The Gulch: An Amateur Symposium – Barbican

The Gulch

At the end of November I attended an afternoon of talks at the Barbican taking Bedwyr Williams’ exhibition in The Curve, The Gulch, as a starting point. Held in the Fountain Room, I thought the talks sounded quite interesting and I’m always up for learning new things.

The first talk, on taxidermy, was delivered by Errol Fuller, whose topic was inspired by the presence of a taxidermied goat in the exhibition. He suggested that taxidermy is one example of the smudging of boundaries between life and death. During the Victorian era, taxidermy was used to strong effect in science – for instance, Darwin’s finches which demonstrated the differences between species – but it was also fashionable to use it as decoration in the home. Creatures were often posed and arranged as though in performance: playing cricket, making music.

Taxidermy has been out of fashion for many years, but recently it has started to increase in popularity, with a growing interest in natural history and the ethical sourcing of dead animals to use. Courses are particularly popular among young women aged 15-30, while taxidermied animals have begun to appear in artworks, such as the suspended horse in the Guggenheim.

The golden age of taxidermy spanned from the nineteenth century up to the outbreak of World War One. Every town had its own taxidermist, and nowadays many are famous according to their name and town, such as Hancock of Newcastle. George Ashmead, who created a case of 300 hummingbirds, had business premises in Grosvenor Square, while Roland Ward, famed for his lion biting a bison, had premises in Piccadilly. Between the 1930s and the 1970s many good examples of taxidermy were destroyed, even by curators, as they were out of fashion and seen as valueless.

What was nineteenth-century taxidermy about? Two aspects were particularly popular. One was anthropomorphic taxidermy, primarily for amusement, such as tableaux of fencing mice. Another was the use of animals now extinct, such as the passenger pigeon, native to North America and once the commonest bird on earth. Another example is the Great Auk, of which around 65 examples remain stuffed in museums. Hooiers from New Zealand are the only birds in which the males and females have different beaks, but they became extinct in 1907. The heath hen was common when stuffed in 1880 but has since become extinct: it was stuffed to look dead, and Fuller ends his talk by suggesting that it has now become conceptual art deeper and more profound than actual conceptual art.

The second talk, on magic, was given by Jon Armstrong. He started off with a card trick involving members of the audience, and pointed out that a deck of cards has multiple meanings, with cards relating to the days of the year, the seasons, and more. He discussed the practice of magic as performance art, citing the Davenports, late nineteenth century magicians who had a black box theatre, and the magician Kirby who wrote as far back as 1972 on the relationship between magic and theatre. He discussed The Conjurer by Hieronymus Bosch, a work which portrayed magic as an ancient art, and the theatrical tricks that could be seen as magic, such as flying machinery and the ancient mystery plays that had a “hellmouth” on the stage.

At this point there was a break in proceedings, and I took the chance to go and check out the exhibition, The Gulch. This immersive exhibition in The Curve started with a moonlit beach, on which a sole shoe rested beside a camp fire. It then moved into a small gallery space with a couple of displays, including a chair with a winding road drawn on the back. Next I entered a “backstage area” of boxes, drums and beanbags, that could be before or after a performance.

A boardroom, with a long table and a large screen, followed, with a video of a self-confessed depressed hypnotist followed by a taxidermied goat in a bare room with a microphone. The exhibition ended with a curved stretch of race track on which another shoe could be seen.

I have no idea what any of it meant, but I liked it – I got the sense of someone having just left, an empty space that had been in use until a few seconds ago. I felt as though I was stepping into a story each time I moved into a new space.

The third talk was delivered by Dr. Georgina Guy, who compared aspects of the exhibition to other art exhibitions and installations, relating theatre, exhibition and curation to one another as they are displayed and performed. Unfortunately a lot of her talk went right over my head – as an academic I don’t think I was the right audience for what she was trying to say.

The final talk was possibly my favourite: Christopher Green spoke about the science and showbiz of hypnosis. He read about Victorian hypnotists in the British Library and investigated the relationship between hypnosis, theatre and healing, and how many “serious” hypnotists who want to help people end up using the tricks of “stage” hypnotists. I was particularly interested to learn about the famous female hypnotist, Anne de Montford, the daughter of a millworker, though there were plenty of other fascinating characters, including Henry Blythe the stage hypnotist, who hypnotised his daughter to pass her driving test – and she failed. Green was an incredibly engaging speaker and really sparked my interest in a topic I’d never paid any prior attention to. Overall, a fascinating afternoon.

Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds – British Museum


On one of my days off I headed to the British Museum to see their exhibition, Sunken Cities: Egypt’s Lost Worlds. The exhibition was about the lost cities of Thonis-Heracleion and Canopus, which lay at the mouth of the Nile. Thonis-Heracleion in particular was an incredibly important commercial centre for trade with the Mediterranean world.

The exhibition contained many fascinating exhibits revealing the link between Egyptian and Greek culture and architecture. I particularly liked the fascinating videos showing divers recovering statues and other treasures from the sea.

Maps and the 20th Century: Drawing the Line – British Library


Maps and the 20th Century is the latest exhibition at the British Library, exploring the 20th century via the medium of maps. Maps were widely used before this period, of course, but it wasn’t until the last century that map use became more or less universal.

The exhibition covers themes such as war, peace, movement and the market. The war section was one of the most memorable, being full of the kind of propaganda maps that were so common in school textbooks, featuring images like Hitler as a spider spreading his spindly legs over Europe. My personal favourite maps were the original Underground map sketch by Harry Beck, the map of Antarctica, and the map of the shopping centre of Sunderland, my home city.

The exhibition runs until the first of March next year, and it’s well worth seeing for any map fans out there.

Bedlam: the asylum and beyond – Wellcome Collection


The Wellcome Collection near Euston has some pretty good exhibitions, and the most recent is no exception. Bedlam: The Asylum and Beyond looks at the idea of the asylum, what it represented and what it became, and asks if the idea could be reclaimed.

An asylum was originally a space, usually religious, where an individual could seek refuge or sanctuary. Modern mental asylums emerged from this concept. As the word ‘Bedlam’ became synonymous with ‘asylum’, it seems appropriate to focus on the original Bedlam, the Bethlem Royal Hospital in London, which was founded in the thirteenth century and still exists today.

The exhibition looks at the history of asylums, with drawings, photographs and autobiographical accounts from Bedlam in particular but also from asylums in Europe, as well as the Retreat in York which pioneered more “humane” treatment of the insane. It also contains artworks, videos and films about asylums and insanity, many made by more modern commentators.

The exhibition ends with a representation of an “ideal” modern asylum and invites the viewer to comment on what they think makes a good asylum. It leaves you with a lot to think about.


Natural History Museum

The Natural History Museum is one of London’s famous museums, located, like so many of the others, in South Kensington. I rarely go, simply because it’s so popular: the queue to get in is always massive and full of kids. I had a day off work at a time when I knew the schools would be back, and decided to use it to enjoy the museum, but it was still pretty crowded. Oh well.

Trying to get a picture with Dippy and Albert (my Tatty Devine dino)

Undaunted, I headed in anyway. I was greeted by Dippy the Dino: due to be removed at the end of 2016, I was glad to see him for the last time. The hall is possibly the most beautiful part of the museum, decorated with carvings of many different animals, flanked with arches, and ending in an imposing staircase.


The origins of the collection lie in the specimens of the Ulster doctor Sir Hans Sloane, who allowed the British Government to purchase the collection in the mid-eighteenth century. The collection was initially housed in Montagu House, Bloomsbury, in 1756, the home of the British Museum. Over the years, much of the Sloane collection disappeared, many specimens having been sold to the Royal College of Surgeons.

The palaeontologist Richard Owen was appointed Superintendent of the natural history departments of the British Museum in 1856. Seeing that these departments needed more space, he arranged for land in South Kensington to be purchased. The civil engineer Captain Francis Fowke won a 1864 competition to design the new museum, but he died shortly afterwards and the job was taken on by Alfred Waterhouse, who revised the plans considerably. Work began in 1873, the building was completed in 1880, and the museum opened the following year.

The museum still remained, legally, part of the British Museum, using the name British Museum (Natural History). A petition to the Chancellor of the Exchequer was made in 1866 requesting independence, but it wasn’t until 1963 and the passing of the British Museum Act that this was granted, and the museum retained the original name until 1992 (though it was informally rebranded as the Natural History Museum four years earlier).


Today, the museum is free to enter (except for special events and exhibitions) and is a thriving destination for Londoners and tourists alike. It has a special appeal for children, but there is plenty of interest for adults too.

The museum is divided into zones, which helps with navigation. There are plenty of maps around the place to help you find your way.

Blue Zone
The highlight of the Blue Zone is the Dinosaurs Gallery – the most popular gallery in the museum – which has plenty of interest including the first fossil ever found from a Tyrannosaurus Rex, an Iguanodon, the skull of a plant-eating Triceratops, and more. This zone also contains skeletons, models and stuffed animals, encompassing the natural world including fish, amphibians, mammals and reptiles. Many of the stuffed animals look rather old and tired now, but this is understandable considering the museum no longer wants to kill and stuff animals for display. I thought the section on human biology also looked a bit dated, but it was certainly very informative.


Green Zone
This zone rather randomly brings together fossils, minerals, birds and “creepy crawlies”. My favourites were the dodo (now sadly extinct) and the giant plesiosaur skeleton on the wall. I’m not a huge fan of insects and other crawling things, but I have a particular love for leaf-cutter ants and can happily spend ages watching them march along bearing their huge leaf fragments triumphantly. This zone also includes the Treasures Gallery, containing an exciting assortment of special and unique items including an emperor penguin egg collected during Robert Falcon Scott’s Antarctic expedition, and Guy the gorilla.

Red Zone
This zone encompasses the former Geological Museum of the British Geological Survey, which became part of the museum in 1986. The impressive Earth Hall features an exciting entrance that takes visitors up an escalator and through a giant model of the earth. This zone looks at the history of human evolution, rocks and gems, and natural phenomena such as earthquakes and volcanoes. I particularly liked the earthquake simulator.


Orange Zone
This zone contains the peaceful Wildlife Garden and the Darwin Centre, in which you can attend live shows and talks with scientists, although I didn’t attend any during my visit.


The museum has frequent special exhibitions, including the annual Wildlife Photographer of the Year exhibition and the summer staple Sensational Butterflies. There is also a branch of the museum at Tring in Hertfordshire. Other special events include monthly lates and popular sleepovers (“Dino Snores”), with separate events for both children and adults. This is on my bucket list!


The Natural History Museum is a hugely impressive and educational free museum. Some of it is looking a bit dated and tired now, but that’s understandable given its sheer size and the number of visitors it sees through its doors. In 2017 a project will revitalise the Hintze Hall, former home of Dippy the Dino, and the Treasures Gallery; maybe after that’s done they’ll get on to the rest of it. It’s still a valuable resource, and superb special exhibitions keep me going back.


Address: Cromwell Road, Kensington, London, SW7 5BD


Opening Hours: Daily 10.00-17.50

Prices: Free