All things weird and wonderful

Last weekend we changed some displays in the project space so we could show off some of the fantastic items from the Randolph Douglas collection. This was acquired by Derbyshire County Council in 1984 with help from the PRISM (preservation of industrial and scientific material) fund. The scheme is administered by Arts Council England to encourage collecting and conserving items that tell the story of the development of science, technology, industry and related fields.

Douglas display
The new display in the project space at Buxton Museum

Randolph Douglas has already been written about by my colleague Ben Jones in a previous blog here, and we know from questions we are asked that he is a popular subject with our visitors. He’s particularly well-known among magicians and also for the museum he ran in Castleton, called the House of Wonders.

randini postcard  4

Randolph Douglas took the stage name Randini. Here he is on a postcard signed Jan 1914.


Douglas was born in 1895 at Greenhill in north-east Derbyshire, the son of a silversmith. He was fascinated by Houdini from a young age, purchasing locks and a straitjacket as a young boy, and meeting the escapologist when he was still a teenager. Their friendship quickly evolved beyond that of star and fan into mutual admiration. Douglas even inspired Houdini’s famous upside-down escape from a straitjacket during one of the escapologists visits to the Douglas family home at Endcliffe in Sheffield.

Houdini postcard 4

Douglas and Houdini outside the Empire Theatre in Sheffield, 1920


After being discharged from the army on medical grounds in 1916, Douglas used his experience as a steelworker and amateur locksmith to focus on making models. He also amassed a large collection of ethnographic and geological specimens, locks and chains, and local curiosities. He and his wife Hetty moved to the village of Castleton and turned half of their house into a museum to display his collection. The House of Wonders opened at Easter 1926 and visitors paid a small charge to be shown around by torchlight. After Douglas died in 1956, Hetty continued to run the museum until her death in 1978.

A House of Wonders

Poster advertising the House of Wonders c.1930

On display this summer you can see items including handaxes from the Pacific islands, a case of patented locks and keys from the 19th century, beautifully decorated Chinese card markers and water pipes, a copy of the Lord’s Prayer small enough to pass through the eye of a needle, a smuggler’s dictionary with a secret cavity and a Saxon spearhead found at Matlock. Truly wonder-full!


Blue John – New Partnerships

In this post Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, introduces a new partnership with Treak Cliff Cavern and Buxton Artclubs Artbox, supporting Made in Derbyshire.

In one of my earliest conversations with my mother-in-law she told me how much she loved Blue John, the unique blue, purple, yellow and white stone from just two mines above Castleton in the Hope Valley.  So she is very envious that I look after the Buxton Museum collection. The ornaments which bring ‘oohs!’ and ‘aahs!’ from visitors, include the silver mounted milk pail – surely a sugar bowl? –  dated 1803, and the narrow window attributed to John Tym from the middle of the 19th century, as well as unworked specimens, some huge boulders and many small hand specimens (not all of which are pretty!)


Silver-mounted ‘milk pail’, made from Blue John, dated 1803

So if anything is ‘Made in Derbyshire’ it must be Blue John. Formed within the limestone, Blue John is a fluorite. It is not very hard (only 4 on Moh’s Scale of hardness).  The cubic crystals grow in veins through which the distinctive purple and blue layers alternate with white and yellow, providing zig- zag stripes of various intensities. This colour combination makes it attractive for ornaments and jewellery despite being quite a fragile material. There are many ideas of how the colour comes into the stone, whether this is impurities within the fluid, the introduction of hydrocarbons or the occurrence of radioactivity. None really satisfy the mineralogists, yet!

A piece of unworked Blue John from the museum collections

A piece of unworked Blue John from the museum collections

Recently, the museum was offered the opportunity to commission an artwork as part of the Made in Derbyshire campaign. What better suggestion then to explore a commission of worked Blue John to be included in the museum’s new displays.  I invited Vicky Harrison of Treak Cliff Cavern with Gary Ridley and Jack Mosley to discuss the possibilities while looking at the museum’s collection, particularly the unworked Blue John, and then artist Caroline Chouler -Tissier and I went over to Treak Cliff Cavern. It was one of those amazing autumn days and the view as we walked up to the cavern of the Hope Valley was spectacular, in the warm October sunshine.

The view from Treak Cliff Cavern

The view from Treak Cliff Cavern

The view from the workshop was equally captivating, but soon we were deeply interested in learning how Blue John is worked, taking a friable material and making it into artefacts as thin as glass.

In the workshop

In the workshop

Caroline and I were taken through the Cavern, and chanced to see the amazing Witch that flies through it as well as the newly discovered Ridley vein of Blue John, named for Gary Ridley. Meanwhile we discussed our ideas and plans.

To celebrate several events – Made in Derbyshire; Collections in the Landscape and even as an advance 125th birthday present for Buxton Museum (in 2018), the museum is commissioning two exciting new pieces of worked Blue John for the collections.  Importantly, much of the work will be made by people under 25, a chance to learn about geology, engineering, art, and something unique to Derbyshire, all at one time.

Jack has been asked to turn a new chalice for the museum, made from the Ridley vein.  Jack has been working Blue John for three years, and this exciting commission will mean his work will be in the museum collections for all to see. We hope to film him making of it.

Jack at work

Jack at work

Meanwhile we will work with members of Buxton Artbox Artclubs to make the first Blue John window for over 100 years, following in the creative imagination of John Tym.  The Artbox members will visit the cavern and help in the workshop to select material for slicing and polishing. Supported by their artist-in-residence, Caroline, they will suggest ideas of what the finished window may look like. Here at the museum we will look in the vaults at some of the specimens which outwardly look very dull which may find a new life in the window

This will be an exciting creative programme with lively input from many young people. Its early days yet, and everyone is very excited to get things on their way. We will keep you updated through the Collections in the Landscape blog as the work takes shape.  We may need your help to wet-and-dry the Blue John slices – Vicky tells us its takes a long time, but it could be good fun!


Technology and Magic

Over the last few weeks, I have been photographing and scanning objects from all corners of BMAG’s collection. It has been a good opportunity to develop my skills and work off those mince pies. These seldom seen photographs of Randolph Douglas are displayed in our White Peak Dark Peak exhibition (on until Saturday 22 February). They show Randolph, his wife Hettie, Jim Puttrell and other chums exploring caves in Derbyshire in the early 1900s.

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I went on to scan more images from the more obscure recesses of the Douglas collection. You could say that the entire Douglas collection is obscure. Sheffield-born Randolph Douglas (1895-1956) created and ran his own museum, the House of Wonders in Castleton, Derbyshire from the 1920s to the 1970s. The collection was purchased by the county council in 1984 with support of the PRISM fund. It contains many curious objects from around the world.

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As a teenager he performed as an amateur escapologist under the stage name Randini. Douglas was an admirer of the famous escapologist Harry Houdini (1874-1926) who he met in 1913 in Sheffield. The men became friends and regularly corresponded. Douglas helped Houdini devise one of his most famous escapes – from a straitjacket while hung upside down.

Some of Douglas’ sketches have been exhibited at the museum for the first time in many years and they offer rather a candid view of his magical creativity. They attracted some attention from my colleagues whilst I was scanning them. On reflection, I suppose depictions of men being chained up and tortured on my pc screen did look a little strange!

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As a fan of anything weird, the Douglas collection is my favourite. Although we take every opportunity to display parts of it as often as possible, I champion the resurrection of The House of Wonders at BMAG. However, the exhibits are diverse and each has its own care and conservation concerns so we’ll have to see what happens.

What Does the Derbyshire Landscape Mean to You?

Regular visitors to the museum or its digital incarnations may remember the launch of White Peak Dark Peak on Friday 13 December, blogged about by Ben shortly afterwards. He was kind enough to photograph me sampling the buffet!

The exhibition examines some of the places we’ll be exploring through Collections in the Landscape, using objects, paintings and photographs to contrast the ‘soft curves of the White Peak’ with the ‘gritty angles of the Dark Peak’.

Visitors to the exhibition are also asked a question – What does the Derbyshire landscape mean to you? We’re encouraging people to let us know through social media (#WPDP) but also in the gallery itself.

The whiteboard in White Peak Dark Peak has allowed visitors to express themselves.

The whiteboard in White Peak Dark Peak has allowed visitors to express themselves.

For this week’s post I’ve taken it upon myself to analyse some of the comments – exploring the moving, interesting, and often imaginative responses left behind by visitors. Already there are some strong themes emergingGet ready for the top 5 so far!

5. Flora & Fauna

No surprise in this strong entry. The living landscape of Derbyshire has clearly made an impression on those who visit it. Mammals, birds, insects and flowers all get a mention! A casual walk around Miller’s Dale in late Spring/Early Summer rewards the visitor with hundreds of pink Common Spotted Orchids.


Space, air, butterflys, orchids, hares...a fox...

Space, air, butterflys, orchids, hares…a fox…

4. History

I can safely say that the museum team are very relieved to see this feature in the top 5! The messages left convey the sense of special places, where time has stood still or that, despite changes, the past is all around us. Take a stroll up to Arbor Low to feel this deep connection to the landscape’s ancient past.

Where the past still lives

Where the past still lives

3. Weather

How very British, our visitors simply couldn’t help but comment on the weather. The rain and wind seem to feature quite a lot…I can’t imagine why. If you do catch yourself in the area in poor weather I can only recommend you visit us at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery as a perfect way to spend a wet afternoon.



2. The Physical Landscape

In at number 2 – the geology and geography of the region. From rolling hills and deep dales to dark moors and peat bogs, visitors have enjoyed describing the physical features of Derbyshire. The top of Mam Tor, near Castleton, is a great place to contrast the landscapes of the White Peak to the south and the Dark Peak to the north.

Long rambles through dales and over moors

Long rambles through dales and over moors

1. A Beautiful Place

Topping our list – it’s the sheer beauty of this unique landscape. Many, many different terms were used to describe the spectacular scenery of the region. I’ve often pulled over on my drive home along the A53, from Buxton to Leek, to admire the view across the hills and dales.

Unspoilt Untamed Incredible

Unspoilt Untamed Incredible

We’re continuing to photograph the board as it fills up to keep a record of the comments. We’re also starting to share some of these quotes with the world through our Facebook and Twitter accounts.

We've started to share our responses through social media.

We’ve started to share our responses through social media.

Please share your own thoughts about the Derbyshire landscape with us and we’ll endeavour to print some out and include them in the exhibition. Use #WPDP on Twitter posts. I’ll leave you with one of the most artistic contributions so far, but perhaps a little unfair on some of our neighbours though…

Some visitors have been quite creative

Some visitors have been quite creative…(not the opinion of the museum I hasten to add!)

Medieval Peak District

Medieval Peak District

I recently visited the Lindisfarne Gospels exhibition in Durham (finishing 30th September). On display they had wonderful early-Medieval manuscripts mixed with other objects that reflected the skill of craftsmen during this period. The combination of these items was used to show the development of Lindisfarne and the North East of England as a religious, creative and intellectual hub. It made me think about our own medieval collection and what we know about the Peak district at this time.

The Medieval gallery in the Wonders of the Peak

The Medieval gallery in the Wonders of the Peak

Currently our medieval gallery is more of a corridor than an exhibition, bridging the necessary gap from Roman to Enlightenment, and features a lot of text heavy displays that we want to update. We have several coins and weights on show, as well as tiles from Croxden Abbey and Dieulacress Abbey (only Croxden Abbey has survived – in ruins). The text tells us about the Norman influence on the area, deforestation and late-medieval trade; all big topics to sum-up in such a small space.


The surviving keep was built by Henry II in 1176

Peveril Castle – the surviving keep was built by Henry II in 1176

What more could we add? Well, it wasn’t just people in the 17th Century, and later, that thought the Peak District was a wondrous place. Several prominent chroniclers and historians in the middle ages wrote about the ‘Wonders of England’; the ‘wind-filled caverns of the Peak District’ was one of these 3 or 4 wonders. Henry, archdeacon of Huntingdon (1085-1155), wrote of the Devil’s Arse in Castleton that ‘a gale leaves the caverns in the mountain called Peak with such force that clothing cast in its path is blown aloft and jettisoned a good way off.’ Ranulph Higden (1280-1364), a monk from Chester who wrote one of the most popular medieval chronicles, the Polychronicon, also mentioned the Peak District in his ‘Wonders of England’. Over 100 manuscripts of his history survive but the ‘Wonders of England’ can be found in many more than that (although non at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery).

Pottery Fragments from Frank i'th'Rocks Cave

Pottery Fragments from Frank i’th’Rocks Cave

 The ‘windy’ caves of the Peak District are actually where some of our collections from this period were found. We have a pottery fragment that was found in Reynard’s cave, Dovedale, and another set from Frank i’th’Rocks Cave, Beresford Dale. A couple of the coins were also found at cave sites (Reynard’s cave and Poole’s Cavern). Whilst we don’t have a lot of objects from this period, our collections demonstrate the ways in which people have maximised the dramatic landscape of the Peaks. It is this story that unites all of the collections at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery and is the story we will be returning to the landscape.

Discover Geology: An Augmented Reality Field Trip

The view from the top of Mam Tor, a very pleasant hike!

The view from the top of Mam Tor, a very pleasant hike!

I recently had the good fortune to join the University of Manchester on a field trip to Castleton and Mam Tor. The purpose of our visit was to test out ‘Discovery Geology’ – a recently developed augmented reality field trip. The experience was co-developed by a cross departmental team that included Mimas, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Faculty and Manchester Museum.

Augmented reality is something we’re curious to explore as part of Collections in the Landscape. As soon as this trip came onto my radar, I knew it would be a valuable exercise to see what other people were already doing digitally, out there in the Peak District.
But before we pull on our walking boots, what was ‘Discovery Geology’? And how did it work?

In the developers’ own words:

The app allows the user to enhance their walking experience, learning more about the geological history of the Hope Valley with expert academic commentary and insight. Other functionality includes:

  • Feature finder identifying fossils, oil deposits and minerals such as Blue John.
  • Location based Points of Interest (POI) along the way navigating your journey.
  • A compass allowing the user to find their bearings, to compliment the audio commentary.
  • Geological ‘Beneath your Feet’ diagrams illustrating the geological make up at points along the route.
  •  Dynamic navigation informing the user of the closest POI.
  • Route finder – audio directions to the next POI…. and many more.

The trail is hosted on the Junaio app, an AR browser which allows users to create, explore and share information by layering this digitally onto the real world. This is viewed through a device’s camera, hovering over a real-time view. Alternatively a map view can be used.

This video by the developer shows some of the capabilities of the browser:

So did it work…?

Starting in the car park by Castleton Visitors Centre many users experienced difficulties accessing the app, mainly due to poor signal in that area. Fortunately this was the worst signal spot on the whole route and so once the group moved off things improved.
Being unfamiliar with Junaio many people had difficulties finding their way around the app at first (myself included!). However, once I’d got to grips with the layout, capabilities and design I found the tour pretty easy to interact with. That said, some users did give up due to the tempting paper versions of the tour handed out to everybody before the walk started. This just goes to show how inclined people are to take the easiest option!

In general, audio, images and texts loaded fairly quickly. Once or twice I had to wait for audio to buffer half-way through but this was not common. So long as GPS is functioning it was simple and straight forward to interact with points of interest through camera view or via map view.

Each point of interest typically contained the following content:

  • One or more audio commentaries describing geographic features in the landscape. For example at POI 9 – Top of the Ridge, there is a ‘Look North’ and ‘Look South’ option, each linking to an audio guide explaining the view and underlying geology.
  •  ‘Beneath your Feet’ opens up a page with a geological map with the walking route laid over the top. The POI is marked on and users can see what type of rocks they are currently standing on.
  • ‘Route’ links to a short audio instruction to give the users directions to the next POI. Live View or Map View are not detailed enough to show pathways etc.
  • Some POIs had more specialised content, for example POIs 10 – On the ridge, and 14 – Windy Knoll, had links to images of nearby rocks and prompted the user to locate fossils or other interesting features. The ‘Feature Finder’ at Windy Knoll is a particularly good example.
Geological features at Windy Knoll

Oil seepage was just one of the geological features that the app highlighted at Windy Knoll.

The main problem encountered was battery life. The phone was fully charged that morning but constant use of GPS and frequent use of my phone’s camera on Live View drained the battery very quickly. I had a flat battery by around 3pm. This can be saved by maximizing use of Map View and using Live View as little as possible but that sort of negates the point using of AR in the first place.

Bright sunlight was also problem in places, making the screen difficult to read. Another slight hazard was the temptation to walk whilst looking at/through the phone screen. This caused more than one near trip or stumble.


Overall the app and content functioned well in the landscape and, save for a couple of black spots, signal was good and content was fairly quick to load. Problems such as signal or battery life will probably resolve themselves as technology progresses and as phones/tablets get more and more sophisticated. It may be advisable to limit trail lengths until battery lives significantly improve.

The app did look better and seemed easier to use on tablet devices. That said, it was not difficult to use on a smart phone. This is more of an aesthetic comment although clearly the quality and size of photographs on a tablet make visual information more accessible.

The app turned a pleasant hike into a more enriching experience with only a couple of technological hiccups. Although this tour didn’t utilize museum collections it certainly wouldn’t be difficult to insert this type of content into it. I’m definately keen to explore the possibilites of AR as part of the project…

Don’t just trust my review!

Mimas have already blogged about the field trip

MancOnline also tested out the trail