How to make… a Feejee Mermaid!

Feejee mermaids were a common feature of sideshows and cabinets of curiosities in the nineteenth century and were presented as the mummified body of a creature that was supposedly half mammal and half fish, a version of a mermaid. There are currently two Feejee mermaids on display in the museum – one in the Ethnology Gallery and a very rare two-headed specimen in the new Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery.

Warrington Museum’s rare two-headed Feejee mermaid, currently on display in the Cabinet of Curiosities gallery.

We are often asked by visitors to the museum, “Is it real?” followed by “How was it made?”

The short answers are, “No” and “By sewing the back end of a fish onto the head and torso of a monkey*”, but for a more nuanced explanation of the process, Paolo Viscardi from the Horniman museum has written a very interesting article in the Guardian.

While we’re on the subject of Feejee mermaids, Creative Remedies have produced this B-movie style film inspired by and starring the museum’s two-headed specimen!

* or is it?

 

The Cabinet of Curiosities… tell us what you think

Everyone likes receiving compliments – especially on Valentine’s day – and at the Museum we’re no different. Here are just a few of the very nice things some of our visitors have said about the new Cabinet of Curiosities gallery

If you haven’t been to have a look yet, it’s fully open now and don’t forget to let us know what you think by tweeting us @warringtonmus (#cabinetofcuriosities) or posting a review on TripAdvisor… or if you’re a bit old school you could always fill in the comments book!

 

 

 

 

Honorary Curators blog: the final push!

Sorry for the lack of blog entries lately. We have all been really busy here at the Museum preparing for the grand opening of the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery. This includes displays by all nine of the honorary curators. By the time you read this the gallery will be open and you will be able to go and see all their work for yourself. Here are some shots of the displays taking shape…

Honorary Curators blog: focus on Catherine Parker

Before the project, Catherine spent most of her time balancing motherhood with running a start-up online recruitment business.

Her research for the project has led her down a number of different avenues over the last few months. However, she’s never really lost site of her interest in women’s history. For her project she wants to look at how life has changed for Warrington’s women and to focus on the inspiring stories that local women have to tell. To this end she has begun to do a number of oral history interviews to find out what women think about their lives and learn about the struggle some of them have had to get recognition in their working lives. She has targeted a number of different community groups and will be conducting interviews over the next few months.

We hope we will be able to showcase some of this work on the Honorary Curators web page soon. The centrepiece of her display will be the scold’s bridle or ‘brank’ (see previous blog). This is a chilling reminder of a time when women were physically gagged as a punishment for chattering or speaking ‘out of turn’. We have undoubtedly come a long way as a society since the days of the ‘brank’, but that does not mean there is not work to do to achieve true equality, as current news stories often remind us.

Catherine recently ran a discussion group on how women’s roles have changed at Mr Lau’s Restaurant here in Warrington. It was a very lively and animated evening and should result in some interesting oral histories.

Diary of a Meadow Pipit… Part 3

Hi, only a few days now until Warrington Museum’s new Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery opens and it’s been frantic here these last few days I can tell you! I just had to tell you about something exciting I’ve just seen! It was great fun watching some of the Museum people trying to put this fancy vase out on show without damaging it… two of them even had to climb into the display case with it. We were all holding our breath because it’s been especially repaired and nobody wanted to damage it again!

The vase before it was restored

The parrot in pieces!

The repaired vase

It’s absolutely covered in china flowers and birds and there’s another parrot on the top…  my old friends in the bird case are getting really jealous! I had a chat to the china parrot when all the humans had gone and he told me how he’d been in pieces just a few months ago and this clever conservator had made him a new wing and made this Meissen vase look as good as new. I learnt that it was all thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund that the Museum was able to afford the work. It’s one of the first things you’ll see when you come into the gallery.

The Meissen Vase in the gallery

I’m not sure if I’m supposed to tell you this or not but I’m so excited because I’ve heard that the gallery is opening on Saturday (that’s the 25th) and just for that weekend they are even going to open the museum from 1-3pm on Sunday 26th with some special family activities.

Hope you can all come and see me! I’m really looking forward to seeing people again. Don’t worry I’ll be back to tell you more of our adventures.

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Part 1 of Meadow Pipit’s diary

Part 2 of Meadow Pipit’s diary

Diary of a Meadow Pipit… Part 2

This last month has been so exciting! All of my old friends are back and the great news is that I’ve got a place in the new gallery too! There’s this big new display case which is just like being in a Museum store room and all my friends are perched on packing crates of the insect cabinets. Don’t they look great!

The Woolston seal’s back and best of all, the baby Greenland seal is there too and I know the children have missed that. The tiger and the Walrus heads are there and the striped anteater’s joined the menagerie too. The last time I saw him he was a dirty brown colour and you couldn’t tell he’d got any stripes.

Where am I? Well, I’m in this special space called the Curator’s study. That’s the room where the person in charge of the museum used to try to put us all in order and make sure there were records of where we all came from. I’m not sure about one of my new neighbours though… a really odd looking bird called a Hoatzin I think. It doesn’t mix with the rest of us but sits in this glass dome. I don’t think the curator knows where it belongs!

There’s some very odd creatures in here too; a pangolin, something called an echidna; a sort of crocodile and the wolf of course… he’s a bit scary. I’ve just noticed Mr Edelsten’s dog under the table. He’s been here even longer than I have – since 1852 I think. I haven’t had a chance to see everything yet in here – there’s so much to see. I’ve got pride of place on the curator’s desk, next to his typewriter so I’ll be able to write even more of my adventures.

I’ve got to go now but I’ll be keeping you up to date on what’s happening in the next few weeks because I’ve heard that everything’s got to be ready for the end of January. There’s still a lot to do and I really want to see what’s going to be in the other cases opposite me…

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Part 1 of Meadow Pipit’s diary is here

 

 

Honorary Curators blog: focus on Maria Walker

Although Maria worked as an accountant in Warrington and Manchester for many years, her real passion has always been making textile art and sewing. Since early retirement she has exhibited in group and solo shows, undertaken a number of residencies and hopes to complete an MA in Fine Art at Chester University later this year.

Being an honorary curator has allowed her to move her work in a new direction. Her interest in the social history of shopping led her to unearth the story of William Hodgkinson in the local archives. Hodgkinson was Warrington’s own “Mr Selfridge”. He came to Warrington as a poor orphan but went on to make his fortune through his successful Bridge Street shop, which became known as “Warrington’s Premier Department Store”.

She also discovered that William had a long and interesting family life as well as being a successful businessman and respected freemason. By the age of 33, William was married for the second time, had four children and was expanding his first shop at 46 Bridge Street into purpose-built premises higher up the street.

As a textile artist, Maria has used her interest in the memories and stories that lie hidden in old objects and clothing to create a display that is part art installation and part an exploration of the social history of the shop. By creating what look like “draper’s drawers” she tells the story of William Hodgkinson and the women in his life through objects she found in the Museum stores. They are the kind of items that might have been sold by Hodgkinson’s Limited over the ninety years it traded in Warrington.

Maria says: “I have thoroughly enjoyed my time working as an honorary curator. Warrington Museum is such a wonderful treasure house for the town but it is often overlooked. The Cabinet of Curiosities project appealed to me as I am really interested in old objects and imagining what past lives they might have had, so I really enjoyed being able to spend time going through the boxes in the off-site stores and unearthing beautiful objects. My project was research into the old drapers shops in Warrington and find objects in the archives that could have been sold in these shop, so the discovery of such an interesting story about the owner of one such shop was an added bonus.

“Working as a honorary curator has also been fun, as I have been working alongside a wonderful bunch of people. All the curators are really enthusiastic about the role and staff at the museum have been really encouraging and generous in sharing their knowledge and expertise with us. I feel I have really gained an insight into how the Museum is run and I feel proud to have been a part of the Cabinet of Curiosities project.”

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Diary of a Meadow Pipit… Part 1

Meadow Pipit

Peace at last! It’s all been going on at Warrington Museum this last 18 months I can tell you… something to do with creating a new Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery I heard someone say.

Sorry I’d better introduce myself first. I’m Pipit, a little brown bird that used to spend the summer in the meadows at Bewsey, but I’ve lived in the Bird Room at Warrington Museum for over a century now.

It was great at first, there were hundreds of other birds from all over the world all crowded into these wall cases. It wasn’t so bad because we could still see daylight through the roof lantern light. Then sometime about fifty years ago everything changed. First they put in a kind of false ceiling so it was really dark in here. Then they took all of us out of the cases and most of us ended up hidden away in these dark cupboards. I really missed my old friends like the parrots- they could chatter away all day!

Then about 18 months ago everything changed again. Some of the humans who work in the Museum came and opened up all the cupboards and started taking pictures of us all. They took me out and put me in one of the display cases and I thought I was going on show again at last. It was quite sad to see some of the other birds; the big parrot’s tail had fallen off and lots of them need their feathers preening and their beaks had faded.

I did wonder what was going to happen because they took the Woolston seal away. He’s quite a character and I thought the children will really miss him! Then one day I realised that all the other birds had disappeared and I was all on my own. I think they forgot about me…too small to see I suppose.

Next thing a group of workmen came in and started to knock down all the old cases. Fortunately one of them saw me just in time and put me on this grey box high up on the wall. He said something about how now I could have a bird’s eye view of what was going on!

They did work hard; first of all they filled up a large hole in the floor and then they took down that horrible ceiling and made a lovely new lantern light. It was so noisy with electricians, plasterers, plumbers, carpenters, painters and a special team who put in these posh new display cases. Then about two months ago all the workmen went away and I realised I could almost see daylight again with these lovely lights that change colour in the lantern light! It was lovely but I was very lonely in this big new space.

Then things started happening again. The museum staff started bringing back some of my old friends. Oh it was so good to see them and they looked so bright and clean again and the parrot had even got his tail back again! They told me they’d been on a trip to see a couple of people called conservators who’d very carefully made them look just like new.

So now we’re all waiting to see if any of us make it into these fantastic new cabinets ready to meet the public again. There are even rumours that the wolf and the Woolston seal are coming back. I’m frightened that I’m going to end up in a cupboard again and miss it all!

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Honorary Curators blog: Back to Tabley House

Last week the Cabinet of Curiosities music project returned to Tabley House for our final recital. Since July, when we first visited – see previous blogs for more information – students from Lymm High School and Riverside College have been working on original compositions for the virginals. Having the chance to work on music for such rare, early instruments has presented a real challenge and helped them all to think about the way they compose ahead of their A-level exams.

With the compositions complete it was time to go back to Tabley to hear the music being played by freelance keyboard-player and orchestral pianist Bernard Robertson. In a thoroughly enjoyable session Bernard played a variety of works by Byrd, Purcell, Sweelinck as well the students’ own compositions. He performed on both the English virginals, similar to the one that will be displayed in the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery, and an earlier Italian instrument dating back to the 1590s. Bernard says these are the earliest instruments he has ever played.

Bernard Robertson at Tabley

Bernard Robertson at Tabley

Honorary Curators blog: from the Winwick brooch to labelling a hedgehog!

The honorary curators have been busy with quite a few project recently. Here’s just some of the things they’ve been up to…

Café oral history drop-in sessions

As part of her project, Catherine has been running a series of drop-in sessions in cafes around Warrington. Her aim has been to sign up Warrington women who are interested in sharing their life stories through oral history interviews.

Inspired by the museum’s scolds bridle, a barbaric device supposedly used until the early 1800s to punish ‘troublesome or nagging’ women by clamping their tongue, Catherine’s project looks at how attitudes to women have changed. If you are interested in taking part and have an interesting life-story to tell then please contact Bill Longshaw.

The Winwick Brooch

As part of their project, Catherine and Elaine have been researching the history of what has become known as the Winwick brooch.

The brooch, dating from the 1400s, is a late medieval annular or ring brooch, also sometimes described as a fede-ring, because of the two hands clasped in faith or troth. It is made of solid gold and was found by a metal detector enthusiast somewhere in the Winwick area in 2006.

Ring brooches were popular in the middle ages and were used to fasten the high neck of a lady’s gown. They were exchanged as a token between lovers who would then wear the brooches, sometimes with secret inscriptions, close to their heart. This particular brooch is inscribed pensez de moy (‘think of me’) on one side and is embellished with a five leaf flower design, probably of forget-me-nots, on the other.

In their research Elaine and Catherine made contact with Canon June Steventon from St Oswald’s Church in Winwick and they were all able to come to the museum to see the brooch last week. As the Brooch was buried in the ground, there is no way of knowing why it was in Winwick and we can only imagine might have owned or lost it. By looking at Parish records they hope to find out about what Winwick was like in the 1400s, who lived there and who might have passed through. Catherine is looking at the lives of women in the Warrington area, so the brooch fits in well with her topic. As the brooch is decorated with forget-me-nots it also relates directly to Elaine’s research into wild flower and the language of flowers.

Virginals project

Following the recital we held at Tabley House in the summer (see previous blog), David Lloyd-Mostyn has now begun to work with some of the A level music students at Lymm High School. The project takes its inspiration from a variety of sources. As well as the music the students heard in July, they have recordings of Robin Bigwood playing our own virginals, made during its restoration and also recordings of some of the creaks of the floorboards at Tabley House to work from! All of this material will be used as the basis to make new compositions and ambient sound to be used in the Cabinet of Curiosities Gallery in January

David and the students are hoping to have the compositions ready before Christmas so that they can go back to Tabley to have the pieces played and recorded for inclusion in the gallery.

Museum interpretation: labelling a hedgehog

The time for installing exhibitions, writing labels and generally completing projects is drawing ever-nearer! So, last week, to help the honorary curators in this process we ran a workshop on writing museum text and labels. Access and interpretation expert Jennifer Vickers was on hand to give help and advice creating labels that can help visitors to make links with museum objects.

The honorary curators soon learned that making text accessible for a wide range of audiences is a challenging task, especially when you only have a limited number of words (50 for a label and 250 for a text panel) to play with. As well as showing examples of good and bad museum text, Jennie introduced a number of practical exercises. These included creating a label for a stuffed hedgehog and finding ways of describing a range of objects to visually impaired people, families and ‘aliens from outer space’. The team thoroughly enjoyed the afternoon. Here are some of their comments.

“I really enjoyed the way we were invited to engage with the subject, try our hand at doing some writing, and give our own criticisms and compliments. Whether I’m ever going to be able to meet Jennifer’s high standards is another matter but at least I know what I’m aiming for! I had begun to get some labels together, but now these will have to be put under scrutiny. A good thing!”

- Judith

“…it was excellent and really informative and it has made me think more carefully about presenting information. The session was very well structured and the hands on exercises were really effective.”

-Maria