End of an Era – Stripping out the Wonders of the Peak

“You’ve got to break some eggs to make an omelette”

That’s how the old saying goes, but still I must admit to having mixed feelings as I watch the strip out of the old Wonders of the Peak gallery. On one hand it’s an incredibly exciting time as the fake walls and ceilings are removed – but it’s still sad to see the old displays being dismantled.

I won’t go over old ground in explaining how and why we’ve decided to make these changes – they’ve already been summed in some of our previous posts.

https://collectionsinthelandscape.wordpress.com/2014/06/10/design-ideas-for-the-new-gallery/

https://collectionsinthelandscape.wordpress.com/2013/08/13/wonders-of-the-peak-gallery/

The low, winding tunnels of the old gallery are actually constructed within two large rooms. More and more of the original space is being opened up each and every day. We’ve been keeping a photo diary of the progress. My intention is to publish a series of slideshows at the end of the project – to show the changes that have taken place from certain viewpoints.

Just for you, here is a sneak peek of the story so far.

Recent visitors to the museum will have discovered the Buxton Bear has moved to the Project Space. Here’s a reminder of where he used to be, and what it looks like now. The stalagmites and stalactites have also been removed. Not many people realise they were real cave formations.

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These next images show the old Georgian Room, and what you can see from the same viewpoint today.

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The Roman Displays were perhaps some of the most iconic in the old gallery. Here’s a view of the roman altars looking towards the fire exit.

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And above it all, hidden for over 25 years, THIS ceiling.

THAT ceiling

Visit us in the Project Space to find out more about the new gallery design or our exciting digital plans. The new gallery, Wonders of the Peak: A Journey through Time and Place, is currently scheduled for a ‘soft opening’ in April 2017, so make a note in next year’s diary and come along to see the exhibits!

 

 

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!)

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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!

 

Design ideas for the new gallery

For me the most daunting, but exciting element of the Collections in the Landscape project is the redevelopment of the Wonders of the Peak Gallery.   We’ve blogged about the redevelopment quite a lot and been on various fact finding trips to other institutions, most recently to the newly redeveloped Manchester Central Library.

Meeting with designers

Meeting with designers

Yesterday we had a meeting with three designers who have all put forward ideas for what the new gallery might look like. It was really exciting to see the designs and it has made the development suddenly feel very real.

The current gallery is a chronological time tunnel, which takes visitors from the big bang through to the Victorian period. It is windy and dark (windy as in wiggly, not blusterous), with many stud walls and areas of false ceilings, making it difficult to envisage as a blank space.

The current Wonders of the Peak floorplan.

The current Wonders of the Peak floorplan.

We intend to open up the gallery making it less claustrophobic and more accessible, while still trying to make the most of its small dimensions.  We are still in the very early stages and will not be finalising designs or companies until next year, but it has given us something to think about.

Ideas for the new gallery

Ideas for the new gallery

 

 

Digital Interpretation

The use of digital interpretation is a hot topic for museums at the moment, but it’s a difficult thing to get right. As part of Stage 2 in the Collections in the Landscape project we are hoping to redevelop the Wonders of the Peak gallery, and we see digital interpretation as a key part of that. One of the best ways to understand what works and what doesn’t is to go and visit other museums, so that’s what we did! I have to admit that I was a bit of a digi-skeptic when it comes to museums, I visit to see objects not screens, but even I was won over.

Gold Coin of Trajan - This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

Gold Coin of Trajan – This level of detail would be hard to see in normal gallery conditions.

 

A good reason to use digital is to bring small or hard to view items to life, and make them easier to see. It is hard to see the real detail in a roman coin, especially when there is 20cm of case between you and the object. To get around this visitors often move closer to the case in order to see the object properly, which causes problems for other visitors. I experienced this first-hand when visiting the British Museum’s current exhibition, Vikings: Life and Legend. The objects themselves were incredible but because of their size, and the busyness of the exhibition, it was a struggle to see them sometimes (and I am relatively tall!). The problem was partly the amount of people, which is unlikely to cause the same issues for us, but it was mostly the scale of the objects that made it difficult.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6, but the cases at the back look a little busy.

Vikings: Life and Legend. No problem viewing Roskilde 6 but the cases at the back look a little busy.

 

One of the ways to get around this is by digital interpretation. There was no digital included as standard in the Viking exhibition, however, there were guides on iPhones available to rent. The additional charge put many visitors off, myself included, and only around 3% of people in the gallery were using them. The visitors with guides did seem to be using the space differently and were spending less time at the objects themselves; perhaps they were seeing things the rest of us weren’t. We have thought about designing an app or specific guide for Buxton Museum but the uptake in audio guides is so small that it isn’t practical for a museum of our size. We are also quite interested in touch tables. Although not a fan of digital in galleries, I would have loved a massive touch table in the Vikings exhibition featuring the Vale of York hoard. Not only could it have been used to view the objects in detail but an extra layer of information could have been added, making the objects far more accessible. This could be a useful interpretation tool for the recently acquired Kirk Ireton coin hoard and is already successfully being used for the Staffordshire Hoard.

Ed, Anna and Jess all using the digital interpretation on offer at Archives+

Ed, Anna and Jess putting the digital interpretation at Archives+ through its paces.

 

Archives+, in the Central library in Manchester, have embraced new digital approaches in their redevelopment. They have recently re-opened after a complete redevelopment of the building, funded by Manchester City Council and the Heritage Lottery Fund. We were lucky enough to have a guided tour of the new space and got to test out their digital offer. As a digi-skeptic and lover of archives I didn’t know what to expect. Archives+ face a different set of challenges to us; archives are hard to work with and difficult to engage people with. Paper is one of the most delicate materials to display, and, for conservation purposes, items can only be exhibited for a limited time. Audio and film archives can be intrusive and annoying in open gallery spaces. Archives+ avoid these problems by having a carefully designed space. Audio and film archives are available in separate booths to the side with directional speakers or headphones, and cases can be changed by a single member of staff.

The Oculus - situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point.

The Oculus – situated in the centre of the building, it acts as a focal point. Audio booths can be seen behind.

 

There is very little original material on display in Archives+; instead they let the digital do the work. You can scroll through maps of Manchester from 1640, or look through the photographic archives of immigrant families. This is an approach that works well with delicate collections. The interactive that impressed us most was the Oculus in the middle of the gallery. It consists of three touch screen terminals that allow visitors to navigate a map of Manchester. The map contains around 50 points of interest and various different topics are covered by these points. The best thing is that everyone can see what and where the users of these terminals are looking at via the central map. We found this really drew people together and made you want to use it as a group. It was a positive visit and we all left feeling motivated about the digital options that are available. Digital seems to work well as a focal point, but is also a good way of making difficult items more accessible. While it should never replace original objects, it can be used to complement and support exhibitions to great effect.

The Peak District in the Early Medieval period

A particular challenge Buxton Museum will face when redeveloping our popular Wonders of the Peak gallery is the Early Medieval period, or, to be more precise, 400 – 1100. It is a huge period, but it is also a time that, until recently, has lacked popular appeal. There have been a lot of new research over the last 30 years and we need to update the gallery to include this in the story of the Peak District. The High Peak was a less populated region than today. It was also a tumultuous time. For much of it England was divided into separate kingdoms, and from the 8th century onwards the country was subjected to Viking attacks, invasion and settlement.

The Peterborough Chronicle - Bodleian Library, Oxford

The Peterborough Chronicle – Bodleian Library, Oxford

Part of the reason this is a difficult period to document is that little written material survives from then, certainly in comparison to the Late Medieval period. One of the main written sources for this time is the Anglo-Saxon chronicle. The chronicles make for an interesting read. In 626 there was an attempted assassination of Eadwin, King of Northumbria, in the Derwent Valley. The assassination was ordered by Eamer, King of the West Saxons, but it failed. In 848 a witenagemot, a national council assembly, was held in Repton. Archaeologists also found the bloody evidence of Viking occupation of the town in 873, which was described in the chronicle.

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

One of the 9th century crosses in Bakewell Church

Most evidence of the Early Medieval Peak District can be found in situ, although sadly very little remains today. The Normans caused a large amount of damage across the country after the conquest, both intellectually and physically, and especially in the north. The Peak District was a densely forested area, which was a hunting forest for Anglo-Saxon and Norman kings. Nevertheless, it still would have been inhabited by local people. Well preserved crosses from the 9th century can be found in Eyam, Hope and Taddington churches, although the crosses at Bakewell are perhaps most famous. The church used to have various coped tomb slabs built into its walls, however, these were removed by Thomas Bateman and are now in the collections of Museums Sheffield. One of the challenges we face is linking to these monuments. Digital offers us the potential to give these items a gallery presence, but we could just as easily opt for photography, or even have a digital trail.

The Bentley Grange Helmet - Museums Sheffield

The Bentley Grange Helmet, Museums Sheffield

Some of the other items that do survive are quite spectacular. As well as the coped tomb slabs, Museums Sheffield hold a helmet, c. 650, excavated from Bentley Grange, near Bakewell. It is one of only four horn-covered helmets found in England. There were also possible fragments of chain mail, a ‘circular enamelled ornament’, a cross and cup remains found at this site. Sheffield’s collection is home to other items collection from barrows in Derbyshire, such as a bronze circular box from a woman’s barrow near Hurdlow, and a double edged iron sword from a grave mound near Brushfield. The British Museum, meanwhile, hold the Beeston Tor Hoard, which includes two complete brooches with intricate knot work patterns. One of our hopes for the new Wonders of the Peak gallery is to return these objects to the region in which they were found, be that physically or digitally.

Fact of the Week: Children love dead things

Earlier this week we ran a family activity called ‘Design the Wonders’. The idea was for children to have a wander around the Wonders of the Peak and choose their favourite object. Ben, acting as the glamorous assistant would  photograph the object for them – you can spot him in the reflection below. The child then glued it to their nicely decorated worksheet and described why they had chosen the object, why they liked it and what they wanted to know more about.

Liffs Low
Piping the bear to the top spot was the Liffs Low skeleton… ‘I’ve never seen a skeleton before’. With some kids wanting to know how he died and how long he had been buried for? The children proved to be a macabre lot with the skulls also proving popular.Bones

 
Less predictably was the spear appreciation club; It is awesome ‘because they were used’ and it prompted the question ‘what did cave men kill?’

It wasn’t all morbid. The mermaid was chosen ‘because she looks like Aerial’ – she doesn’t and actually I guess she could almost be classed as another dead thing.   But there was an appreciation for the Blue John and a piece of amethyst ‘because it is coloured pink and purple and these are my favourite colours’.

mineralAs well as being a fun activity it was interesting for us to see what objects the children were passionate about. We will be thinking about their responses in our design ideas for the Wonders of the Peak gallery.

One thing that really came across was that the children wanted to know the personal stories of the objects. What would the Liffs Low man have looked like? Whose skull was it? How and why did he die?

 I have seen reconstructed skulls on TV and in museums, so this might be something we look at doing here in Buxton. What do you think?
You can see information on the reconstruction of Liverpool Museums Leasowe man here and National Museum Wales’ Penywyrold head here.

Museums Association Conference

Guest post by Ros Westwood

I’ve just attended the Museums Association annual conference which was held this year in Liverpool. Have you been there recently? It is a fabulous city. The conference centre is right alongside the Mersey, and really near some of their iconic museums. I was so busy talking that I’m afraid photographs did not take priority.

I took time out to go to see the Museum of Liverpool. It’s a new building, very bright white, rather than the mellow tones of the Three Graces on the Liverpool waterfront, but internally feels like a Tardis. The staircase loops beautifully around in the centre, drawing your eye upwards.

Photo bt Nathan Stazicker

Photo bt Nathan Stazicker

I didn’t have time to do the whole museum, so the Beatles will have to wait. On the top floor is a gallery called The People’s Republic. It covers the recent history of Liverpool, in the words and artefacts of the people themselves.  As always, I landed up going backwards through the gallery, I think.

It is an object rich gallery, so that you hardly know what to look at, there is so much choice. I wanted one of those devises that maps where your eye is looking, because there was so much to see and it would have been interesting to see the journey across any one of the cases. Actually, for our project, this is an important lesson:  we need to make sure that we don’t put in so much that the visitor doesn’t see anything – an interesting thought when CITL is committed to putting 10% more artefacts on show!

Ashford Black Marble

Our object rich displays in the ‘Wonders of the Peak’ gallery

There were several talking head videos. I thought these would irritate me, but they didn’t. What the people had to say was interesting and moving, and in the quiet of the gallery, you felt the place had people in it. Perhaps if these soundtracks were all restricted under sound hoods, they would not have had the same impact.

The breath-taking view up the waterfront and all the way to America rather steals the show, particularly on a sunny day.

However, I had only nipped out from the conference, and wanted to see Liverpool’s version of the History Detectives on the first floor, covering the arrival of people in the area, again to the present day. Rather than talking heads, here there were quotes instead – and this common interpretation appealed to me. Short extracts supported by succinct interpretation. The objects ranged from stone tools, through to beautiful porcelain, archaeological potsherds form all periods of the city’s history, ephemera and social history. Object labelling was really important to the curators, but often it got in the way of some of the displays. Also, the maps were not as precise as I might like, with assumptions that the visitor knows where every place is. But this is one of the areas that I know we want to do better in the new gallery.

We want to improve the labels in the new gallery!

We want to improve the labels in the new gallery!

Back at the conference, I went around the trade stands looking at display cases and lighting systems, environmental monitoring and the range of digital interpretation currently on offer. With loads of people to talk to and lots of good practice, the ideas and lessons need to be fed into Collections in the Landscape.