Artefacts, stories and wonders
One story began in a box of bones on a tabletop.
A second began under the table with a mantrap’s rust.
A third began on a windswept hilltop where a grass-grown ridge hid an ancient story of pain and sorrow.
I have worked with Buxton Museum and Art Gallery on and off for some 17 years now. Activities have ranged from writing the poetic version of their audio trail to running events that have wandered from lantern making to crystal growing, puppet mammoths to the precise drawing of Victorian designs and random mermaids
In 2016, the museum was closed for a refit funded by the Heritage Lottery. As part of that Collections in the Landscape project, I was asked to coordinate a programme of events that took the collection out into the landscapes it came from. (Just Derbyshire, no thrilling field trips to Egypt or the fossil beds of the mid-west USA). We took fossils to limestone gorges, brought a handling collection to the local Victorian garden, unwrapped geological specimens in dripping caves. As the CITL project developed a second Collections project also grew.
Six artists working in different media were brought in to respond to themes within the collection. With museum being closed and galleries up for redesign, there was time to pause and reflect, a chance to look at different ideas. There was a potter, a visual artist, a sculptor, a textile worker, a musician composer and me as a storyteller and a poet. I can’t speak for the others but for myself “The Collection of the Artists” went abruptly from being enjoyable and entertaining to, like the skeleton from Liff’s Low*, being very personal, very telling. Still enjoyable. Still rewarding. But with bones enough to shake a soul.
My challenge within the project themes was to explore “home”, in particular the shift that must have – might have – presumably – came when Mesolithic wanderers became settled Neolithic growers. There was a question about a sense of belonging to a place, to a neighbourhood and not to a journey, not to a migration across landscapes. These were the people who went on to raise Arbor Low and draw lines and alignments across the Peaks mirroring the changing patterns of the skies.
So, I sat and turned over bones in my hands. I gazed into the eye sockets of the ancient dead. I worked with children from Biggin School below Liff’s Low’s hill and we talked about life here thousands of years ago. We could become his family. We could tell his story. Our story of him. Of course, it was our story of him! Of course, all the other pieces I wrote were my stories of them. I am a storyteller, not an archaeologist. I am also a zoologist so every so often my analytical, natural history head speaks up – and gets over excited at auroch’s bones or the proximity of a cave bear skull. But I am a storyteller. In this context, my job isn’t to tell the science story, it is to remember – and to remind other people – that these were people too, to wrap bones in warm flesh, to imagine lives and let them live again in words and the images those words create.
And pulling a skin curtain against the wind,
We are as hefted to the hills as our sheep.
(from: Becoming Home, G MacLellan)
Collection of the Artists was a Buxton Museum and Art Gallery project supported by Derbyshire County Council, Heritage Lottery and Arts Council, England. The finished pieces by the artists are on display (or can be heard) in the Wonders of the Peak gallery in the Museum.
More of my work from Collection of the Artists can be found in a booklet: Tales from the Wonders that is available from the museum shop or direct from me (£3.50 including P&P within UK)
The project as a whole can be explored on the Museum site, here
Your museum: if you would like that personal story touch in your collection – or are interested in an event or longer project, drop me an email and we can have a chat
*Liff’s Low: a tumulus excavated by Bateman in the 1860s. The skeleton taken from the tomb is a key part of the new Wonders of the Peak gallery
LIFF’S LOW NIGHT CHARM – a lullaby grown from the ideas of children in Biggin School
Do not fear the darkness,
As the firelight dies,
My little horse girl.
Your father is a wolf,
And the night
Holds no fear
For the hunter.
Do not fear the cold,
As the firelight dies,
My little fox boy.
Your mother is a bear,
And the cold,
Is never cold,
….read the whole Night Charm in Tales from the Wonders