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Pursuing the Archaeology of the Peak District

The archaeology collections at the Potteries Museum cover many parts of Staffordshire, including parts of the county that fall within the boundaries of the Peak District National Park.

I’m currently involved in a project, working closely with Buxton Museum and Art Gallery, to track down where archaeological collections from the Peak District have ended up. The aim is to pull data together and create rich online resources for people to explore Peak District archaeology. Objects have ended up in many places. The excavations of Victorian antiquarians spread material far and wide across the country. The Peak District crosses four counties so material still ends up in one of several different receiving museums.

At the Potteries Museum, the majority of our Peak District collections relate to areas around the Manifold Valley – particularly the archaeology of the limestone caves that are widespread along the lengths of the Hamps and Manifold Rivers. You can see some of items on display in our archaeology galleries, including finds from the magnificent Thor’s Cave.

Pieces of worked antler from Thor’s Cave, Manifold Valley. Thought to be Iron Age cheek pieces for horse harnesses (see illustration)
Objects from Thor’s Cave, Manifold Vallery: 26. Iron Age bone comb 27. Whetstone 28.Perforated bone

Of course, not all of our Peak District cave finds are ancient, but they do continue the comb theme…

Objects from Wetton Mill Rock Shelter: 16. Iron Horseshow, 13th-16th century 17.Ox molar 18.Plastic comb 19. Rabbit skull

There are many more wonderful finds from the Manifold Valley, and not just here at the Potteries Museum. Depending who excavated, and when, finds from the region can also be found in Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and even as far away as Manchester Museum who have collections relating to Ossom’s Eerie.

Today there is an established process for ensuring the results of archaeological excavations are carefully recorded and deposited in a logical place and we try keep archives from the same site together. Victorian archaeologists usually had very different methods. Caves were frequently excavated with dynamite (none in the Manifold Valley luckily!) and specimens were sent all over the country for colleagues to examine. Frequently objects made their way into private collections rather than public museums.

Of course, many of these private collections eventually ended up in the public realm. The collections of ‘Barrow Knigjht’ Thomas Bateman (1821-1861) who excavated more than 100 Peak District barrows is at Museums Sheffield. Similarly many specimens of subfossil bone can be found at The Manchester Museum through the activities of Sir William Boyd Dawkins (1837-1929) at sites such as Victory Quarry, Doveholes and Windy Knoll, near Castleton.

Thomas Bateman, the ‘Barrow Knight’, excavated more than 100 barrows across Derbyshire, Staffordshire and Yorkshire. His collection is now with Museums Sheffield, Image (c) Museums Sheffield; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation. Creative Commons licence CC BY-SA.

Many of the bordering cities around the Peak District hold fragments of its archaeology. Alongside Stoke-on-Trent, Manchester and Derby there are also collections at Derby and Bolton. However, some objects have traveled much further from the Peak District. From its origins in the 18th century, archaeology was long the hobby of elites, many of them landed gentry. It wasn’t surprising then to see some objects had made their way into National Trust properties around the country.

The village of Warslow, Staffordshire was once owned by the Harpur-Crewe family of Calke Abbey. Some of the objects found on the estates made it down the family’s main residence, including a box of animal bones and teeth found in a nearby cave. Where was this cave? You guessed it! The Manifold Valley.

Calke Abbey, South Derbyshire, owned by National Trust. Image by xlibber Creative Commons CC BY-SA.

Other travellers include a Bronze Axe from Eyam, Derbyshire, now at Wallington, Northumbria. I still haven’t worked out the connection, but the Blacketts of Wallington were mine owners and may had a link with the lead-mining industry in Derbyshire.

My journey through the data is far from over – there are objects too in Oxford, London, and even Scotland. I can’t wait to update the blog in the future and share where else the trail is leading, and what fun things we can do with the data.

The project is managed by Buxton Museum and Art Gallery and funded through The British Museum’s National Programmes Scheme.

Archaeology

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery is the principal repository for archaeological material from Staffordshire.  The large archaeology collection includes artefacts which date from the prehistoric period right up to post-medieval ceramics from the sites of former local pottery manufactories. The latter complements the museum’s extensive ceramic collections.

Artefacts deemed to be Treasure as defined by the Treasure Act are acquired. The most high-profile of these is the Staffordshire Hoard – an Anglo-Saxon hoard of gold and silver artefacts – which is jointly owned with Birmingham City Council.

Archaeology Collections Online

Archaeology Collections Online

We have an ever-growing list of our archaeology collections available to view online.
Staffordshire Hoard

Staffordshire Hoard

The largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold ever found.
Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs

Leekfrith Iron Age Torcs

We did it! Thank you to the members of the public and numerous charitable trusts and organisations who helped us to bring the Leekfrith Iron Age torcs back to North Staffordshire where they belong and can be freely seen and enjoyed by all visitors to the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
Stoke-on-Trent Young Archaeologists’ Club

Stoke-on-Trent Young Archaeologists’ Club

Details about our Young Archaeologist's Club.
Money & Medals Network

Money & Medals Network

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery are a partner in the Money & Medals Network which is funded by Arts Council England and the British Museum's Partnership UK programme. [External Link]
Identifying Finds

Identifying Finds

How to contact us about identification queries. We also hold regular Finds Days in partnership with the Portable Antiquities Scheme's regional Finds Liaison Officer.
Deposition of Archaeological Archives

Deposition of Archaeological Archives

Information for archaeological projects and contractors who wish to deposit archaeological archives at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

Archaeology

The archaeology gallery showcases Staffordshire’s rich and diverse archaeological heritage from prehistoric technologies to daily life in a Roman household, medieval monasticism to the early potters of Burslem. It includes fascinating excavated material and exciting treasure finds from across the county.

Vlog: Meet Joe Perry, Local History Curator

Hello, welcome to the second of our Meet the Team video series where we quiz a member of the team and find out a bit more about their job and what makes the museum tick.

What is your name and job title?

My name is Joe Perry and I’m the Curator of Local History at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery

What are Local History Collections and What do you do as a Curator?

So, our Local History collection comprises of archaeology and social history. So the archaeology collections are mainly the result of archaeological excavations but also chance finds and metal detected finds. We work very closely with the Portable Antiquities Scheme to acquire various items of treasure, such as the Staffordshire Hoard and Leekfrith Torcs.

The social history side of our collection, erm, really looks at the domestic and working lives of people in The Potteries, particularly from the nineteenth century onwards though we do have one or two objects that are a little bit older.

As a curator my job really is to look after our collections, is to help develop and grow them, and it’s also to help give people access to those collections. So you know, exhibitions, research requests, getting things online, using social media and doing things like this really. Anything to bring our collections out and connect them with the people who are interested in them, or that want to use them in some way, or anyone for whom, you know, interaction with our collections can enrich their lives in some way.

How long have you worked at the museum?

I’ve been in my current role since August 2018. But I’ve been working for Stoke-on-Trent museums, on and off, for just under ten years.

What’s your favourite thing about working here?

For me, the best part of my job is being so close to so many incredible objects and getting the chance to share those objects and their stories with a really, really diverse audience. And the other thing I really enjoy about my job is the diversity of the collections. I look after everything from hand axes which are two hundred, maybe even three hundred thousand years old, through to items which were made only a few years ago. So it’s a huge range in there, very, very challenging and of course you can’t know it all it’s such a huge erm array of time periods that you know I’m learning everyday and that’s something I really enjoy as well.

What’s your favourite museum object?

Oooh that’s erm, that’s always a really difficult question to answer and I don’t want to sound like a cop out but I honestly don’t have a err individual favourite object. I do have quite a soft spot for a broken Bronze Age sword in our archaeology gallery, with a really interesting story. Erm, so you could check out our blog to find out more about that.

And now for some questions from you guys that you sent through on social media

Joanne on Facebook asks, “Have we learnt anything from the Staffordshire Hoard that we didn’t know previously about the Anglo-Saxons? Does it have any unique features?”

The Staffordshire Hoard has two unique features. Its size, it is the largest hoard of Anglo-Saxon gold and silver ever discovered, and also its character. It is unique in that it is almost entirely comprised of precious fittings from war gear, erm so, sword pommels and other fittings from sword hilts, pieces of at least one really, really high status helmet and this is very, very unusual to find a hoard of just that character, buried together in the ground and nothing like it has ever been found, it clearly has a very, very unique, special story behind it. Unfortunately we don’t know what that story is.

In terms of learning new things, obviously I think we learnt a lot about how the Anglo-Saxons are making some of these incredibly detailed objects. What’s great about the Hoard is that it’s damaged. It’s been very violently taken apart, you know, in how some of these of objects have been dismantled and so we can actually see how some of these nice gold pommel caps are made and we know maybe a little more about the manufacture than we did before and things like the projects to build replica helmets have been a really interesting bit of experimental archaeology to try and relearn some of the skills of those Anglo-Saxon smiths and craftspeople.

Tina asks, “What words did Anglo-Saxons use which have now died out?”

That’s a really interesting question, it’s not an area I have a great deal of expertise in, but there is one Old English word that I do really like, it’s a really fun word to say, and that is FRUMBYRDLING. Frumbyrdling means a young boy who’s growing his first beard.

Garry asks, “Will you be able to look into the cockpit of the Spitfire?”

The short answer Garry is yes, you will. We’re going to build a mezzanine level inside the new Spitfire Gallery, so either by going up there via the steps or the lift, you then look down into the cockpit of the Spitfire which will be kitted out fully, either with real or replica parts for the first time ever since it was donated to the City in 1972.

Charlotte asks, “How big is the Spitfire and how does this compare to modern planes?”

So I think in general fighter planes have grown a little bit, so to give you an example of that, Spitfires are just over nine metres long and typically just over eleven metres in terms of their wingspan. Our Spitfire has got a slightly shorter wingspan because it has clipped wings which is quite common for some late-war Spitfires. So our wingspan for our Spitfire is about more like just under ten metres. And similarly with the height, so on a Spitfire when it’s on the floor, the end of the propeller is the highest point and depending on the size of the propeller , depending on what type of Spitfire it is, it’s between three and three-and-a-half metres tall.

If you compare that to modern RAF Typhoons they have a wingspan of about eleven metres but a length of sixteen, and I think they’re over five metres high, so I think fighter planes have grown a little bit since the Second World War.

Julie asks, “When the Spitfire returns, will there be information on other planes designed by Reginald Mitchell in the gallery?”

Yes there will Julie, so for anyone who’s watching and doesn’t know, between 1920 and 1936, Mitchell designed no less than 24 aircraft, so it wasn’t just all about the Spitfire, and in fact in his lifetime, because he died early, aged only 42 in 1937, in his lifetime Mitchell was really known his designs of racing seaplanes which were very, very successful.

Now, our collections don’t have a lot of objects to do with Mitchell’s earlier, earlier parts of his career so we’re thinking of all kinds of interesting ways we can use animations and interactives to try and bring that story to life.

Pheasantsagenda asks, “What’s the most locally and culturally significant piece in the collections you manage?”

Erm, that’s a difficult question to answer. I guess it could be very, very subjective, though I would say, if you’re thinking specifically about local significance in The Potteries, erm I’d have to suggest something like the thousands and thousands of archaeological ceramics we have the collection. The sherds of pottery excavated from factory sites and waste tips. These are all really, really key sites which have helped us understand the development of the Staffordshire Potteries from what was a cottage industry to a world centre for ceramics.

So that’s it for our second Meet the Team video. I hope that’s been interesting. If you have any further questions or comments on what we’ve discussed in this video or other parts of the collections, do get in touch in the comments section or through other social media channels, I’d be happy to answer your questions and I look forward to our next video where we’ll be interviewing our Curator of Ceramics, Miranda Goodby.

Meet me at the Museum: Abby Taylor

I have spent most of my life in museums, one way or another. As a visitor, a volunteer and now as a member of staff. I remember going to The Potteries Museum with my parents and my grandparents as a child. In fact, it is my earliest museum memory. I loved spending time looking round the galleries, especially Local History and Archaeology. As I got older, this became me dragging them round galleries and museums. I was usually found several galleries behind everyone else, taking photos of everything in every case as well as all of the labels (pro tip: always take a photo of the labels).

Some of my museum photos. These are from the Ashmolean in Oxford but I have lots like this all the way around lots of museums.

For as long as I’ve known what archaeology means, I’ve wanted to work in archaeology or in museums. Well, apart from a brief, traitorous dalliance with palaeontology when I was about ten and obsessed with dinosaurs. (some things never change). I now have two jobs at The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, Visitor Services Assistant and Assistant Curator (Local History).

I still love dinosaurs…

Between being a dinosaur obsessed ten year old and a dinosaur obsessed nearly thirty year old I went to college (to do Archaeology and Geology) and university (to do Archaeology and Geology). Whilst at uni, I went to Horgabost on the Isle of Harris for two weeks to excavate an Iron Age wheelhouse. This was allowed because, despite its miles of quiet, unspoilt beaches, it does still have a pub. Archaeologists don’t dig if there’s not a pub.

The Isle of Harris
The Iron Age Wheelhouse I excavated at Horgabost on the Isle of Harris

After university I decided I’d like to do some more university so I stayed on at The University of Birmingham to do a PhD. My thesis is on the use of finds made by members of the public (like metal detectorists) in archaeological research. It’s a subject that’s important to me because some archaeologists can still be slightly derogatory towards metal detectorists and I think it’s important to foster good relations to make the most of
the objects that they find. Not many people would understate the importance of something like the Staffordshire Hoard (which I queued to see at both Birmingham and The Potteries Museums).

In 2016 I joined the museum as a Visitor Services Assistant and then in October last year I got a position as Assistant Curator of Local History funded by the John Ellerman Foundation. I love both of my jobs. No two days are the same. As a Visitor Services Assistant I help to engage the public with the collections and make sure they get the most out of their visit. As Assistant Curator I’ve been working with the Local History collections,
documenting them, processing archives that are sent in from archaeological contractors and getting as much of the collection as possible online. I’ve spent a lot of time in the stores, going through the archives and tidying up the records we have. It’s all stuff that would have made ten year old me very excited (actually, it makes twenty nine year old me
very excited).

Some of the finds from Stapenhill, the site of an Anglo-Saxon cemetery, that I have been cataloguing

It’s great when we see families come in to the museum because it takes me back to my own childhood. It’s a brilliant place to learn and gain a love for history and museums. After all, I spent a lot of time in them growing up and I turned out okay!

How to Explore the Museum from Home

It’s strange times we’re living in, and many of us are joining the working-from-home club or entering periods of social isolation. While our museum doors may be temporarily closed to the public, we’re fortunate enough that the wonders of the internet has made keeping everyone in touch easier than ever, and we’ll be using our social media channels to ensure that you’ll still have access to our amazing stories and objects from the comfort of your own home.

Even while the museum is open, only a tiny proportion of our approximately 750,000 objects can be on display at any one time so many of our treasures aren’t available to view. That’s why our curators are always working hard to make our collections accessible through other means, and we’ll be producing more online content than ever before over the next few weeks. Did you know that you can already explore thousands of our objects, and even browse the galleries themselves, from the comfort of your own device?

In July 2017, the galleries of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery were captured by the Google StreetView Team. So you can stroll through the museum on your own private viewing – check it out on our website: www.pmag.org.uk/virtual-gallery-tour/

Our website also hosts our collections online. At the time of writing over 4,000 of our museum treasures can be viewed as part of our Online Collections, and we’ll be working hard to add more in the coming weeks. You can even add your own descriptive tags to help other users find things they may be interested in, or leave a comment for our curators.

Another resource is Exploring the Potteries, which allows you to search resources from across Stoke-on-Trent and Staffordshire County Council by exploring local maps. Find out about pottery, maps and photographs from near where you live!

Our Fine Art collection can be browsed through a partnership with ArtUK and ancient treasure held at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and other archaeological institutions can be browsed via the Portable Antiquities Scheme at https://finds.org.uk/. Our Peak District archaeology collections can also be browsed at Wonders of the Peak, hosted by Derbyshire County Council.

And of course, you can keep up to date with the work we’re doing behind the scenes and current projects, such as the restoration of the City’s Spitfire, on our museum blog.

So be sure to follow our Facebook and Twitter feeds to keep up to date with our work as we strive to make more and more of our collections accessible online.

Young Archaeologists’ Club: Volunteer Assistants Required

We are looking for enthusiastic volunteers to work with Stoke-on-Trent Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC), helping to provide regular archaeology-themed activities for 8-16 year olds.

Activities usually take place at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.

What tasks and activities does this involve?

  • Working with the YAC Leader (Curator of Local History), and other Assistants, to support and supervise 8-16 year old YAC members during activity sessions.
  • Following current Young Archaeologists’ Club policies and procedures.
  • Helping the Leader to design and deliver an inclusive and accessible programme that meets the needs and aspirations of YAC members.
  • Helping the Leader to ensure the health, safety and welfare of everyone in the club.
  • Other specific duties agreed with the Leader and with their support and supervision; this could be, for example, writing content for blog posts or YAC website.

What will you gain by being a YAC Assistant?

Being a YAC Assistant can be great fun, and can get you closer to some brilliant local archaeology. You’ll have the chance to get better at:

  • managing groups of young people
  • working in a team
  • communicating with people of all ages and abilities
  • planning and delivering safe, exciting learning experiences

and to develop your understanding of:

  • learning styles and abilities
  • health and safety
  • child protection, and
  • (last but not least) archaeology!

What are the requirements for becoming a YAC Assistant?

YAC Assistants must agree to undergo a criminal record check every three years. They must be at least 16 years old. YAC Assistants come from a wide range of backgrounds and have many and varied skills, including:

  • Enthusiasm for working with young people, and the ability to be a good role model.
  • Enthusiasm for archaeology.
  • The ability to work in a team.
  • The ability to follow the instructions and guidance of the YAC Leader.

What support do YAC Assistants get?

YAC Assistants should go to their Leaders in the first instance for support or with questions, but are also very welcome to approach YAC HQ. YAC Assistants can join YAC’s email network and Facebook group, where you can discuss any issues with other YAC volunteers. YAC organises face-to-face and online training sessions on a range of topics as funding allows, and YAC HQ will send out information about these as they arise.

How much time does being a YAC Assistant take up, and when?

We hold activity sessions once a month on Saturday mornings, usually from 10:30am – 12:30pm. In addition to these activity sessions, YAC Assistants may also spend time planning activities, taking care of branch administration, communicating with the YAC team and with YAC HQ. We estimate that YAC Assistants give an average of five or six hours a month each, but this will vary depending on how tasks are organised.

How do I apply?

To apply, please get in touch with YAC Leader Joe Perry – or 01782 232585.

Stoke-on-Trent Young Archaeologists’ Club

PLEASE NOTE – our membership is fully subscribed, but get in touch if your child would like to be put on our waiting list.

We are looking for Volunteer Assistants to join us in running Stoke-on-Trent YAC. Find out more.

Stoke-on-Trent YAC is open to everyone aged 8–16 years. YAC clubs get involved in all sorts of activities, including visiting and investigating archaeological sites and historic places, trying out traditional crafts, taking part in excavations, and lots more.

Stoke-on-Trent YAC is based at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent. The club usually meets once a month. It is an affiliated club of the YAC network, and is run by staff and volunteers at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, which is run by Stoke-on-Trent City Council.

Membership currently costs £24.00 per year and renews each January.

If you’d like to get involved with Stoke-on-Trent YAC, or find out more about how the club is run, get in touch with the team using the details below:

Contact: Joe Perry (Curator of Local History)
Tel: 01782 232539
Email:

You can find out more about Stoke-on-Trent YAC, and other branches, on the YAC website.

Volunteering Opportunities

Volunteer project, arranging the Warren moth collection into taxonomic order

Volunteer project to arrange the Freer moth collection into taxonomic order

The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery is supported by an amazing group of dedicated volunteers. Whether it’s organising fossils, digitising watercolour paintings or engaging visitors with fascinating objects, there are a wealth of unique opportunities to support our collections and events. If you’re interested in becoming a part of our story, get in touch or check this page for any available opportunities. We are only able to offer volunteer work to people aged 18 or over.

Visitor Survey Volunteers

We’re currently looking for some enthusiastic volunteers to help us carry out visitor surveys. This important role is crucial in guiding our future programming and ensuring we continue to deliver engaging exhibitions and events to our visitors. If you’re interested, please get in touch with Mel Firman, Audience Development Manager at

Young Archaeologists’ Club Assistants

We are looking for enthusiastic volunteers to work with Stoke-on-Trent Young Archaeologists’ Club (YAC), helping to provide regular archaeology-themed activities for 8-16 year olds.

This path one time long time ago

This exhibition comes from a collaboration between myself, the Natural History department of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery and AirSpace Gallery. It comes from a long term project that AirSpace has undertaken regarding the brownfield sites in and around Stoke-on-Trent. So the invitation was to think about the brownfield sites and the Natural History Museum. I did a residency in the summer of 2017 in AirSpace Gallery where I had the chance to explore the brownfield sites and also the Museum’s collection and archives. This was a great way to think about the complexity of their relation. I worked very closely with Glenn Roadley who is the museum´s Natural History curator. I see the brownfield sites as a see through limit in the city and society. They are fenced out to prevent people from entering so they become thriving ecologies of all sorts of plants and animals which are allowed to grow without much of our control or planning. Of course in them we find all sorts of discarded objects that people throw into them. So it is a repository of sorts of both nature and culture. We are able to see how plants reproduce and spread out across the space challenging harsh conditions and materials such as tarmac and concrete. I am interested in these sites from the interactions between nature and culture. There is also of course the issue of land ownership, how much time has to pass in order for a site to be reconsidered as a green area of the city or for people to use freely? Or what is the purpose of having a site fenced down for people not to use for 15 years and where nothing else is happening. Natural History museums are places where we get a lot of our ideas about nature, so that´s why I was interested in trying to use the museum almost as a material and to use some connections that are already being made.

I have been working in relation to science in a number of ways, particularly responding to devices of display or devices of `knowing´ and describing the natural world. This interest has led me to develop ways to respond to certain devices such as the aquarium, the greenhouse, cabinets of curiosities, herbaria, and the diorama. This exhibition was a unique opportunity for me to propose a site responsive work that delves into the museum context. The fact of working with the regulations, limitations and also possibilities of the museum was a learning process that became an important part of the work. For example the fact of freezing every organic object for at east two weeks before entering the collection so nothing living was left in it seemed really fascinating and revealing of relations between life and death that are present in the museum. So I had to be much more planned and organized in my decisions that made me reconcile advance planning with intuition. When you make work in relation to science but that has been shown in an art context is something I was much more used to, even when collaborating with scientists for specific projects in the past. But the fact of showing and making work in a science context made me question the role of art in that context. I had recently made a work that was a deconstruction of the Natural History Museum but I think it wouldn’t have worked in the Natural History gallery as it did in an art context. So the work needed a different kind of radicalness and that had a lot to do with being able to use what the museum had already made. My intention was to propose a cross- pollination of different departments from the Museum. So the Natural History collection permeated into the Local History displays, the ceramic collection went into Natural History, and to modify the existing Dioramas was crucial in the sense that it reflected for me the role of art in this context. How to disrupt the order of things, or propose new ways of looking and thinking through disciplines. Perhaps it has to do with the lack of certainty in art practice, or the sense of humour and other dimensions of thought that are less present in the most exact sciences. The first works I ever did which I still like where collages made with paper merging images of landscapes and anatomy books. The definition that Max Ernst elaborates about collage (1) has been always relevant for me but also felt important in the way I wanted to use the museum displays and collections.

This intervention came from a constant fascination I have of old pictures of the making of Natural History Dioramas. There is something about the artifice when its made visible that reveals some sort of fictional construction, the idea of nature as a construct. I think dioramas in this sense are places where science meets fiction. They are idealizations of nature, or places where we both manifest but also educate about the idea we have about nature. I wanted to challenge this device revealing the artifice emphasizing on the theatricality of the museum. The animals already had poses that suggested a response so it was about making it look as if the lights from the ceiling had collapsed. But because the animals are responding to this event they appear to be still conscious. I think there is a fundamental problem rooted in the consideration of ourselves as humans as situated outside our own definition of nature, we are here and nature is over there. This today is challenged by the current anthropocene era were it is no longer possible to find anything unaffected by human activity. This work for me became an attempt to visualize our stubbornness in our approach and relation to other species. If the pre-cinematic device of the Diorama is an old device for knowing that we still insist on then what would a more philosophically accurate one look like?

I am fascinated by a story I read about the English Naturalist and Architect Frank Stainbridge. He was one of the assistants accompanying Alexander Von Humboldt in his expeditions through the tropics and Latin America. In the 19th Century Stainbridge brought back to England his own collection of plant specimens and organised building a hothouse specially designed to fit his collection of plants gathered in the voyages throughout the American continent. The result was a very intricately designed cast iron building with glass and heating to maintain the plants in this new and much colder environment. There are a number of testimonies by visitors to this exclusive greenhouse when it was open to a selected few. For many this was the only way to experience what the tropics were like in the northern hemisphere inside an artificially created environment. After a violent storm the glass broke and the plants died of exposure to the winter in the north of England. After some years he decided to reconstruct the greenhouse but this time replacing the original plants with hand-made ones. He hired many craftsmen to help in this very ambitious endeavour that resulted in over 3000 manmade specimens that to his words were “free from decay and death” (2). This had a great response from its visitors that can be read in their testimonies when they experienced this replication of nature. After a while a religious fanatic burned it all to the ground because he believed it was an offense to God for trying to mimic his powers. So that was the end of it, but after Frank Stainbridge died some researchers started going through his correspondence and found out that in the first version of the greenhouse he showed plenty of “fake” plants along the live ones because many of them died in the journey; and in the second version he showed plenty of real plants among the fake ones. The important thing to me is that no one knew about this and therefore experienced a kind of hybrid between nature and culture that only he knew about. This is what I find particularly interesting about this story and that I had in the back of my mind when thinking about this work. It is the consideration of taxidermy as a cultural artefact, as a representation of an animal more than an actual animal even if it´s made using it´s real skin. So they are given the same consideration as the ceramic birds from the museum´s vast collection of ceramics. The ceramic birds are placed both merging into and also disrupting the display, they are positioned in relation to the taxidermies which appear to be perhaps frightened or intrigued by them.

This work is one of two vitrines that I used to place sculptures using materials found in the brownfield sites. I was very inspired by the metal armatures used to hold precious objects in collections. So I wanted to create something between museum metal armature stands for artefacts and early modernist sculpture. With found objects from the brownfield site which were previously discarded by other people the idea of assigning meaning and value bringing them to the museum was important. Almost like an archaeology of contemporary garbage and debris. The first museums in history that where the cabinets of curiosities now seem to hold everything from treasure to trash, just because our ways of ordering have changed so much since they were invented. It made me think about systems of value. About the consideration of something as trash or worthy of attention in a museum. The brownfield sites are in a way discarded by urban planning.

This work was the second of 2 vitrines. It was made with fragments of plant life found in the brownfield sites that where frozen for 2 weeks in order to enter the museum. This gave them a very particular colour and texture. I was focused on the vitrine as a device of knowing and display and the relationship between the natural and the artificial. A very abstract hybrid between plants and some sort of architecture. It also came after working with scale models to build large scale sculptures and realization of the potential of the scale models to be considered as sculpture. So I followed on from that to make this work.

This mobile sculpture is a deconstruction of a diorama where every object is expanded into space. Every object is also balanced in a fragile relation to all of the rest. This idea of weight and balance between all the parts is a physical metaphor for ecology. The animal form is a taxidermy mannequin used nowadays in the taxidermy process to achieve an accurate muscle structure, which is not meant to be seen unless you are part of the making of a diorama or taxidermy. The objects also where found on the brownfield sites. It insists in conforming an image even though its always shifting, as our ways of thinking about ecology are also constantly changing, or ecology is constantly changing while we keep trying to understand it.

By bringing local wildlife taxidermies from the Natural History collection into the Local History Dioramas I was trying to, perhaps it is impossible, think in an animal logic. The dioramas depict human living environments such as a Victorian House and a Pub. I tried to imagine what they would look like if humans were suddenly not there anymore and animals started to take over. There is something perhaps scary about sharing our living built environment with wild animals. Maybe it is their indifference towards our material culture that scares us because we believe so much in it. That friction between what is considered wild and what is considered civilized was very important, to see what happens when you dissolve the threshold between the inside and the outside.

Rodrigo Arteaga

  1. “The collage technique is the systematic exploitation of the accidentally or artificially provoked encounter of two or more foreign realities on a seemingly incongruous level – and the spark of poetry that leaps across the gap as these two realities are brought together.” Max Ernst. https://www.modernamuseet.se/stockholm/en/exhibitions/max-ernst/collage-frottage-grattage/2 The greenhouse effect. Serpentine Gallery, Apr 1, 2000 – Art, British – 82 pages.