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Figure – Christ on the Cross
The ceramics gallery at the Potteries Museum has over 5,000 pieces on display. Some of them are very flamboyant and impossible to miss. Others are much more unassuming but in many instances, just as intriguing. Among them is this little model of Christ on the cross. Made in white salt-glazed stoneware it is, despite being only 4 ¼ inches high, remarkably detailed. On the front is a simply modelled figure of Christ crucified with his facial features and the nail holes in his hands and feet picked out in brown slip. Above him is a banner with the letters ‘INRI’ representing the Latin inscription ‘Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews’. Beneath his feet are a skull and crossed bones, bell and an hourglass. The reverse of this model has 10 roundels, four plain and six moulded with imaginary coats of arms. The date 1732 is incised on the base. As far as we know this piece is unique yet it represents a great deal of work.
The model came to the museum in 1965. It had been passed down through members of the Wood family who had married into the branch of the Wedgwood family that built the Big House, Burslem, and cousins of Josiah Wedgwood. The date of 1732 incised into the base of the model is an early one for white salt-glazed stoneware and puts its production within the period when Aaron Wedgwood (1666-1743) was working with his sons, John and Thomas. Ornamental and overtly religious wares are rare at this period since most of the pottery made was utilitarian kitchen, dairy or table ware. Its survival, in virtually perfect condition is remarkable but it was clearly always treasured.
Today Easter for many people is marked by buying and eating chocolate eggs but a few days after Easter Sunday nothing remains of all that confectionary. By contrast this small model of the crucifixion has survived for almost 300 years.
Hulloh! Our friend Ozzy has asked me to come and introduce myself. My name is Leo. I am a lion. It is my job to guard the Ceramics Gallery at night – I take great ‘pride’ in my work ho-ho! As you can see, I like to look smart and take care of my appearance. You would never guess I am over 300 years old.
I was made by Thomas Toft, a famous Staffordshire potter. I’m very lucky to be one of his designs. His patterns show kings, queens and many beautiful creatures. You will even find mermaids and unicorns on some of his plates.
When the museum closes at 5pm and everyone has gone home, I give a loud, booming roar to wake everyone up. There was a time when I roared so loud, Ozzy nearly toppled over. Watch our film again and when you see me, give your loudest, most fearsome ROAR! Time to go – the cow creamers have wandered off again and I have to count them all back in…one, two, three, four…Goodbye!…five, six…seven…
If you haven’t already seen Ozzy and friends in action, check them out below!
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 Ozzy & Friends
Hello! Your good friend Ozzy here.
I was so excited to be able to share my museum adventures with you in our film. We’re all thrilled you like it.
My friends do like to stretch their legs (and wings) when everyone has gone home. We do get up to a bit of mischief but I promise we are taking good care of the place while you’re away. I nearly got caught once. I was flapping around the Natural Science gallery, visiting my owl friends. Their servant Glenn came to check on them one morning before I’d made it back to my roost in Ceramics. I don’t think he saw me. You can meet Glenn over here.
If you haven’t yet met me in person, I’m Ozzy Owl. This film isn’t my first time on the silver screen – I appeared on The Antiques Roadshow when I was just a young owlet – I was only about 300 years old at that time. A star was born and everyone fell in love with me. I can’t believe that people from all over the world visit the museum to meet me.
Although I’m a superstar now, I try not to lose my head – it comes off, you know?! I’m actually a drinking vessel and you can use my head as a cup. Yes, I am multi-talented.
It’s time to fly now but soon I will be sending some of my friends along to introduce themselves. You can colour me in while you’re waiting for them.
Use the template below, and if you send your masterpiece to [email protected], we’ll include it in an online gallery!
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 again.
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
A Unique Memorial
Visitors to the museum last November (2018) may remember seeing our exhibition, For The Fallen, which was centered around a unique, painted wall hanging, created to commemorate and honour the 5th Battalion North Staffordshire Regiment. One year later, at this time of remembrance, I wanted to revisit the history and meaning of this special object.
What is it?
The wall hanging depicts a panorama of the battlefields fought over by the 5th North Staffords during the First World War together with a list of the names of 906 soldiers who lost their lives. It is painted on canvas normally used to make kitchen blinds and measures approximately 22 metres long and nearly 3 metres tall. The fabric was donated by Gordon Dyke of Bratt & Dyke’s department store in Hanley.
It was designed by Major Tom Simpson MC, who painted the canvas with the help of a team of artists in 1928.
As well as the grand panorama and roll of honour, the wall hanging contains many small details: snapshots of soldier’s lives in the trenches, rats scavenging for food, and adverts affixed to the walls of ruined towns and villages. Many of these scenes are based on real events sketched or witnessed by soldiers of the 5th North Staffords whilst serving on the Western Front.
Why was it made?
The first reunion of the 5th North Staffords took place in 1920 at King’s Hall, Stoke. The dinners became an annual event and it was proposed that a memorial canvas be created to mark the 10th anniversary in 1929. The banner design was the concept of Major Tom Simpson, who worked closely with a team of artists, at least two of whom (W. Sheard and Cyril Johnson) were also former members of the battalion.
Tom served with distinction in both World Wars and was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry in 1915. He was Chairman of the 5th North Staffords Old Comrades Association and Managing Director of Simpsons (Potters) Ltd of Cobridge. He was also President of the British Ceramic Society, Fellow of the Institute of Ceramics and founder member of the British Pottery Research Association. On his death in 1967 he was described in the Sentinel as ‘one of the outstanding personalities in the pottery industry’.
The hanging was first used in February 1929 and the last recorded use was in 1953. The Roll of Honour was added in the 1930s. The part played by the wall hanging during these dinners was described in moving detail in 1947:
The lights were extinguished and an arc light was switched on, and while drums rolled it slowly traversed the length of one of the walls of the large room upon which was stretched a composite landscape painting depicting in chronological panorama the various battle areas in which the unit served from 1914 to 1918.
And again in 1949:
[T]he room was plunged into darkness, and to the roll of drums a spotlight traversed up and down the panorama, picking out the famous battlefields. As the spotlight focused on the centre Cadet Force buglers heralded the 2-minute silence with the Last Post and afterwards sounded the Reveille.
Where is it now?
The banner is currently in the museum stores and is waiting to go out for conservation work – funded from the entrance fees from For the Fallen, and generous public donations.
Roll of Honour
In you can explore all 906 names on the Roll of Honour by clicking on the link below and downloading the image (right click, ‘save image as’).
The Pottery riots in Burslem, August 1842
In the ceramics collection here at PMAG there are three items closely connected with the riots of 1842, each given to one of the protagonists: the man in charge of the Burslem police force, George Ryles; Captain Thomas Powys who gave the order to fire on the rioters; and the Chartist orator, Thomas Cooper, who was convicted of conspiracy and inciting violence.
The summer of 1842 was a period of widespread colliery strikes across the north and midlands, including north Staffordshire. The strikes had affected the pottery factories, which were dependent on coal to fire their wares, and many pottery workers had their hours of work reduced, leading to great hardship. On 14th and 15th August 1842 the prominent radical writer and poet, Thomas Cooper, spoke at a number of open-air meetings in Stoke-on-Trent in support of the local colliers. Following his speech on the 15th August, a number of men marched through Hanley, Shelton, Stoke, Penkhull, Fenton and Longton destroying property and encouraging others to join them.
The riots continued through the night and the following morning a large crowd assembled in Burslem. Joseph Ryles, the Police Superintendent, quickly swore in a number of special constables, and Samuel Alcock, a leading pottery manufacturer and Chief Constable of Burslem, sent for Captain Powys, a local magistrate and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of the County.
Captain Powys repeatedly urged the crowd to disperse and read the Riot Act to them in the presence of fifty soldiers of the 2nd Dragoons who had arrived in the town. The troops, unsuccessfully, attempted several times to disperse the crowd, using the flats of their swords. Shortly after midday a large number of men arrived from Leek to join the local rioters. The troops and special constables were now attacked from several sides and Captain Powys gave the order to fire on the crowd. One man, Joseph Heapy, was killed outright and many others were injured. The rest of the crowd fled.
By this time the authorities elsewhere in the district were becoming more organised. More troops of soldiers had arrived and additional special constables were sworn in. Hundreds of arrests were made during August and the trials, in October 1842, were fully reported in the local newspaper, The Staffordshire Advertiser. Over 150 received prison sentences and 54 were transported. Among those convicted was Thomas Cooper who was charged with conspiracy and inciting violence. He was sentenced to two years imprisonment in Stafford Gaol. While incarcerated he wrote the lengthy The Purgatory of Suicides: a Prison-Rhyme in Ten Books, which was published in 1845. On release from prison Cooper continued to tour Britain as a public lecturer. He visited Stoke-on-Trent again in 1850 and it may be that this is when he was presented with this loving cup.
By contrast Captain Powys was seen as the saviour of the town and was presented with a bone china dinner service
Ceramic Information Sheets
The information sheets below have been compiled by the Ceramics Section of the museum and provide useful information on a variety of topics:
Changing Fashions; Drinking and Dining
This blog post is the product of Molly Woodhouse, a third year Photojournalism student at Staffordshire University, who undertook her ‘Work placement and career development’ module here at The Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. The research, interpretation, photography and delivery of this virtual exhibition was undertaken by Molly over the course of three months. All of the objects used in this exhibition are taken from the museum’s reserve collection.
This exhibition explores the development of ceramics used in eating and drinking, and the weird and wonderful things we may or may not use to this day, including tea canisters, jelly moulds and custard cups.
In the 17th century, Britain was introduced to drinking chocolate by the Spanish, but it was not like the hot chocolate that we are familiar with now. It was made by melting ground cacao beans in hot water, then adding milk and sugar alongside things such as nuts and spices. It even had its own holder, a chocolatier or a chocolate pot.
At the end of the 17th century, a specialised cup was designed for the use of people suffering from trembling. It was known as a ‘trembleuse cup,’ it has a handle on each side and would often come with a saucer deep to stop from spillage. It originated in Paris and was intended for use with drinking chocolate, but became used for most hot liquors.
Mugs we use now for coffee and hot drinks were not always used for that reason, they were used as tankards, or beer mugs for the consumption of alcohol in pubs. Before the use of glass for the delivery of a‘pint’ they were made from pewter, silver and ceramic.
In the early 19th century, Josiah Spode introduced bone china, a porcelain made out of 6 parts animal bone ash, 4 parts china stone and 3.5 parts china clay. This alongside the lowering in price of tea itself meant more people were buying tea services from Staffordshire rather that sourcing it from alternative countries.
The availability of bone china lead to the increase in larger tea services being created and bought. Customers purchasing bone china at this time would have bought large tea services such as 20 pieces for entertaining purposes.
By the second half of the 20th century, Britain had gone from tea cups being small and daintily decorated,made out of bone china, to being 80’s chunky, earthenware cups and saucers for the use in canteens as well as being used in the home.
In the 17th and 18th century, porringers were widely used for a multitude of different foods. The less wealthy would have a porringer as a means to hold whatever they’re having for dinner. Whereas the higher classes would eat dinner service ὰ la Française (service of France), where all courses would be served at the same time on one large table.This contrasted to the service à la Russe(service of Russia) where different courses were served one after the other finishing with a dessert course.
The shapes of plates made for the desert services were often more flamboyant than those for dinner services as they were made to be more for decoration than convention. Dinner services would have matching, uniform plates and dishes, whereas the dessert service would be unique, extravagant pieces with unusual and unconventional shapes and edges.
There were many ceramics used in a dinner service including tureens. Tureens were used for holding a variety of dishes including soups and stews. Ceramic tureens were popular during the 18th century and are still popular to this day. The size and style of the tureen has changed over time from the original deep simple rectangular shape in the 18th century to styled shapes for the modern day.
There are a range of ceramic obscurities used in the dinner and tea services which span from the 17th century through to the present. One part of the typical tea service in the 18th century was the tea canister, a small storage box used to store tea leaves.
The tea canister would be matching to the rest of the tea service when used in the 18th century, we now often buy storage pots that matched the interior of our kitchen rather than ones that matched our cups. The equivalent of the tea canister today is the tea bag storage pot, this often sits alongside matching coffee and sugar storage pots.
In the 18th century, jelly moulds would be common when setting out the dinner service when entertaining. The jelly that they would make though would not be like the jelly we know today. It was often made with hartshorn (young male deer antlers) or animal hoofs to get the gelatine needed. They would be used as table centerpieces and would sometimes have an inner mould painted with decoration which was visible through the clear jelly.
Cow creamers are a very obscure piece of Staffordshire history, they are earthenware or porcelain cow shaped jugs. They have a hole on the back of the cow for filling with milk or cream, the tail acts as a handle and the mouth is the spout. Cow creamers became less popular for use as they were thought to be unhygienic due to the difficult access for cleaning.
Toast racks have been around since the late 18th century, commonly made of metal, ceramic versions were introduced in the mid-19th century. Toast racks were most often bought individually with the possibility of getting one that has the matching pattern to the tea service you would have.As the popularity of tea services declined, as did the options of toast racks.
They were made quite whimsical at times and others made plain and simple, allowing them to match any ordinary tea set you might have.Toast racks have slowly become less popular as the traditional breakfast has become less frequent.
One obscure item found alongside a dessert service is the custard cup. Found in many shapes, including a comma or teardrop, custard cups were used in the 18th century. The custard was similar to what we know today but it wouldn’t have been poured over something but consumed on its own. Depending on the viscosity of the custard it would have been be eaten with a small spoon or drank directly out of the cup.
Through the objects looked at in this exhibition, I have been able to look at some of the changes in society and the effect they had on drinking and dining habits.
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.