Statement to the Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL

Earlier this year I was invited to meet with the Commission of Inquiry into the History of Eugenics at UCL as someone who might be able to assist with the understanding of the relationship between Francis Galton and UCL. Below is a slightly edited version of the statement I made to the committee based on the three questions (which I tried to break down further for clarity) that they asked. This is a personal response based on the extensive research I carried out into the history, use and role of the Galton Collection which I carried out in 2014-16.

1.    How did you become aware of the history of eugenics at UCL? What does this mean to you and did this knowledge change your perception of UCL?

There are three levels of answer to this first question for me. Firstly, I can’t really remember not knowing who Galton was, as an adult. I was at the Courtauld in the early 90s and had regular classes at UCL and lived in Bloomsbury, so the lecture theatre and the Pearson building have been on my radar in terms of the geography of UCL, as long as I can recall.

Secondly, as I have previously accounted for in a blog post for UCL museums in 2014, I attended a seminar that year, on a course I was auditing by Haidy Geismar (Professor of Anthropology here at UCL) in which Subhadra Das, (Curator of UCL’s Science Collections) was giving a talk on Galton and the Galton collection. Her starting point was to ask if anyone had heard of Galton and I was one of few that could claim they had. It was at this point that connections between the science I didn’t understand was made tangible and accessible through the historical artefacts and the horrific implications of Galton’s scientific theory were made manifest in the objects she showed the class. This dawning realisation of the significance of Galton’s work and the troubling nature of the objects in the collection, is the moment that I moved beyond awareness into engaging with the issues – including the relationship and role of UCL.

Lastly, I selected the Galton Collection as one of two case studies for my doctoral research. It is this period of research that makes up the third level of my understanding– by investigating in detail Galton’s original relationship with UCL through the history of the 100 odd years of the object collection and other Galton related holdings (library and archive), and the way in which the collection has been dealt with since the digitisation of the collection in 2005.

1.2  Did knowledge of this history change your perception of UCL?

Yes. It revealed that while numerous curatorial staff had engaged with the Collection and found it deeply problematic, very few resources had been allocated to addressing the issues.

What it means to me is that UCL has demonstrated a disappointing lack of institutional responsibility, transparency, and scrutiny in an academic organisation where investigation and critical thinking are surely at the core of what we do? The failure to engage at an institutional level in effect codifies prejudice. UCL was shoring up structural racism by failing to engage publicly and robustly with problems of its historic and continuing association with Francis Galton and his work.

2.    How do you think that UCL should address this going forward? Should action be taken in relation to the names of prizes, spaces and endowed professorships on campus, especially those named after persons who founded and zealously promoted eugenics?

In order to give context to the Galton Collection and its place in UCL’s cultural heritage I pursued a detailed history of the locations, staff and contents of the National Eugenics Lab as a way of navigating through the institutional, personal and professional relationships that connect Galton to UCL (some of my research was used in Subhadra’s Bricks and Mortals walking tour, which unpicks the significance of named buildings and the key players). I can also detail work done by each curator working with or adjacent to the Galton Collection – not least Debbie Challis’s projects around the 2011 centenary of Galton’s death.

In my thesis one of my principle contentions is that institutional neglect of aspects of collections and collections information is not simply a lack of time and resources, but a deliberate mothballing of things that an institution would rather not deal with, and this is clearly the case with the Galton Collection. Choices are made and funds invested in UCL Culture, but the closed Galton collection languishes. This can be evidenced most clearly by looking at the online catalogue for the collection.

Galton is deeply connected to UCL and his name enshrined in the very fabric of the buildings. He is also synonymous with eugenics (whatever else he did and of whatever social or scientific significance) and yet there has been a persistent ignoring of the collection, and an abnegation (until now?) of systematic engagement with his relationship with UCL. To do anything else is to continue to allow Galton to remain part of the infrastructures, to be ratified and tacitly approved on an official level.

I am proposing that at an organisational level UCL has failed to present a consistent, critical and transparent position on its historical relationship with Francis Galton and further by failing to reject. The changes are easy and obvious – clinging on to his name, and Pearson’s and Petrie’s, debating the issues but never acting, seems to be a strange and counter-intuitive project.

The following points seem crucial to genuinely addressing UCL’s relationship with eugenics, Galton and Pearson (remembering that my focus is on presentation of information about artefacts and the digital catalogue of the Galton collection was the focus of my study):

  1. Understanding the true nature of Galton’s relationship with UCL, the role and agenda of Karl Pearson and the history/status and nature of the Galton Laboratory over time. [Joe Cain’s recent excellent and continuing work on this is pertinent here]
  2. Understanding the bequest: work needs to be done on the nature and detail of the Galton bequest and even whether UCL still wants to uphold those terms (and if they have to legally). The bequest was messy and disputed, changed or was manipulated and not fully documented, as far as I could determine. Does it actually pay for anything? (There is also precedent in Museums — the terms of gift cannot be absolute clarified.)
  3. Understanding what the Collection consists of, how it was formed and how it has been dealt with at UCL in the last 100 years.
  4. Acknowledging the research and engagement that curatorial staff have undertaken as custodians of the material since 2000.
  5. Acknowledging that despite digitisation of the collection which appears to allow access and openness, the absence of data, information and context, as well as accurate scientific understanding of the items actually reveals more problems than it addresses.
  6. Reassessing in the light of the previous points, the value of calling the holdings ‘the Galton Collection’, based on how historically accurate the name is and whether the Collection forms a coherent whole.

I would advocate fully cataloguing and properly publishing the collection as a matter of urgency and fully connecting and referencing it to the library and archive material that it relates to (beyond Galton). I would also suggest that, like Bentham, who features in every tour of UCL for prospective students to tourists, that there is a permanent site and display that uses the objects to tell this history and can act as a touch-point for how UCL understands and addresses it’s difficult legacies.

Some of the most engaging material that moves us towards understanding Galton is in the Collection. Where there are barriers to engagement (for me the scientific theories) the artefacts provide a visceral, poignant and human way in to understanding. They complexify the man, they are connectors, representing relationships and interactions, they are historical evidence and social agents. Artefacts can also be short cuts, through the reams of letters and volumes of biography. They connect Galton to UCL and beyond UCL, and the path to genocide is explicit through the objects. The oddness of the man is clear in his counting glove. They are relatable, often recognisable, disconcerting, shocking and immediate and full of stories that can explain the past and the science.

A clear public statement on the difficult histories of UCL’s past seems crucial in order to begin to unpick structural and institutional racism. This information is dealt with when it arises, department by department or buried in the website, but a clear, critical account of issues with empire, race, discrimination, money and corruption that stands alongside all intro material and prospectuses is required, drawing together all strands – socio-historical, scientific, institutional, financial and public.

The persistent institutional attachment to UCL’s association with Galton and his work, through institutionally sanctioned naming practices, is both inappropriate and damaging. Additionally, doing this without a clear, transparent statement about UCL’s formation and past, that is, how these choices were made, compounds and even amplifies through symbolic significance – it implies that UCL says Galton is okay.

I would like to point out that names change all the time as circumstances, power relations and fashions change. I think I counted 8 to10 changes to the departmental name of what is now GEE, some of these are likely in part to do with a desire by some faculty to disassociate themselves with Galton and Eugenics (though the Galton Lab remained in name at least until the move to the Darwin building in 199X), others represent the subject specialism of the staff of the time and yet others are indicators of being current and using the language of day.

In terms of renaming  – I genuinely don’t understand why you would do anything else. And there are reasons beyond the specifics of Galton, Pearson and Petrie and eugenics, though absolute honesty about UCL’s role in legitimising Galton’s work through Karl Pearson’s constant and persistent negotiations and needs to be clearly stated.

We can choose who we celebrate and we are no longer tied to a set of values that were dominant a hundred years ago, but are largely rejected now. We do not need always to preserve the symbolism of representing privileged white men, when their significance is not an absolute or a given, but a contestable, historically inflected, partial version of reality that sought to actively erase a multitude of voices, experiences and stories, and lives. Simply choose someone or something else, and in the future our choices will inevitably be reassessed and possibly rejected. Rebalancing, re-presenting and critical revaluation are not erasure, but persistent visibility, while failure to address or change the status quo is passive promotion.

3. How do you think UCL should approach its historical role in the teaching and research of eugenics in the future?

I think it is taught in GEE and has been for many years, I believe its addressed in STS courses and in Anthropology, Psychology and through the Collection – many courses in the humanities and social sciences are able to engage with the history, science and problems (Subhadra works with teaching staff across the institution).

However, at an organisational or administrative level these efforts – thoughtful, critical as they are – need to be properly acknowledged, understood, and encouraged (and scrutinised). The institutional position needs to be clear, consistent, and challengeable.

UCL needs to engage with the symbolism and socio-political circumstances that saw Galton accepted, promoted and then codified into its institutional history in the first place.

“You have to know the past to understand the present.” – Carl Sagan. He didn’t say you have to keep the statues of the past up indefinitely and privilege their presence over understandings of the present.

In all these discussions and the parallel ones at Oxford with Rhodes Must Fall, the devastating protests in Charlottesville over the confederate statues of Robert E. Lee, and here with Galton, Pearson and Petrie — it is evident that hanging on to this symbolism as a representative history codifies prejudice, and shapes corporate, institutional identity.

Does the current manifestation of UCL truly want to be defined by the preservation of the legacy and association with Galton? And if it does, why does it? What does preserving the symbolism of these deeply problematic, often wrong, and on balance less significant than this investigation warrants, men? They are some among many.

Why should their names be privileged and memorialised over all others? What are the terms for significance and commemoration in perpetuity now? In every era, reign, periodization of trends, administration or governance symbols and representative agents have come in and out of favour. It need not be erasure, total or even rejection, but simply a rebalancing. It is our duty to preserve the history, to analyse the legacy and unpick the symbolism and its significance in each era it exists and to do so critically – but we do not need to replicate a partial version of history.


Current access to Galton Collection here: via Science Collection pages here: which also highlights a page on the Quincunx here: and the box of hair samples here:

UCL Galton Collection’ Online Catalogue – Search Form  – (accessed via Google – currently can’t locate it within UCL Culture pages)

 >> For the objects I mentioned type eyes, hair or eugenics into the search form.

2015 Galton collections pages from UCL website are available here, via the UCL Life Study web pages

2011 Library exhibition here:

The Typecast materials (videos and presentations) from 2011 by Debbie Challis remain the best capture, to date, of the issues around UCL’s relationship with Galton and Eugenics