All posts by ragfox

Statement of Ethical Use for Survey Entitled “Designing an Autism-Friendly Sustainability Gallery”.

Hello! If you’ve arrived at this post you’re one of the participants in my survey to help design a new autism-friendly gallery for Eureka, the National Children’s Museum. This document is going to explain exactly how your responses are going to be used and who will be able to see them.

Firstly, by taking the survey you’re confirming that you’ve read this document.

Secondly, by taking the survey you’re confirming that you are over eighteen. If you’re not, please ask someone over eighteen to complete it on your behalf. This is because the ethical approval I have been given by my university only allows me to use responses from over eighteens. Obviously I have no way of checking, but I’m going to choose to trust you!

You’ll notice when you take the survey that it doesn’t ask for your name, address, email address or any contact details or identifying information. This is because the survey is entirely anonymous. In the report I’m writing based on this survey you will be referred to by a number, if I have to quote a response in detail. Even I won’t know who you are.

Your responses will only be used in context, in a sensitive and responsible way. You can trust me not to twist your meaning or misrepresent you in any way.

The only people other than me who will see your anonymous responses are the staff at Eureka (the National Children’s Museum) and possibly any architect or design company they choose to help build the gallery, along with the University of Leeds staff member who marks my report as a contribution to my postgraduate course. Nothing you say will be used for publicity purposes or shown to the wider public.

Everyone else apart from me who sees your responses will see them in a printed form. They will not be able to find out any metadata (for example, your IP address) from your responses.

The survey is hosted on, who have their own privacy policy that’s separate from what I’m doing. You can read it here. Those of you who received your invitation by email were sent it manually and privately from my university email address – I did not use SurveyMonkey’s own messaging service so you can discount that part of the policy.

Right, that’s it! If you continue back to the survey from this point you’re confirming that you’ve read everything I’ve written here and you are 100% ok with how your data is going to be used. Thank you so much for helping make Eureka a yet more autism-friendly place!

Find the survey again here if you’ve lost the link!

Part One

Part Two

(If you choose to explore the rest of this blog from here, please be aware that this is my personal blog. None of the content is in any way connected with Eureka, the University of Leeds or any entity or organisation other than little old me. There shouldn’t be anything disturbing, although certain of the creative writing pieces may involve adult topics or language.)


Threads around a ring – a journey through the networks of ‘heritage’

rings close

It is, at one and the same time, a shining winter afternoon in the grey North with the rain coming down, and a baking noontime on the dusty red hills of the outback. It is 1930, and it is 2015. In Leeds the late sun streams through a window onto a jewellery chest carved of English yew, from which spills diamonds and gold… but we will leave that for now, and travel to one of the many beginnings.

As we said, it is noontime in Western Australia, one day in 1930. The foreman’s clerk at the mine wipes sweat from his dripping hair as he runs down the splintered wooden stairs of the field office to meet the girl coming towards him with lunch in a basket. Her name is Anne, and he loves her. She brings up a hand to brush the matted locks from his forehead, and tuts at him again about wearing a hat. On her finger glints gold – local gold, from this very mine, purchased with many years savings and set with three matched diamonds. It is like the sun wrapped around her hand, and it represents a promise.

Anne and her clerk died childless, and her jewellery came to a beloved niece, who married a man from the cold North and travelled with him to the grey rocks of Scotland. The niece likewise grew grey, and the rings filled with the heat of the outback desert were passed on again, to a granddaughter, who photographs them against the low evening light one rainy day in February.

A simple story, and like many others… yes? The clerk’s beloved passes the rings to the well-travelled niece and on to fanciful granddaughter. So it goes with many an heirloom.

Look closer. Look with different eyes. These rings are bound with a thousand threads, stretching off into yet further times and places.

Begin at that beginning again. Focus in on the hand on the clerk’s cheek, with the rings glinting out like a sunbeam. See how red it is? See Anne’s own face, burned, cracked and ochre as a goanna’s hide. She was not made for these red rocks and russet dust, for the gum trees and ravines and the veins of wealth that run through the ground. The clerk’s people are barely off the boat from Ireland , but even Anne, who considers herself Australian, is in the longer view a stranger here. Her blood did not rise in these hills. Anne’s great-great-grandfather called himself an explorer – history does not record what the people who originally knew these ravines called him. And that is something of the point, is it not? The thread that runs through Anne’s hand to Anne herself, to her blood, takes us through those early violent years when her ancestors claimed a land they thought was unused, like an adult taking from a child a toy which they do not believe is appreciated. Further than that, it runs over the sea to Scotland again, to the hard times when those who are soon to become ‘explorers’ and oppressors are oppressed in their turn by English words bandied in Parliament and in places of business, so Anne’s earlier relations are forced to emigrate through lack of work. Some choose America – others burn for adventure and to use their skills in ‘the wild’, and so this thread is born.

So much for flesh. What about rock? The gold and the diamonds that cause the flash? The gold’s thread begins close by – as mentioned, the clerk tried so very hard to get gold from his own mine, from a sentiment we can perhaps guess. But how did such a man afford such a ring? Is there more to this thread than the months of his labour and the sweat of his brow? Of course there is, as there always must be. The clerk’s labour is less than it might have been, and his time worth more, because of currents that are sweeping through the world. After all, it is 1930, and big things are afoot. This is too wide for our little thread though, and so first we trace it to the pay office, where the clerk finds his weekly cheque a little fatter than it would otherwise have been and is thus able to afford a better ring. From the pay office we visit the manager’s desk, and a note confirming that the mine’s gold is selling at higher than expected prices, enabling them to pay just a little more. Then even further, to Perth, to the offices of the bank, where men in formal suits who ride the currents of the phantom ‘economy’ have noticed the price of gold rise little by little in the last years and months. How much further can this thread go? To London? New York? To Wall Street in October the year before, or even to the nominal entity known as the ‘Great Depression’ in years to come? But this is beyond our scope. We return.

The diamonds show their fire. They have come even further in their first leap – from the dealer in South Africa straight to the jeweller in a small street in Perth where the clerk had them set. But their extraction from the ground? That branches into still further threads – the man who dug them from the ground hundreds of miles north. The overseer, whose skin may or may not have mirrored the digger’s own, who ensures the digger cannot keep the stones for himself. The mine owner who employs the overseer, and his family who purchased it and took ownership of what may once have been the digger’s own home, own valley, and the circumstances that meant the stone would one day reach the surface in the digger’s basket instead of lying undisturbed while he hunts on the land above. The battle that enabled the owner’s people to wrest control of this place. The forces that acted on the owner’s people so that they believed exploration and conquest were their path.

Threads, around a ring. The networks of the past and the future that hold the present in place. This is not a story – this is a web. The past is less a novel and more ‘Choose-your-own-adventure’, a mass of interlinking silk that, at one, distant point, converges on a windowsill in Leeds, three rings, a jewellery box, and the afternoon sun.

rings sun

Beautiful Things Without Much Context – The V&A (London Trip #1)

SO. I’ve not updated this blog for about half a term now and that’s absolutely disgraceful. I’m going to try and do some brief catch-ups on the visits I’ve not blogged, just for completeness, but I’m afraid that since it was really quite a long time ago I don’t remember as much as I’d like and the context is NOT complete!

Before Christmas my MA group went to London to have a fly-by at some of the museums down there. It really was a flying visit and I need need need to get back down there and see some of these things in more detail. I got a few good pictures out of it, though!

Anyway, so this is the V&A, or the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington. It was originally designed as a sort of craftsman’s reference, to improve the manufacturing industries of Britain in that wonderfully patronising paternalistic Victorian method of philanthropy. 😛 With that in mind, it’s interesting how you can enter the V&A from a subway linked to the Tube line, as I did. It’s a weird experience coming in that way, and I wish I’d kept the series of photos that detailed how the subway begins in a rough, industrial sort of way and becomes finer and finer until you reach this opening, heralded by a revolving designer sign overhead reading “V&A”.

The entrance to the V&A from the subway
The entrance to the V&A from the subway

The colourful and intricate tiles are really quite striking when compared to the concrete floor and dirty beige brick walls of the tunnel you’re leaving (you can just see a sliver of this to the left of the picture above).

subway tiles
Close-up of the wall tiles.

I came into the main museums and tried to call the classmates I was supposed to be meeting, but kept getting distracted by things.

some deer
Some random deer

There were so many beautiful things, but I’m afraid I was appreciating them like some sort of aesthetic magpie, without noting context or artist names. Yes, I know, I’m a horrible student. So hang me for it!  😛

I found out where the others were but got side-tracked by the Islamic art gallery (tucked away at the back! Things this beautiful should get a more prominent place – but that’s another tangent).

bird cloth

bird dish

There was the most beautiful pulpit (I believe the Arabic term is minbar?) displayed whole in the gallery.

The Egyptian minbar
The Egyptian minbar

It looked very familiar, and when I read the label I realised it was of Cairene origin, and reminded me a lot of the mosques I had seen recently when I visited Cairo in spring. If anyone’s interested in Islamic art and architecture I thoroughly recommend a visit, especially to the Mosque of Muhammed Ali (sometimes known as Ali Pasha) inside the Citadel. It’s a fascinating blend of traditional mosque decoration and a sort of weird faux-French style with wreaths and swags everywhere! It’s worth a visit even just for the beautiful cupola:

Anyway, enough of that tangent. Here are some details of the woodwork on the minbar from the V&A:



And for good measure, some tiles I found nearby that show the same kinds of patterns worked in pottery:


Oh man, just look at that woodwork! Those curves and lines! The dark wood against the gilding! Really my photos are just awful, but take a moment to appreciate it anyway. 😛

Seriously, these tiles are just amazing. And a few more dishes etc.




I think the tile makers of the Islamic world would get on well with the craftsmen of Leeds and the area – have you seen how many tiles there are around town even today? With the famous Burmantofts pottery nearby, amongst others, it’s perhaps not surprising how rich our tiled heritage is! Little overview with some nice pics here. They’re everywhere – civic buildings, churches, hotels, the arcades, the theatre, even pubs and random buildings here and there. One day I’ll do a walk through town and snap pictures of a few. It’s beauty all around us, seriously.

Anyway back to the V&A. I didn’t get many pics of the other objects I saw because I was by then very late and rushing, but I did notice a couple of gorgeous chapel doors in the Medieval gallery, which actually reminded me quite a lot in their tones and complexities of the minbar. There’s probably a scholarly comparison in there somewhere – similarities and differences in wooden sacred furniture across the Religions of the Book, perhaps? – but I just thought they were beautiful.

wider view


A brief rush through the costume gallery, with a drive-by snapping of these pics of very Jane Austen outfits!

mr darcy maybe

elizabeth or jane

And then it was on to the exhibition we were actually here to see: Disobedient Objects. Aaaannnd… that’s where I’m going to leave you, for tonight! Disobedient Objects will get its own post shortly, as soon as I sort out my goddamned life. 😛

Good night!


A short story experiment in the second person.

For trigger warnings please highlight this text:

—->>Trigger Warnings: Drug use, Minor Sexual References (brief allusion to ‘sex crimes’), Implied Character Death.<<—-

It’s in white so people who want to avoid spoilers can do so! 🙂



You ought to have left well enough alone.
That’s what you thought later on, although there was no way you could have known where it would lead.
It was just a wallet.
Think of it.

When you find a wallet outside the police station you have two options.
First, you can pick it up, walk ten feet, hand it in like a good citizen, and go about your day.
Second, you can pick it up, shove it down your jeans and run like blazes.

Which option you choose largely depends on why you were at the police station.

If, to choose an example completely at random, you were a seventeen-year-old male, Caucasian, six foot two, being questioned in connection with a string of burglaries in, say, the Alwoodley/Shadwell area… hypothetically, then, you would be much more likely to now be sat under a bush on a playing field rifling through someone else’s property.
Hypothetically speaking, of course.

Inside the wallet is the following: one twenty pence piece; one dead spider, large; three dead flies, small; one train ticket for London dated November 12th, 1993; one paper packet containing pills, white, small; one business card, new, bearing no name.
Not a very inspiring haul. The pills could be worth something, to the right person, but you don’t really know what they are – you’re no junkie. You feel a rising sense of injustice, like you always do when your efforts go unrewarded. Like that big place you’d done over by the posh school; looked loaded from the outside, but you get in and find out they’re bloody hippies. No video games, no hi-fi, not even a sodding telly. Not even in the kids’ rooms. That’s cruelty, that is. It’s no way to live. There ought to be a law.

You take a closer look at the business card. One side has a print of a horse, a bloody big one with a whacking great horn between the eyes. Unicorn, you think, like little girls love, although what (presumably) full grown man would want a unicorn on his business card you don’t want to know.
The other side has no printing on it, but someone’s scrawled a phone number across it in faulty black biro.

Right. That’d show them. A good prank call – scare them, make them think someone’s out to get them. Always fun. Gotta have your revenge. Like the big house. You spoil my night’s work, I’ll smash up your poncy vases and jump on your expensive coffee machine. Maybe take a shit on your rug.

There’s a payphone at the corner shop. Twenty p will do it – if you can’t threaten someone on twenty p then you’re wasting your time. And using their own money to do it has kind of a nice ring to it. Poetic.

Ringing, ringing.
You get ready your gravelly voice to scare them with. Wait for someone to answer…
“Have you got the girl?”
Jesus, what?
Again, impatiently: “Have you got the girl?”
This is not working out how you’d planned. Christ, what to do? Something noncommittal.
“Good. Bring her to Goldenacre Park at midnight and you’ll get paid. Two thousand, like we agreed. Don’t be late.”
The line goes dead.

Hell, what have you got yourself mixed up in? There’s a lot you don’t understand in the message – what girl? Why do they want her? – but one thing you definitely do understand. Two thousand. Two thousand pounds. Two grand.
Two grand is a lot of fags. Two grand is a new bike, new trainers, new TV, and all without running drugs or owing owt to the gangs.
They’d have to carry it somehow, wouldn’t they? Two grand’s a lot of money. Maybe they’d have it in a suitcase, like in the films. You could hide, distract them somehow, and then swipe it. Has to be worth a try.

Goldenacre Park is a long way to walk. Bugger that for a laugh. You nick the first car you can get open and dump it in a field-gate nearby. The police will find it soon enough. They should just be glad you didn’t torch it, like the lads do.
It’s a little after midnight. It’s taken a good meal at the chippy and a six-pack swiped from the offy to give you the courage to come here. At least you’d taken the time to change into dark clothes.

Inside the park it’s pitch black, especially under the trees in the woods. Good thing hard lads aren’t afraid of the dark. On the other side of the woods there’s some landscaped scrub-land, big gorse bushes and little trees around wide grass paths. You flatten yourself behind a gorse bush when you see the four figures standing around in the blackness. They all seem to talk at once, and you can’t tell who says what.

“Can’t we have some light then?”
“No. Don’t be stupid.”
“I don’t reckon it’s here anyway.”
“Course it is. You’ll see when Gregson gets here with the virgin.”

Virgin? The ‘girl’. What the hell have you stumbled in to? You want no part in no sex crimes. You’re not into that shit.

“Oh, didn’t you hear? Gregson got picked up hanging around the school this afternoon. Spending the night in a cell.”
“You’re joking… what are we bloody well here for then?”
“Don’t worry, I spoke to Gregson this evening. Called me on the special number, said he had the girl.”
“What, how did he get out?”
“Good lawyer? Who cares. Anyway, he said he’d be here. He’s late.”

You definitely should be going now. The prank call had really put the cat among the pigeons, it seemed, and any moment now they might come looking for ‘Gregson’ and find…

“Bloody unicorn.”

What? You turn back to the figures as the one who spoke continues.

“This was a stupid idea. Should have just gone after the new dog-fighting contract instead, steady money in that.”
“Don’t be short-sighted. If we can catch this thing do you have any idea how much them Orientals will pay for it? Two piddling grand to bloody Gregson is nothing.”

Unicorn? You must be going mad. You can’t have heard that.

“Simple rarity value, isn’t it. Not many around. No idea what they want it for – fight it, ride it, probably eat it, knowing the Chinese.”
“Unicorn chow mein?”
“Haha, very funny. And they’re Korean, anyway.”

You’re not going mad. Unicorn. Unicorn! The men must be the mad ones if they thought they were going to catch one. Well, you hadn’t seen a suitcase with them, so you think you’ll leave the nutters to it. Not likely they’d catch one now anyway. Not without Gregson kidnapping them a girl.
Virgin. Hah! If it was the local school they were hanging round they’d not have much luck. Even some of the year sevens were right slags, especially for lads from other schools. Even you’d… well, you’d done stuff anyway, and surely that counted…
Breath, hot on the back of your neck.
You freeze.
You turn, very, very slowly.

It’s a horse.
It’s a bloody great horse. A huge one, black as shadows, with a massive two-foot spike the dirty blue-grey of a bruise.
It whickers softly and mouths at your hand with velvet lips.
The horn scrapes across your shoulder.
God, oh god oh god.
This is not your little sister’s unicorn.
With a squeak you back away. Into the gorse bush.

“What was that?”
“Over there.”
“It’s the bloody thing!”
“Get the gun.”

Your legs are jelly but you turn to run.
The big black horse (unicorn. Admit it.) runs alongside you, but you don’t get far. The unicorn screams, then something punches you in the back of the neck and everything fades to black.

It’s not long later. You’re in some kind of vehicle, on the floor, and there’s a huge hospital bed next to you with a large body on it. The unicorn is breathing, at least. So are you.
There are voices around, but you can’t focus on them. You can try opening your eyes, but there’s nothing but a blur.

“So we got it then.”
“No thanks to Gregson. At least now he doesn’t need to be paid.”
“Who’s the kid?”
“Dunno. Some lowlife. Probably wanted to mug us.”
“Just as well he’s not been popular with the ladies, eh?”

The men laugh harshly in a way that hurts your ears.

“So what do we do with him?”
“Get rid of him. Stick him with the rest of the tranquilisers and dump him in a car park. Leave the needles around – that way when the find the body they’ll just think he was out to get high.”

You try to move but it’s no use.
Multiple syringes are emptied into your arm.
Your head feels like glue.
You try to tell them you’re not like that. You don’t touch drugs. You’re a good boy.
Your body is so heavy.

You ought to have left well enough alone.

Oinkerella and the Honking Great Slipper

This is a re-told fairytale commissioned for a reading in schools to Year One pupils (aged about six).

It’s to be used to discuss historical topics (medieval castles) and fairytale tropes.

The reading is preceded by a discussion of the characteristics we find in Cinderella and other fairytales.

Are princesses always beautiful?

Are beautiful people always nice?

Is beauty the best reason to fall in love?

We’ll see.



Once upon a time there was a girl called Ella, who lived with her mum and dad in quite a nice sort of farmhouse in a little village near a big big castle. Ella wasn’t particularly pretty – she was a big, strong, country sort of girl, with big, strong, country sort of hands, and big, strong, country sort of feet. But that was exactly the sort of girl you should be if you’re going to live on quite a nice sort of farm.

There was always a lot to do around the house and farm, but everyone had their own jobs and so things got done quickly with time for play. Every morning, Daddy would chop wood for the fire, Mummy would put soup on to boil in the big iron cauldron for tea, and Ella would go out to milk the two silly brown and white cows. Every evening, Daddy would mend shoes, and Mummy would mend clothes, and Ella would go outside to feed the big fat spotted pig. During the day it was all cleaning, and all cooking, and all gardening and working the little field. Sometimes it was cold and wet and miserable, but Ella was very funny and would tell silly jokes and sing silly songs until Daddy felt a bit better, and Mummy felt a bit better, and Ella herself felt a bit better. And so everyone was very happy – Daddy, Mummy, Ella, the two silly brown and white cows and the big fat spotted pig.

Unfortunately, one day Mummy got very sick and she died. Even when it wasn’t cold and wet and miserable, Daddy was always sad, and Ella couldn’t tell any jokes to make him, or herself, feel a bit better.

Then Daddy fell in love again, and he brought Ella home a new stepmother. She was a beautiful woman, and she had two beautiful daughters. They were tiny, delicate, pixie sort of girls, with tiny, delicate, pixie sort of hands, and tiny, delicate, pixie sort of feet, and they were both very very pretty indeed, the sort of girl who’s never done a day’s work in her life. Ella thought that anybody so pretty must be very very nice indeed, and so she was very happy to have two new sisters to work and joke and play with.

She was wrong. The two sisters might have been pretty on the outside, but they were ugly and mean on the inside. They didn’t like work, and didn’t like the two silly brown and white cows, and especially they didn’t like the big fat spotted pig. And they didn’t like jokes, unless they were mean ones that made Ella feel stupid and big and clumsy.

Things would only get worse. One day, Daddy died in an accident on the farm, and Ella was left alone with her stepmother and the two mean stepsisters. Her stepmother and stepsisters had never liked work – they thought they were too pretty and too ladylike to ever do a day’s work in their lives – and now Daddy was gone they decided that they could just make Ella do everything herself. So every morning Ella would chop wood for the fire, and Ella would put soup on to boil in the big iron cauldron for tea, and Ella would milk the two silly brown and white cows. And every evening Ella would mend shoes, and Ella would mend clothes, and Ella would go outside to feed the big fat spotted pig. And every day was all cleaning, and all cooking, and all gardening, and all working the little field, all by herself. There was nobody to tell jokes to or sing silly songs with, and so she told all her jokes and sang all her songs to the big fat spotted pig, whose name was Spot, of course. Pretty soon Spot was Ella’s only friend, and the only person who she could talk to and who would laugh at her jokes. Well, Spot would do a sort of long line of oinks, and Ella told herself it was a piggy laugh.

Of course, the mean stepsisters thought this was very funny, in the mean-joke sort of way that was the only sort of joke they liked. “Look at you, Ella, spending all your time with that pig! You two are a pair – so big and clumsy! We should call you OINKERella instead!” And so they did. At every chance they got.

Not too long after that, not too far away, it so happened that the King who lived in the castle became sick, and he got worried about who would be King after him. He had a Prince, but the Prince still didn’t have a wife, and still didn’t have a baby Prince of his own, and then who would be King after him? So the King, very worried, called a grand masked ball and invited every single lady in the land (well, all the ones who weren’t servants!) and told the Prince he had one night to choose. “I don’t care who you choose, just choose SOMEONE! And get me a little baby Prince!” said the King.

The day of the ball came, and the whole castle spent the whole day getting ready. The maids cleaned and dusted and polished, and the cooks roasted and boiled and baked, and the gongfermers went about doing what gongfermers do best. Everything smelled sweet and clean and full of wonderful herbs and spices. Soon the ladies began arriving from every corner of the kingdom – some in green dresses, and some in red; some in white masks, and some in gold; and some in jewels and furs all down to the ground. Three ladies arrived who we know very well already, even under their masks  – Oinkerella’s stepmother and the two mean stepsisters, with tiny, delicate, pixie dresses on their tiny, delicate, pixie bodies, and tiny, delicate, pixie slippers on their tiny, delicate, pixie feet. The Prince danced with the stepsisters, just like he danced with every other lady there, and every time he got away from a dance he sighed. Every lady there was so boring! They only did dull, pleasant, ladylike things, in dull, pleasant, ladylike ways. He tried to talk to them, but they only said dull, pleasant, ladylike things in a sweet, but dull, pleasant, ladylike voice. He sighed, and sighed, and spent as much time by the buffet as he possibly could, eating boar’s head and swan and humble pie.


Meanwhile, at home, Oinkerella had JUST finished all her work for the day, and she was feeling very lonely. She went to see the big fat spotted pig, but she was so sad she couldn’t even think of any jokes.

“Oh, Spot!” she sighed, “Why can’t I go to the ball? I hear they have such lovely music, and such wonderful food – boar’s head and swan and humble pie! The sisters say I can’t possibly go to the ball, because who would ever make a beautiful dress for a big, strong, country sort of girl like me? And what slippers would ever fit on my big, strong, country sort of feet?”

Quite suddenly, and in a very surprising way, Spot flew up into the air and hovered there just like a fairy.

“Do not be sad, Oinkerella! I am your Fairy Pigmother, and I say you SHALL go to the ball!” said Spot, and sparkles flew through the air where she waved her trotters.

Now, Oinkerella didn’t think to say anything sensible here, like “How can you talk?” or “Why didn’t you tell me you could fly before?”

All she could think of to say was: “I’ve never heard of a Fairy Pigmother. I don’t know if I believe you!”

At this, Spot gave a disgruntled snort, and you’ve never heard a disgruntled snort until you’ve heard one from a less-than-gruntled pig.

“I’m a talking pig. Who does magic. Do you want to argue, or do you want to go to the ball?”

“The ball! Oh, Fairy Pigmother, can you send me there?”

“Of course I can,” Spot said smugly, and she waved her trotters around sending magic sparkles flying in every direction.  She sent sparkles to the pigsty and it turned into a wonderful carriage, with white walls and black wheels and gold trim on every edge. She sent sparkles to the two silly brown and white cows and they became two handsome, silly, brown and white horses. She sent sparkles to the rats rustling round in the straw and they became handsome, if whiskery, footmen and coachmen to take Oinkerella to the ball.

“But what will I wear?” asked Oinkerella, “My stepsisters said nobody would make dresses or slippers for a big, strong, country sort of girl like me.”

“What part of ‘magic talking pig’ didn’t you understand?” Spot replied, and sent sparkles over to Oinkerella herself. When the sparkles faded, Oinkerella was dressed in a lovely white dress with black ribbons and lace on it, a lovely white mask with a silver and black patch over one eye, and lovely honking great black slippers with little silver bows. And if the pattern on the dress maybe looked a little bit too much like the patterns on Spot’s back, then Oinkerella was far too polite to mention it.

“Now, make sure you leave by the stroke of midnight,” Spot told her, “Because then everything I’ve changed will turn back to what it originally was.”

“Why does it do that?” Oinkerella asked.

“Because that’s the best I can do, thank you very much. Do you always look a gift pig in the mouth?”

And with that, Spot sent some more sparkles and suddenly Oinkerella was inside the pigsty coach pulled by the two handsome, silly brown and white horses and attended by the handsome, whiskery rat coachmen.

She pulled up to the castle and went into the ball, without an invitation, which was actually quite rude, but she’s our heroine so we’ll ignore that. Of course, once she got inside she discovered that the ball was actually really quite boring. The only music was dull, pleasant, gentlemanlike sort of music, and everyone danced in a dull, pleasant, gentlemanlike sort of way. She soon gave up and went to lurk by the buffet, eating boar’s head, and swan, and humble pie. When she reached for the last swan leg she found someone had got there just before her – a young man about her own age. She felt embarrassed and made a joke, and was very pleased when he laughed out loud in a very not-dull, not-pleasant and not-gentlemanlike way. He told her a joke back, and they spent a long time standing by the buffet telling each other exceedingly silly jokes and singing each other exceedingly silly (and sometimes naughty!) songs.

Then the Prince (because we know it was him, even if Oinkerella didn’t) asked her to dance. She almost said no, because she didn’t know how to dance in a dull, pleasant, ladylike sort of way, but she liked the young man so very much that she said yes.

He took her out onto the dancefloor and asked the band to play a special song – a country dance! A big, strong, country sort of dance! And the Prince and Oinkerella charged around the dancefloor, twirling and whirling and whooping in a very not-dull, not-pleasant, not-lady-or-gentlemanlike sort of way! Everyone glared, and stared, and said mean things, but the Prince and Oinkerella cared not one bit.

Oinkerella was having so much fun that it wasn’t until the bell began to strike midnight that she remembered what Spot had told her. Suddenly she felt very very worried – how would she get home if she got outside and her lovely coach had become a pigsty? Would the castle footmen squash her lovely handsome whiskery footmen when they became rats again? And worse, when her dress dissolved into sparkles, would she still have her old dress on underneath, or would she be completely stark naked?

She was so worried that she tore away from the Prince’s hands without saying goodbye, and ran madly for the door. As she ran down the castle steps one honking great slipper fell from her foot, but she didn’t have time to stop and get it. She threw herself into the coach just on the last stroke of midnight, and suddenly found herself back in the pigsty at home, wearing her own clothes and surrounded by cows and rats with Spot sleeping deeply at her feet. She tried to wake Spot up to tell her about the ball, but either Spot couldn’t talk anymore or she didn’t want to. So Oinkerella just went straight to bed.

Back at the castle, the Prince was heartbroken that his wonderful, not-dull, not-pleasant, not-ladylike but very, very funny girl had run away without him even knowing her name. He’d never even seen her without the mask. He ran out the door after her, but the Fairy Pigmother’s magic had already taken Oinkerella back home and far away. All that was left behind was one honking great black slipper with little silver bows. You may ask why this didn’t change back when everything else did – well, the only answer we can think of is that the Fairy Pigmother had a plan. And it worked. The Prince vowed that he would search the kingdom for his big, strong, country sort of girl, and when he found the big, strong, country sort of foot that fit the honking great slipper he would marry her and live happily ever after.

So even though the King was quite angry, the Prince took his footmen (who weren’t rats, but were quite whiskery anyway) and searched the kingdom up and down for one big, strong, country sort of foot. He tried it on every lady he came across but they all had tiny, delicate, pixie sort of feet – not at all the kind he was looking for.

Finally he came to the very last house – the house where Oinkerella lived with her stepmother and stepsisters, although of course they didn’t let Oinkerella meet their important guest. She stayed behind in the pigsty, trying to get Spot to talk again (which she had refused to since the ball). So the Prince brought out the honking great slipper and tried it on the first stepsister, but even though she was wearing eight pairs of big thick socks it was still too big for her tiny, delicate, pixie sort of feet. Then the Prince tried the honking great slipper on the other stepsister, and even though she had stuffed her socks with rags it was far too big for her as well.

The Prince was very upset. He thought he’d never find the girl he had such fun with at the ball.

“Don’t you have any other ladies living here?” he asked desperately.

“Only Oinkerella, the pig-girl! But she didn’t go to the ball.” one of the sisters said spitefully. The others shushed her but it was too late.

“Bring her in!” the Prince commanded. The footmen didn’t really want to, because surely a pig-girl couldn’t be the woman they had searched the whole kingdom for!  But he was the Prince so they went anyway, and brought Oinkerella to him. When she came into the room he gasped – this was more like what he remembered! A lovely, big, strong, country sort of girl! With – he looked down – big, strong, country sort of feet!

He tried the honking great slipper on her foot, and it was a perfect fit.

One of the mean sisters said nastily “Well, that proves nothing. I bet the blacksmith next door would fit those slippers as well!”

The blacksmith was passing by and heard this, and he tried on the slipper, and sure enough, it fit!

The sisters smiled in a mean sort of way and said “Well, you can’t marry Oinkerella after all that, or you’ll have to marry the blacksmith as well! How can you prove she was this mystery girl who came to the ball?”

The Prince looked thoughtful for a minute, and then he said “Oinkerella – is that REALLY your name? – ….can you tell me a joke? A really, really silly one?”

The whole room went quiet and waited.

“Um….” Said Oinkerella, “….What’s brown and sticky?”

The stepmother and stepsisters and all the whiskery not-rat footmen gasped. How could Oinkerella tell such a rude joke in front of the Prince? The Prince was bright red and trying not to laugh.

He said “I don’t know, what is brown and sticky?”

“A stick,” Oinkerella said. “And it’s just Ella, by the way.”

And so the Prince laughed and laughed and laughed, and he knew right away that Ella was his lovely big country sort of girl he’d danced with at the ball. And after all, this was a much better way to check than some honking great slipper which also fit the blacksmith.


So Ella and the Prince got married soon enough, in a big, strong, country sort of wedding with six kinds of meat and eight kinds of pie. They took the two silly brown and white cows, and the big fat spotted pig – who never talked again, by the way! – and quite probably a lot of the rats as well, and moved into the castle. And so Oinkerella became Princess Ella, and I would imagine she’s Queen Ella by now. And they lived happily ever after – well, as happily as you can with a King that was quite angry and a stepmother and stepsisters who are still mean all the way through on the inside. All the ordinary people love Queen Ella, and the funny speeches she makes at parties. Especially the one about the day her magic talking pig started to fly…

“Now a Man” – Autoethnography and the National Coal Mining Museum

So, today I went with a friend to the National Coal Mining Museum in Wakefield to take their Underground Tour. The main purpose of the visit was as an exercise in ‘autoethnography’ –  “a form of self-reflection and writing that explores the researcher’s personal experience and connects this autobiographical story to wider cultural, political, and social meanings and understandings”.

Basically, the idea was to take the tour and pay close attention to my own feelings and how I experienced it, and then draw things out from that.


We arrived late to the museum, having got horrendously turned around in Wakefield due to some less-than-helpful signs!

First impressions:

The museum opens very much like any other modern museum. Foyer, giftshop, large wall displays in dramatic colours.

Enter through the gift shop, please...
Enter through the gift shop, please…
NCM Gallery
The entrance to the main gallery

The main gallery is devoted to Mining Life, with reconstructions of miner’s cottages and cases with objects telling the stories of their lives.

This is a case showing the health consequences of mine work. The x-rays show the man’s lungs becoming irreversibly choked with soot and grime.

Miner's Lung
Miner’s Lung
Too late
Too late

There’s a stuffed rat in the bottom of the case – something for the children to squeal at.

Just your friendly neighbourhood rat
Just your friendly neighbourhood rat

We cross over the sunny yard to the head of the shaft, where the tours begin, and this is where things start to change. There’s a sense of excitement in the air, a slight whiff of danger that’s making everyone move faster as they approach – or perhaps nobody wants to be late for the last tour!

The warnings begin
The warnings begin

We gather in a cold shed-like building and scrabble for fitting hard-hats. This is where we realise – to the dismay of some – that there will be no photography in the mine.

There will be no phones.

There will be no iPods.

There will be no electronics of any kind.

Please hand in your electric car keys.

Please hand in your watches.

Hand in your cigarettes, your lighters, your e-cigs and your matches.

This mine is bound by contraband laws, as any working mine would be. This place is dangerous. You are not safe.

Goodbye to technology
Goodbye to technology

We file in past a window to hand in our contraband and receive our lights and battery packs for going underground.


I hand in my camera, and it’s gone. I can’t show you anything. You are now in the dark, like we are. Like they were.

First we stand on reinforced glass over a pit – the furnace shaft. It’s nothing more than a giant air vent; a fire at the bottom sucks air from the mine and pushes it up the shaft, taking away deadly gases and allowing them to be replaced by fresh air from the surface.

It’s a hundred and forty metres down.

The bricks run with black water seeping out of the walls, and the shaft is girdled at intervals by iron bands. It looks like a trachea. Like a throat.

We move on, to the pit head. Our guide, a bluff Yorkshire miner who insists on being referred to as BJ, points out initials carved into the lintel of the winding house. I make a note to take a picture later:

Emma Lister Kaye
Emma Lister Kaye

“Those’re the initials of the mine master at the time this block was built. She – yes she! – had this made,” he says.

“Emma Lister Kaye, she were called. Daughter of the owner.”

A brief pause.

“Can’t tell you how good a master she were though!” he adds with a smirk.

We move on, to where we begin our descent. Twenty of us crammed into a cage the size of an ordinary lift, and still not packed tight enough for our guide – he shoves us jovially and we are crushed against the wire. As we descend almost every person has their light on. We stare at the brickwork, at the dripping water, and the dirty wire. It’s like nothing we’ve ever done before.

At the bottom it is cold – very cold. The air is blowing relentlessly from a tunnel directly in front of us – the emergency exit, BJ tells us. Exit, ventilation shaft, lifesaver. If the lift breaks, he says, if something happens to the shaft, we can walk out. Six hundred metres, up a steep slope, bare slimy rock running with water. But still, he says…. we can get out. 

We’re underground for a long time – over an hour, although down in the pit time is malleable. We are there both moments and forever.

Everything is black or grey. Everything is hard – rock, wood, metal. The floor sometimes crunches and sometimes slips underfoot.

Our guide has worked the mines his whole life. He talks about this place like it’s his home, throwing out slang terms as if speaking a different language, rarely stopping to explain the strange words. It doesn’t matter. Down here, in the place, somehow you understand.

At times he invites us to crawl through the low, low tunnels that the miners used to follow. The young people rush at it – many of the older ones hang back and take the safer road. One older man follows us every step and every inch – he’s an old miner himself. He offers snippets of what was different in his mine and his time. We wonder – why has he come back? Does he miss the damp, the silence, and the dark?

In one place there’s a tableau of an early mining family. The father is on his stomach in an eighteen-inch coal face, passing lumps to his wife. Between them is one solitary candle. Further out, a six year old girl holds the string to the wooden door, or trap. Close by stands a pony to pull carts – he would have seen daylight and green fields for only two weeks every year, spending the rest down the mine.

“Turn out your lights,” our guide says. One by one, some reluctantly, we comply. One by one, the circles of illumination die.

We are in darkness.

The silence is total.

“This little girl sat here for twelve hours at a time, not daring to move because of the blackness.”

When the lights go back on it’s too bright, somehow. We got used to the dark.

As we go along BJ jokes familiarly, telling anecdotes about his life, his family, his late wife. He’s very likeable, very down-to-earth – very male.

I realise we’ve entered a very masculine space. The dirt, the sweat and the blood seems to seep into us from the walls, from our guide’s rough Yorkshire tones, from the wires and metal and teeth of the machines that we pass. I’m excited to be part of this, to see it all, but I feel myself being pulled in by the masculinity of the space. I speak louder. My excitement becomes bravado. BJ plays tricks on the some of the other ladies present – rubber rats and talk of spiders – and I and another woman present laugh louder than all the others.

“We’re different,” we seem to be saying.

“Accept us. We’re one of you. We don’t scream, we don’t run. We’re not afraid. We’re not one of them.”

I think back to Emma Lister Kaye. I wonder if she felt masculinised by the mines. If she felt the need to be louder, to be more fearless, to cloak herself in testosterone to play with the boys.

Up in the main museum there is a wall of quotes about mining.

NCM man
A man is not really a man until…

“I was now a man”, it reads, “For a man is not really a man in Durham until he goes down the pit.”

I went down the pit. I was now a man. Or a counterfeit of one.

On the way up we ride the same wire lift we used to descend. We don’t talk much, this time. Nobody uses their lights. We have become accustomed to the dark and the silence, no longer something to be desperately dispelled.

Back in the yard, some other examples of the machines we saw underground lie on display. Somehow out here they lose their power – their teeth are less sharp, their lines less hulking, their scale stolen by the space and the sky. Tamed.

A wheel from the pithead
A wheel from the pithead
A coal cutting machine
A coal cutting machine
The pithead
The pithead

It’s hard to shake off the darkness of the mine. We are still carrying its traces, dust in our lungs and smuts on our skin. We laugh it off but it has marked us.

Over on the grass stands another pony in the low evening light. It turns out that this pony is at another kind of work, but for that brief moment it doesn’t matter. He stands on soft green grass, with feathery trees beyond, under a wide and limitless blue sky. The contrast is beyond words.

“It really makes you appreciate the sunlight, doesn’t it?” my friend remarks.

Oh yes.

I turn my face to the warmth and feel the buttery light through closed eyes.

I hope never to forget the sun.

Under the sky
Under the sky

Hundertwasser – Architect of Dreams

Ok, so, I’m not an art person. Not in the traditional sense, at least – the sense in which one goes to art galleries, understands the traditions behind them, and can easily read the meanings behind the things we’re shown.

However, I’m a big believer in ‘finding your door’. As a historian and someone who loves history, literature, objects and how they all intertwine in a museum, I think that there’s always something there for everyone and anyone – you just have to find the key that unlocks everything and allows you to interpret it. And once you’re through that door, there’s a whole new world to discover.

We’re doing a lot of reading for my MA course at the moment on visitors to art galleries – who are they? Who should they be?

My gut reaction is: not me. Not me. I don’t know enough. They’ll think I’m stupid. They’ll find me out. I don’t understand. They don’t want me there.

Well? Do you see the contradiction? I think it’s time for me to start thinking about My Door.

Stolen from Wikipedia because I'm a bad person
Friedensreich Hundertwasser

That’s what brings me to Hundertwasser. Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser to be precise. What a funny list of names, you might think. Did his mother really call him that? No, of course not. She called him Friedrich Stowasser, probably until the day she died if I know mothers.

His name is art, like everything else he did.

Friedensreich – Peaceful

Regentag – Rainy day

Dunkelbunt – Darkly multi-coloured

Hundertwasser – Hundred waters.

Evocative, isn’t it? This is one of his paintings, depicting a Regentag, or rainy day:

Well, that’s him all over. The Man of a Hundred Waters.

That’s not how I got to know him, though, and not exactly what this post is about. This is about My Door.

Hundertwasser came into my life through houses. His works are surprising, colourful, joyful and childish, and as such they appeal hugely to children. I was eleven the first time I helped my mother, a KS1 teacher, with her lesson plans on designing Hundertwasser houses with the five year olds. It’s all about breaking out of the expected modes of representation and saying “Why not?”

A compilation of several works featuring houses and buildings.
A compilation of several works featuring houses and buildings.

Have you ever seen such a glorious outpouring of colour and creativity? The kids loved it, and needed very little prompting to cast off the cultural shackles of the “box with a roof, two windows and a door” school of infant house representation! Domes? Why not? Gold leaf? Why not? Trees in houses, and on houses, and houses on houses on trees? Why not?

You might be wondering why someone would bother depicting such obviously unrealistic buildings, but Hundertwasser was an architect. Reality is no barrier. Would someone really make a house like those depicted above?

Well, you tell me. This is Hundertwasserhaus in Vienna, an apartment block designed in conjuction with more traditional architect Joseph Krawina.

Hundertwasserhaus 1 Hundertwasserhaus 2 Hundertwasserhaus 3 Hundertwasserhaus 4 Hundertwasserhaus closeup Hundertwasserhaus vienna

Isn’t it spectacular? There’s a good account of a visit here:

This thing actually contains 52 full apartments, plus more! Can you imagine living there?

The next step in the lesson plan was creating our own scale Hundertwasser houses using all sorts of junk – boxes, tubes, paint, glue, glitter, sticks, leaves…. if you can glue it to something, it can be a house. Or a church, or an office block. Straight lines are banned, except as a contrast (in the one just above).

The Church of St Barbara, Barnbach
The Church of St Barbara, Barnbach

As I said, it is joy incarnate, joy given physical form in bricks, mortar and concrete.

And I guess that’s My Door. If I go through it, I wonder what I’ll find on the other side?

“And there will be trees!

Cried the man of a thousand waters;

Trees in the eaves, and the chimneys shall bloom!

Walls shall buckle and windows shall writhe,

And roofs will undulate like broken-backed dunes.

We will worship in polka dots, wreathe apartments in gold,

Cast off our skins and open eyes to the sky!

Dazzle the drizzle through prisms of raindrops

And drive branches and roots through the godlessness of lines.

Concrete fruiting domes in November clouds,

Rainbows on rainbows, a midcity stream,

When is a building not just a building?

When Hundertwasser dreams.”

PS. There’s a fantastic educational website here:

Don’t miss the explanation of his idea of the Five Skins – the houses we live in are a type of skin we use to create our identity.

Nature, Camera, Action! – more thoughts on the National Media Museum’s temporary exhibit

Ever wondered how we’ve come to know so much about animal and plant behaviour? Ever watched David Attenborough wander round the rain forest interspersed with macro (close-up) shots of a fly’s wing and thought “How do they do that? How do they know?

Well, Nature, Camera, Action is the exhibition for you. It’s only on til the 12th, so if you haven’t managed to get over to the National Media Museum in Bradford yet you’d better get your skates on!

The Structure of the Exhibition

A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.
A short video that introduces the spirit of the exhibition.

‘Nature, Camera, Action!’ is spread over two galleries on different floors of the museum, each addressing a slightly different angle of the main message – more on that later!

The physical structure is similar to the rest of the museum’s spaces, using partitions and angles to portion out space in the open-plan galleries, making your journey through feel like an exploration, with new discoveries around every corner.

Gallery structure
A view of the first section of the first floor gallery – this section is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography.

As Lewis mentioned in his post, the exhibition is very case-light, relying more on media, labels and interactive experiences. This image shows a section of the first gallery, which is devoted to the challenges of aerial and ornithological photography. It’s a good example of the style the museum is using – you can see a few cases, bright images on the walls, explanatory text (often written directly onto the fabric of the building) and numerous video installations demonstrating the camera techniques used.

The first gallery – located on the first floor of the museum – deals with the challenges of professional wildlife photography, both still images and video. Before you even enter the gallery proper you are confronted by a partition wall blocking your view of the exhibit, onto which a short video (pictured above) is projected, allowing the museum to make an introduction and set the tone. The video can pretty much be summed up as “Animals are amazing – look at all the things we can do to get images of them!” – this ties in with the key message I think I’ve identified, which again I’ll talk about in just a minute.

The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.
The transitions between the various sections of the first gallery.

As you can see, the partitions are brightly colour-coded to give a sense of different areas and of moving between discrete but connected concepts.

The different sections in this gallery are devoted to:

1) Aerial and ornithological photography (as pictured above), including drone cameras and high-speed photography that can be slowed down to show events that are usually too quick to perceive;

2) The challenges of filming on plains and in safari conditions, including transporting kit, the dangers of predators, and camouflaged cameras used to get close to shy creatures;

Tortoise-cam! Everyone loves tortoise-cam.
A camera disguised as a tortoise, used to get close to feeding animals without disturbing them or changing their behaviour.

3) Underground and nocturnal photography, including probe cameras and night vision;

4) Polar and other low-temperature conditions – there’s also a section on underwater challenges here, but the colour-coding was so similar I wasn’t entirely sure if it was meant to be a separate section;

5) Macro and close-up photography, mostly of insects and other minibeasts.

The rest of the exhibition continues in the next gallery upstairs. The museum connects the two by use of vinyl decals up the stairs:

Follow the butterfly!
Decals used to guide visitors around the different levels.

The upper gallery is an extension of the exhibition, showing how wildlife photography can be undertaken at home with minimal equipment, and encouraging visitors to make their own images. During the early part of the exhibition’s life (school holiday time) workshops were run allowing children to make their own photographic equipment and use it, playing with light, shadow and other settings. This sadly isn’t running anymore, but there are lots of give-it-a-go displays still up, including one that lets visitors focus a  digital camera to take their own macro images of provided insect specimens.

These are very sturdy cameras!
A hands-on display allowing visitors to try out digital cameras

Key Messages

As I saw it, the message of the whole exhibit was one of wonder in nature and technology and how they intersect. I’d sum it up as “Animals and plants are amazing, and using some very special equipment we can get mind-blowing images and sound that we can use to learn things that would otherwise be a mystery we didn’t even know we needed to solve…” (Gallery 1)

“…But you don’t need all this equipment to do your own investigation and wildlife photography. All you need is good observational skills and an enquiring mind. Give it a go, and see what you learn!” (Gallery 2)

It’s very much a ‘family’ exhibition, as others have noted before, but in the very best sense – there’s plenty to engage the small children, but it’s not at all superficial or dumbed down, and adults can easily learn things that your average interested layman would find eye-opening.

One good feature is the wall text – if you were to go round reading every label it could come across a little text-heavy for some people, especially children, but the main points or questions are picked out and emblazoned across the walls in large, easy to read letters and in terms that late KS1/KS2 children could easily read themselves.

Interesting points are picked out of the small text and emblazoned across the walls in simplified language.

Interactivity – and my favourite exhibits!

Those of you who’ve had much contact with me will feel no surprise when I say that the interactive aspects were those I found most interesting! I felt this exhibition did really well educationally, creating something for all ages.

It was nice to see that the National Media Museum is really living up to its name – it’s not just a museum of media, it’s a museum that uses media deftly and engagingly in its displays. Video and sound effects are blended seamlessly into the more concrete exhibits, and it never feels forced or like they are using technology for the sake of it. This was one of the best multi-media displays:

Underground bunny Underground

While narration played in the background, videos showing activity inside burrows were played in windows set into a display made to look like a warren.

Several of the sections in the downstairs gallery had incredibly immersive activities that really put the visitor in the position of the camera operator and brought home the challenges and the wonder of capturing these images. It’s really hard for me to choose a favourite, but I’m going to pick the tunnel you can just see in the picture above.

I was small enough to enter this particular exhibit and experience it for myself – unfortunately, larger adults may be denied the fascinating journey!

Here’s a video of the set-up of the tunnel.

The tunnel was full of twinkling lights from odd directions, and burrowing-type sound effects played through tiny speakers so you wouldn’t be able to hear them from outside. The constricted space, darkness and use of media was particularly evocative of the challenges and experience of the camera operator, and I think really got across the exhibition’s message of the amazing things people do to learn about nature, and encouraging people to try things for themselves and get involved.

Oh, and to add into the theme of keeping your eyes open – look who pops up at the end of the tunnel to reward an observant eye!

Surprise toad
Surprise Toad!

The other displays were also very interest, but obviously I couldn’t pick them all!

In the aerial section there was another great intersection of physical exhibit and media use – the ‘vulturecam’ (a drone camera constructed as a bird) hung from the ceiling, and beneath it was projected a loop of footage taken from a birds-lense view. While I was looking at this exhibit a family entered, and their two-year old swooped onto the projection with whoops of delight, spreading his arms and legs and practically bathing in the image! If any museum exhibit provokes that kind of reaction in a visitor I think we must count it a success.

The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.
The Vulture-cam suspended from the ceiling.

A short video of the Vulture-cam exhibit (sans two-year-old!).

Multi-layered Exhibition – Always More to See!

The Vulture-cam exhibit also brings me to another theme of the exhibition that I really enjoyed. As a family exhibit it was already designed to work on many levels of comprehension, but it also went that little extra step forward to actually practice what it preached. Wildlife photographers, as I mentioned above, have to keep their eyes open and their minds curious, and this exhibition promoted those qualities in the visitors. Some aspects of the exhibition were not spoon-fed; there was no giant sign pointing to the Vulture-cam high up in the ceiling and shouting “look, this is something you need to see”. At several points the museum relies on provoking the visitors’ curiosity instead of using a prescriptive didactory style – you see a flash of colour or movement, and you flit across the room to see what is happening; your ears twitch and you hare off following an interesting sound. It’s a really clever approach that I think rewards a repeat visit – you could go round this exhibition several times and always notice something slightly different or learn something new.

The very best example of this is in the second gallery. It was part of the camera workshop that I mentioned at the beginning, but now functions as a sort of ‘Easter Egg’ extra for eagle-eyed visitors.

First you see an unassuming wall sign, quite hidden now in a corner of the educational area:

A clue hidden away on the wall.
A clue hidden away on the wall.

If you keep this in mind, follow your footsteps around the gallery, and above all keep your eyes open, you’re rewarded with the unexpected sight of these little guys hidden in rafters and above exhibits:

Magpie Owl Woodpecker

There’s also (as the green label above states) an interactive exhibit that changes with audience participation, something I find particularly exciting considering we’re starting to design our own exhibits!

A large digital screen is used to display a slideshow of images and videos sent in by the general public. This is located next to an exhibit of wildlife photography through the 20th century, making the visitors and ex-visitors feel like they can really be part of not just the exhibition but also a larger wildlife community.

Context Images

My Favourite Label

Let’s start by putting it in context with the introductory label to the second gallery:

The introductory label to the second gallery.
The introductory label to the second gallery.

This I think really articulates the message I pinpointed above, and leads me onto my specific label choice. You might recognise this one – it’s the instructions for the macro give-it-a-go exhibit I featured way back in the first section!

Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit
Close-up of the label to the hands-on camera exhibit

I’ve picked this one because it takes the technology aspect of the previous gallery and uses step-by-step instructions to prove how accessible wildlife photography and observation can actually be. Judging by the enthusiasm with which a nine-year-old and his mother descended on the display, and the huge array of photos and videos on that participatory screen, I’d say it’s definitely working!

Visitor Reactions and Comments

Being there on my own, and a friendly sort of person, I struck up lots of conversations with other visitors and got some of their reactions. Here are some comments that stuck with me:

“I like how there’s something for most ages, and it’s really hands-on to encourage kids to be interested in stuff and learn about nature. I think it would be better for kids that are a bit older though because she can’t read. Maybe they could make some cartoons or do a tour to help young kids understand it or something?”

Young local woman with four-year-old girl.

“We came with the grandchildren during the holidays and they loved it, but there was so much that we didn’t get to see, so we thought we’d come back when it was quiet. I didn’t know most of this either, so it’s really interesting.”

Female half of older couple from Wakefield.

“I took some of the photos on the screen. I really like that sort of thing – I don’t know if you’re old enough to remember Blue Peter, but when you’re a child you’re encouraged to send in your artwork and letters, like your contribution matters. When you grow up, most of the time it feels like if you’re not a professional then museums and galleries don’t care. I think this one’s usually different, and that’s why I like coming here.”

Male half of couple.

“I’ve got a bug box at home and sometimes I get really interesting creatures coming to it. I’ve got photos of lots of kinds of bees. There are loads more sorts of bees than people think. I might do this when I grow up and work with David Attenborough. He’s really cool.”

Nine-year-old boy with family.

“This sort of exhibition usually runs during the school holidays. The museum likes to alternate between ‘family’ ones and more serious ones so that they can cater to everyone. I think it’s a real shame that some of the bigger more famous exhibitions go to the Science Museum in London first, even when they use our archive material heavily. It’s really important for towns like Bradford to have major cultural events going on here, offering opportunities to everyone, not just the London elite.”

Gallery assistant, male, mid-fifties.


Two-year-old with three generations of his family, having just fallen in love with the Vulture-cam exhibit.