulted the UCL Pathology collection, the
human brain lending body. They additionally suggest:
○ “As it is human tissue we would need to place a sign at the entrance
to the gallery to alert visitors that there are human remains on display;
this is a HTA requirement. It needs to be in a discreet place on the
○ The proposed text for a sign near the entrance:
The ‘insert exhibition title’ exhibition includes a human
pathological specimen from the UCL Pathology Collections.
Please be aware that these specimens can make a strong
impression. If you have any enquires or comments about the
specimen or the collection please contact the curator at
○ “It needs to be written in a positive way so is [sic] welcoming rather
VII. Appendix: Evaluation Tools
A. Interview Protocol
Front-End Evaluation V: Interviews
1. Would you be uncomfortable if a brain specimen, a human skull, or other
biological specimens were exhibited in a public UCL communal space?
2. Would you be uncomfortable with objects related to animal testing?
B. Image of human brain from the UCL Pathology Collection