Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery part one

New museum attendant Rachel Ibbertson hails from the Midlands and has been teaching us the lingo; donnies are hands. We asked her to share her initial thoughts on the displays in Buxton. Over to you, Rachel:

As you may already know, the eagerly anticipated release of “Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald” is set to hit UK cinemas this November. As an extension of the wizarding world explored in the Harry Potter-verse, the “Fantastic Beasts” series seeks to broaden our magical horizons and further spark our imagination – mine included.

Growing up with this book series, I would often look for magic and mysticism in the world around me and was a little dismayed on my eleventh birthday when I didn’t receive my Hogwarts letter. In spite of this, I became determined to search the realm of the ordinary for examples of the extraordinary. So with this topic in mind, the concept of “Fantastic Beasts” got me thinking about equivalent examples in the “muggle world” and what better place to find inspiration, than Buxton Museum & Art Gallery?

Wandering around the displays in the “Wonders of the Peak” and the “Boyd Dawkins Study”, I was struck by the wealth of objects and extraordinary creatures on display. Some of the more obvious examples include the Buxton Bear (link to wonders?) and the Buxton Mermaid (link to wonders?), whilst additional zoomorphs find a home in our reception area. By the way has anyone spotted the stained glass peacocks that adorn our entranceway or the cluster of cuddly companions sitting patiently in our gift shop awaiting their forever-homes? (merchandise plug over)…

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Through further exploration an abundance of amazing animals can be found around the museum, which in my opinion, can all be considered as “fantastical” for varying reasons…

For starters let’s think about the creatures that no longer inhabit the British Isles, or indeed the earth. Throughout the 4.5 billion year history of our planet, climate change has featured continuously and in turn has shaped the world around us. To picture the scene, you have to imagine a fluctuating series of landscapes and environments very different to our own – (perhaps a little reminiscent of this year’s “beast from the east” and summer heatwave?). For instance, if we visited the Peak District 350 million years ago we would find much of the landscape submerged beneath the sea – Buxton included! Such a dramatic contrast is evidenced in the “Wonders of the Peak”, via the fantastic fossils exhibited there; Trilobites (1), Brachiopods (2) and Ammonites (3) to name a few.

If we travel a little less far back in time – 2.6 million years to be precise – we will reach the start of the current geological period; “The Quaternary”. Characterised by repeated glacial (cold) and interglacial (warm) periods, it is from this time that we find evidence for some of the animals that once featured in our landscape. Many have since migrated or become extinct but a few examples of the animals affiliated with the interglacial periods are highlighted in the “Wonders of the Peak”. They include the remains of cave lions (4), bison (5) and hyenas (6).

In contrast, signs of life from the last glacial period; or ice age, can also be spotted nestled amongst our displays. Remains of reindeers (7), woolly rhinos (8) and mammoths (9) are some of the few that feature. It truly is fascinating to think that we once walked amongst such an array of amazing creatures – imagine the fantastic sights that only our ancestors might have seen?

On the flipside, what could be noted as incredible is the evidence that we find for the continuation of a species into the present day. If you look closely at the Roman tile below, you will see an almost humorous example of man’s best friend leaving his mark on the world. A little paw print pressed into soft clay, provides us with the merest echo of a trivial event from times gone by. You can almost picture the frustration of the tile-maker upon his discovery – perhaps they found a trail of paw prints over multiple tiles? Maybe the dog was caught in the act and a colourful scene ensued? Whilst these musings stretch the imagination, I think it makes for a fantastic story which breathes a little life into the past and makes our forebears and their experiences all that more relatable.

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After all isn’t the purpose of a museum, to make the past relatable? To welcome enquiry and share the remarkable stories that make up our collections? Whenever I visit a museum I often find that pieces of a whimsical nature attract my attention and Buxton Museum & Art Gallery is no exception. When looking in the “Boyd Dawkins Study” I noticed a display case with a taxidermy Dotterel inside – which according to the label, may have been originally mounted by none other than Charles Darwin himself! Whilst we have no concrete proof that this is his actual handiwork, the mystery and prestige surrounding the provenance of the Dotterel makes a great story and puts a different spin on what might be considered a “fantastic beast”.

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I had far too many ideas to note down in one post, so let’s take a rain check on part two. In the meantime why not pay us a visit (we are free admission after all) and see if you agree with me? Perhaps you could find some fantastic beasts of your own…  

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Buxton: An Architectural Super Power

Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory reveals why a town the size of Buxton has such palatial buildings:

Visitors arriving in Buxton for the first time are sometimes surprised by its architectural heritage.  The Crescent, Opera House, Cavendish Arcade and The Dome are not what some people expect in a town this size. The patronage of the Dukes of Devonshire explains some of it, but there are other factors to consider.

The Industrial Revolution began in the northern Midlands; Sir Richard Arkwright built his pioneering cotton mills here in Derbyshire, while Josiah Wedgewood developed mass production of pottery not far away in Staffordshire.

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Interior of the Dome in Buxton, formerly The Devonshire Royal Hospital, now part of Derby University

Buxton’s heyday came in the 19th Century, when the process they began snowballed and made Britain a superpower.  When the railways arrived in 1863, visitors came from far and wide, some to take the waters, others to enjoy a holiday. Buxton grew because it was close to an economic powerhouse. It wouldn’t do to over-idealise the past; children were employed in mines and factories while all the women and some of the men were denied the vote. Nevertheless their world was changing and many towns, including Buxton, expanded rapidly.

As the twentieth century grew older, another economic shift occurred. British manufacturing declined and regions that once had thrived suffered recessions.  Economic power shifted to London and the South-East.

As I catalogue images at Buxton museum, I’m reminded of that time when the North and the Midlands drove Britain’s economy.  If dramatic transfer of power have occurred before then they could again. Some would argue that one is happening now, in the wider world, as China becomes the second largest economy on Earth.

Will there be others, not only shifts between nations but within them?  Have some already started in a small way, to be recognised when they have snowballed and we have hindsight?

The First 125 Years of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery

To accompany our 125th anniversary, Derbyshire Museums Manager Ros Westwood reveals the history of Buxton Museum and Art Gallery:

On 28 September 2018, Buxton Museum will celebrate 90 years since opening in its new premises at the Peak Buildings. At least 35 years previously, it was established in the Town Hall, overseen by the first librarian/curator, Mr Sarjeant. But now, with the library, and under the management of the librarian, Mr Hill, it occupied a street side location in the heart of Buxton. The opening was a splendid affair, with a formal luncheon and the opening address by Professor Sir William Boyd Dawkins.

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Mr T.A. Serjeant

The Peak Buildings was only a little older than the museum. In June 1881, Samuel Hyde, a noted balneologist (someone who understands cold-water spa treatments) became proprietor of the Buxton House Hydropathic Co. Ltd, and opened a private sanatorium on Terrace Road. He was a persuasive businessman and negotiated a purchase of land from the Duke of Devonshire to build an imposing Hydropathic hotel. The hotel opened in 1885, with several further extensions and building programmes. Although several of his businesses on the premises failed and were reformed, Hyde remained as proprietor and lessee the Peak Hydropathic. He raised the funds to keep the business going and to improve it. In 1895 architect Charles Heathcote designed the east wing with its ball rooms and additional bedrooms, now the Green Man Gallery.

This was a time of recession. Time and again, the business failed; early in the 20th century the Leek and Moorlands Building Society repossessed the hotel on at least two occasions since the mortgage was in arrears.

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In 1915, The Peak Hydropathic was taken over for military purposes, as an annexe to the Canadian Granville Military Hospital which had its headquarters at the nearby Buxton Hydropathic on the Broad Walk. Amongst the doctors who worked here was Frederick Banting; he would survive the war and in 1923 was awarded the Nobel Prize as the co-discoverer of insulin and its therapeutic potential.

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After the war, in 1921, William Turner of Stockport bought the building and opened the Peak Hotel. Within three years, it was sold again. In 1926, the Buxton Corporation bought most of the Peak Buildings. Within two years, the ground floor was opened as a museum and the first floor became the public library. Many residents of Buxton remember coming to the museum and the library in these interwar years.

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In 1968, the County Council took on the responsibility for the library with the museum alongside. Within five years, the library was moved to the Crescent and then to Kents Bank. Buxton Museum absorbed the vacant spaces and opened the art gallery in 1978. In 2018, the main art gallery will celebrate its 40th anniversary. More significantly, in 1979, the first professional museum curator was appointed, Dr Mike Bishop, who brought specialist knowledge and professional collection management to the collections.

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The Buxton Public Library and Reading Room by Robert Lewis McLellan-Sim, oil, 1934

There have been only ten custodians of the collections. Mr Oliver Gomersal, resident of Buxton and one of the museum’s benefactors, remembers them all.  One of them, John Leach, assembled and published the history of the building, which has provided much of the information in this brief tale. Most of the custodians have worked in the challenging hotel building, where visitors admire the beautiful stained glass even before they are welcomed in the doors. But once here, visitors amazed by the collections that we have cared for over 125 years.

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Mr Oliver Gomersal

I25th anniversary exhibition Collectors and Curiosities: Buxton and Beyond can be seen until Saturday 6 October. Admission free. Opening Times. 

A Ghost at Buxton Museum

Archivist Ian Gregory turns up another curiosity in the depths of the collections:

There is a copy of a ghost story in our collection at Buxton Museum.  It was published in 1952 in a magazine called Halfpenny Green Quarterly, which was aimed at the personnel of an RAF base of the same name.  The story is entitled A Christmas Ghost Story, by AC McDonald.

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It opens with a judge narrating, to a group of friends, an incident in the history of the house where they are staying. During the 17th century, an aristocrat was murdered by one of his neighbours because he prevented said neighbour, John Mannering, from marrying the girl he loved. Mannering subsequently took his own life. His ghost can supposedly possess living men and force them to re-enact his crime. That night, Mannering entered the judge’s body and compelled him to strangle a fellow guest.

The victim had a business partner called Barron, who had embezzled some of their money and was put on trial for the killing. Our judge; the real murderer was in charge of his trial.  After wrestling with his conscience, the judge sentenced Barron to death. “There were two people inside me,” he reasoned, “it was not I but the other who was responsible for the murder.” Despite this, our judge takes his own life after the trial.  At the conclusion, the author wonders if our main protagonist committed suicide or was killed by the shade of Mannering?

Halfpenny Green Quarterly was a mix of jokes, cartoons, articles about service life and poems. I don’t know whether AC McDonald wrote anything else and, if so, how successful he was. (If “AC” was in the RAF at that date, then he was most likely male). He may not be a household name today, but some authors are popular for a time and then sink into obscurity.  Or did he write as a hobby for a while, then give it up to concentrate on a military career?

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Thanks, Ian. One of my favourite artworks from Buxton Museum’s collection seems rather ghostly to me. It is an oil painting by Algernon Newton R.A. called Winter Moonrise, Yorkshire. Even though it was painted in 1945, the scene is timeless; evoking a sense of awe and maybe a little dread. It is on display as part of an exhibition called Collectors and Curiosities: Buxton and Beyond until 6 October 2018. Admission free.

Plan your visit here.

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Jess reveals Buxton’s Native American Collection

As part of its service, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery offers regular work placements to students who have an interest in working in heritage or the arts. We try to give them experience of all aspects of the work from the nitty-gritty like polishing display cases and putting away chairs to more sublime duties such as cleaning and cataloging items from the collections. Hopefully, we don’t put them off! A young lady called Jess recently joined us and seemed to enjoy the full spectrum of work, tackling everything with a smile. However, when writing a blog, she chose her work on some fascinating objects. Over to you, Jess:

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During my time at Buxton, I was asked to examine a collection of Native American arrowheads and spearheads that had been in the possession of the museum for quite some time. They are originally from the Storrs-Fox collection, a man who had a big interest in these flint arrowheads. Upon researching these artefacts, I found that many of these items would have been used to hunt for food and resources, mainly from the buffalo which was considered sacred therefore, Native Americans would utilise every part.

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During the late 1800s, the threat of the white settler’s ideals and their belief of ‘Manifest Destiny’, the idea that God wishes them to properly cultivate the western America, intensified. This threat to Native American culture peaked when many were forced onto reservations. This was a sharp contrast to their usual nomadic way of life. Reservations allowed the U.S government to more easily control Native Americans and there was often violence shown to the ‘Indians’ who were struggling to cope due to the lifestyle change.

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Children were to be raised in a ‘civilised’ manner and Christianity was strongly encouraged as Native American spirituality was frowned upon and was effectively eradicated by white people. These reservations are still around today and there are around 326 across the US.

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Many battles were fought in order to protect the natives’ way of life and there were several prominent figures whose names have gone down in history. For example, Sitting Bull, a tribal leader who commanded the infamous Battle of Little Bighorn, where General Custer was defeated due to underestimating the strategy and power of the tribes.

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The arrowheads and spearheads at Buxton, found in various states in the US, may have been used in battles against the cultural genocide they suffered, most famously, the massacre that occurred at Wounded Knee in 1890 where 150 Native Americans were killed by the U.S government.

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Most arrows and spears would have been decorated with feathers and animal furs as part of superstition and to please the spirits during a hunt or a raid. It was not just weapons that were decorated, most warriors would wear feathered headdresses and sometimes the scalps of their victims for luck during battle. It was considered an honour to die in battle and the more feathers a warrior wore, the more experienced they were at fighting, gaining them a lot of respect. These spearheads and arrowheads, as well as other tools, can be seen in the museum gallery.

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You can also see some of the more unusual parts of the collection in Buxton Museum’s 125th anniversary exhibition until Saturday 6 October. Admission is free.