Sunday, 20 February 2011

When Scurvy Came to Derby

It doesn't sound nice, does it? Scurvy in Derby? But for people like me, scurvy was of great interest when  it spread rapidly through the city streets and along the arterial roads of our county a few years ago.

Cochlearia danica Danish Scurvy Grass) and Bellis perennis (Daisy), Derby City
Danish Scurvy Grass in flower beside a solitary Daisy
at Bass' Recreation Ground, Derby. 
I'm not talking of that horrible disease caused by vitamin deficiency, of course. No, I am talking about our over-use of salt causing something unusual to spread like wild-fire, right across the country.

Thankfully, it's nothing to be afraid of - it's simply the pretty little maritime flower known as Danish Scurvy Grass (Cochlearia danica). Records collated by my team of volunteers at Derby Museum showed it was first recorded at Butterley in Derbyshire in 1972 by local naturalist, Roy Frost. This was an unusual event in itself, as Scurvy Grass normally grows close in coastal areas exposed to salt-spray from storms and high winds. The plant was not seen again until a couple of records were made in 1994. When I stumbled across a massive patch in flower alongside the A516 at Bearwardcote in 1995 its presence and sudden spread in our county was still not fully appreciated.

Having identified the plant as being a rarity (it was at the time, anyway),  I contacted our county plant recorder for confirmation. Pretty soon he responded by saying he was seeing it all along the A38 from Derby to Alfreton. In fact over the next few years it spread right across Derbyshire as part of a UK-wide spread from coastal areas.

Map plotting records at 1km accuracy.
Major roads shown in red.
The main reason for its spread was the rise of the use of salt for winter road "gritting". The salt melts the ice and later washes away, unlike true grit. But the salt contaminates the grass road verge, rendering it ideal for Danish Scurvy Grass to invade. With its tiny seeds it can spread easily, blown by the draught from passing vehicles.

I have jointly run the Flora of Derbyshire Project with Dr Alan Willmot in a voluntary capacity  since 1994, and it has been recording the spread and distribution of all plants and flowers within Derby and Derbyshire ever since. The project has the support of Derby Museums, for it was in 1969 that our museum published the previous Flora of Derbyshire. Over those years a veritable army of volunteer plant recorders and data inputters has amassed over 800,000 computerised records of which the vast majority are now online. Shown here on Derby City Council's website is the account for Danish Scurvy Grass, with its lines of distribution following just the main arterial routes through the city of Derby and out through the county. This account, and another 2000 like it are set to be included in the final published 'Flora of Derbyshire'

Its still quite unusual to find it along minor roads. As many of us experienced this winter, these minor roads rarely get gritted at all during icy weather!

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

The Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow

Educator Phobos (aka David Erskine)
In my previous post I told of an event at Derby Museum that I co-created many years ago to reach very young audiences and bring to life the most famous work by 18th century artist, Joseph Wright of Derby. - The Orrery

Digging out and watching the ancient amateur VHS video tape of The Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow was a real trip down memory lane for me. And so, as the 20th anniversary of our little production is coming up next week, I thought the time was ripe to digitise the old video tape and get it onto Vimeo.

Each thirty minute performance began with one of the three audio-visual slide shows I created, projected straight onto the wall of the stage area and with the volume cranked right up as far as I dared. (Do try and ignore the shaky camera work during these sequences, if you can, and just try and imagine the fun we had putting them all together!)

Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow from Nick M. on Vimeo.

If you want to skip the audio-visuals and just watch my alien friends in action, here are the rough timings:
Educator Phobos and Ursa Major (aka Bryan Shaw)

Introductory a/v       00:00 to 06:00

Cosmic Teleguides  18:10 to 23:00

Final a/v sequence   29:40 to 32:20

The production was devised and created entirely in our spare time, and neither alien you see on-stage is a professional actor. The elderly Educator Phobos was played by my good friend David Erskine, then our Assistant Education Officer at Derby Museum. Ursa Major was played by his friend, Bryan Shaw, then an engineer at Toyota. You might even spot yours truly, right at the end of the video, up there on the gold platform, in my element, controlling all the sound and lighting effects. Of course, this wasn't the normal work for an Assistant Keeper of Natural History - but then I've never been one for sticking narrowly to my subject specialism, and that's when museum work is at its best - when you work with colleagues to be innovative, enthusiastic and really reach out to people in unexpected ways.
Dim the lights . . .
Queue the music . . .

Watching the video certainly made me smile - I hope it does you.
Leave me a comment if you think it ought to be performed again in some form (or is it better to stay consigned to the dusty shelves of a sad old museum curator and his memories?).

Postscript: Not only did The Cosmic Roadshow win Derby Museums a "Highly Commended" Gulbenkian Award for Imaginative Education Work in 1991, it also resulted in both museum staff appearing on the front page of The Sunday Sport - a rather raunchy national newspaper! This weird and wacky rag used a promotional image from our show and ran with a story of  two aliens buying up works of art to take back to their planet. Now, that's just out of this world! To view the actual newspaper, click this link

Saturday, 5 February 2011

A Cosmic Event

Its probably daft to start a new blog by writing about something that happened 20 years ago.
So I'm going to.

The Orrery by Joseph Wright of Derby. 
Earlier this week I got chatting to a museum colleague about some events they're planning at the moment, and we began brainstorming a few extra ideas. We were talking about ways to reach new audiences and bring alive the work of Joseph Wright of Derby - our city's most famous son. There's so much talk nowadays about how we all need to be creative, innovative and inspiring that you could be forgiven for thinking we'd never been that way before. So I told her of a project I ran many years ago to bring one of Wright's most iconic paintings into the young hearts and minds of our visitors. I'd almost forgotten what we managed to achieve way back then, and mostly in our spare time. What I went on to help create was totally unrelated to my actual work as a museum naturalist, yet even now I see it as one of the most inspiring pieces of work I've ever done at Derby, eventually winning a Gulbenkian Award for Imaginative Education Work.

It was called "The Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow"

It was the early 1990s. Derby Museum had sent the cream of its Joseph Wright painting collections off on a world tour, including the most famous of his works - The Orrery. Derby's painting were touring in a major exhibition of his work at museums in London, Paris and New York, and they were due back the following year. Big events had to be planned. I got involved and somehow ended up commissioning  a mechanical orrery to help visitors understand what was actually going on inside that magnificent painting. You can still see this working Grand Orrery with its planets whizzing around a model sun inside Derby Museum today - but that's a tale for another time.

Meanwhile I and a colleague, David Erskine, began bouncing ideas around for something educational - something fun. Something quite different. We hit upon trying to explain what was happening inside Wright's painting of The Orrery, but from a totally wacky perspective. And we'd do it as a performance.

And so "The Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow" began to evolve. David hit upon the idea of having two aliens  getting to grips with how planets move around their suns.  One alien was to be a teacher, called Educator Phobos, whilst the other was his rather stupid pupil, Ursa Major, and they were to use Wright's painting of The Orrery as the starting point of their explanation. After all, Educator Phobos had met Joseph Wright on one of his many time-travelling jaunts back to earth's 18th century!

Meanwhile I'd been listening to music -Vangelis to be precise.One particular racy piece of music (Pulstar) set my own creative juices flowing, and images of planets and orrery paintings began flashing into my mind. That was it! . . we'd start our production with fast-moving audio-visual slide show before out intrepid aliens came out onto the stage and began making everyone laugh.

Well, our ideas began to grow, as did the scale of the project. David and I spent hours and hours each evening, for weeks on end planning, scheming and crafting the script on my shiny new Amstrad PCW or building props for our show. Meanwhile I worked away with a room full of Kodak carousel projectors, reel-to-reel tape recorders and Electrosonic a/v kit that I'd scrounged from places like Derby Playhouse, Derby University and The Assembly Rooms, whilst David searched amongst his friends for just the right kind of voices for the special audio effects we wanted.

And the day eventually came when Joseph Wright's Orrery painting returned to its home city and was delivered back to Derby Museum and Art Gallery. I was waiting there, outside with a camera, capturing the moment the lorry from Momart came down The Strand with its valuable cargo and Wright's works were gingerly brought inside into the recently refurbished Wright Gallery for re-hanging. Those pictures  were destined to become the end images used in my third and final audio-visual sequence, set to a short but stunningly rousing piece of music by Michael Nyman.

And so on a grey February morning in 1991 the doors to Derby Museum opened at 10am, letting in a massive queue of people for the first of five magical performances of The Joseph Wright Cosmic Roadshow.

Dim the lights . . . 
Queue music . . . 

. . . To watch the Cosmic Roadshow, follow this link to the next post.