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.

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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.

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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!

 

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What Ewe Looking At?

Gazing down upon the Boyd Dawkins study at Buxton Museum with glassy-eyed indifference are two sheep heads.  You can be forgiven for missing them; the room is crammed with a bewildering variety of objects and the sheep heads are mounted high on the wall. Despite their inconspicuous position, the two dismembered ewes are actually local heroes.

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Sheep are not an uncommon sight in the Peak District. The national park has an association with sheep farming that dates back to medieval times. These two specimens earned distinction in 1830 when they were sold by their owner in Hope Valley to a farmer in Kent. It seems that they did not care a great deal for their new surroundings and decided to walk back to Derbyshire. Sheep are not well known for their decision-making skills but this couple were from a hardy breed called Penistone Ewes, bred to survive on the bleak moors of the Peak. Perhaps it was a call to their natural environment that spurred their return? We can only speculate.

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As a reward for their loyalty, the audacious duo were allowed to live the rest of their natural lives back home where they enjoyed a degree of fame. When the sheep died, their owner had their heads mounted and displayed for many years in Hope parish church and then, of course, Buxton Museum and Art Gallery.

Next time you are passing, perhaps you can spare a few minutes to pop in and ponder their miraculous journey? Their tale is an obscure local legend. Infact, despite working at the museum for nearly twenty years, I can only recall two visitors who asked about the sheep that decided to walk from Kent to Derbyshire. Hopefully, this blog will permit them a little more recognition.

Thanks to the staff at the Derbyshire Record Office for their assistance.

sheep together

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My Kingdom for a Tap Washer ?

Lead mining was a key industry in Derbyshire. The Romans were the first to mine and export lead, on an industrial scale, from Derbyshire and there are remnants of Roman lead mines scattered throughout the district at places such as Carsington and Wirksworth. The physical mining of the lead ore (raw material also known as Galena or Lead Sulphide) was not done by the Romans but was undertaken by slaves and criminals convicted to a life in the mines by the Roman Justices. The only up side of such a life sentence was the fact that the toxic lead dust, poisonous and explosive methane gas trapped in the surrounding rock, falling rocks, oxygen deprived, suffocating mine works, and back breaking work, meant that your life was likely to last just a few months.

Hadrian Pig of Lead

Bars of lead known as ‘pigs’ marked as belonging to the Emperor Hadrian  (AD 117 – 138). Each pig measures over half a metre. Discovered at Cromford Moor, near Wirksworth. 1777.

Lead was used by the Romans for many purposes. Perhaps, most importantly, because it could be melted down to produce silver for coins and jewellery. It was also used in the earliest pencils which comprised a lead and tin core; the pencil mark being easily erasable with softened bread.  Other uses were in glass, pottery glaze, writing tablets, weapons, fishing and goods weights, and to make pots, cups, and kitchen utensils.

Lead poisoning destroys the human nervous system, causes hair loss, memory loss, anaemia, constipation, and skin ruptures, among a long list of other toxic ailments, so, it is unusual to find that a very popular use for lead in Roman times, was its use in cosmetics and foodstuffs. White lead was used to create a foundation cream with which to lighten the faces of Roman ladies (and occasionally men). This was often enhanced with the application of red lead, nowadays used in the manufacture of rust-proof paint and batteries, to add a touch of rouge. Lead compounds were also used to make black hair dye and added to wine to enhance colour, flavour, and preservation.

Due to its resistance to acid and alkalies, lead was often used to line water aqueducts and make water pipes, valves, and other plumbing related fixtures.There are many theories as to why the Roman Empire finally came to an end but, perhaps, one of the more curious theories is the one that suggests that the Roman Empire collapsed due to its citizens being poisoned by the water which flowed through the Roman, lead- based, plumbing systems.

 

 

Stone Age Bling

Imagine if a loved one, or friend, picked up a stone and asked you to make from it a piece of jewellery which they could hang around their neck. And, that the only tools available to you to make this would be other similar stones, a selection of animal bones, water, and wood. How would you go about it? How would you shape and smooth the stone? How would you go about creating a hole with which to put the neck lace through without, accidentally, breaking the whole piece?  In an age when the wheel was only just being invented ( believed to be in, either,  Ukraine or Iraq — the jury is still out on that one –) it must have been quite a labour intensive, frustrating, and time consuming task to create what, essentially, is a non essential, luxury item. That person would have to be pretty special!

Neolithic Perforated Stone Pendant. 9 cm x 4 cm

This stone pendant was found at Chrome Hill, Derbyshire and dates back to around 3,500 BC during the late Neolithic Period (Stone Age). The Neolithic period was the age when large stone circles  such as Stonehenge and dolmens like the Bodowyr Dolmen in Wales were first constructed. Although Chrome Hill has no neolithic monuments it is believed to be an important site for both the Neolithic and Bronze age peoples as a possible place of ritual. It is known for its unusual, natural features where the hill resembles a giant, ridge backed, exoskeleton, bulging out of the land beneath the enveloping blanket of the Derbyshire countryside. It is also reported that a remarkable split sunset can be observed at certain angles over Chrome when standing on Chrome’s nearby sister – Parkhouse Hill – during Solstice.

Whether the jewellery piece was the ancient equivalent of a wedding ring or, perhaps, worn by warrior women and men as a battle talisman, or merely used for trade, we can never know. But, like a Rothko painting it confronts us with courage and boldness while within its simplicity lies a much deeper meaning. A meaning that we may never fully grasp in our modern society.

Going Underground

There’s only so much we can do for the project from behind a desk. We also need put on our walking boots and get into the landscapes that we want to tie closer with the collections. Last week I was lucky enough to join partners from National Trust in a tour of Fox Hole Cave.

The cave is high up the steep sides of High Wheeldon, a dome-shaped hill that dominates the landscape near the border between Derbyshire and Staffordshire, close to the village of Earl Sterndale. The museum holds a significant amount of material from the site, some of which will be described below. I’ve visited the area many times, climbing High Wheeldon as a youngster and staring into the gated entrance, pondering what secrets might lie inside. But this would be the first time I ever had the chance to venture into its depths.

Getting ready - High Wheeldon in the background

Getting ready – High Wheeldon in the background

Our guide, Paul, handed us our hardhats and lamps before leading us up the steep slopes of High Wheeldon. The cave entrance is tucked away and easy to miss. The site was rediscovered in 1928 when a dog disappeared down what appeared to be a fox hole. A boy, crawling in pursuit, returned clutching a bear skull and news that the ‘fox hole’ was in fact a cave. Early excavations followed, uncovering the bones of a brown bear, Neolithic pottery, stone tools and a bronze wire armlet identified as Roman.

Venturing into the dark...

Venturing into the dark…

We carefully lowered ourselves through the unlocked gate into the entrance chamber. We followed the passage into the First Chamber. Paul described the layout of the cave and pointed out clues to its formation. The entrance passage was a distinctive keyhole shape, indicating it had been formed by a high pressure stream of water creating a tube in the rock. Later, as the flow lessened, it carved a trough in the base of the tube.

It was in the entrance of the cave, and the passage leading to the Main Chamber, that most evidence for human activity had been discovered. Evidence indicates the cave was used in phases, from the Upper Palaeolithic to the Romano-British period, perhaps becoming lost then rediscovered many times. Highlights include worked antler points, dated to the Late Upper Palaeolithic, and pottery sherds and hearths associated with the Beaker culture.

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

Worked stone and antler from Fox Hole Cave, now on display at Buxton

I could rattle on about discoveries at Fox Hole for some time, and there’s plenty more to discuss. If you’d like to know more I’d recommend checking out the Derbyshire HER record. It’s also worth keeping your eye on the Buxton Museum website, where we’ll soon be launching an online catalogue of our collections, including objects from the cave.

A lot of material has been excavated from the entrance chambers and passages. A line of carved dots on the wall indicated the original level before excavations began in the late 1950s. This wouldn’t be first the ‘archaeology of archaeology’ we encountered.

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Dots carved to mark the original height of cave deposits

Venturing into the Main Chamber we imagined how prehistoric cavers may have experienced the space, turning off our torches and lighting a solitary candle. The gentle orange light transformed the space, deepening the shadows but providing a more diffuse light than the harsh, directional glare of our head torches. How would only ever experiencing a cave by firelight affect your perception of the space?

Here we also found more ‘archaeology of archaeology’, the remains of a cable system used by the Peakland Archaeological Society to haul sediments to the entrance for sorting.

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Studying the remains of the cable haulage system

Next the cave offered us into two routes. First we pressed straight ahead to the end of the cave. The passage grew lower and tighter as we progressed and we soon ended up on all fours, crouched in a tiny space as far as any sensible human being could go. Amazingly, the mud and stone in which we were sitting was littered with tiny bone fragments from small mammals and amphibians. I learnt this is often referred to as ‘Frog Earth’.

Retracing our steps to the Main Chamber we turned left and followed the passage to Bear Chamber, so called because of the bone material recovered here in the past. Even recent tours had spotted bear remains, so we were all keeping our eyes peeled for a bear skull peeking through the mud. No luck this time though. In fact the only thing we found was a long abandoned trowel, ‘archaeology of archaeology’ again!

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

Passing around a bear tooth in Bear Chamber

The bone material from Fox Hole far outweighs the artefact count. Some of the animal remains recovered are particularly ancient and include lion, horse and reindeer, as well bear. None of these were still roaming wild in Britain last I checked.

After a thoroughly enjoyable and informative scramble underground I didn’t really think the afternoon could get any better. Then we emerged to this view:

No words required...

No words required…

Although the cave is usually locked to protect it’s important archaeological value, National Trust can arrange access to the site and run a number of public tours throughout the year. You can find out more by calling the White Peak Estate Office on 01335 350503 or find out more on the National Trust White Peak website http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/white-peak/.

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Time to Take Two

Last weekend Take Two opened, a new exhibition displaying paintings and drawings from the Derbyshire County Council collection. This show explores relationships between some of the pictures at the museum, by looking at two works by the same artist or images of the same view by two different artists.

Buxton Montage by Zoe Badger (2010)

Buxton Montage by Zoe Badger (2010), winner of the Derbyshire Open Friends Purchase Prize

I joined the team at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery this summer and have spent the last 6 weeks planning the exhibition. I’ve been helped on this journey by brilliant art student and artist in the making Rachel Hesketh, who has assisted with everything and anything including locating pictures in the store, choosing works for display, researching information about artists and taking photographs. The exhibition hang was a real team effort as we carried paintings from store to gallery, agonised over the lay out and resized labels.

Part of the Old Bath, Matlock Bath by Mary Mitford c.1770

Part of the Old Bath, Matlock Bath by Mary Mitford (c.1770)

One of the remits for Take Two was that the work was ‘made in Derbyshire’ and it has been wonderful to have the opportunity to show some paintings that won’t have been seen for a while alongside some more recent acquisitions. Also on display are two works by Sheffield artist, Eddy Dreadnought, completed as part of his residency at Tarmac Lafarge’s Tunstead Quarry in summer 2014, which complement some of the industrial paintings from the museum collection.

The Peak by Gwen Tarbuck (2000) Winner of the Derbyshire Open Friends Purchase Prize.

The Peak by Gwen A Tarbuck (2000), winner of the Derbyshire Open Friends Purchase Prize

Look out for a few other treasures including a copy of Ebenezer Rhodes’ Peak Scenery, or the Derbyshire Tourist (1818-1823) – illustrated by F L Chantrey, whose engraving of Castle Rock is also on show – and husband and wife artistic duo, Samuel and Ann Rayner, whose lithograph and engraving on Ashford Black Marble are displayed side by side.

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Matlock Bath, engraving on Ashford Black Marble by Ann Rayner (c1840)

I hope this exhibition inspires you to get out and about around Derbyshire and the Peak District, and look forward to sharing more with you soon. Take Two is showing at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until Saturday 7 November 2015.

Refloating the Ark

Hello…again

I’m very pleased to be back at Buxton Museum & Art Gallery and to be involved once more in Collections in the Landscape. I’d only been at my desk for a couple of days last week when I was whisked away to attend a conference hosted by Manchester Museum.  Refloating the Ark explored the role natural history collections can play in engaging the public with environmental issues, and also how they can contribute to, and attract, new research.

Collections in the Landscape is all about connecting people with museum collections and the Derbyshire landscape. We want to foster a sense of place, and an appreciation and pride in our heritage. Speakers at the conference spoke of ‘Nature Connectedness’, when people feel like part of a wider, natural community. There’s much to gain from this vision, and in our project we certainly do want to connect people with the environment, both the natural and man-made elements . Can we call this ‘Derbyshire Connectedness?’ Suggestions on a postcard please…

 

Participants explore the barrow built in the bank at Arbor Low

We got people exploring the great outdoors during the project’s development phase. In this photo some of our volunteers are enjoying the natural and archaeological features around Arbor Low.

You can find out more about what happened, who spoke, and about what, through the link below:

https://naturemanchester.wordpress.com/2015/03/06/refloating-the-ark-detailed-conference-programme/

And you can see what everyone else thought on Twitter, #RFArk

There was simply too much to cram into a single blog post, so here’s a short list of some of the lessons learnt that were most relevant to Collections in the Landscape.

Contact with nature is good for you…and the environment

Ok, so we all know that getting out and about in the great outdoors is a good thing. But speakers at Refloating the Ark really managed to sum up the positive impact that a project like Collections in the Landscape could have.

Contact with the natural environment is good for physical and mental health, learning, and also our relationships with each other. People spending time in outdoor spaces are also more likely to hold pro-environmental views, so nature gets something out of it too.

Appeal to hearts, not just minds

Evidence shows that facts alone are not enough if you want to engage people to act, or respond to, your messages. You got to appeal to people’s love, awe or wonder for something. This approach turns a passive respect or appreciation into a more passionate, engaged experience that is more likely to provoke a response and interaction.

So understand your audience, what are their values and motivation, what will make them say, ‘wow!’?

Great objects displayed well can really help appeal to visitors love or wonder for a subject - like these specimens in Manchester Museums  Natures Library gallery.

Great objects displayed well can really help appeal to visitor’s love or wonder for a subject – like these specimens in Manchester Museum’s Nature’s Library gallery.

If you want researchers to find you, DIGITISE!

Where do we all turn when we want to find something out? The internet of course! Getting data online is a major step in attracting new research into your collections. Make your data easy to find. Speakers even mentioned examples of new, scientific discoveries that had been made by researchers exploring museum’s online data. So don’t hold back!

We’re moving towards making our own collections available online, so watch this space for future news and updates.

Volunteering, but not as we know it

Finally, the concept of museum volunteering is being transformed, and there’s lots of good practice to be found within the natural history community. Citizen Science projects provide online platforms where members of the public can create or process data in response to a research question.

A very successful example is Old Weather, in which online volunteers are asked to study digitised pages from 19th century ship’s logs and pick up reference to weather. This project has helped to improve our understanding of historic weather patterns and has extended the historic data available for climatic research. Participants help digitise and transcribe weather reports, earning points as they do so and progressing in rank from Cadet all the way up to Captain!

Example page from the OldWeather Citizen Science project

Example page from the OldWeather Citizen Science project

Lastly, I’ll take this opportunity to thank the team from Manchester Museum for being excellent hosts who kept us all topped up with food, coffee and inspiring speakers. Refloating the Ark was packed with good ideas, sensible advice and interesting case studies. The next challenge is apply all of this to Collections in the Landscape.