Tuesday, 23 October 2018

Warm flesh on old bones

Warm flesh on old bones

Telling the stories of a museum collection

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.

Event: Arbor Low on a misty Midwinter morning

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.
tools fanned across centuries and lives
walk, wander, listen
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.

exploring with friends
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. Lullaby of the Larks, an exhibiton of photographs, paintings, installation and musics from the Collections projects, by Kidology Arts is on at Buxton Museum until 24th November. Details, here

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


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,

Under fur....

The opening verses of a lullably written with ideas from the children of Biggin Primary School. Full Charm can be found in Tales from the Wonders

Tuesday, 16 October 2018

Apples and elderberries

Noble chafers and elderberries

in celebration

of orchards and Apple Days

I have been to various orchard events over the last few weeks and out of them the following has grown

More structured blogs will follow over the next few days but for me the following held a lot of the excitement and enchantment of an orchard…

Orchard Summoning
Bring me a beetle,

A chafer, rose or noble,

A dark shimmer of green

A maybug blunder in a spring twilight.

Bring me a yaffle,

Ant bathing and talkative,

The warm apricot blush of bullfinches,

Feasting on the buds of April.

Bring me the roe, the chestnut ghosts

Slipping without sound, shadows within shadow.

Bring me the bats of the deep night,

A flicker of moth and hunger.

Bring me the children who steal

The windfalls from the wasps,

Bring me the laughter under the leaves,

Picnics sprawling between sun and shelter,

Bring me the tales knotted into the roots,

Of the oldest trees,

As Apple Tree Man whispers through the branches.

Bring me sharp apple juice and sweet

The delicate scent of quince,

Bring me bitter rowan and dripping elderberry,

Well jellied for a winter feasting.

Bring me those branches,

Twisted by centuries of skill.

Bring me an orchard to feed

Body and soul and story.

Bring me it all.

Victorian black and conference

Grenadier and quince

Damson, bullace and sloe

Mabbott’s Pearmain, Gascoyne’s Scarlet

Tydeman’s Early, Rossie Pippin

Fillbasket and Qarrenden

Bring me nothing,

But let me share

A joy, a hope, a bounty.

Bring me nothing,

But let me offer

Strong arms and a willing heart

Bring me nothing

But let me offer my love.

Victorian black and conference

Grenadier and quince

Damson, bullace and sloe

 Part of the BM125 project for Buxton Museum and Art Gallery