The Original Exhibition X
In 2010, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery exhibited controversial objects from its collections under the title Exhibition X: The Wrong, The Weird, The Ugly and The Unloved.
As a museum attendant at the time, I was familiarising myself with what the museum kept in its storerooms and was amazed by some of the more eccentric acquisitions. There seemed to be a variety of items that could not be put on display for one reason or another; an artefact that represented an outdated attitude or a criminal activity, perhaps an object that’s so weird it defies any context, or maybe something that’s just plain creepy or dangerous.
For many museums across the world there will be those artefacts that make curators stop and scratch their heads or even keep them awake at night. One day I had a lightbulb moment and suggested to my manager that we displayed all these curiosities in one exhibition, under this umbrella. She went rather pale and shook her head.
A year or two later, an exhibition slot became available and I tried my suggestion again. This time my manager saw more merit in the idea and agreed. We were both nervous. You never really know how visitors will react to anything, especially a sequence of objects with the potential to upset someone. As it turned out, we had nothing to worry about. Exhibition X wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, of course, but most visitors relished the opportunity to see what was kept in the shadier recesses of the museum vaults and we were praised for our bravado. It went on to win Best Exhibition Runner Up in the East Midlands that year. People still stop me in the street and ask me when it’s coming back.
So here it is in celebration of the exhibition’s ten-year anniversary! Albeit a digital version since Buxton Museum has been closed to the public for half of the year, due to the coronavirus pandemic. There is a new team, new research and even new acquisitions that were not part of the original selection.
Second time around, we have been even more careful with the text. A decade ago, we presented the objects as part of a Victorian-style freakshow. The guide to the exhibition was a cartoon character called ‘The Curator’ who lived in the cellar and ate rats. Some of the more repellent exhibits were concealed behind curtains, daring visitors to peep, with the final reveal being ‘the most hideous thing in the exhibition’ (a mirror).
Fast forward to 2020, the world has changed, and we have opted for a more serious approach that seems more in keeping with current times. The same question remains, however: should troublesome relics from a bygone age be hidden away in the shadows or should we sometimes shine a bright light on them to learn, discuss and see how far we have come? We will let you judge for yourself.
Exhibition X 2020
Klebit Bok Shield and Baeing Sword
Sword and shield used by head-hunters from the Kenyah people of Borneo
Early to mid-20th century
Shield (M872.1): wood with pigment and applied human hair
Sword (M872.2): iron blade, wood handle with human hair
Ex School Library Service collection; purchased from Berkeley Galleries, London, 1962. Transferred to Buxton Museum and art Gallery permanent collection, 2020.
The sword and shield were used by the Kenyah people, a sub-group of the Dayak, who live in remote parts of Borneo. They were used in raids, performed typically to seek revenge upon other groups for past raids, thefts or insults. The outside of the shield is painted with the image of a Kilau, or war demon, with tufts of human hair in rows. The hair is taken from fallen enemies and the more hair on a shield, the more veteran the warrior. The inside of the shield is painted with images relating to the ancestors, who simultaneously protect the warrior and receive honour through his prowess. The heads of enemies were treated with great respect, being dried and displayed on racks, greeted personally by name, and honoured along with the ancestors.
I have chosen these two items because they represent a tribal society that has undergone enormous changes in a very short space of time, largely due to globalisation and Christianity. Prior to the 1950’s the Kenyah practised an animistic religion, but this has now seen a sharp decline due to the activities of evangelical Christianity. Despite this, the Kenyah have maintained much of their culture and incorporated many of their old beliefs; the shields are still used in annual festivals.
Many indigenous tribes around the world are increasingly coming under threat of losing their identity, or even being wiped out by introduced diseases and aggressive developers in search of natural resources and farming land. Despite the encroachment of the modern world the Kenyah have maintained much of their traditional way of life. Although we see headhunting as abhorrent it is no different to the mass slaughter of modern day warfare which is beamed live into our homes via the news.
This is a cartoon by Nicolas Bentley (1907 – 1978), which was most likely produced between 1932 and 1939. This time frame was estimated through knowing that Bentley worked as a freelance cartoonist from 1932 until 1939 and the telephone is a style typical of the 1930s.
The Cambridge Dictionary (online) defines a cartoon as a drawing that tells a joke or makes a humorous political criticism. This particular cartoon depicts a female police officer having a telephone conversation. The caption reads: “Well, sergeant, I simply must get my nails done.” and so it is inferred that she is telling her male line manager that she is more interested in looking attractive rather than in carrying out her duties.
I chose this object as it clearly illustrates the general attitude towards the value of females in male-dominated professions at that time and it is interesting to think about how this attitude is very different in today’s society. I am sure that most members of the male population, and perhaps some females, would have found humour in this cartoon in the 1930s (and humour is, of course, the intended message of a cartoon). If any organisation was brave enough to publish such a ‘cartoon’ today, it would stir reactions ranging from disbelief to outright anger at such a blatant display of chauvinism. If it did raise anything like a smile, it would most likely be due to the owner reflecting on how far we have come in the last 90 years.
Both the African slave whip and set of leg irons are part of the Randolph Douglas Collection. Born in Sheffield in 1895, Douglas was a locksmith and a friend of Harry Houdini. He was interested in escapology and collected keys, locks and restraints, which he showcased alongside miniatures and other curiosities in his own in-home museum, The House of Wonders.
The origins of these particular objects, however, can be traced back to the Atlantic Slave Trade that transported between 10 and 12 million enslaved Africans to America between the 16th and 19th centuries. The slave trade dehumanised the African people and fuelled an ideology that, unfortunately, paved the way for racial segregation. In the 20th Century, many continued to regard black people and people of colour as second-class citizens and, though progress has been made, this racism still exists in many forms today. Other notable items under museum’s care include a brass donations box, depicting a racial stereotype and a poster advertising an 1892 performance by the Buxton Minstrels, containing racist language. Both of these objects capture how socially ingrained racism had become, remaining commonplace even after many countries had abolished slavery. They act as a constant reminder that we must continue to challenge inequality and prejudice wherever it exists in society today. These artefacts teach us that racism often shows itself, not just as open acts of intolerance or abuse but as ingrained attitudes and within everyday language.
These objects were selected to emphasise how imperative it is to use them as a means of confronting prejudice and working towards a more inclusive and equal world. Though there is no place in society for admiring such objects today, they help us to learn about our history and teach the value of diversity. We are by no means living in a post-racial era and museums, therefore, have a responsibility to hold this material and provide the full context of their origins. Only in addressing the wrongdoings of the past can we identify areas for development today.
This lead phallus is over 1,500 years old and was found at Carsington. Kindly loaned by Severn Trent Water, this object has been identified as a Roman amulet and is thought to have been used to ward off dark magic. As A. Whitmore (2018) explains, “phalli that are depicted without the rest of the body, are generally interpreted as examples of apotropaic magic, which protected people and places from the evil eye”. Being too cumbersome to wear, it may have adorned a horse harness or been hung up within the household, much like a wind chime.
It was first discovered in the 1980s, during excavations within Carsington valley. The reservoir was under construction and the land was due to be flooded, so this was the last chance for such exploration. Archaeologists soon uncovered the remains of several Roman buildings constructed between 100-200CE, and it was atop an area of hard-packed cobblestone that the amulet was found. Speculation that this 2-ha settlement was once a wealthy residence, built from the profits of lead-mining, has been supported by the discovery of a five-roomed structure equipped with heated walling and a bathhouse. Conjecture has also placed this settlement close to the lost town of Lutudarum, Roman Derbyshire’s principal administrative centre for the lead mining industry. Documented but still undiscovered, scholars can only hypothesise about its exact location, though many have placed it within the vicinity of Carsington and Wirksworth.
In finding this amulet within the ruins of a once thriving settlement, we could suppose that its former occupants were trying to protect their good fortunes and ensure the prosperity of their business. Regardless of the theory, it is important to challenge the sexual taboo that can surround an object like this. It could be assumed that the depiction of male genitalia has pornographic undertones, however further analysis seems to point towards the occult. As acknowledged in the British Museum blog series, “objects are powerful tools for breaking down barriers, exploring meaning and starting conversations around sensitive topics”, and it is this reasoning which made this phallic amulet an obvious choice for Exhibition X.
Records have been found showing the use of cannabis in the 3rd millennium B.C., and over the centuries restrictions on trade have varied from international restrictions in the 20th century to the decriminalisation of cannabis for recreational use we see in some countries today.
The three photographs show items from the Derbyshire Police Collection, which has been held at Buxton Museum since 2004. These items were modified for smoking cannabis and were confiscated during drug raids.
The first is a wooden pipe. As I read up on these items, I discovered that cherry and briar woods are best, changing the taste of the smoke as you would when smoking meat, for example. The wood is dense in nature, easy to carve and able to stand the temperature of the cannabis.
The next picture is a hookah pipe – I remember this word from Alice in Wonderland, but I think I assumed it was a regular pipe! This is a water pipe with a smoke chamber, a bowl, a pipe and a hose. Specially prepared tobacco is heated and the smoke passes through the water and is drawn through a rubber hose to a mouthpiece.
The final picture is a mask, which had a tube inserted into it to receive the smoke, and has stars painted onto the eye lenses. There would be a risk (among other risks!), not to mention the discomfort, of the user’s eyes being irritated by the smoke. After a few seconds, everything being absorbed would be plant matter and dust and rather than an increased high, there would be more probability of inhaling carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide.
The more you google, the more you discover and if you are looking at a topic you know, you can easily ignore the sites or adverts you don’t need. This search showed me masks are available in alien, Darth Vader and glow in the dark styles.
The Breath of Death
The blowpipe, a curious weapon, this silent killer is one of the most effective hunting instruments used worldwide. The first blowpipes were thought to be used as far back as the stone age and are still used in some countries today. The image pictured shows a wooden quiver containing poisonous darts originating from Guyana. It was given to Buxton Museum and Art gallery through The Schools Library Service.
The blowpipe is a long narrow tube for shooting projectiles namely darts, seeds and clay pellets. The projectile is placed inside the pipe and then air is blown into the tube with great force which propels the dart out of the other end with incredible velocity. Blowpipes are usually around 2 metres long but can vary in size and are made from wood, quite often bamboo. Many cultures have used this weapon and the indigenous people of Southeast Asia, the Amazon, South America, Western Europe and Guyana (French Guiana) and both Central and South America are best known for its use. Dartswere most widely used in Guyana and we also know that they tipped the darts with a plant poison called curare.
The darts like the ones pictured here would be approximately 20-30cm in length and feature a conical tuft of fibre at one end which is fixed with long hair. The darts are stored in a quiver. A Guyana quiver would hold up to 150 to 200 darts and are made from wood usually bamboo and decorated with small sections of basketry and sometimes engraved with geometric designs.
The Amerindian population of Guyana is around 31,000 and has nine major ethnic groups. Although many of the tribes used blowpipes the Macusi tribe (of lowlands Guyana) in particular are known for their innovation of the cultivation and use of a plant poison called curare. They impregnate the dart tips in the curare poison to use in hunting small birds, game and other small animals.
Curare is a substance obtained from the bark and stems of some Central and South American plants. The poison is scraped from the plant, soaked in water and the infused liquid is boiled into a syrup. It is then used to coat the arrows. It only active by injection or by way of getting into the bloodstream. Curare works by firstly causing skeletal muscles to weaken. In large quantities, it can paralyse the diaphragm and eventually cause asphyxiation. Death would usually be about 15-45 minutes.
We’re Caught in a Trap, I Can’t Walk Out …
This brutal-looking contraption is a 19th century mantrap. From the late 1700s, landowners used these to protect their land from trespassers and poachers. Mantraps could do a lot of damage; once triggered the jaws would clamp onto a person, potentially causing loss of limb. Automatically triggered spring-guns were also used, which could be fatal. Traps were indiscriminate; reports suggest that often it was people such as gamekeepers who triggered the traps accidentally!
The mantrap is part of a history of land and countryside access. The Inclosure Acts of the 1700s and 1800s removed access to common and ‘waste’ ground, particularly moorland. Small, communal-use areas of land were merged to form areas owned by a single landowner, removing common access to areas important for farming, foraging and hunting. In the 19th century many enclosed areas became game reserves for the wealthy. Methods like this mantrap were used to prevent access to land and its resources, such as game. In 1827 mantraps and spring-guns were banned from outdoor use in England. The bill was not straightforward, however, since many MPs feared loss of property without the traps.
The Peak District was central to some of the 20th century’s movements to increase countryside access. This included the Kinder Mass Trespass in 1932, when a large group of ramblers trespassed on Kinder Scout to protest limited access*. Protests and political actions led eventually to the creation of the National Parks in England and Wales in 1951.
To me the mantrap raises questions about property and the countryside. What value do we place on possessions and how far will we go to protect them? Many will agree about the wellbeing and environmental value of the countryside, but how much of it and its resources should we have access to? Who should have a voice in how it’s managed? We’ve come a long way since the 1800s, but we shouldn’t take countryside access for granted: it is still limited and often threatened.
*A great article about the Kinder Mass Trespass can be found here: https://letsgopeakdistrict.co.uk/the-kinder-mass-trespass/
Don’t Have Kittens!
This plain metal box is from the Derbyshire Police Memorabilia Collection, which Buxton Museum acquired in 2004, following the closure of a Police Museum in Derby. Despite its guiltless façade, the box has a macabre purpose that will make any animal-lover screech with horror.
In the late 19th century, there was not an abundance of homes for stray cats, nor did vets offer a neutering service to prevent your beloved puss from multiplying. So what was society’s answer to an expanding population of felines? They equipped their local Bobbies with portable gas chambers! The troublesome moggy would be placed sternly by a uniformed arm into the container. The lid was closed and the lethal vapour pumped in via the receptacle. There is a section of glass so you can look in and check the apparatus has carried out its execution. There is enough room for more than one cat, perhaps a whole litter of unwanted kittens.
Like everything else in this exhibition, we perhaps judge this relic by our modern standards. Our Victorian ancestors endured hardships unimaginable to us and they may have a little less time for our furry friends. The use of this item ceased with the Animal Protection Act of 1911. Nowadays, there is a more compassionate method to stop a tomcat from following its natural instincts although it is one that still makes any man wince.
For my money, the box is one of the most bizarre and distasteful objects in the collections at Buxton but not until you know its original purpose. “How could anyone do that to a poor cat?” is the usual response from a human. Small birds, rodents and other wildlife that regularly visits our gardens would instead rejoice.
High Risk Material
Specimens of asbestos including hand specimens from the mineral collections and a miner’s lamp which contains asbestos rope to act as a fire retardant.
Asbestos is one of the high-risk materials that building managers have to know about. Every one of us has to attend a training course and learn how dangerous it is, what to do even before you start building work and when you have even a hint it might be present and how horribly the resulting malignant conditions are for people who have worked with it unprotected, such as asbestosis and mesothelioma.
We look at hand specimens in mineral collections and wonder if the gentlemen (it usually was) realised what they were holding. Its magical fire-retardant properties have been known since ancient times. In the 20th century it was a miracle material, used in almost every product you can list including floor coverings, roofs, insulation, fire retardants, brake pads, wartime gas mask filters and even artificial snow.
Amazing, since it was in 1899 that the first cautionary voices in modern times were raised about how deadly this material was. Nellie Cooke of Rochdale was the first person in the UK recorded as dying from a tubercular infection with significant evidence of fibrosis, in 1924. What had she been doing: from in 1917 she was employed to spin raw asbestos into yarn.
The shards of crystal which make it so dangerous are easily seen in some of the specimens. You can sense the invisible motes of dust in the plastic bags and imagine (and you only imagine, you never, ever handle) the crystals flaking in your hands. As it did, the dust with needle-sharp edges would be released into the air and then into the lungs.
The use of asbestos is now banned in the UK, but it is present in almost every building pre-1999. It must be removed by trained personnel. But mining continues in Russia and Brazil, with markets for it in China and Indonesia. One does ask why?
Horror of Beauties
As the world opened to travel, 17th Century entomologists and ambitious collectors took advantage of transatlantic slave routes to discover and collect species from overseas. Colonialism and the founding of many museums went hand-in-hand as many early examples, originally displayed as curiosity cabinets in homes of the wealthy, became the basis of natural history collections worldwide.
By the Victorian era, middle-class gents became hobby lepidopterists and up sprang butterfly farms, dealers in over-seas species, traders in traps, bait, nets and black enamelled pins. The hobby was as wholesome as bird watching and the cyanide for the killing jars could be purchased from the local chemist.
The desire to possess increased during the Victorian and Edwardian era and auction records show a huge number of collections date from the balmy summers leading up to the 1st World War. This butterfly piece was one probably one of them. Purchased at auction by Arthur Gomersaland gifted to Buxton Museum in the 1950’s, his son Oliver recalls coming home… ‘Oliver, there’s a butterfly stuck in the bathroom! Would you release it for me?’ Oliver went to investigate finding this piece propped up in the bathtub.
A 75cm square kaleidoscope of colour, these butterflies and moths originate in the UK, and although I can see two Swallowtails, I am deducing that this is made by a British hobbyist. One hundred and eighty Red Admirals and one hundred and twenty-four Large Tortoiseshells are arranged, overlapping in circles – but not one can be seen in its entirety. There is no accompanying data, no record of where these species were captured and no dates. For entomologists, creating collections involved investigative research and systematic recording, so this is no scientific catalogue of species.
Even with our 21st awareness of environmental issues we can appreciate that these creatures are beautiful even in death. We can marvel at the variations and adaptations of nature; the Brimstone’s luminous, acidic yellow, and the metallic lapis lazuli of the Common Blue. In their stillness we can take time to examine closely some of the miniscule variations amongst species.
So, what is it that disturbs us? The taking of life for a frivolous, aesthetic purpose or is it the excess that makes us uncomfortable? There is certainly disquiet among numbers. Did our unknown maker feel revulsion at this excess? Probably not. Unaware of the environmental impact man was inflicting on the world, and still digesting the theories of evolution, the Victorians were yet to question the biblical premise that our species had the dominion over all others. For them, hobby collecting provided a gateway to a relationship and fascination with nature that is now almost lost to young generations today. On the one hand we revere nature and in the other it is slipping through our fingers.