A Digital Curiosity Cabinet


The Wright Flyer

The 1903 Wright Flyer on the launch rail

The 1903 Wright Flyer ready to launch

Many people attempted to build flying machines at the beginning of the 20th Century. The American brothers were the first to achieve powered sustained flight with the Wright Flyer in December 1903. The Wright brothers had a fascination with flight from a young age. In 1878 their father gave them a toy flying helicopter model that was powered by strands of twisted rubber. They played with it all the time and even built larger copies of the model. In the summer of 1899 they built their first flying machine, which was a biplane kite with a five foot wing span. It was a test model that they planned to use to develop their first full sized glider. The Wright brothers pioneered many of the modern techniques of aeronautical engineering, such as the use of a wind tunnel and flight testing.

Wilbur donated the legendary Wright Flyer to the Science Museum in 1928, after an argument with the Smithsonian Institution. It was returned to the Smithsonian Institution in 1948. However the curators at the Science Museum made this faithful replica from the original Wright Flyer before it was returned. The ‘replica’ is so true to the original that there is a rumour going round the Science Museum that it is the original Wright Flyer!

Chinese Imperial Throne

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

Chinese Imperial Throne © V&A Museum

This ornately decorated throne represents the supreme power of the Chinese emperor. It was made by the greatest of China’s craftsmen at one of the most productive periods of Chinese art during the eighteenth century. It is one of the largest single pieces of red lacquer in the world. It shows five clawed dragons and the exotic figures that represent people from foreign lands bringing tributes to the emperor.

The emperor of China was the source of all power. He ruled over statesmen and administrators who supported him in governing the country. The Chinese term for the emperor was ‘Son of Heaven’, and he was considered to be the sole link between heaven and earth. For the most part the emperor led a secluded life and did not leave the Forbidden City, the palace complex in the centre of Peking.

This throne was made for the emperor Ch’ien Lung between 1775 and 1780. It was used at the Tuanhe Travelling Palace in the Nan Hasi hunting park immediately south of Beijing. The Palace was one of several temporary homes of the emperors of the Qing dynasty.

Thrones do not have the same significance in Chinese culture as they do in European traditions. They had no ceremonial importance and were just a grand piece of furniture for an imperial palace. The throne would have originally been furnished with cushions.

Leonardo Da Vinci’s Notebooks

Leonardo Da Vinci Notebook, © V&A Museum

Leonardo Da Vinci Notebook, © V&A Museum

Leonardo da Vinci was the typical ‘Renaissance Man,’ having skills in many different areas of study. As well as being one of the most famous artists in the world, he was also a prolific inventor. He drew many sketches and diagrams of flying machines, helicopters, an armoured tank and even a robot knight! Most of these inventions were never built, as Leonardo da Vinci either lost interest or could not raise the money to construct them. He also owned pictures of craters of the moon.

In his notebooks he wrote about a vast array of subjects, from the anatomy of a bird wing to geometry, to hydraulic engineering. The V&A Museum has five of Leonardo’s notebooks that are bound together in three volumes. They reveal how he thought on paper and contain some of his most complex and challenging designs. Leonardo’s interest in flight can be traced to his earliest notebook compiled in the late 15th century, which include designs for a flying machine. Later notebooks contain more extensive observations on birds and their flight.

Leonardo wrote in Italian, rather than Latin, the common language of international scholarship at the time. The notebooks are written in Leonardo’s famous ‘mirror writing’. His hand writing is reversed, as he wrote from left to right. Writing masters of the time used to make demonstrations of mirror writing, so it may not have seemed as strange as it does today.


Launch of British Museum App

Assyrian Lion Hunts

Assyrian Lion Hunts

I am delighted to announce the launch of my audio-tour of the British Museum for Tupuy. You can find out more about strange and wonderful objects, such as the Parthenon marbles, the Assyrian lion hunts and a selection of Javanese shadow puppets. If you enjoy reading my blog, you will love my tour.

Tupuy create audio guide apps for museums and art galleries in many different languages. They offer audio tours of all the best museums and monuments, including Macchu Picchu in Peru, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Acropolis in Athens and many more.

The British Museum tour is just 65p to download and it has images of all the objects in the museum, so it is worth a look even if you cant make it to the museum.You can download my tour of the British Museum tour here:https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.mwluis.tupuy

Throne of Weapons made by the Rembrandts of the Mozambique Civil War

Throne of Weapons, Mozambique Civil War

Throne of Weapons, Mozambique Civil War, British Museum

This throne is made from decommissioned weapons from the Mozambique civil war, which took place from 1977 to 1992. The war claimed over a million lives and left 5 million people displaced. After the war ended the Bishop Dinis Sengulene had an idea about how to solve the problem of the continuing presence of millions of weapons in Mozambique. It was inspired by a biblical reference – according to Isiah 2:4, ‘They shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.’ The ‘Transforming Arms into Tools’ programme was set up by the Christian Council of Mozambique and Christian Aid. The idea was that people could hand in their weapons in exchange for useful tools, such as sewing machines, ploughs, and bicycles. If children found unused bullets, they could exchange them for school pens and exercise books. A group of 500 farmers collected and handed in 500 guns, in return for a tractor. No questions were asked.

More than 600,000 weapons have now been handed in to be destroyed. Many guns were simply melted down, but others provided the raw materials for a group of artists in Maputo, the capital of Mozambique. Parts of machine guns were turned into animals and birds. Rifle barrels, gunstocks and carbines were transformed into the tree of life.

The artist Kester created The Throne of Weapons, with arms, legs, and back made out of sawn off AK 47s, and other guns. None of these guns were made in Mozambique. The war was fuelled by foreign interventions. The guns in the throne come from North Korea, Poland, Portugal and the Old Soviet Union.

The throne of weapons represents hope for the future, shows the progress made, and stands as a reminder of the painful past.

The Tiger Taming Arhat, V&A Museum

Tiger Taming Arhat, © V&A Museum

Tiger Taming Arhat, © V&A Museum

The eighteen Arhats were the original disciples of Buddha. They were freed from the cycle of reincarnation when they achieved enlightenment. They went onto become ‘the guardians of the law’. There were originally sixteen Arhats, but over time the number increased to eighteen. The earliest representations of the Arhats can be traced to the 4th century AD, but it was not until the 8th century that the tiger taming Arhat appeared. The eighteen Arhats are always represented as elderly monks with shaved heads, although each is identifiable through distinctive symbols.

Legend has it that Pindola, the tiger taming Arhat, was a general. However he was devoted to Buddhism, which forbids killing. He was ordered by the king to become a monk and he joined a monastery in the mountains. Not far from the monastery he could hear a tiger howling every day. He though that the tiger must be hungry and decided to feed it vegetarian food, so that it wouldn’t turn into a man eater. The tiger came to be fed every night. Eventually the tiger was tamed. From then on, Pindola became the tiger taming arhat.

This painting on silk dates to around the 17th to the 18th century. An inscription at the lower right says, ‘Respectfully commissioned by the imperial prince Zhuang’.

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, V&A Museum

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre,  © V&A Museum

Takiyasha and the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre, © V&A Museum

Utagawa Kuniyoshi, the Japanese artist, was famous for his depictions of history and legends. The scene shown here is from a popular novel called the Story of Uto Yasutaka, that was written by Santo Kyoden in 1807. Princess Takiyasha was the daughter of the warlord Taira no Masakado who started a rebellion against the Emperor of Japan in Kyoto. However his rebellion was put down in 939 AD  and Masakado was killed. After his death, Princess continued to live in the ruined palace of Soma. This print shows the scene when the emperor’s official, oya Mitsukini comes to search for any surviving conspirators. The princess is reciting a spell written on a handscroll. She summons up a giant skeleton that appears out of a black void, crashing through the tattered palace blinds with its bony fingers to menace Mitsukini and his companion.

The skeleton shows Kuniyoshi’s knowledge of anatomy. The artist probably referred to a book that depicted Western anatomical drawings. Prints like this are made by carving a patterns onto a wooden block, that is then printed onto paper or fabric. The artist has used several woodblocks to create this print, using one block for each colour. Kuniyoshi has used the triptych format to create a dramatic effect, spreading the large forms across three sheets.

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Sunflowers by Van Gogh, © National Gallery

Van Gogh is one of the most famous impressionist painters of his time. He was born in the Netherlands in 1853. He worked as an art dealer in the Hague for a while and then moved to Paris in 1885. In 1888 Van Gogh left Paris with aspirations to paint the brilliant sunshine of the South of France. He rented a house in Arles, called ‘The Yellow House’, and invited his friend Paul Gauguin to join him. Van Gogh painted a series of sunflowers to decorate his friend’s bedroom, before he arrived. To him they represented optimism and the glorious colours of Southern France.

The transient nature of the sunflowers, which began to wilt and fade within hours, required a rapid approach to painting. He used very thick paint, applying it in textured strokes and sometimes used the handle of the brush to score into the surface. He also put fresh paint onto areas that were already wet. He wrote enthusiastically to his brother Theo :

‘I am hard at it, painting with the enthusiasm of a Marseillais eating bouillabaisse (a traditional French stew), which won’t surprise you when you know that, what I’m at is the painting of some sunflowers. If I carry out this idea there will be a dozen panels. So the whole thing will be a symphony in blue and yellow. I am working at it every morning from sunrise on for the flowers fade so quickly.’

Van Gogh and Gauguin worked together throughout autumn 1888. Sadly the collaboration was not a happy one. Their arguments contributed to Van Gogh’s mental breakdown and to Gauguin’s departure. Van Gogh was committed to an asylum near Arles. And this brings us to the story of Van Gogh’s ear.  He painted a self-portrait of himself with a bandaged ear in 1889.

The official story is that he cut off a part of his ear (not the whole ear) with a razor after a row with Paul Gauguin in 1888. Bleeding heavily, Van Gogh then walked to a brothel and presented the piece of ear to an astonished prostitute called Rachel, before going home to sleep in a blood-drenched bed.

Two German academics have come up with an entirely different story. Hans Kaufman and Rita Wildegans suggest that the inconsistencies in Gauguin’s accounts imply that he was not telling the truth. Gauguin was a champion fencer and they suggested that Gauguin sliced off Van Gogh’s ear with a sword. Whatever the truth of the matter, most academics regard the self-mutilation story as the most plausible.

Caste of ‘David’ by Michelangelo, V&A Museum

Michelangelo's David, © V&A Museum

Michelangelo’s David, © V&A Museum

This plaster caste of Michelango was taken from the original statue which dates to around 1501, and is in Florence, Italy. The caste of Michelangelo was presented to Queen Victoria by the Grand Duke of Tuscany in 1857. She donated it to the V&A Museum. Apparently when Queen Victoria first saw the statue of ‘David’, she was so shocked at his nakedness that she commissioned a fig leave to be made to cover up his private parts. The fig leaf was made to be proportionally accurate and it was designed so that it could be hung on the figure using two hooks. It was kept in readiness for any royal visits to preserve the Queen’s modesty. At the  time male nudity was quite a contentious issue. In 1903 Mr Dobson sent a letter to the museum complaining about the statues: ‘One can hardly designate these figures as “art”. If it is, it is a very objectionable form of art.’

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

Fig Leaf, © V&A Museum

Michelangelo was only 26 years old when he accepted the commission for the Cathedrale of Florence in 1501. He was at this time one of the best paid and most famous artists of his time. The Cathedrale of Florence had already asked two other sculptures to create the ‘David’ sculpture. The project was started in 1464 by Agostino di Duccio, and when he gave up, Antonio Rossellino took over in 1475. Both artists refused to work on the enormous block of marble because it had too many imperfections, which may have threatened the stability of the statue. But Michelangelo was unfazed by such an enormous task. It took him two years to create the original sculpture in beautiful white marble. 

The statue shows David, the biblical hero carrying his slingshot over his shoulder before he begins his battle with the mighty Goliath. Goliath has offered to determine the outcome of the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites with a single combat battle. David steps up to the challenge and defeats Goliath by hurling a stone from his slingshot which hits him in the centre of his forehead. David then cuts off his head and stands triumphantly. With a single shot he has won the battle between the Philistines and the Isrealites.

Gold Warrior Pendant, British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant,  © British Museum

Gold Warrior Pendant, © British Museum

This intricate warrior figurine recaptures the image of a fierce Mixtec warrior. The warrior wears a lip plug, from which hangs a severed head, which maybe a war trophy. From the head dangle three intricate bells. You can almost imagine the warrior fiercely tinkling into battle.  Mixtec goldsmiths fashioned gold into prestigious objects to show off their wealth and prowess in battle. This warrior has a decorated crown, curved earrings, a nose piece, and pendant pectorals across his chest. On his left arm he carries a circular shield, and his right arm he carries a spear thrower. His elaborate regalia indicates that he is a high ranking warrior ruler.

Warfare was central to Aztec society. Its purpose was to take live captors for sacrifice to the Gods. Military accomplishment was highly prized by the Aztec warriors.  Aztec warriors improved their rank by capturing an ever increasing number of victims. The most distinguished warriors were the eagle and jaguar warriors whose dress represented these animals. The Aztecs were cosmopolitan in their tastes and they bought in high prestige goods such as gold from Mixtec artists in Oxaca. Mixtec artists would have visited Tenochitlan, the capital of the Aztec world, and they would have been encouraged to settle in Tenochtitlan.