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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: [email protected]
You can find out more about Stoke-on-Trent YAC, and other branches, on the YAC website.
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’).
Hot off the Scanner
Digitisation is an important part of the core work of the collections team at the museum. Digital images of objects are vital for our collections database (helping us find and count objects in stores!), and allow us to share our collections more widely with the public across a variety of digital platforms which include social media. We usually have several digitisation projects on the go across the different collections at the museum. The scanner has been particularly busy for the arts collection recently: we have very nearly scanned all (over 500!) of our pre-1900 watercolour paintings for the Water Colour World website project, which allows the visitor to explore the world before photography (you can see the first uploads of our collection here: https://www.watercolourworld.org/collection/potteries-museum-art-gallery) For many of these projects we are indebted to the meticulous work of our dedicated volunteers, without whom we wouldn’t get half as much done or as quickly! Our volunteer, Mike Ansell has just completed the digitisation of our extensive watercolour painting collection by the local amateur artist, C.W.Brown. The images will be made available shortly on the museum website. In the meantime, it’s over to Mike, our guest blogger, to tell us more about C.W Brown and for a sneak preview of the artist’s work he has scanned.
Charles William Brown (1882 – 1961) – North Staffordshire Artist, Miner and Mine Manager
As a volunteer at the Museum and Art Gallery, I’ve spent the last year or so working on the bequest to the museum by my distant relation, Charles William Brown (above), which includes oil and watercolour paintings, pen and ink drawings, pencil drawings, sketch books, manuscripts and photographs. There are well over 1500 items in total in the archive that CW Brown left to the Museum and Art Gallery upon his death in 1961. Arthur Berry, one of the most renowned of North Staffordshire artists, and who was the subject of a retrospective exhibition at the Museum and Art Gallery in 2016, described CW Brown’s paintings in his autobiography, A Three And Sevenpence Halfpenny Man (1986) :- “I was astounded by the range of his subject matter. Everything was grist to his mill. He was never short of anything to paint. The match box on the table by his paint box would do for a subject, the paint box itself, even his fingers holding the paint brush. Every ornament in his little street house had been painted with great intensity of observation. Looking through the tea chest was a revelation. I knew that I was looking at the work of an unknown artist of very considerable power, in fact, a great naïve painter. As usual, when I came away from seeing work that had deeply impressed me, I was depressed … The way he drew the simplest domestic object revealed the essence of it. All his shortcomings as an academic painter made his work stronger. What he didn’t know had added to the power of his paintings.” *
Peter Vigurs, a former Keeper of Fine Art at the Museum And Art Gallery, subsequently described some of CW Brown’s work, which he said :- “…. combines a simple, clear delineation of the forms with a characteristic strong colouring that makes the yellow centres of flowers shine like suns.……..Brown often paints as though the earth itself contains a source of light which forces its way out through the grass, bracken and garden flowers.”
CW Brown was born at Robin Hill on Biddulph Moor, emanating, on his father’s side, from a long line of stone masons, who had lived there for generations, and, on his mother’s side – according to C.W.Brown, from bargees who worked the canals. Throughout his life, CW Brown retained strong memories of the dialect of the Moor and of its people, even though he moved, with his family, at a young age, to Miles Green near Halmerend, and the Moor remained a favourite subject of his paintings, even into old age. Later in life CW Brown lived with his family in the Etruria district of Stoke-on-Trent.
CW Brown’s father was not a stone mason but a coal miner and CW Brown’s story is that his father had left the mine in the aftermath of an explosion against the orders of the mine manager and, for that reason, had been blacklisted against ever working there again and so had to move away. His father, Fred, obviously thought that staying in the mine was a price not worth paying and he was right because, as he said, he was the last person to emerge alive.
CW Brown’s school career was short, even though he was an outstanding pupil (which he always put down to fear of the cane) and he left school at the age of 12 in 1894 to work on a local farm. He didn’t take to farm work to begin with and, after a short time, ran away to work at the “pit”. But in 1895 there was, again, another mining disaster with heavy casualties and boys of 13 were banned from mine work. So back to farm labouring, where CW Brown learned to plough with heavy horses.
But agricultural labourer’s pay, then as now, was low compared to other occupations so that, once he was old enough, CW Brown once again moved back to work in the coal mines. His mining career was very long starting at age 12 in 1894 up to his retirement in December 1948 – and even after that he returned briefly, until ill health forced him to leave for good – so that he could then enjoy domestic life and, particularly, his life-long hobby of painting. As part of his archive CW Brown has left the Museum and Art Gallery with a series of writings which describe not only his love of art and descriptions of the way he paints and draws, but also about his career in mining, which starts in the late 19th century when the “butty” system of labour was in force, right up to the nationalisation of the coal mines in the 1940s. He has some forceful things to say about the growth and strength of trade unionism, but was less complimentary about mine owners and working conditions.
Whilst the bulk of CW Brown’s career was spent in North Staffordshire his working life also took him to Somerset and the Wyre Forest. He obviously had a fondness of, and talent for, painting and drawing from an early age that he put to good use in preparing engineering drawings for the introduction of machines and ways of working at the mines.
CW Brown had a range of colliery jobs throughout his career, from loader to hewer, shot firer, under manager and eventually manager, passing his First Class certificate, with classes at the Stoke-on-Trent Technical College and examinations via the University of Birmingham, by 1920. He must have been a very proud man when he took up his first mine manager’s job at Newbury Colliery, Coleford, Somerset and could annotate his painting as “CWB 1924 MANAGER”.
CW Brown’s paintings range widely in subject matter from depictions of mines in the early 20th century through local scenes and industry in the Potteries, hints of war, holidays in Scotland, Devon or Blackpool, and social gatherings to flowers in vases and domestic household items or “just” designs.
He was successful in competitions ranging from entries in the “Science and Art of Mining” to a winning design for the Josiah Wedgwood Bicentenary Exhibition in 1930, even though his chosen “nom-de-plume” was “Numbskull”!
CW Brown was entirely self-taught as well as having great enthusiasm and a natural talent – maybe derived from his mother’s heritage of the folk art of canal narrow boats?…. although that is a hypothesis that cannot be proven. Some of his writings pass on his method and way of working such as “In The Drawing Of A Picture”. He was particularly keen to demonstrate how he dealt with perspective.
A selection of CW Brown’s oil paintings are viewable on the ArtUK web site, via this link :-https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/actor:brown-charles-william-18821961/page/2 I understand that CW Brown started experimenting with oils towards the end of his life and used a varnish which appears to make these paintings slightly yellowish, in stark contrast to the brightness of his watercolours (as shown above). A booklet “C.W. Brown The Potteries Primitive”, written by Peter Vigurs, former keeper of Fine Art, was produced by the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, some decades ago, after the death of CW Brown, as an introduction to the collection of paintings and drawings bequeathed by the artist. Perhaps it should be emphasised that CW Brown would have quibbled vigorously with its title – he did not see himself as a primitive nor a naive painter. Maybe you should judge? Personally, from the point of view of a layperson with no background in art, I’m highly impressed, first of all, with the technical expertise of his working drawings such as “4 Belts Head Wrightson and Co Ltd Stockton on Tees”, and this is one of many such drawings in the collection. He obviously has a detailed first-hand knowledge of how things work, or could work, both practically and economically, from long experience and observation during his career in the mines. Those same qualities of experience and observation are also important factors in portraying industrial and mining scenes (particularly work underground) as well as everyday life in the Potteries and beyond. They illustrate and capture a historic record of what it actually felt like in Stoke on Trent in the first half of the 20th Century when the pot banks and mines were in full swing and the city was bustling. The working life of the mining and pottery industries could be rugged and hard, but with excellent camaraderie and a common bond. In “Pot Paintresses” CW Brown has portrayed who he must have seen as a group of kindred spirits, where exceptionally skilful women are putting the finishing flourishes to the products that have made the Potteries famous throughout the world. Possibly, CW Brown would have benefitted from attending life classes in art, but to my mind the figures in “A Dance” have character and could be recognised out and about, in the streets of Hanley or Burslem, as real people with real lives. CW Brown, it seems, hasn’t set out to produce portrait likenesses and his faces are certainly not often joyful or jolly but he has created distinctive personalities. Everything and anything was potential material for his paintings, from the smallest and least significant of domestic objects, through the joys of the natural world and majestic holiday scenery, to the contrast of the world of work in heavy industry. All must have brightened his life tremendously. He was capable of undertaking minute observation of everything from a plant to a pulley. He attempted to capture the essential spirit of his subject and his own interpretation, rather than a photographic likeness, which I realise, for the artist, is what it’s all about. What do you think of CW Brown’s work? Your comments are very welcome. Written By: Michael Ansell – Volunteer
- Excerpt from Arthur Berry, A Three And Sevenpence Halfpenny Man (published by Kermase Editions, 1986)
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.
Spitfire Progress- Peeling back the Paint
Late in 2018 I took a trip to visit the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society at Rochester Airport. The team have been busy on the restoration of Spitfire RW388 and work will continue in 2019.
One of the big jobs has been to strip away layers of paint from the wings and fuselage in order to re-prime and paint them with the correct finishes and colours. Below you can see the one of the wings stripped and primed ready for repainting.
During my visit I was able to see different parts of the aircraft at various stages of paint stripping. Each layer provides evidence for important chapters in the aircraft’s history.
The most recent paint layer probably dates from the 1980s. The colours were right but the finish was too glossy. Most importantly, the surface wasn’t well prepared in advance of painting which caused issues with peeling later one. Needless to say, this layer came off very easily.
As layers disappeared, patches of brown paint appeared. We know that RW388 was ‘dressed-up’ as an earlier Mk.V Spitfire during the 1960s. This would have included the brown and green camouflage scheme used earlier in the Second World War.
The stripping also revealed some past mistakes. Evidence of a roundel painted onto the aircraft in the wrong position. When the wing was fitted the bottom would have been cut off!
Finally, at the very bottom, a silver layer – likely the same silver RW388 wore was a Gate Guardian in the 1950s and early 1960s. This layer was much more difficult to remove as the aircraft had been well primed before it was applied. Hopefully the new paint job on RW388 will be just as hard wearing!
The inside of the fuselage is yet to be cleaned and repainted, but we will be taking a cautious approach. There are lots of authentic cable and pipe runs still in-situ, so we want to preserve them and work around them as much as possible.
As ever, keep your eyes on our social media and blog for more updates on Spitfire RW388’s progress during 2019..
A Nurse’s Autograph Book
I only re-joined the team here at The Potteries Museum a few months ago. It’s been a pleasure reacquainting myself with the collections and exhibitions. One of the best bits of being a new curator is getting to know the many objects in your care and the thrill of discovery as you do so.
Taking down the the temporary exhibition For the Fallen last month, my eye was drawn to notebook, opened at the illustration pictured below. The sketch is inspired by the many propaganda posters and pamphlets that followed the death of nurse Edith Cavell in October 1915. It is signed R.E. Rushton.
The sketch is one of many contained within the autograph book of Annie Myatt, who was a nurse at Lord Derby War Hospital, Warrington, in 1915. Unlike most autograph books, this one isn’t filled with celebrity signatures or messages to fans. Instead, it contains the names, poems, sketches and jokes of dozens of recuperating men. It forms a rare, personal, and unique record of her service and the lives of the men she cared for.
Some highlights from the rest of book are picked out below.
R.E. Rushton wasn’t the only talented artist to grace the pages of the book. Others contributed their own works of art in pen, pencil, and even water colours.
Other soldiers used cartoons to leave depictions or jokes regarding contemporary people and events.
Even if they weren’t writing cartoons, soldiers left jokes in other forms. For example, this menu for La Caffe De Trench.
Or this by W.B. Wragge:
I list to me, my Sister fair,
And when this page your eye does meet,
I trust that what is written here,
To you will it not be all Greek.
This message is followed by Greek-style text – not deciphered!
Many soldiers left messages of appreciation or thanks.
The Roses is Red,
The Violet is Blue
The Sugar is sweet
And so are you
Pte R B Williams
Kings Own (RL) Regt
Lord Derby War Hospital
Spitfire Progress – Wings
Progress continues on the restoration of Spitfire RW388 by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society Limited (MAPSL). This week it’s time to really get things off the ground* with one of the Spitfire’s most recognisable features – its wings.
(*Pun very much intended)
RW388’s wings were detached in order to remove it from the building in February 2018. Since arriving at Medway the exterior surfaces have been stripped of old paint, rubbed down, then primed. The access and inspection panels have all been removed to be cleaned and renovated.
Little did the team at MAPSL know, but the port (left) wing of the Spitfire was hiding a host of secrets waiting to be discovered!
First came the graffiti found on the inside of the inner small flap – successfully removed during the cleaning process.
Next, a metal rod was unexpectedly discovered in the wrong place. This turns out to be an inner ram used in the hydraulics that retract the wheels into the undercarriage. The rod was bent, probably a result of the aircraft’s last landing in 1952, which was heavy enough to take RW388 out of service. The ram is rather too damaged to be reused – so a new one will be fitting for the restoration. We will keep the old ram though, especially as it evidences an important event in RW388’s service history.
A bird’s nest was the final secret to be unearthed. It probably dates to the 1950s or 60s when RW388 spent time as gate guardian outside RAF bases. Unfortunately the nest completely disintegrated when it was disturbed – so sadly the nest hasn’t been added to our Natural History collections!
The elliptical wings of the Spitfire are one its most identifiable features – it’s certainly one of the things I look out for when I hear the roar of a Merlin engine overhead. But not every Spitfire was fitted with exactly the same wings – evidenced by RW388 itself.
RW388 is an example of a clipped-wing Spitfire. Rather than curving to a point the tips are squared off and shortened. You can see the difference in the pictures below:
Shortening the wings lowered the effective altitude of the Spitfire but increased the roll rate, making it more maneuverable at lower altitudes. This increased the Spitfire’s competitiveness against aircraft such as the Fockewulf Fw190 and made it a more efficient air-to-ground attack fighter-bomber later in the war. The Merlin 266 engine in RW388 was also tuned for lower altitudes (as discussed in our engine blog). In fact, it’s the engine, rather than the clipped wings, that officially give RW388 ‘LF’ (lower-altitude fighter) status.
Clipped wings were not the only alteration made to the Spitfire wing shape. Extended tips were also used for high-altitude performance. These tips improved the rate of climb and maximum altitude at the expense of diminished maneuverability at ‘normal’ altitudes. Experiments even took place with interchangeable wingtips that could be swapped to suit different tactical requirements.
Live from Medway
Spitfire Progress – Fuselage
Progress continues on the restoration of Spitfire RW388 by the Medway Aircraft Preservation Society Limited (MAPSL). This week we look at progress to the main body of the aircraft – the fuselage. This section is made from curving panels attached to a supporting structure of horizontal longerons and vertical frames, forming the core of the Spitfire.
The team have been busy stripping paint from the fuselage exterior by hand. The aircraft has been repainted several times throughout its life, and hasn’t always been the same colour. One of the layers encountered was a fetching silver paint scheme. RW388 was painted this way when it was a ‘gate guardian’ at RAF Benson, and later at RAF Andover, during the 1950s and 60s.
The front of the fuselage, where the firewall and fuel tank are located, has been cleaned. Some areas are unpainted and will be preserved as such. Other sections, such as the firewall itself, have been fully painted and sealed. The firewall sits behind the engine to project the fuel tank and pilot from gunfire. It is made from two sheets of metal sandwiching a layer of fire-retardant asbestos – so it’s very important this is protected and sealed!
Have you ever noticed that RW388’s fuselage looks a bit different from other Spitfires you have seen? It has a cut-down rear fuselage and ‘bubble’ style canopy, which was common in later versions of the aircraft. This is very noticeable when placed side by side with an earlier Spitfire, such as in the images below.
RW388’s fuselage also has a unique series of small holes running down the back. These are the scars left behind by an artificial ‘high’ back that was added in 1968 to disguise it as Mk.V Spitfire, AB917. The disguised RW388 appeared at the 1968 Royal Tournament at Earls Court and at Edinburgh Military Tattoo in celebration of the RAF’s 50th anniversary. This version of RW388 may have also appeared as a grounded ‘extra’ in the 1969 film Battle of Britain.
Work on the fuselage has paused whilst the team concentrate on the wings and engine. So look out for fuselage ‘part 2’ when work begins again in the future.
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.
Virtual Gallery Tour
We’ve partnered with Google’s StreetView team to develop an immersive 360 degree view of the Potteries Museum & Art Gallery. Use the window below to navigate around the museum from the comfort of your own device.
Please note that this capture represents the museum as it was in July 2017 – changes may have been made to the galleries since then, so always check beforehand if you’re interested in seeing something specific.