A Digital Curiosity Cabinet

Author Archive

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 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.


Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala at the Cirque Fernando by Edgar Degas © The National Gallery

Miss Lala was a circus performer famous throughout Europe for her amazing feats of strength. She was born in 1858, was christened Olga Kaira, and she started performing at the age of 9.  She was a tightrope walker, a trapeze artist and an accomplished acrobat. In this picture, she is being hoisted up towards the roof of the circus with a rope, which passes over a pulley. She is supporting her entire body weight by gripping the end of the rope with her teeth

In February 1879, she came to London to perform at the Royal Aquarium in Westminster. In an amazing act of showmanship, she progressed from suspending a boy, a woman and then a man from her jaw, while hanging upside down. The finale was described in a newspaper at the time:

‘Her great feat, and that which should undoubtedly prove the sensation, comes at the end of her share of the entertainment. Six men strain their muscles to lift to her a cannon of no mean dimensions. This also she supports by her teeth alone, never leaving her hold even when, the match being applied, the gun is fired and gives a tremendous report.’

The Cirque Fernando was built in 1875 in Paris, near Degas’ home. Degas does not focus on her as an individual, as he was more interested in capturing the spectacle of her body as she flew through the air. If you look closely, you can see that her arms and legs run parallel to the lines of the roof and the rope. Miss Lala is deliberately off centre. Degas was inspired by Japanese prints, which often placed their main subjects to one side and cropped them in dramatic ways.

He made many preparatory sketches for this painting, including oils, pastels and pencil sketches. An x-ray of this painting shows that Degas struggled to achieve the correct perspective for the roof. The x-ray shows that the figure of Lala was unchanged, but that the beams of the roof have been altered. The x-ray reveals three separate roof beams, which would have been his first attempt to paint the roof. Perhaps he decided that three beams would have crowded the composition with too much architectural detail. The two beams we can see in the painting are painted over the top.

When Walter Sickhart, an artist, visited the artist’s studio in the Rue Pigalle, Montmartre, he describes how Degas, ‘ had been unable to solve the problem of the perspective and had hired a professional for the drawing of the architecture of the ceiling.’


Neptune and Triton, V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Neptune and Triton © V&A Museum

Alessandro Peretti,  the Cardinal Montalto, commissioned this impressive sculpture for the garden of his Villa in Rome. It formed the centre piece of a larger display of fountains and cascades, above a series of waterfalls that flowed into a large oval pond. Bernini was one of the most gifted and influential sculptors of the 17th century. He carved ‘Neptune and Triton’ within a year, between 1622 and 1623. In classical mythology Neptune was the god of the seas and his son Triton was a merman. Neptune stands tall bearing his trident, while Triton sits beneath him blowing through a conch shell. Originally the conch shell projected a single jet of water, and the piping still remains inside. Neptune and Triton are portrayed with great exuberance, as though they are commanding the seas, which would have been represented by the pond.

This scene may represent the mythological story from Ovid’s Metamoprhosis, Book 1. In the story Jupiter, the King of the Gods in Roman mythology becomes enraged with humanity and considers scorching the earth with fire. He decides to flood the world instead, and asks his brother Neptune to help. Neptune commands the seas and the river gods to flood the world. All the world is flooded except for two people who stand on a mountain peak. Jupiter regrets his decision and calls the seas back to spare their lives. Neptune orders Triton to blow his conch shell into the winds to summon the waters to retreat.


Sir Hans Sloane, British Museum

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

Bust of Sir Hans Sloane

The British Museum collection began with the intellectual curiosity of an Irish doctor called Sir Hans Sloane. He began collecting when he was working in Jamaica, as a physician to the governor. He returned to London in 1689 and continued collecting. He was a very wealthy and successful doctor. His patients included the diarist Samuel Pepys and Queen Anne. Soon his house in Bloomsbury place was overflowing with ‘plants, fossils, minerals, zoological, anatomical and pathological specimens, antiquities …prints, drawings and coins, books and manuscripts.’ His collecting got so out of control that he had to buy the house next door. When that house was full he moved to a new house in Chelsea!

He collected strange and wonderful objects, such as a landscape painted in a spider’s web, and monstrous stones removed from the bladder of a horse. In spite of all of this there was some order to his collecting. You can see in the Enlightenment gallery the types of classification that were used in the intellectual flowering that was the Enlightenment period; such as natural history, religion etc. When Hans Sloane died his collection of 80,000 objects was acquired by the British government for the sum of £20,000.

Horace Walpole, one of the trustees of the British Museum said, ‘You will scarce guess how I employ my time. Chiefly at present in the guardianship of embryos and cockleshells. Sir Hans Sloane is dead and has made me one of the trustees of the museum…He valued it at four score thousand and so would anybody who loves hippopotamuses, sharks with one ear and spiders as big as geese!’ The British Museum at Montagu House opened its doors to the public in 1759.


Mosaic Skull Mask, British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

Mosaic Skull, © The British Museum

The Aztecs practised several forms of human sacrifice. They are famous for sawing open the chest of the victim with a knife, removing the still palpitating heart and holding it up to the gods. Skulls of sacrificial victims were placed on ‘skull’ racks. This skull of a thirty year old man has been decorated with stripes of bright blue turquoise and black lignite mosaic. The skull has been cut along the frontal bone to remove the back portion, leaving only the front portion. The eyes are made from polished discs of iron pyrites set in circles of white shell. The skull may represent the creator god Tezcatlipoca, or ‘Smoking Mirror.’  Tezcatlipoca was the patron of the night sky, the great bear, highwaymen, sorcerers and warriors.

The skull is lined with deerskin and has long deerskin straps. The moveable lower jaw is attached to the lining with a hinge. The nasal cavity is lined with plates of bright red thorny oyster shell. The skull would have been worn as part of priestly regalia. The turquoise, lignite and pyrite were all brought from the furthest reaches of the Aztec Empire and beyond.


The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens

The Judgement of Paris by  Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

The Judgement of Paris by Peter Paul Reubens, c.1632, © National Gallery

Peter Paul Reubens was born in Siegen, Germany in 1577, and when he was 10 years old he moved to Antwerp, Belgium with his parents. He was described as a likeable chap, with  ‘a tall stature, a stately bearing, with a regularly shaped face, rosy cheeks, chestnut brown hair, sparkling eyes but with passion restrained, a laughing air, gentle and courteous’.

He ran a large studio in Antwerp, which produced paintings popular with nobility and art collectors throughout Europe. Reubans was also a classically trained scholar, an art collector and a diplomat. He was knighted by Philip IV, the King of Spain and Charles I, King of England.

In 1630, four years after the death of his first wife, the 53 year old painter married the 16 year old Hélène Fourmant. His young wife was the inspiration for the sensuously painted female goddesses in this painting. This painting brings to life the stories from ancient Greek legends.

Paris, the seated gentlemen in the blue robe, is the son of Priam, the King of Troy. Paris was abandoned as a baby by his father, because of a prophecy that he would bring ruin to the city of Troy. Priam was rescued by sheperds who raised him as one of their own. Mercury the messenger with his winged hat, has brought Paris to judge a beauty contest between the three godesses. Minerva, on the far right tried to bribe Paris, by offering him wisdom and skill in war. She stands next to a shield which bears the monstrous Medusa with her hair of snakes. One look from Medusa would turn anyone to stone. Venus, the Goddess of love, the second from right, offers Paris the most beautiful woman in the world, Helen of Troy. Juno stands with a peacock, and tries to tempt Pais with the promise of power and wealth.

Paris chooses Venus and offers her the prize, a golden apple. He then goes on to abduct Helen of Troy, stealing her away from her husband Menelaus, the King of Sparta. This starts the disastrous Trojan Wars.


Double Headed Serpent, British Museum

Double Headed Serpent,  © British Museum

Double Headed Serpent, © British Museum

This striking Aztec double headed serpent would have been worn to ceremonial occasions as an ornament across the chest. It is carved out of a single piece of Spanish cedar wood, and decorated with beautiful turquoise mosaics, which come in a variety of colours. The open jaws have menacing fangs, which are made of conch shell. The red gums and details are made from thorny oyster shell.

Snakes were sacred to the Aztecs. They thought that snakes were powerful creatures that could travel between the different layers of cosmos; between the underworld, water and the sky. Serpents were also associated with fertility, and with water. Snakes shed their skin every year, which may have been linked with the idea of renewal and transformation. The Aztecs worshipped many different serpent Gods, including Quetzalcoatl, the feathered serpent, Xiuhcoatl, the fire serpent, Mixcoatl, the cloud serpent and Coatlicue, she of the serpent skirt.

The Aztec Empire came to an end when Hernando Cortez and his Spanish troops arrived in 1519. The Spanish expedition was welcomed by the Aztec emperor, Moctezuma who gave them gifts. This double headed serpent may have been one of the gifts given to Cortez and his men. The Aztecs had a tradition that the god – king of their ancestors, a pale skinned bearded god would return one day to claim their land. The Spanish became greedy after receiving the gifts and were not so friendly. After bitter fighting the Aztec capital, Tenochtitlan fell to the Spanish in 1521.


Lindow Man

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow Man, © British Museum

Lindow man died a brutal and horrific death. His body was discovered in 1984, when workmen were cutting peat at Lindow Moss bog in north west England. Lindow man is preserved complete with his skin, hair, and many of his internal organs. This is because of the extraordinary conditions in a peat bog. There is no oxygen in peat bogs, which means that the bacteria that causes decay, cannot thrive.

Lindow man died aged about 25 years old between 2BC and AD119. He was hit twice on the head with a heavy object, possibly an axe. Then he was kicked in the back, which broke one of his ribs. Then a thin cord was tied around his neck to strangle him and break his neck. Even after he died, his throat was cut. He was then thrown face down into a pool in the bog. It was almost certainly a ritual killing.

Perhaps he was a fierce criminal, or it could have been a human sacrifice. This Iron Age man was not a manual labourer, as his hands are well manicured. His stomach contents were analysed to reveal that his last meal was bread made from wheat and barley, and he also suffered from parasitic worms.  During the Iron Age people sacrificed objects such as weapons and cauldrons by throwing them into rivers, lakes or bogs. Perhaps water was an important doorway to the spirit world. Was Lindow man also a sacrifice to the Gods?


Statue from Easter Island, British Museum

Moai Figure, ©  British Museum, London

Moai Figure, © British Museum, London

The people of Easter Island, Polynesia built many giant statues called moai. This one is called Hoa Hakanai’a, which means ‘hidden friend’. It would have originally been painted red and white. The moai ranged in height from four to 33 feet, and in weight up to 80 tons. The statues were first discovered by Captain Cook when he visited Easter Island in 1774. The statue was built around 1000AD by the Rapa Nui people of Easter Island.  The Rapa Nui people believe that the Moai statues represent the deifed spirits of their ancestors. They made these colossal statues in a quarry with stone tools and transported them up to 11 miles across rough terrain without the use of wheels, cranes or large animals. How did they do it? If you ask the Rapa Nui Islanders, they will tell you that the statues walked by themselves. According to Suri Tuki, a local islander, ‘The experts can say what they want, but we know the truth. The statues walked.’

In 1987, Charles Love lead a team of US archaeologists, who built a wooden sledge to move a 13 foot moai on wooden rollers. They managed to move a nine ton model of a moai 148 feet on the sledge in two minutes. However, recent research by the National Geographic society shows that it was indeed possible to make the statues walk, with a little help from some rope and some strong men. The fat bellies of the statues cause them to tilt forward, and the D shaped base allowed the handlers to rock the moai from side to side and gently edge them forward. A team of 18 people managed to move a 10 foot, 5 ton Moai replica a few hundred yards using strong rope. So it seems like the people of Rapa Nui may have been right, all along!


Merman, British Museum

Merman, © British Museum, London

Merman, © British Museum, London

Many museums across the UK have mysterious creatures, called mermen in their collections. This merman was thought to have been ‘caught’ in Japan in the 18th century. The Japanese word for merman is ‘ningyo’, which literally means, ‘man fish’. Mermen have long held an important place in Japanese culture. One Shinto temple in Fujinomiya, Japan has a mermaid mummy that is thought to be 1,400 years old. According to one ancient Japanese legend, a fisherman caught a merman in his fishing net. The merman with its dying breath predicted a time of great prosperity, and a fatal epidemic. The fatal epidemic could only be prevented by owning a merman.

Another tale is of a young girl called Yao Bikuni. She eats the flesh of a merman and becomes immortal. She outlives several husbands, and then decides to become a travelling nun. After many centuries have passed, she becomes so miserable that she chooses to take her own life. After hearing these stories, suddenly everyone wanted a merman of their own! They were bought to display as curiosities in the 18th and 19th century. Ofcourse, these mermen were all fakes. Most of them are made of part monkey, and part fish moulded together.

This merman is made of the dried up parts of a monkey, with a fish tail. It is probably mounted together on a wooden support. It was donated to the British Museum by Prince Arthur of Connaught in the early 20th century.


Rock Crystal Skull, British Museum

Crystal Skull, 19th century, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

Crystal Skull, British Museum. Photographer: Rafał Chałgasiewicz

This crystal skull was carved from a single block of rock crystal. The British Museum records show that it was bought in 1867 from Mr Frederick Kunz. Mr Kunz was an obsessive collector of gemstones, amassing around 4,000 precious stones, by the time he reached the age of 20. The jeweller describes his fascination with the sparkling gems:

‘Every boy has his passion – his collection of stamps or coins, or marbles or what not, and the only difference between another boy’s and mine was that I never outgrew it. Given a fresh excavation today, I am just as apt to go down on my knees and begin grubbing about as I was at the age of ten.’

He claimed that he acquired this skull from a Spanish officer who brought it back from Mexico. Aztec art is characterised by skulls, death and the beautiful blue turquoise stone. Frederick Kunz sold the skull to an antiquities dealer, and it was later bought by the British Museum. But scientists have discovered that it was actually all a big fraud! In 1996 an international team of scientists had a closer look at the skull with an electron microscope, and found machine cut marks. These cut marks show that the skull was made with a rotary cutting wheel. Rotary cutting wheels were introduced to Mexico after the Spanish Conquest in 1521. This sparkling crystal skull was actually made in the 19th century.


Chi Chi, the Naughty Panda

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

Chi Chi the Panda, © The Natural History Museum, London

This innocuous panda quietly munching on some bamboo leaves inspired the internationally recognized logo of the World Wildlife Fund. Sir Peter Scott, one of the founders of the WWF suggested that the cute cuddly bears would be a big hit with the public. The panda was named Chi Chi, which means ‘naughty looking girl’, unless it is mispronounced. If you say Chi Chi in the wrong Chinese tone of voice, it means prostitute. Chi Chi was certainly no whore. She was not in the slightest bit interested in breeding. There were several unsuccessful attempts to mate her with An-An a male panda at Moscow Zoo. Apparently she did ‘entertain’ An-An twice, but produced no offspring.

Chi Chi was captured while she was still a baby in China’s Sichuan province in 1957 and spent her first few months in Beijing zoo.  She travelled from Beijing to Moscow to Berlin, then Frankfurt and Copenhagen before arriving at Regent Park’s London Zoo in 1958. The zoological society had stated at this time that they would not encourage the collection of rare creatures such as the wild panda. But the adorable cub was too irresistible to refuse. The society made a special exemption for Chi Chi, as she had already been collected.

Chi Chi was an instant hit at London zoo from the moment she arrived. She was all over the front pages, much like Guy the gorilla another celebrity at London Zoo. She was quite the character and lived up to her name as the naughty little girl. She was always getting up to mischief and trying to escape. The nation mourned when she died in 1972. Her skin was donated to the museum so that the international icon could be preserved for ever. The innocent bamboo munching pose doesn’t seem to quite capture her extravagant and mischievous character.


The Dodo by Roelandt Savery

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery,  c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The Dodo by Roelandt Savery, c.1626 © Natural History Museum, London

The dodo is one of the most famous extinct species in history. The name probably comes from the Portuguese word, ‘doudo’, meaning foolish or the Dutch word ‘dodoor’, which means sluggish. The dodo has been immortalised in popular film and fiction. Lewis Carol was so impressed by a specimen at the Oxford Museum of Natural History, that he created a talking dodo character in his book, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’. The poor dodo has been accused of being so stupid and obese that it caused its own extinction by failing to outrun its captors. We now know that isn’t true.

The dodo was only found on the isolated island of Mauritius, in the Indian Ocean, over 800Km from Madagascar. Portuguese settlers reached the island in the early 16th century, but they made no record of their encounters with the curious flightless bird. The first reports of a large, clumsy, flightless bird came from Dutch settlers in 1598. The Dutch nicknamed the bird, ‘Walgvogel’ meaning disgusting, as the meat from the bird was tough and unpalatable. Within a hundred years of its discovery, the entire species was wiped out. The dodo was hunted for its meat and for specimens to be brought back to Europe for scientific study. However, this activity was not the main cause for the extinction. The Dutch settlers introduced new predators onto the island, such as dogs, rats, cats, pigs and monkeys, which ate the dodo’s eggs.

 


Surprised! By Henri Rousseau, 1891

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Surprised, Henri Rousseau, 1891, © The National Gallery, London

Rousseau paints extraordinary visions of exotic jungles, lion hunters and fierce jaguars that remind us of Rudyard Kipling’s, ‘The Jungle Book’. He had never seen a jungle before, so these pictures are painted entirely from his own imagination. He created his own fantasy jungle scenes using domestic pot plants and tropical specimens from Paris’ botanical Gardens. His animals were inspired by visits to see stuffed animals in museums. His work includes fantastical situations that would never happen in the natural world; from a jaguar attacking a horse in a jungle, to a monkey shooting a hunter.

Henri Rousseau was born in 1844 in Leval in Western France. He left his job as a gatekeeper at the Paris Municipal in 1893 to pursue a career as an artist. He was called a naïve artist because he had no formal training at an art school. Academics at the time criticized his work for his poor handling of proportion and perspective.

The tiger in this painting stands ready to pounce on any unsuspecting prey, in the midst of a violent storm. Lightning flashes in the background and the rain falls in heavy sheets. The entire painting is covered with delicate transparent stripes of white and grey, which represents the heavy downpour. The slightly unrealistic, surprised tiger is based on a range of sources including oriental prints and the domestic cat.


The Tale of the Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst

The Cursed Amethyst, © The Natural History Museum, London

Amethyst is a violet variety of the quartz stone, that is often used in jewellery. The name comes from the ancient Greek word and it literally means, ‘not drunk’. The ancient Greeks and Romans thought that the stone could be used to prevent drunkenness. They used amethysts in drinking goblets and jewellery.

This stone originally belonged to a 19th century writer called Edward Heron-Allen. He had many talents and enjoyed writing about a wide variety of subjects from violins, to Persian Literature, to Natural History. He also write books on palmistry, the occult and the supernatural. Heron-Allen couldn’t wait to get rid of this stone, as he claimed that it was ‘trebly cursed’ and was ‘stained with blood and dishonour’.

The stone was donated to the Natural History Museum by Heron-Allen’s daughter along with a letter from her father warning curators not to handle it. Heron-Allen wrote that the stone, ‘was looted from the treasure of Temple of the God Indra at Cawnpore during the Indian mutiny in 1855, and brought to this country by Colonel W. Ferris of the Bengal Cavalry. From the day he possessed it, he was unfortunate.’

Some curators think that Heron-Allen may have made up the myth of the Cursed Amethyst to publicise a short story that he wrote in 1921, under the pseudonym Christopher Blayre, called, ‘The Purple Sapphire.’ So far, no curators have died from handling this stone. But who knows…? What do you think?