Shells, and gems, and dried cicadas

For the BM125 celebrations, my role is to create a series of events that will invite people to engage with the museum collection in creative ways. Events will happen in the museum itself and also out in the local landscapes that gave us so many of the wonderful specimens that we see in the museum today.

Events are already under way and as they unfold, we’ll advertise them here, on other museum social media and on the Creeping Toad* blog and facebook pages (just search for Creeping Toad). We’ll also feed back on the activities and results of the events: sharing poems and stories and “d-i-y” guides to the activities we have been doing, inviting you to try things for yourselves

Low Haymeadow

On National Meadows Day at the start of July, we were out enjoying the delights of hay meadows in the Upper Dove valley. Out of that grew a collective poem and a set of instructions for building your own landscape books

Memories are rooted in these meadows,

In the fleeting lives of butterflies,

In nodding seedheads

In thistledown drifting on a hot breeze,

Farms, families, paths, tools and stories,

All knitted as tightly to the earth as the meadow.

Childhood holidays rooted here too,

New names, first meetings,

Stonechats, curlews, those grasshoppers again.

Extract from the Haymeadow poem, July 2018

Cabinets 2018 - 42In August, there was a lively afternoon in the museum. Drawing inspiration from the current Collectors and Curiosities exhibition, we were making our own small cabinets of curiosity. Boxes, cupboards, treasure chests for precious finds and stray memories, these were bright, colourful and very distinctive.

You can see more of the cabinets here, find out how to make your own, here ,and listen to our “what will you keep in your cabinet” here.

The Cabinet poem follows: try reading it out loud!

Shells and gems and dried cicadas,

Stick insects if they ever stayed still long enough,

Or maybe just sticks.

 

Leaves and sticks and stones,

And rocks,

And sticks again sometimes.

 

Rocks and feathers,

And fossils.

Shells,

And sea glass from a wide, windy beach.

 

Cows, obviously,

And horses, maybe.

Pottery, Lego, coins,

Shells again,

Holiday treasures,

With sand from sunny places.

 

Cars and squishies and rubbers,

Because a special collection needs a special box.

 

Crystals,
And cryestels

And sharks teeth and other bones.

I collect shark’s teeth you see.

I have a lot of them.

There will be feathers and bones,

In my cupboard,

And my brother’s bones.

And my sister’s skull.

 

I have fossils from Robin Hood’s Bay,

And Lyme Regis where I found an ammonite,

Lots of tiny ammonites,

And one big one that will be too big for this.

 

This Cabinet will be full of memories.

This Cabinet will be full of leftovers.

This Cabinet will be a Museum for Bears,

This Cabinet will hold Treasures and Taonga.

This Cabinet will hold inspiration for my own creativity

Low Cabinets 2018 54

Our next BM125 public event is at Apple Day at the Dove Valley Centre  near Longnor, on Sunday 14th October from 12 noon – 4pm. Here we will be celebrating the heritage of orchards and old fruit varieties – a reminder that museums hold memories as much as objects and those objects belonged to lives lived in our wider landscapes. Join us and make your own apple-puppet to tell your own orchard stories. Check the social media pages mentioned above for final details

Low apples

*And I am Creeping Toad: storyteller, artist and creator of celebrations and disturbance. I also have a bit of a thing for amphibians…hence the Toad in the name!

 

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Chasing Sir William…

Big beasts stalk the mind of Sir William Boyd Dawkins
Big Beasts Stalk The Mind Of Sir William Boyd Dawkins: page from an animation flip-book featuring Pleistocene mammals, flint tool and notes from an excavation diary for the Hyaena Den, Wookey Hole

As an artist, on a purely intuitive level, so much of my work in printmaking and animation has been driven by an innate desire to delve into surfaces of erosion and decay – and in doing so, to explore the impacts of the passage of time (time is a big issue for an animator; because of the weird nature of the process, I sometimes wonder if I come to occupy an altered fourth dimension…)

I find subtle beauty and rich narrative in ancient (and not-so-ancient) artifacts and specimens as they enter a liminal phase in their transition from one state to the next. Bone for instance is formed from geological matter, becoming briefly (in terms of
geological time) animate before returning to the ground – or cave floor – where it is slowly reabsorbed over millennia, taking on the patinas and colour of its new surroundings as it does so.

The rather foreboding titular character of my first animated film Hela’r Twrch Trwyth (Hunting the Twrch Trwyth), a demonic wild boar pursued across South Wales by King Arthur in the epic Culhwch ac Olwen, was a composite being, assembled from bone and other ‘distressed’ and aged materials – such as one might find in an (admittedly rather poorly curated!) museum store; sundry loose taxidermy, an old wicker basket, bog oak wheels and so on.

image
Y Twrch Trwyth: collagraph print design for an animation character

Similarly, drawing further inspiration from combined museological and osteological universes, since working with the British Museum on a project relating to the exhibition Ice Age Art, I have steadily assembled a menagerie of paper cut-out animation puppets whose forms and surfaces are suggestive of the carved bone or ivory used by Palaeolithic sculptors. These, like my Twrch Trwyth and the figurines made by our ancestors, are man-made beings; narrative-bearing conductors for resonances founded in memory and experience, shared and individual. For me – and perhaps my physically departed prehistoric colleagues – they are also meditative vessels of process more than product. Whatever; there is a language of bones that speaks of our past, present and future…

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The Ghost Herd — Our Lost Wild-deor-nes: animation still for an outdoor projection

I find taxidermy similarly engrossing; again, faded fur, lost or wonky eyes and crumpled snouts all tell stories. As Rachel Poliquin observes in her absorbing treatise on taxidermy The Breathless Zoo;

Just as the worn surfaces of architectural ruins convey a tactile knowledge of their textured history, the torn skin of a gemsbok’s neck gaping straw and clay, a Tasmanian Devil’s opaque black eyes set in his near-mummified face, the sun-bleached face of a yellow and blue macaw, all on display at the Havard Natural History Museum, likewise appeal to our sense of touch, but it is not texture we need to handle in order to understand. We know instinctively what cracked, century old skin will feel like. It is the feel of time itself traced in organic matter.

I’m intrigued by beasts and the meanings they hold, both for me and in wider culture(s). I think it’s true to say that when we look at animals, rather than seeing them for what they themselves are, we’re actually largely looking for ourselves, using them as mirrors or projection surfaces for our own concerns and mores. I certainly do this in my own work – sometimes literally…

Thus, at Buxton Museum, I’m thrilled by the prospect of being able to explore its amazing collections of ancient animal bone, unearthed in the caves and quarries of the Peak. And also the story of one of the principal investigators of our Pleistocene mammalia, Sir William Boyd Dawkins – a complex and controversial figure whose legacy remains clouded by some high profile episodes suggestive of a sometimes less-than-rigorous approach to archaeological practice.

Dawkins has haunted me for some years now. I first encountered him in North Wales when I made a film inspired by Palaeolithic artifacts found in Kendrick’s Cave on the Great Orme, Llandudno. He pursued me to the British Museum – and thence to Somerset where, in the course of a project exploring the impact of the reintroduction of cranes to the Levels, I learned that he’d been a mentor to Arthur Bulleid, who unearthed a wealth of Iron age bird bone at Glastonbury Lake Village.

Next, (also in Somerset) in the collections of the Wells and Mendip Museum I found the fruits of his first excavation as an Oxford undergraduate; a fascinating and beautiful collection of mammal bones, teeth and flint tools excavated from the Hyaena Den at Wookey Hole as, engaged in a race with other ‘Cave Hunters’ of the late Victorian period, he sought the missing piece of the jigsaw that would establish incontrovertibly the antiquity of man.

Finally (and why do we always overlook things on our own doorsteps?!) I learned that he was born in the vicarage in the village of Buttington Trewern — not fifteen miles from where I am tapping this out now. Given his evident fascination with geology from a very young age, perhaps he came to the now-dormant quarries at Llangynog in search of mineral specimens and fossils…

So, Sir William, I have finally run you to earth – and in having done so, hope to get to know you a little better. For what greater indicator of a beast’s traits and behaviour could there be than its spoor – or, in your case, your handwritten notes, held in the archive of Buxton Museum? I’m looking forward to finding out a little bit more about you – and particularly your pursuit of a certain extinct moggy; Homotherium crenatidens — the evocatively named and elusive scimitar-toothed cat…

image
I am coming for you Sir William…

 

 

MERMAID TALES

Mermaids? Seriously? As if.

My name is Rob and I’m a mermaid denier. To me, the idea of a creature who is half-woman, half-fish, is ridiculous. She would smell! And why are they always top-half human? Why not fish-head and human legs? Why do they always sit on a rock, combing their hair and gazing into a mirror? Like they’re taking a selfie? The entire mermaid concept is daft.

Buxton Mermaid.jpg

So why is the mermaid image still stuck in our heads? We have cool superheroes now, like Ironman, Hulk and Black Panther – and not just men, who doesn’t want to be Wonder Woman? The Little Mermaid has no powers, she just flaps around dreaming of a Prince. It’s hardly an advert for Girl Power.

Let’s face it, mermaids don’t exist. It’s a dugong, a fat seal with a big nose. Some drunken sailor saw one and mistook it for a woman. He should have gone to Specsavers. But in that moment, an urban myth was born.

Because that’s all it is, a myth. No proof, no evidence, no nothing. You examine any so-called mermaid exhibit in a 21st century lab and what do you find? A shrunken head stuck on a kipper.

So let me ask you again, why is the image still stuck in our head? 

Perhaps it’s because most of our body is made up of water?

Or like all folk tales, it’s a story rooted in fear. Because we are frightened of The Other. The Strange. The Unknown. Frightened and intrigued.

If you live in Buxton and there’s a storm coming, they let you know on the telly. But in the olden days, when hairy-people saw dark clouds on the horizon, they thought it was a curse. The fish-god was in a bad mood so was going to pelt them with rain. They genuinely thought that if they sacrificed a granny, the flood could be stopped. Thankfully, now we have apps, so can plan alternative routes.

But the primal fear remains. No matter how smart we get, there is always stuff we don’t know and that makes us curious.

We are fascinated by weirdness. Look at The Buxton Museum, the entire building is jam-packed with weird stuff that is totally brilliant, some it millions of years old. That is Pre-Ed Sheeran.

As humans, we are inherently curious. Look at babies. If they find a little disc, they want to know what it is. Is it a weapon? A toy? Or a Mini-Oreo? Because as any baby will tell you, if it’s not a threat, it’s food. It’s how we learn, by looking at weird stuff. It’s why Museums are important.

Mermaid?.jpg

I’m one of the artists who has been commissioned to ‘bring an exhibit to life’. I love that. What I’m going to do is this: spend the next few months looking at mermaids and let you know how it goes.

I’m going to start with the Buxton Mermaid because she is, without doubt, the best (and I’m guessing only) ‘shrunken head stuck on a kipper’ in the whole Peak District. And the Peak District is massive! 

So even though she’s ‘fake news’, I am still obsessed with that creature, because she’s not just a spooky doll, she’s the gateway to a thousand crazy stories and over the next few months, I’m going to haul ‘em up from the deep.

I’m going to share them in all sorts of ways:

I’m going to photograph a mermaid, not a real-one, obviously, a synchronised swimmer at Sharley Park Leisure Centre (Is it still synchronised swimming if you’re doing it on your own?). One of their brilliant swimmers is going to put on a fish tail, then we’ll turn off the lights off and try to create something spooky. I can’t wait.

For a land locked region, the Peak District has a surprising amount of ‘mermaid pools’ like Blake Mere where legend has it, a mermaid still lives. I’ll be trekking around the Peaks in search of stories, inspiration and evidence (like that’s going to happen). I’ll also be finding out whether having a sailor-scoffing-siren in your back garden pond has any effect on your house price.

I’ll be finding out what modern-day mermaids might look like? What issues would they might face? Does having a non-conventional body mean a mermaid qualifies for disability benefit? Is she half way through transitioning or an immigrant of no fixed abode? How do each of these groups relate to being viewed as ‘The Other’ when the truth is, we are all equal. My plan is to celebrate diversity using the mermaid as cipher.

I’ll be hosting storytelling workshops, so you can write stories of your own. If you don’t write, or can’t write, that is not an issue. Workshops for schools, groups, adults, fish… everyone is welcome.

I’ll also be writing a story of my own, a dark one, about a boy who lives in Buxton and a girl who lives in a pool. What could possibly go wrong?

And in all of the above, I’ll be working ‘out loud’ so you don’t just see the end result, you see how I got there. And why would I do that? To share my journey, so it’s not just me investigating the weird world of mermaids, it’s us. 

A Mermaid's Tale.jpg

Stay tuned… 

Rob Young

A Library in a Field

A blog by BM125 artist Creeping Toad, who’s out and about running all manner of exciting events for the project.

Make your own Haymeadow Book

This idea can lend itself to all sorts of situations – you could put together a little book-building kit and make books about different places or different occasions

On our National Meadows Day event (http://creepingtoad.blogspot.com/2018/07/rippling-ribbons-of-colour.html), we invited people to gather their own experiences, reflections and knowledge about the meadows they were visiting into little books….These are concertina books which essentially fit one long folded strip of paper into a cover. Once you are used to doing these, you could experiment – stick books together by the cover to make thicker volumes, have sections that fold out in different directions….

You will need:

  • 1 piece of thin cardboard (about 15cm x 10.5cm)
  • scissors
  • glue or a gluestick
  • paper for the bookblock (see below)
  • pencils, wax crayons, coloured pencils, scrap paper…

Make your bookblock: this is the set of pages that make the body of the book. You might use a long strip of paper (A2 cut into quarters lengthwise works well) or take a sheet of A4 (standard printer size) and cut or tear it in half lengthways. Overlap the ends by about 1cm and stick them together

Write a poem for a page?

Falling sky splinters
Into scabious and cornflower blue,
While tormentil nestles in the grass,
Droplets of sunshine on the green

Concertina: fold your strip of paper in half and then in half again. Unfold it: this should give you 8 sections of about the same size. Use those folds as guides to now fold the paper into a zig-zag pattern

card cover and tearing paper for book block
first fold should give you this
concertina fold

 Try an acrostic perhaps?

M – many harvest mice hiding
I  – in the long grass, swaying,
C – curl up in careful nests
E – every night in safety.

You might write, draw or print on pages

Now you are ready to make your book! It is easier to work on the book before you fit it into the cover. Work on one side of your paper. On your pages you might:

write
draw
add a patch of scrap paper and draw on that
make a pocket
do a rubbing
print
add a map
make a pop-up
think of something else….

Add a patch perhaps or a rubbing?

 

Add a map?
Make a pocket?

When it is done decide if you are having
a) a book that unfolds completely – stick one end page into the cover. You could now work on the back side of your pages (Picture 9: stick one end of the finished block into the cover)”
Or
b) a book that is fixed at both ends. If you are going for this, you might need to refold your concertina so it looks like the picture below:

Cover: fold the card in half. Decorate the cover. Glue in the book block….Title? Author?

Please, send us a picture of your finished book! creepingtoad@btinternet.com