Welcome to Travelling Stories, our online exhibition of artist commissions responding to some particular museum collections. Over a series of blogs, we are sharing newly made work with you – you might not like every piece. That’s OK – you looked and thought about. But you might like the next one…

In 2018, the Derbyshire Schools Library Service closed. The collections had been assembled since the 1930s and needed new homes. With the help of the Esmee Fairburn Collections Fund and the Museums Association, staff at Buxton Museum have been finding their custodians.

More than 2,000 items have been allocated to nearly 100 museums, libraries and publicly accessible collections from across Britain and some items have been restituted to communities in North America. Some items were kept by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, including the Arctic and Sami material

Lockdown meant that we were unable to engage with new communities in these museums quite as we planned. Instead were able to offer a number of commissions to artists relating to some of the museums the collection is dispersing to. One of these artists, Gordon MacLellan, has also coordinated the artist team across the Travelling Stories project as a whole as well as creating his own work.

Arctic and Sami material

For the indigenous peoples of the frozen areas of the North, utilising material around them, and ensuring that nothing is wasted, is a matter of life and death in this harsh environment.

For the Inuit, the animals of the oceans have been their source of food, clothing, shelter, tools and objects of spiritual significance; indeed the phrase by one Inuit hunter “The sea is our garden” sums up the importance of this environment. Bone and ivory have been worked into animals that play an important role in their everyday life, as well as creatures of the otherworld, such as the Tupilak. These carvings reveal cultural complexity and sophistication, as well as a necessity to survive against the odds.

For the Sami, the indigenous people of Northern Europe, reindeer play a central role to their lives. Again, nothing is wasted and their lives are dictated by the seasonal migration of the animals. A Sami’s wealth is measured by how many reindeer they own, and it is of the utmost importance to respect the animals and treat them well. To mistreat these animals would bring shame on an individual, and often the displeasure of the gods.

Central to the beliefs of both the Inuit and the Sami was the shaman and an animistic world view. Over the centuries, this was steadily eroded by Western values and ideologies, but in the emergence of renewed cultural identity and pride, these beliefs are forming the central pillar of their worlds once again.

Artwork by Gordon MacLellan


Reindeer Dreams by Gordon MacLellan

Beat, and



Rattle and chime.

Beat and second beat,

A painted drum

Maps the worlds.

Beat and again,


Gift fat to the fire

As the forked bone

Beats stories into songs.

Shapes gather

In the moving dusk,

Turning, twisting.

Taking form from the

Words we sing them.

Wind blows,

Snow drifts,

Night falls,

Smoke lifts

Dancer turns.

Snow falls,

Tree shakes,

Wind blows,

Toadstool wakes,

Singer stops.

Breathing firelight

In the silence,

Breathing a drifting

Dust of snow,

We follow the reindeer

Over the edges of the world.

Connections by Gordon MacLellan

The herd ripples,
A river of hair and heat,
Running over, round and through,
Sewing the world together,
From taiga to tundra,
From summer to winter
From despair to promise.

Well-worked beauty
In leathered skin.
The smoke-dried meat
Of autumn’s richness.
Inlaid with stories,
A carved antler
Sings to world to life and
Bone to hide,
Hide to hoof,
Hoof to heart,
Heart to hope,
Then to now.

Until, rising,
We follow
The herds that run through the sky.

Artist Statement

For me, it’s always stories. I love museums for the stories they hold: both the known story of a person, an artefact, a bone or a fossil; but also the unknown story. There is the emotional thread that might have been lost. The excitement, the fear, the passion, the tedium of some other life. The arctic pieces in the Buxton collection speak to em as a group: they feel like components of stories, huffling themselves into anarrative with a touch of saltwater, a shard of iceberg, a wallow of walrus and suddenly you are not standing there peering into a case. The Sami connections came almost sideways as a response to the carved antler.  One of those objects that no-one is quite sure. If it was a drum-stick for a noaidi’s (Sami shaman) painted drum, would it drum a double-beat, would it drum the uneven beat of reindeer hooves racing over the tundra? I like stories.

Artist Biography

Better known as Creeping Toad, Gordon MacLellan is an artist and a storyteller who works with environmental and historical themes. With more than 30 years of freelance experience, Gordon runs events, workshops and training courses with groups from activity days with schools and on holiday playschemes to training courses at some of Britain’s leading environmental centres. After training as a zoologist, Gordon combined his love of ecology and delight in people to create Creeping Toad which sets out to “help groups find ways of celebrating the relationships between people, places and wildlife”. He is the author of a number of art and poetry books. Most recently, he has been the Arts Coordinator for the CelebrationEarth! project and is currently Arts Advisor for the 8 BILLION initiative.



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