Sometimes you visit a local museum and you find a small, interesting display that appears to have nothing to do with the locality of the museum at all. Ipswich Museum has several sections which at first glance have no obvious connection with Suffolk let alone Ipswich. Then you stoop to read the appended information and find that a small collection or special item was donated by an Ipswich or Suffolk resident.
These types of display sprung to mind when last month I was reading about Ipswich Museum and saw a comment querying the relevance of non-local content. I know it is usual for a town’s local museum to focus on exhibits that have local connections especially any that can be spun for a local audience.
However, we don’t simply visit museums for ‘home’ histories, but also to find how our town connects to the wider world. And, Ipswich has been a port since the 8th century and a trading site for nearly 1,500 years.
Despite neither being produced nor discovered in Ipswich this cabinet of Islamic calligraphy and decorative ceramics is both interesting and beautiful, and provides the visitor with a display of another culture’s creative expression.
The exhibits may well have come to the museum as part of a donation from a local Victorian ethnographer, or, a passionate 20th-century collector obsessed with the history of ceramics and that in itself is of interest.
Nevertheless, however these pieces came to be in Ipswich I have found them an excellent source of inspiration. I have particularly admired this fine twisted serrated leaf entwined with flowers, known as the ‘saz’ motif, which I have used for a face mask or two.
Well, other things might not be happening today, 31st October 2019, despite the premature minting of ‘Brexit’ coins, but Halloween is still on. And, this post, photographs of skeletons on display at the Ipswich Museum, is a little contribution to the general spookiness of the day.
Some skeletons are easily identifiable, but this massive bone arrangement for the Woolly Mammoth has an air of a rocky outcrop about it and I had to take a hard look to figure out what I was seeing.
However, this dramatic looking skeleton caught my attention with the obvious rib cage and the recognisable skull. It was displayed in the post-glacial section of the exhibition, so I guessed it might have been a badger, but I was wrong. It was a beaver. Skeletal remains of beavers are quite common in the fens of East Anglia and this one was found in the peat in Burwell Fen, Cambridgeshire. Sadly, the beaver was hunted for fur and food and finally exterminated in England in the Saxon times. However, recently there have been successful re-introduction programmes in several parts of Great Britain (see Devon Wildlife Trust’s Beaver Project).
After being sidetracked by the Ice Age displays I went off to the Geology Room to find what I had actually come to see, a really, really big skull. The skull of a whale. It was from a whale that swam up the River Orwell in 1811 and died after becoming stranded on Denham Beach.
It is so large it is difficult to photograph and get a sense of its size, I guess its about 3 metres by 1.5 metres. It is also difficult to comprehend what you are seeing especially if marine mammal anatomy is not your field.
Beneath the whale skull were a range of cabinets with skeletons of creatures from modern times. Specimens of mammals, birds and fish are displayed and, although, a casual visitor may not be able to identify individual species, it was not hard to guess the animal from the bones. For example, you would know that this was a skeleton of a primate, but was it a chimpanzee, a gorilla or perhaps even an orangutan?
At first glance you might even briefly think it was an early human skeleton, but the main differences between a gorilla skeleton and a human skeleton are seen in the teeth, skull, pelvis and large toes. That looks quite a jaw and heavy brow on this lady.
Back in my studio and always interested in finding interesting shapes and patterns for my work I took another look at my photographs. The fish, the gorilla and the ostrich bone pictures had possibilities.
The fish skeleton makes for perhaps a better print-like image (top of this post) than a glowing line treatment, but the gorilla skull is transformed with glowing lines into an impressive Halloween portrait.
However, easily the most elegant of all the bones I saw at the Ipswich Museum was the ostrich skeleton and it’s made the best picture.
Now the statement ‘Not all that glistens is gold’ in this case is a bit of a naughty comment to attach to the Wickham Market Hoard of late antique coins. It implies the coins are not made of gold whereas it is just that they are not pure 24 Karat gold. Pure gold as we know is a soft metal and is unsuitable for circulating coins and therefore over the centuries various gold alloys have been used.
The Wickham Market Hoard is comprised of tribal coins made of one such gold alloy. The alloy in this case is a mixture of gold, silver and copper. The coins of different tribes of this period are known as staters and were marked with different symbols.
At the time these coins were in use in Britain, around 10 BC to AD 10, Julius Caesar had already been and gone from our shores, and Britain wouldn’t be officially conquered and part of the Roman Empire until Emperor Claudius’s campaign of AD 43 .
The Romans had, of course, been minting coins for the empire and Roman coins circulated in Britain from Celtic times, but regional tribes also minted their own coinage. Roman coinage had consisted of coins of gold, silver, orichalcum (a brass-like alloy of copper and zinc) and copper. However, the tribal finds dating from this time are hoards that comprise of gold coins only.
The Wickham Market Hoard was discovered in 2008 and is the largest hoard of British Iron Age gold coins to have been found in more than 150 years. There has been nothing of comparable size since the discovery of the Whaddon Chase Hoard in Buckinghamshire in 1849.
On display at the Ipswich Museum, the Wickham Market Hoard consists of 840 staters. That is 830 are Freckenham staters, five are Snettisham staters and five are Ferriby staters. These coins are named after the villages in which the coins were originally discovered. Freckenham is a village in west Suffolk and the staters found their were made by the Iceni tribe.
These coins have a horse motif on one side and on the reverse a pair of crescents motif with a cross formed of dots or a flower.
The Snettisham staters were first found near the village of Snettisham, west Norfolk, and were also made by the Iceni. These staters have a similar horse motif, but this time it has a sun symbol between its legs and the reverse of these coins is nearly blank.
Finally, there are the five Ferriby staters so-called as these were discovered as part of a hoard found in north Lincolnshire in 1900. These were made by the Corieltauvi who were a tribe from the East Midlands. These coins also have a horse on one side. It is a more stylised version as the horse’s head is a triangular shape and the body is made up of a series of crescents. The reverse of a Ferriby stater has a wreath of laurel leaves.
These coins struck with their fascinating images are over 2000 years old, and yet the design for the horse motif on the Freckenham staters has a timeless quality. When I first saw them I knew that they would be the basis for my next collection of silk scarves.
Apparently for 21st-century folk, ‘stuff’ is so last century. I am sure there are still plenty of people who are collectors, but generally the marketing people inform us that it’s experiences and not things we prefer these days. Of course, with more and more bad news regarding the climate emergency and all those shocking images of plastic waste, the old mantra ‘less is more’ could not be more necessary. However, for our more prosperous Victorian forebears it was very different and with drawing rooms, parlours and front rooms overflowing with collections of objects, more was definitely more.
Last month I made my first visit to the Ipswich Museum. It was opened in 1881 and was dedicated to the study of science and art. And, in that Victorian tradition of progress and improvement, the museum’s founding purpose was to ‘promote the study and extend the knowledge, of natural history in all its branches’. To this end it still displays its nineteenth-century collections of stuffed animals and birds.
The type and number of birds and animals is not as large as either Exeter’s Royal Albert Memorial Museum or Norwich’s Castle Museum (the town museums of the last two places where I’ve lived), yet it still offers visitors a thought-provoking display of the Victorian’s approach to a Natural History collection. Arguably, there is some scientific value from these various collections across the country as examples of life forms now extinct can be seen in their 3D form. However, all is not always what it seems as I read when I looked up ‘stuffed dodos’.
No stuffed dodos remain in any collections. Recently the last two were lost to fire and attack from museum pests. Some museums have made mock-up dodos using pigeon and chicken feathers, and there is a head, leg and single foot remaining at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History.
Grant Museum, UCL, London.
I have mixed feelings about these stuffed creatures. I think today we are lucky. We have the luxury of digital cameras, computer animation, David Attenborough documentaries, wild life centres and opportunities to travel around the world to see some of the more exotic exhibits alive and in their natural habitats. It is understandable that in the past these stuffed creatures were prized objects within a museum setting. It is also intriguing that they found their way into many domestic parlours where exotic birds were the stars of glass dome dioramas. I suppose it can also be seen as part of the Victorian’s wider obsession for collection and display combined with their keen interest in Natural History.
Nowadays, these displays of exotic birds, survivors from over a hundred years ago, are themselves collected. Examples can be found in antique shops and popping up from time to time at auctions, but what other options are available for today’s avid collector interested in Natural History. If it’s now more about experiences than stuff then shooting exotic birds with a camera and not stuffing them must surely be the answer. (Is that a collective tweet of relief from birds around the world we hear?)
Finally, one of the most popular exhibits at the Ipswich Museum, especially with children, is a very large, 3D animal. It is the life-sized model of a woolly mammoth standing just inside the museum’s entrance. The model is based on the bones of a woolly mammoth unearthed in 1976 during the building of a local school. This woolly mammoth lived and died some 186,000 to 245,000 years ago, thousands of years before an accomplished taxidermist or even an experienced Ancient Egyptian embalmer ever drew breath, however the surviving bones tell their own story. It is suggested the animal died as a result of being stuck in the mud.
For a very interesting opinion regarding Ipswich Museum posted June 2019 see, current Chief Executive of the Royal Academy of Arts in London, Charles Saumarez-Smith’s post.