Volunteer archivist Ian Gregory poses another meditative inquiry:
I have, whilst working at Buxton Museum, catalogued a map of a continent that no longer exists. The geologists call it Gondwana or Gondwanaland, and most of the present day southern landmasses were once part of it. It broke up gradually but the process began about 200 million years ago.
Seeing this map on a plate for a slide reminded me of how hard it can be for new ideas to be accepted. The theory of continental drift, of which Gondwanaland is a crucial part, was first proposed in 1912 by Alfred Wegener but few people took it seriously. In 1957, Marie Tharp and Bruce Heezen published a map of the sea floor of the Atlantic Ocean and it showed the sea floor gradually spreading out from underwater volcanoes in the middle of said ocean. For the first time, scientists knew of a mechanism that could power continental drift and it is known as plate tectonics.
Not everyone who rejected Wegener’s theory was a mindless conservative; since he hadn’t explained what could power continental drift. Tharp and Heezen’s discovery came after Wegener’s death. Still, when thinking about their stories, I wonder what other ideas that are currently out of favour might be one day accepted as facts?
Museums commonly deal with old things and creatures that have long shuffled off the mortal coil. You would not immediately associate them with a holiday like Easter which celebrates new life. However, among the collections at Buxton Museum, there are a few peculiar eggs; traditional symbols at this time of year. We thought we would share some of them with you while we are closed for renovation.
Eggs made from rock, minerals and gemstones were popular in the Victorian and Edwardian eras. We can only speculate why. With no internet, the people of these eras had to resort to talking to each other so perhaps such novelties inspired cheerful conversation. Indeed, Buxton Museum still sells quite a lot of colourful marble eggs in its gift shop. They look pretty and feel pleasingly tactile in the palm of your hand.
This egg has been crafted from the local rare mineral called Blue John, mined in small quantities in the Peak District village of Castleton. It dates from the early 20th century and is 13cm long. Buxton Museum has all sorts of intriguing objects made from Blue John, all displaying the same unusual purple-blue-yellow colour from which it gets its name; bleu-jaune, meaning blue-yellow in French.
This is a close-up of a petrified birds’ nest. Objects can be turned into limestone by exposing them to mineral-rich water or “petrifying them”. This specimen is from the collection of Randolph Douglas who once had his own museum in Castleton, the same village where Blue John can be found. He gathered fascinating items from around the world and exhibited them alongside keys, locks and miniature dioramas of his own ingenious creation. Douglas had a passion for escapology; the art of breaking free from death-defying traps, which ultimately hooked him up with famous magician and escapologist Harry Houdini.
When Buxton Museum and Art Gallery reopens on Tuesday 6 June, you will be able to see brand new displays featuring both Blue John and Randolph Douglas; admission free! We hope to see you.
The team of Heritage Lottery funded project Collections in the Landscape have been blogging about their work for a few years now. Like the museum where they are based, the project focuses on the heritage of the surrounding Peak District, rather than just Buxton. However, they have thrown a spotlight on the town a few notable times recently; in case you missed any of them, here is a handy round up:
When most people think about the work of Don Bramwell they will be reminded of his accomplishments within the field of archaeology, working on sites in Derbyshire such as Fox Hole Cave and Elder Bush Cave. But a select few might also recognise his creative side through his archaeological drawings of finds like this bear skull seen below. The accompanying photograph (showing the actual bear skull drawn in his diagram) helps to highlight the precision to which he gave to these drawings and how invaluable his talent was to aid in the recording of these sites, at a time when it was much harder to get a perfectly clear image from a camera.
His talent for the arts was not just kept to archaeological objects and finds however, and while searching through boxes of archived material I have come across many detailed illustrative drawings, complete with watercolour additions, of plans and scenes strait from the digs themselves.
Some of his drawings are filled with vibrant colours and tiny detailed patterns. This sets them apart from most ordinary plans and sketches found in archaeology leaving these artworks to appeal to a widely varying audience – as who doesn’t enjoy the satisfying imagery presented in the images below?
Although, what actually caught my attention most were the charming little doodles and sketches found around the boarders of his notes. Scattered and hidden throughout excavation notebooks containing his daily musings regarding the current state of the dig and the everyday occurrences of the archaeologist are hordes of little scenes. Some revealing animals which could be spotted around the Derbyshire countryside set within the margin of a page complete with a backdrop of rolling hills and a tree studded horizon. There can also be found doodles of flowers so tiny that they could be easily missed if you were simply skimming though the journals looking for information about the excavations. I should also not forget to mention the small sketches depicting the archaeological tools of the trade. Possibly trial sketches for his more elaborate drawings and excavation plans seen above or simply just Bramwell sketching out the items he could see around him. Either way they are still just as well drawn and fun to discover.
Like an unstoppable archiving juggernaut, Buxton Museum volunteer Ian Gregory has been helping us catalogue our vast collection of photographs and postcards. Every now and again, I ask him if he has stumbled upon anything interesting …
One of the many photographs in the museum’s archives shows a young woman holding a bicycle. It dates back to the 1920s and she is involved in a parade of cyclists in Fairfield, a housing estate in Buxton. Her lightweight summer dress and mode of transport suggest freedom. Her gender had just won the right to vote so this image feels appropriate for the age.
Then again, real life can be more complex than a single image would suggest. Women had cleared a major hurdle in political terms but other groups still experienced discrimination. Homosexuality was still a crime. There was much ill-feeling between English and Irish people, following the partition of Ireland. As the 20th century went on, numbers of deaf people in paid employment decreased.
The move towards liberalism had to begin somewhere. With so many sides to fight on, perhaps it was inevitable some battles took longer than others. As she prepares to set off on the parade, I wish my long-ago cyclists all the best.
To see more images from Buxton Museum’s collection, visit excellent website Picture the Past.