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The Buxton Cat Mummy

Bret Gaunt reveals another curiosity from Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

Cats have played an important role in the everyday life of humans: as companions and for hunting vermin, as well as being both revered as gods, and reviled as demons. One of the most recent acquisitions at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery is the naturally mummified remains of a cat. This cat, however, is not from the deserts of ancient Egypt, but from here in cold and rainy Buxton! Unlike the cats of ancient Egypt which were worshipped as gods and carefully mummified to be placed in tombs, the presence of the Buxton cat reveals something far more sinister.

buxton cat

Over a hundred naturally mummified cats hidden in buildings are known from across the UK, though more will have existed but been disposed of because their significance was not realised, and possibly many more remain to be found. What all of these cats have in common is that they were hidden in secret cavities within buildings and used in a form of folk magic to repel evil spirits. The majority are positioned as if they are hunting or attacking, with some even having mummied mice or rats in their mouths.

Naturally mummified cats are found sealed into walls, under floors near doorways, sometimes in a roof space, and occasionally in cavities within a chimney – liminal spaces that were believed to be subject to the intrusion of malevolent forces. The cat from Buxton was found during renovation work at the site of the old post office at the Quadrant. Workmen disturbed part of the ceiling in one room and the cat fell out onto the unsuspecting men.

The majority of the cats from the UK seem to have been hidden in buildings during the period of the witch trials in the 16th to 17th centuries, though the practice did continue in some parts of the country well into the 19th and early part of the 20th century; in the case of the Buxton cat this would seem to be the case as the Quadrant was built in the 1850s.

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cat destruction box Derbyshire Police collection

Folklore regards cats with special powers, such as having sixth sense and possessing nine lives, as well as their ability to see in the dark. Cats are also very territorial and will protect their homes from threats and are prolific hunters. But cats also have an ambivalent character where they were regarded in the past as being the familiars of witches, and having associations with the devil.

An important clue to the nature of the cats is the secrecy involved in hiding them, and secrecy is often a key feature in magical practices; they are hidden from view in parts of the house where evil spirits or witches could gain access. Other items are often found sealed into houses, most commonly shoes, but also horse skulls and bottles, the latter often containing urine and nails and commonly known as Witch Bottles and which have a known role in averting the powers of evil.

The Buxton moggy is now safely on display in the Wonders of the Peak Gallery, protecting the museum from the forces of darkness! You can plan your visit here.

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THE MERMAID AS… VINTAGE

Inspired by the mermaid exhibit at Buxton Museum, I thought it would be interesting to photograph some real-life, modern day mermaids. I’ll be posting the images soon but, in the spirit of working out loud, thought I’d share some of my outtakes.

I’ve spent 15 years working in picture libraries, including an old Fleet Street archive of 13 million images, dating back to the birth of photography. Think photos of Queen Victoria laughing and opium dens in Shanghai. My all-time favourites were the grainy snapshots of 1950’s America, when men wore hats and the entire high street looked cool. Though these everyday snapshots had been kicking around for decades, until they looked like litter, they still had a dash of magic about them, a cinematic charm. This was not the sanitised beauty of Mad Men but the rough growl of Tom Waits.

When I came to take my own pictures, I did my best to focus and take a ‘professional’ shot but the funny thing was, the less perfect my photos were, the more I liked them. They looked more authentic, as if they were taken in some old Long Island Freak show. It reminded me that there’s no right way to take a photo.

So, here are a few of my ‘outtakes’ that are now, proudly, back in. Huge thanks to Maša, a pin-sharp academic and National champion free-diver, who spent hours under ice-cold water and made it look effortless. Though I know Maša as a friend, when I first saw her swim by, my heart jumped. I thought, “Wow! Look! A Mermaid!’

 

 

 

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Ros gets the MBE

Derbyshire County Council’s Museums Manager Ros Westwood has been recognised for her achievements in the Queen’s New Year’s Honours List, receiving the MBE (Member of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire) for her services to culture in the East Midlands. In the 20 years that she has been Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros has transformed the service and visitor figures to the museum have doubled, with the county receiving locally, regionally and nationally recognised awards for its exhibitions and events.

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When she took over the running of the museum and art gallery in Terrace Road, it had lost its recognised Museum Association status, but it was quickly turned around and not only was its membership status re-established, it also achieved Arts Council accreditation – a nationally recognised quality mark. As well as her responsibilities as Museum Manager, Ros has worked across the heritage sector, offering advice and support as a curatorial advisor for Buxton Crescent, Castleton Historical Society and Bakewell Old House Museum. She is also a fellow of the Museums Association. She has also led and developed regionally significant partnerships with more than 30 organisations, from the British Museum to the Buxton Civic Society, and recruited more than 100 volunteers to support various museum projects.

Most recently Ros has been at the forefront of the recent £1.5m redevelopment of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, which has transformed the interior and exhibition space. This work has run alongside the use of new technology which has opened up the museum to the world through the internet. “When I found out about the honour I was speechless and I am incredibly humbled by it. I’ve been very lucky, growing up with the opportunities to engage in cultural activities, and working with colleagues who strongly believe we can make a positive difference, ensuring that as many people as possible in all sorts of ways can enjoy, participate and find employment and volunteering opportunities in arts, museums, story-telling, nature and culture.”

the boss

Council leader Councillor Barry Lewis said: “Ros is a tireless advocate for all museums and during her time with Derbyshire County Council she has made a huge contribution to the Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and to countless cultural and heritage related issues across the region and further afield. She is incredibly enthusiastic and passionate about what she does and is a dedicated member of numerous organisations and societies which promote this area of work to the wider community. We are very fortunate to have her at the county council and anyone who visits our museum and art gallery will see for themselves the hard work she has put in to making it the success it is today. This includes leading successful bids for hundreds of thousands of pounds in funding which has seen its transformation. This honour is well-deserved and I’m extremely proud that her work on behalf of Derbyshire has been recognised in this way.”

The Mermaid as… Cinema

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My name is Rob. I’m writing a story about Blakemere Pond, a desolate place in the Peak District, where rumour has it, a mermaid has taken up residence. It’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

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In the name of research, I scooped some water out of the pond and brought it back to my room. It’s now on my desk in a bottle and to be frank, it’s a little bit whiffy. But the fact that I had to trudge through the snow (and fall down a hill) in order to get it, makes it feel like a trophy.

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My goal is, to capture the romance of mermaids but I don’t want anything cheesy, like a girl in a tail who spends her days looking in the mirror as if she’s taking a selfie. I want grit. But how can I capture the spirit of a mermaid without resorting to cliché?

Like most people, my default choice of where to turn for artistic inspiration is the cinema. I’ve worked in film for 20 years, so have seen a truckload of movies but which one screams mermaid?

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The obvious choice is Splash! The 1984 cheese-ball in which Tom Hanks falls in love with the top half of Daryl Hannah and the bottom half of a carp (go figure). I also liked Jenny Seagrove’s aptly-named Marina in Local Hero, which was released the year before. But both of these are physical depictions of real-life women as opposed to something ethereal.

I like the look of the old films like Brief Encounter and Paper Moon, both absolute classics. I love that grainy black and white, film noir vibe, where the undercurrent is doom. But again, they’re not quite right for this project. They’re both whacking-great slabs of cinema history whereas my story is tiny and weird.

I have always loved weird, from the darkness of the Brothers Quay to the sheer, unadulterated joy of Tears of the Black Tiger. As a boy, I would stay up late and watch French films, dreaming of the exotic. I can still recall, as clear as day, the first time I saw In The Mood for Love. I couldn’t believe that so much was happening, when nothing was said, just two people buying a takeaway yet there’s so much passion, it could melt the chocolate off your Jaffa Cake. And besides, they’re not weird films at all, compared to Power Rangers.

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Then it came to me! My mermaid movie! It’s a Japanese horror flick called Dark Water. It’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen but it’s been wedged in my head for the past 16 years. The story is, brace yourself… a woman is haunted by damp. How bonkers is that? It’s hilarious! There’s a patch of damp on her ceiling and it grows. There’s something ‘not quite right’ about it and that’s what hooks you in. As someone who hates damp, I can totally relate to it because all damp is creepy. But while I would hire someone to fix it, via Check-a-Trade, this heroine spends her time walking slowly up corridors until the bad thing happens! Da-da-Daaaaah!

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Like I said, it’s not a classic but it does capture the fear of the unknown. You know that something is out there, you just don’t know what. As with all of these films, when you do eventually see the monster, it’s not half as scary as when you didn’t. And that’s what got me thinking.

What if we never see my mermaid, she’s just a dark and brooding presence. She doesn’t swim in the water, she isthe water. And if she is a ghost, in liquid form, then how does she communicate? Does she use the water like wi-fi? Is a splash a giggle and the rain a round of applause?

I find myself staring at the bottle on my desk, the water I scooped from the pool. Wikipedia says is haunted, my nose says it stinks and the whole thing is creeping me out but I like that. Something is happening.

A story has begun…

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