I have been working at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery for 20 years in one role or another, working on various projects. Currently, I am Assistant in Charge which involves helping and supporting the front-of-house staff; making them cups of tea and forcing them to read countless risk assessments.
Derbyshire – and the Peak District, which spills over into the neighbouring counties of Cheshire, Staffordshire, Greater Manchester and South and West Yorkshire – has one of the highest concentrations of calendar customs in the UK. These encompass everything from rituals of very ancient (possibly Pagan) origin like the well dressings and the Castleton Garland Ceremony; to more modern alternative annual sporting contests dreamed up over a pint or three down the local pub. Examples of the latter include Bonsall Hen Racing, the Mappleton Bridge Jump, the Great Kinder Beer Barrel Challenge and the World Championship Toe Wrestling Championships.
The area is peppered with ancient stone circles such as Arbor Low and the Nine Ladies, which provide a strong ritual focus into the 21st Century, drawing visitors from around the world seeking answers to their own individual questions. In addition, a number of unusual old carvings (some surprisingly explicit) can be found lurking in dark corners of the region’s churches.
Since 2015, Richard Bradley has been travelling the area documenting these strange rituals. His local history books Secret Chesterfield and Secret Matlock and Matlock Bath both feature chapters on local customs and folklore. Weird Derbyshire and Peakland includes objects from Buxton Museum’s collection relating to local folklore and customs not normally on display. You can see the exhibition, admission free, until Saturday 9 November 2019. Plan your visit here.
When visiting a museum, you will probably find yourself drawn to a particular object. It may be its arresting appearance or perhaps it resonates with you on a personal level. Sometimes we ask members of the museum staff about their favourite object and it’s the turn of museum attendant Fay Fallows:
I have chosen to write about amethyst, as there is something about it I like. Maybe this is its striking colour, which ranges from a pale lilac to deep purple, or maybe there is more to it than this. My fondness of amethyst led me to buy a piece in its raw state around 20 years ago, which I have kept on display ever since, and to become the owner of several items of jewellery made from this semi-precious gem stone.
Amethyst is a type of Quartz Crystal or Silicon Dioxide (a mineral with the formula of SiO2 ). Its colour is derived from the effect of naturally occurring radiation on the traces of iron present in it. Prolonged exposure to sunlight will slowly fade the colour and heat treatment will result in a yellow/orange/brown colour (Burnt Amethyst). It may be transparent or opaque and is pleochroic, which means that it can appear to change colour according to the direction of view. This quality is due to the absorption of the different wavelengths of light in different ways.
Amethyst is found during the extraction of minerals from rock, which are used to produce metals such as lead and copper. It is found in many areas of the world, being particularly abundant in parts of Brazil. We have a piece of amethyst on display in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery which was actually extracted locally, from Water Swallows Quarry in Buxton:
It is believed that gemstones have particular powers. Amethyst is attributed to creative thinking, spiritual awareness, and preventing intoxication. The ancient Greeks and Romans wore amethyst jewellery and also incorporated it into their goblets, in the belief that drinking wine from these would prevent alcoholic intoxication. Catholic Bishops wore amethyst rings (Bishop’s Stones), in the belief that this would prevent spiritual intoxication. It is therefore not surprising that the name amethyst is derived from the ancient Greek word ‘amethystos’, which translates as ‘not intoxicated’.
Bearing all these qualities in mind, I have decided to keep my collection of amethyst for a while longer!
You can see the specimen along with the rest of Buxton Museum’s mineral collection and hundreds of other objects in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery. Admission is free. Plan your visit here.
Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory shines his unique torch on another murky corner of Buxton Museum’s collections:
In 1921, miners working at Broken Hill, Zambia (then called Northern Rhodesia) discovered the skull of an ancestor of humanity. Reports of this discovery came into the collections at Buxton Museum, via the geologists William Boyd Dawkins and J.W. Jackson. Both men took a keen interest in scientific discoveries outside of as well as within the British Isles and in many different fields.
It is interesting to compare scientific knowledge from the 1920s with that of the time of writing. Experts compared the skull from Zambia with the remains from Piltdown in Britain in the hope of shedding some light on it. They were wasting their time; the fossils from Piltdown were later exposed as a hoax. One expert lacking the benefit of hindsight, found the Zambian skull was less important than Piltdown in our understanding of early humans. Radiocarbon dating had not been developed so there were arguments over the African fossil’s age. Since it was buried under layers of stones and animal bones it was certainly old, but no one could be sure how ancient.
Despite all that, I was struck by how contemporary some of the comments were. One report said that Charles Darwin had predicted that Africa would yield important fossil humans, indeed might be the cradle of humanity. This was a minority opinion until the 1950s but clearly not unheard of before then. Experts also deduced that the skull’s owner had walked upright as well as modern humans can. Comparisons were made with a fossil called Pithecanthropus which came from Java. This has then been re-classified as Homo Erectus but unlike Piltdown man, it is still accepted as a genuine prehistoric material. Remains of European Neanderthals were also used for comparison. One writer says “the Rhodesian man has one of the links in the chain of which many species would be found.” That turned out to be correct.
Today the fossil from Zambia is classified as Homo Heidelbergensis a probable ancestor of both Neanderthals and Homo sapiens that lived in Europe and Africa from 700,000 to 300,000 years ago. Scientists have dated their bones, measured their brain cases and collected their stone tools. Yet questions remain: Did they have language? If not, how close to it did they come? Did they bury their dead? Or tell stories? Or paint themselves with ochre? Many believe that they did but can we be sure? Even in 2019, we don’t know everything about our ancestors.
Nikki Anderson one of our Museum Attendants and Textile Designer has put together this blog about the 19th Century embroideries that are on display here at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.
To celebrate the reopening of ‘The Crescent’, the iconic hotel in the centre of Buxton, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery are exhibiting some rare and exciting art works dating back to the early 18th Century alongside some more contemporary paintings and prints.
The Crescent was built in 1788 and included a hotel at each end of the building and six town houses in the middle and was commissioned by ‘The 5th Duke of Devonshire’. Its purpose was to provide luxurious accommodation for visitors to the town. His vision, to create a spa town to rival Bath. Architect John Carr designed the building which was completed in 1788. It quickly became a popular visitor attraction and became a focus for artists whom would interpret ‘The Crescent’ in various art forms.
I was fascinated in particular with 3 pieces of embroidery on display. All 3 embroideries show the view of ‘The Crescent’ as the focal point from the slopes at St Ann’s Cliff. There is little known about the embroideries other than they were created in the mid 19th Century. The detail achieved in these works is incredible. You can see in the detail below the accuracy in very small detail. This photo has been magnified so the tiny stitch work can be seen.
These embroideries have been created from etchings by Henry Moore which were made in 1819. Often the etchings were printed onto the silk fabric and the free hand embroidery was used to create the painting. On close inspection it appears that most of the embroidery would have been done by machine possibly using a pantograph method to transfer the stitches. Silk became very popular in the late 18th Century and by the mid 19th Century it became a common pastime to make these silk embroideries. I love the different contrasting effects used by the satin stitch on the machine and the hand stitching using running and seeding stitch (embroidery 3) whilst still obtaining such a delicate nature to the works. The fashioning of metallic threads of the 18th century have also influenced these works alongside the popularity of satin stitch and long and short stitch. In the magnified photo below a method called ‘couching’ has been used. This is where threads are placed on the surface of the fabric and then sewn stitched on by hand or machine. If you look closely you can see where the couching has unraveled showing the loose yarn.
It is interesting to note the fact these embroideries were worked upon in only 2 or 3 shades. Black and gold and/or beige silk. This may have also been influenced by’ Blackwork’, which was developed in the 16th and 17th Century and was incredibly popular.
These incredibly beautiful pieces of embroidery are on display alongside etchings, paintings and photographs until the 1st September at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery.
Our crowdfunding campaign for packaging the objects from our Franklin collection has reached its £1000 target! A huge thank you to everyone who has donated – your support is much appreciated.
The Franklin objects have made us realise that we have other fabulous, exciting – and sometimes downright strange – objects in some of our other collections, which should also be properly packaged in museum quality boxes. So we’ve decided that any extra money we receive through our crowdfunding campaign will be spent on looking after those items. We’re sure to discover more of them as we start hunting through our collections, but to give you an idea of the kind of objects we have:
An Ashbourne Shrovetide football from the 1930’s:
A beautiful piece of embroidery from 1937, showing Bakewell Market Place:
And a collection of textile samples, including this elephant pattern: