The Anglo-Saxons used complicated animal patterns to decorate the Staffordshire Hoard. They can sometimes be difficult to understand. This picture shows some of the decoration from the Hoard. Can you spot, in the picture below, some of the parts usually found in Anglo-Saxon animal art?
Long jaws biting itself or another animal
Pear shaped thighs
Round oval shaped eyes
We think that some of the animals that the Anglo-Saxons used as decoration had special meanings.
Birds were probably meant to be ravens or eagles. Both of these birds were linked to Odin (King of the Norse gods and the god of wisdom and magic). Eagles might have been used to represent victory like they had to the Romans. The Anglo-Saxons believed birds could communicate with the gods and that they could predict the future.
As well as birds, boars have also been linked with Odin. They might have been used on weapons like in the Hoard for protection. An Anglo-Saxon helmet from Benty Grange in Derbyshire has a boar crest on the top which probably was believed to protect the wearer in battle. The statue of an Anglo-Saxon warrior in the museum foyer has a boar on the crest of his helmet. Boars can also be fierce animals and could have been used on helmets to intimidate the enemy.
Fish were used by the Anglo-Saxons for protection on shields. When the Anglo-Saxons became Christian, they carried on using fish as a Christian symbol. We don’t know exactly which fish they were showing but they might have been pike. Pike are aggressive predators, exactly the kind of qualities you would need going into battle.
Snake like creatures are described in epic poems like Beowulf as fearsome monsters that have to be defeated by the hero. But snakes could also be for protection and healing. Snakes were also used in Christianity as symbols of evil and temptations. In Anglo-Saxon art snakes are used in complicated twisting patterns and knotwork. Some of these are so complicated that it is difficult to see the animal parts. You might be able to spot the same sort of jaws and eyes as on the first picture.
Hello Potty Gardeners, we hope you are all staying safe.
We can’t get out into the Secret Garden at the museum at the moment, but there are plenty of gardening things you can do at home.
The first thing to do is stay safe; wear gardening gloves if you have them, check your hands for cuts and put on a plaster if you need. Be careful around anything sharp, like thorns. Check with a grown up!
This time of year there are lots of different insects coming into the garden. This is really important. Insects help to pollinate flowers. It’s not only bees that do this, beetles and moths and other mini beasts also help. But not all insects are helpful in the garden.
So today we are going on our first Backyard Safari to try and find out what insects you have in your garden. Don’t worry if you don’t have much of a garden, you can find insects and spiders in lots of places.
Here is a picture of a beetle found in my garden:
This is a lily beetle. It’s very bright, as you can see. Orange and red colours flash a warning to birds and other animals that may try to eat them – it says “I do not taste very nice, leave me alone!”
The lily beetle got its name because it is found on lilies and fratilleries (another flower). It eats these plants and lays its eggs on them.
So is the lily beetle good or bad for the garden? It’s certainly a pretty beetle, so I leave them alone if they are not doing to much damage to my plants.
Why don’t you see if you can find a beetle in your garden, and take a photograph of it? Write down where you found it, for example under a plant pot, on a twig, in the soil. Try to identify it, do you think it’s good or bad for your garden and plants?
Written by Rob Gagliano, Casual Learning Development Leader and Natural Science Collections Volunteer
The Art of the Staffordshire Hoard
Since its discovery in 2009, the decoration of the Staffordshire Hoard has attracted much attention. The remarkable craftsmanship of the Anglo-Saxons produced stunning and intricate designs through casting, filigree (delicate wire work) and garnet cloisonné (cut gemstones separated by strips of gold). The designs in the hoard are typical of Germanic (a diverse group of non-Roman tribes) decoration. They are frequently zoomorphic, that is composed of animal designs. These designs may have had a symbolic function as well as being purely decorative.
The art of the Staffordshire Hoard is predominantly what is known as Anglo-Saxon Style II. This involves animals in fluent, ribbon-like structures, often interlaced. It was rapidly adopted in the late sixth century by powerful elites to display their wealth and identity. The Staffordshire Hoard is possibly one of the best examples of elite Style II metalwork decoration. Spears were the most common weapon in Anglo-Saxon England and so a collection of sword, seax and other weapons fittings such as the Staffordshire Hoard would have belonged to a collection of extremely elite warriors. But how did this style develop and what were its influences?
In many ways, the Anglo-Saxon art of the Staffordshire Hoard takes its ultimate inspiration from Roman art. The earliest Anglo-Saxon settlers in fifth century Britain would have come across Roman culture and objects. There was also contact between the two cultures prior to this. Germanic soldiers fought in the Roman army and Stilicho, the son of a Germanic officer was at one time the most influential man in the Western Roman Empire. So-called ‘barbarian’ tribes would have come across Roman objects and decoration. Roman trade across Europe often included feasting equipment, glassware, weapons and armour. Friezes on many of these types of items included hunting scenes, foliage and human faces. These may have influenced Germanic craftsmen. Late Roman military belt buckles were influential in Anglo-Saxon decorative styles as well as Roman coinage. Visitors to the Staffordshire Hoard gallery at the museum often comment that the helmet reconstruction looks Roman. We do not know for sure that the helmet had a red horse hair crest but it remains a best guess based on the colours that dominate the hoard and other ancient helmets. All other known Anglo-Saxon helmets were inspired by Roman ones. It may be that the Anglo-Saxons deliberately invoked Roman design to portray themselves as the rightful inheritors of Roman Britain. They also made pendants from old Roman coins and the choice of red garnets may have been inspired by Roman military colours.
Saxon Relief Style
The first Germanic art style found in Anglo-Saxon England is the fifth century Saxon Relief Style. This style is heavily influenced by Roman decoration and uses geometrical patterns, classical borders, scrolls and animal elements. The Saxon Relief style came from northern Germany and is typically found in southern England, meaning we have none in the museum collection.
The Quoit Brooch Style
Like the Saxon Relief Style, the Quoit Brooch Style derives from the decoration of late Roman military metalwork. Quoit Brooch Style artefacts are predominantly found in Kent and the wider southern and eastern area of England. This has been linked by some archaeologists to immigrants from Jutland in Denmark, however, this is not necessarily accurate. The decoration uses similar scroll and animal motifs to the Saxon Relief Style.
Style I art was named by the Swedish scholar Bernhard Salin and is sometimes thought of as the first purely Germanic style in England. Style I uses a range of animal and human motifs including elliptical eyes and pear-shaped thighs that are still clearly visible in the Style II art of the Staffordshire Hoard. Style I developed from earlier Germanic artwork and, ultimately the Roman and Quoit Brooch Style decoration seen in England. It began in Scandinavia in the early fifth century and had developed in England by the late fifth century. The style is sometimes called Tiersalat or animal salad because of its fragmented images! In England, Style I art developed a distinctive, anthropomorphic, look. This can be seen in the human mask which is visible in the fragment of a brooch or mount from the museum collection.
Style I art developed some regional variations. Whereas examples from Kent often began to use garnet inlay and in East Anglia spiral ornament dominates, in the Midlands designs are often more crowded and have swirling elements showing their Roman origins. By the late sixth century, the immediate descendant of Style I art had begun to appear in southern England.
As the Style II decoration we see in the hoard developed, the ‘animal salad’ of Style I became a much more flowing, sinuous style of animal decoration. The ribbed bodies of animals became thinner and elongated with beasts interlocking, biting one another with their long jaws. As with Style I, regional styles developed. In East Anglia filigree is rare and elaborate garnet cloisonné is seen. This style influenced the decoration of manuscripts. In Kent, Style II art was more often twisting filigree animals.
Style II animals have the same ribbon-like bodies and pear-shaped legs as in Style I – compare the animals on the seax hilt-plate from the Staffordshire Hoard to the Style I mount from Rutland – but have become more flowing. The decoration on the hilt-plate is similar to later examples on Christian manuscripts like The Book of Durrow.
In other example of Style II art in the hoard, the animals have become even more flowing and abstract to the point they are often difficult to recognise. On the pommel cap below the zoomorphs eyes can be seen at the end of their sinuous bodies in shapes similar to those seen in Style I.
Behind the Scenes: Curiouser and Curiouser
My name is Helen and I’m the Design Services Officer here
at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. I’ve worked here for 23 years and my
role is to design the look, colour scheme and graphics of the exhibitions and
displays we put on at the museum.
The Museum may be closed at the moment but that doesn’t
stop us from working from home to bring you new exhibitions once we’re open
I’m writing this to tell you about our next exciting summer
family exhibition myself and colleagues are currently putting together for you.
The exhibition is called Curiouser and Curiouser, Alice’s Adventures in a Museum Wonderland. This exhibition coincides with the 200th Anniversary of the birth of the Illustrator Sir John Tenniel, who is especially known for his illustrations to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the children’s book by Lewis Carroll.
In this exhibition, we are using a combination of museum
objects combined with John Tenniel’s black and white illustrations to tell the
story of Alice.
We start with selecting objects from across all of the collections that will help tell the story. It is then my job to bring the objects together with extra props, sounds and activities for you to do in a layout which brings the story to life, and makes the exhibition engaging and learning about the objects fun. In the promotional graphic I’ve designed below, to name a few, you can see John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter wearing one of the hats from our decorative Arts collection, Alice peering behind a curtain to see one of our CW Brown prints from the Art collection, plus the herald and mouse in a teapot from our Ceramics collection.
If you haven’t read the story of Alice in Wonderland – it tells of a young girl named Alice who falls asleep sitting on a river bank and has the most curious dream, which starts by her following a white rabbit. Following the rabbit she manages to fall down a rabbit hole and has some amazing adventures there meeting many strange characters like a caterpillar smoking a pipe, and a vanishing Cheshire cat. She drinks and eats several things which make her change size unexpectedly going from very small to very large. She takes part in a caucus race judged by a dodo, meets a Duchess, with a baby that becomes a pig, then she attends a tea party with the Mad Hatter. She opens a little door with a gold key and goes through it to find herself in a beautiful garden where gardeners are painting the roses red and the queen of hearts is playing croquet with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for croquet balls. Alice is then called as a witness in the trial of the Knave of Hearts, who is accused of having stolen the Queen’s tarts. Finally she awakens from her dream and is once again on the river bank with her sister.
We have lots of things in store for you with this exhibition. As well as items from the collections we have a large white rabbit, mushroom and caterpillar, and a tiny door to open, all made by another member of the exhibitions team. You’ll be able to see the animals in our collections taking part in a caucus race and the trial of the Knave of Hearts and sit round the mad hatters table. Plus, there’ll be a croquet lawn for you to play croquet on, just like the queen of Hearts did in the story, and lots of dressing up and some colouring in.
In the exhibition we’ll be asking you to colour in some white roses to help the gardeners change the colour of them to red, so they don’t get in trouble with the Queen. If you would like to colour in one of the roses now and bring it in to add to our rose wall when the exhibition is open please print out a template, colour it in and with the help of an adult, cut it out ready to stick on our wall.
The exhibition was
planned to be opening on 16 May but due to the current situation the start date
is likely to change so we’ll keep you posted. While you’re waiting for the
exhibition to open, why don’t you read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll.
Helen Cann, Design
Services Officer, The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery
Vlog: Meet Glenn Roadley, Natural Science Curator
Hello everyone, and welcome to the first in what will hopefully be a series of videos from behind the scenes at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery in Stoke-on-Trent. Each week we’ll quizzing a different member of our team to find out just what makes the museum tick. In this first episode I’ll be interviewing – myself.
What is your name and job title?
My name is Glenn Roadley, and I’m Curator of Natural Science at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery.
What are Natural Science Collections and What do you do as a Curator?
My role in a nutshell is to care for and provide access to the approximately 150,000 specimens in our Natural Science Collections – that’s the plants, rocks, dead animals. Natural Science Collections are an incredible resource. They give people the chance to get up close to nature and to see the diverse range of wildlife that can be found on their doorstep. I hope that they encourage our visitors get outside and appreciate and protect nature.
The collections themselves are used for display, education, inspiration and science. Each specimen comes with information about when and where it was collected. When data from historical collections are combined with modern surveys and collections we can see how a species distribution might have changed over time. This could be compared with factors such climate change or habitat loss to see how wildlife has been affected and better inform future environmental decisions.
And of course, physical specimens can also be used in science requiring the study of anatomy or DNA.
So, whilst some people may find the collecting of dead animals to be a bit macabre, they’re actually vital in protecting the animals which are still alive.
My job involves ensuring that each specimen in our collection is recorded in our digital catalogue, that they are organised and stored in a way that allows them to be easily found. I monitor their condition and make sure they are safe pest damage or unsuitable climate conditions (such as unstable temperature or humidity). I plan and contribute to our programme of exhibitions and displays, attend educational outreach events, manage collection donations and loans.
I also have a couple of ‘extra-curricular’ roles – I sit as Staff Representative for the Friends of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery, an independent charity which supports the museum, and I sit on the committee of the Natural Sciences Collections Association, a charity which supports natural history collections and the people who work with them.
How long have you worked at the museum?
I’ve worked at PMAG since September 2016. Before that I was a Natural Science Collections Assistant in Sheffield.
What’s your favourite thing about working here?
The variety – I can be cataloguing vials of spiders one day and teaching a bunch of kids about monitor lizards the next. As a Curator of such a broad collection no two days are the same.
What’s your favourite museum object?
I’d probably have to go with our fossil fish head. We think this is a fish called Rhabdoderma – we know it was rescued by a member of the public when it was thrown out from a museum in Burton-on-Trent in the 1950s, and donated to us in 2016, but other than that we have no information of where it came from. There is tragically a nice rectangular mark where an information label used to be. It’s probably a local specimen due to the species and rock type – it’s from coal measures like those on which Stoke-on-Trent is built, between 300 and 360 million years old. Fossils are often squashed due to pressure over millions of years, but this specimen retains an amazing 3D preservation. It’s not currently on display but I hope to change that soon.
And now we have some questions from our social media channels…
How many different species of animals, birds, fish and insects are stored in the museum?
No idea – we’re still counting! Of our 150,000 objects, about 81,000 are individually registered on our database. About 55,000 of those are animals. The rest are plants, fungi, rocks, minerals and fossils. At the moment there’s no easy way to get a species count out of our database, it would take a few hours wrangling with the data. Sorry! It’s definitely going to be in the 10s of thousands.
Is your focus entirely local (flora, fauna, geology)? If so, does this create tension with a demand to see more ‘exotic’ items e.g. dinosaurs?
Yeah, they say ‘nature knows no boundaries’, but our Collections Development Policy does. We don’t have unlimited space so have to be choosy when collecting. Our biological collections are mostly focused on Staffordshire, with much of the geology covering the West Midlands to provide a wider context. We are regularly asked why we don’t have any dinosaurs – as you might know, the rocks under Stoke-on-Trent are too old for dinosaurs so we don’t find any around here. We do have some exotic specimens in our Discovery Zone part of the Natural Science Gallery to help put our local specimens into context within the greater tree of life, such as our fruit bat skeleton, and we’ve worked with local artists to produce a dinosaur sculpture from recycled materials. While not a real skeleton, I still think it’s pretty cool!
I’m keen to hear a bit about the stuffed animals and how old some of them are (convinced that squirrel 🐿 has been on display since I was a kid… )
So we have about 5000 taxidermy mounts (stuffed animals) in our collection, mostly birds and mammals. They’re made by skinning the animal and positioning the skin around a model. It’s difficult to do well and not something we do in house at the museum. It requires a lot of specialist knowledge, knowledge of anatomy and artistic skill. The oldest specimens are from the mid-1800s. They were part of the North Staffordshire Field Club Collection when their specimens because the basis of the Natural History Collection at the Hanley Museum & Art Gallery which opened on Pall Mall in 1908.
We’re often asked why we killed all the animals – but we don’t kill animals for display. All of our modern taxidermy is ethically sourced. People donate animals that have died of natural causes or have been a victim of things like a car collision or a cat.
The squirrel – I presume you mean the one sitting in the tree hollow on open touchable display? Yeah, that’s definitely seen better days. That one was acquired by the museum in 2002 and has been on display since 2008. It’s looking well-loved now so we have commissioned a fresh specimen and swapping them around is on the to-do list!
How are fossils made?
Fossils are the remains of plants or animals that have been basically turned to stone over millions of years, preserving the shape of the original. It works best if the newly dead-soon to be fossil falls to the bottom of some water. The rocks around Stoke-on-Trent are about 300 million years old, and around that time The Potteries were under tropical shallow seas and swamp forests. All this shallow water provided the perfect environment for fossils to form – as the dead things fell to the bottom, they got covered up with mud and sediment over millions of years. The mud compacts and turns into rock, and the organism underneath begins to rot and dissolve away. As it does, the spaces left behind get filled in by minerals in the water, creating a rock in the shape of the dead plant or animal. By the time this happens, most of an animal will have rotted away, which is why we usually only find fossils of hard things, like bones, teeth and scales.
I’d recommend you have a look online for more info because there’s probably some great diagrams and videos out there that explain it better than I can!
What’s the strangest thing in the collection?
Probably our mummified cats… we have two of them. They’re pretty modern, and were found in building roof spaces. Due to the dry conditions of where they died, they just naturally dried out and now have this weird hairless shrinkwrapped look to them. One is on display in the Discovery Zone of the Natural Science Gallery.
And with that I’m going to wrap up! Thanks so much for watching – be sure to let us know what you’d like to hear us ramble about in any future episodes, just pop something in the comments below.
You can keep up with what’s going on at the museum by following us on Facebook and Twitter.
New Acquisition to the art collection
Still Life with Pigeon (1928) by William Coldstream (1908-1987)
We are always very grateful that people generously offer us items for the museum collections. We were recently delighted by a gift of the painting, Still Life with Pigeon (1928) by William Coldstream (1908-1987). Coldstream was one of the most influential British painters of the 20th century, seen by many as a pioneer of new realism within the modern movement.
The son of a doctor, Coldstream was born in Belford, Northumberland on 28 February 1908 and grew up in north London. Educated locally, he attended the Slade School 1926-9, an institution with which he would be associated for most of his career and where he formed important friendships with such artists as Claude Rogers and Rodrigo Moynihan. In 1933 he held a joint exhibition with H.E. du Plessis, sponsored by the London Artists’ Association, at the Cooling Galleries; he first showed with the London Group in 1929, became a member in 1933 and showed sporadically until the late 1960s.
In 1934 Coldstream’s concern about the role of the artist in society and financial problems prompted him to join the GPO Film Unit under John Grierson, where his collaborators included W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten. He continued to paint, however, and an annual stipend from Kenneth Clark (in response to the Plan for Artists that Coldstream wrote with Graham Bell) enabled him to return to full-time painting in 1937. Later that year, he, with fellow realist artists Claude Rogers and Victor Pasmore, co-founded a School of Drawing and Painting, known as the Euston Road School, with which their circle would become synonymous. Believing that avant-garde art had lost touch with all but a small elite, they aimed to record the visible world in an objective manner and re-establish a connection between artist and public. Coldstream’s practice was based on an idea of ‘straight painting’ in which disinterested vision and precise measurement would replace the personal and subjective, thus creating a direct transcription of what the painter saw.
Coldstream wanted to develop a method of painting which objectively recorded the perceived world. This led to a painstaking process of measurement, transcription and slight adjustments. Coldstream rarely considered a work to be definitively finished. His tentative approach is made clear by the fact that his measuring marks remain visible across the surface of many of his portrait paintings, including the model’s skin. This element of doubt and hesitancy was related at the time to existentialist philosophy and had a parallel in the paintings of Alberto Giacometti. Though he became principally a portrait painter, Coldstream’s continued political commitment was witnessed by his 1938 painting trip with Bell to Bolton, Lancashire as part of Mass Observation’s social survey of Britain.
In 1940 he enlisted in the army and trained as a gunner until commissioned as an official war artist in 1943. He travelled to Egypt that year and to Italy in 1944. He returned home in July 1945 and joined several friends as a tutor at Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts in November. He became Head of Painting in 1948 but was appointed Slade Professor of Fine Art, University College, London the following year. Through his position at the Slade, Coldstream became a key art world official. He was a trustee of both the National Gallery (1948-63) and the Tate Gallery (1949-63), a director of the Royal Opera House (1957-62) and chairman of the British Film Institute (1964-71). Having chaired the Art Panel of the Arts Council of Great Britain (1953-62), he became Vice Chairman of the Council (1962-70). As Chairman of the National Advisory Council on Art Education (1958-71) he was said to have reshaped British art education through what became known as the First and Second Coldstream Reports (1960 and 1970).
These responsibilities, which were rewarded by a CBE in 1952 and a knighthood in 1956, and his famously slow working methods restricted Coldstream’s production to three or four paintings a year. As a result, he rarely showed his work: a touring retrospective in 1962 was his first one-person exhibition, though others followed in 1976 and 1984 at the Anthony d’Offay Gallery, London. He retired from the Slade in 1975 and, following some years of ill-health, died on 18 February 1987.
An early work, Still life with Pigeon is an interesting addition to the two other paintings we are fortunate enough to hold in the permanent collection by the artist: Giraffe House (1930) and Mrs G.A Auden (1936-7). Giraffe House ( also known as At The Zoo) was the second of two Regents Park subjects painted from drawings on at Coldstream’s studio at 76 Charlotte Street( formerly the old studio of the landscape painter John Constable ), the other being the Lion House. The picture demonstrates his command of tone, composition and chiaroscuro. Reminiscent of a stage set, the animals are bathed in a flood of light, the source of which is unknown while the audience is kept in darkness in front of the building’s proscenium arch. The woman on the left of the picture is Coldstream’s sister, Winifred and the person second from the left is the painter, Nancy Sharp, later his wife. Mrs G.A Auden painted at 42 Lordsworth Road, Harbourne, Birmingham represents Mrs Constance Rosalie Auden, mother of W.H Auden whom Coldstream called ‘the original dragon of his (Auden’s) middle-class mythology’ [Lawrence Gowing and David Sylvester, The Paintings of William Coldstream 1908-1987 (Exhibition Catalogue); Tate Trustees, Tate Gallery 1990]. The work was begun in the late autumn of 1936 and was commissioned by the poet who was intent on launching Coldstream back into full-time painting while they were both working at the G.P.O Film Unit. The portrait was completed by 19 January 1937.
As a group these works represent different aspects and the creative development of the artist’s oeuvre. The application of paint and muted tonal palette of the Still Life with Pigeon can be seen to develop through the other two paintings. For the first time in almost twenty years the three paintings have been reunited and can now be seen displayed together in the art gallery; they were last shown in public as part of the major retrospective exhibition and tour of the artist’s work organised by the Tate Gallery in 1990-1991. The paintings are a significant contribution to the body of works held in the collection by important British painters representing the development of British art in the first half of the 20th century. These include artists from the London Group, such as L.S Lowry and Walter Sickert, Wyndham Lewis from the Camden Town Group, and Coldstream’s fellow Slade School alumni such as William Orpen and C.R.W. Nevinson.
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.
“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.
Museum Treasures: Brown long-eared bat
Eleven species of bat have been recorded in Staffordshire and four of these – the common pipistrelle, the brown long-eared bat, the noctule and natterer’s bat – can be seen in the habitat displays in the natural history gallery. This is located on the ground floor of The Potteries Museum and Art Gallery in a permanent collection alongside other animals and habitat found in the county.
Bats are remarkable creatures in that they are the only mammals that are capable of true flight. Species that are found locally all eat insects and are most commonly seen at dusk and dawn. They hibernate in winter to conserve energy when food supplies are limited. In this country bats are regarded as endangered species and are protected by law.
One of the most easily identified common species is the brown long-eared bat. As the name suggests, they have distinctive large ears that are almost as long as their bodies. They begin hibernating in November and their favoured habitats are parkland, well-wooded farmland and urban areas with gardens.
The most common type of bat that you are most likely to see flying around built up areas is the pipistrelle. They are small, with adults weighing just 3 to 8 grams, but can live up to 16 years. Their hibernation period starts in about mid-October although, if there are warmer spells in the winter, some may wake up and fly out to look for food.
Why not visit the display in the natural history gallery at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery to see them for yourself?
A Snowy Owl held in the stored collections
The majority of the 100,000+ animals specimens are ones found in and around The Potteries. There are over 24,000 beetles, 5,000 bird eggs, 8,000 Staffordshire moths and 14,000 snails, as well as a comprehensive collection of birds and mammals from the region. All of our taxidermy is either historic or ethically sourced – which means it died naturally or accidentally (traffic or window collisions, or caught by a pet cat for example).
We look after around 15,000 plant specimens, the vast majority having been collected in Staffordshire. These include: about 6000 flowering plant specimens amassed by Eric S. Edees (the author of the 1972 ‘Flora of Staffordshire’); 2500 specimens collected by Reverend Henry P. Reader in the early 1900s mainly around Armitage, near Rugeley; over 1100 mosses and liverworts; and 350 ferns.
There are close to 2,000 fungi and lichen specimens in the collection, practically all of which were collected in Staffordshire.
The Natural Science collections held in museums across the world are important because they provide an invaluable scientific resource, a record of social activities and a means of getting close to objects that people would not normally see.
The biological and geological collections of The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery are used by researchers around the world in a variety of studies: genetic research (as plant and animal specimens contain DNA), the study of evolution (using fossil collections), research into rocks and minerals and as a means of establishing environmental change. In the past bird egg collections have been studied to determine the effects of pesticides on wild birds (by measuring the thickness of shells collected at different times) and a toe from the Potteries Museum’s water vole was used to establish relationships between populations of this endangered animal.
The Potteries Museum receives enquiries from scientists all over the world who are undertaking research. Many people arrange to visit special items in our collections and occasionally specimens are loaned to other organisations.
In total the Natural Science collections – plants, animals, fungi, rocks and fossils – number in the region of 150,000 specimens.