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.

Photographs in the Landscape part two

In my last blog, I wrote about the challenges of taking high-quality photographs of museum objects. Glazed paintings are particularly problematic as they reflect, especially when using a flash. I was keen to see what solution professional photographer Nick Lockett would come up with. The answer was a giant pair of black curtains! With a dash of Photoshop, of course. Note that the handsome chap behind the camera in this picture is me, along with Nick’s assistant and brother Steve; a bit cheeky considering I was just the monkey, not the organ-grinder.


Photographing the art collection was easier as I was not required to open any of the cases in The Wonders of the Peak, unlike last time. Some of those old displays were not designed for quick and easy access which is good news for museum security but bad news for photo projects. Fortunately, due to the efforts of the Derbyshire Museums Manager, Ros Westwood, the paintings live in a modern high-tech storage facility.

work over 08

Most of BMAG’s art collection will be available for you to view online before much longer; improved public access is one of the main aims of the project. More of our oil paintings are already on the Public Foundation Catalogue website . I particularly like this one by David Russell because it depicts the exterior of the museum with an assortment of local characters.

DERSB 2006.33

Talking of unusual pictures, Ros found this photo recently in a box from the Randolph Douglas collection. It is entitled In Search of Thermal Springs, Matlock Bath. Ros said it made her think of me. I have decided to take this as a compliment.

In search of thermal springs, Matlock Bath

More impressive is this action shot of climbing pioneer and cave explorer, Jim Puttrell (1869 -1939). It is thanks to Puttrell that Buxton Museum has a fantastic collection of minerals.


As if these discoveries were not exciting enough, Douglas had also kept some postcards of Dicky’s Skull. What is Dicky’s Skull I hear you ask? Find out in my next blog; if you dare!

Dicky's skull 02