Wednesday, 10 December 2014

100 year old biscuit – a Christmas message from the trenches

You wouldn’t think that a museum would jump at the chance to add a crumbly broken biscuit into the collection, but this particular example has survived a century and began its journey amid the horror of the battlefields of the First World War. 

 It survives tucked inside its original wrapper, which was addressed to a Mrs Maxwell of Meanwood in Leeds. Written on one side in blue ink is the message: 

'Christmas dinner in the Army. 

“Give us this day our daily bread” and please put a bit of butter on. From Max.'

The sender is likely to have been Private William Maxwell (service number 4492) who served with the 9th (Queen’s Royal) Lancers and was the son of G.E. and Margaret Maxwell of Meanwood. He only saw one Christmas in the trenches as he was killed in May 1915 and is buried in Hazebrouck Communal Cemetery in northern France. He was luckier than his younger brother Arthur Maxwell who died on 30th August 1914 during the first month of combat.

The inked message is typical of the black humour of soldiers at the time and reflects a common criticism of the food that was offered to British troops on the Western Front. Although biscuits such as this were not the only food on offer, they did form a significant part of the diet alongside tins of corned beef and bread. It was difficult to get fresh food and these biscuits were usually stale.

This is not a unique object as many soldiers seemed to have felt that stale biscuits better served as a medium for writing messages home than as palatable food. Leeds Museums have another First World War biscuit in the collection which was decorated, sent as a Christmas card and subsequently framed.

Above all this is a poignant link to a very grim Christmas a century ago and a very timely addition to the Leeds collections.
By Kitty Ross, Social History Curator

Volunteers and the Grayson Perry Exhibition at Temple Newsam

A huge team of volunteers give their time to help support the work we do at Leeds Museums and Galleries. Here are some insights from volunteers involved in the 2014 Grayson Perry 'Vanity of Small Differences' exhibition.

The Grayson Perry exhibition opened at Temple Newsam House to great fanfare on 23 August 2014. There have been mixed reactions from different visitors but the majority are mesmerised by the bright colours; fascinated by the different stories and pleased that they have been afforded to opportunity to view these tapestries in the setting of a stately home rather that the white walls of an art gallery.

Talks and tours on the tapestries were conducted by a very able team of volunteers. Here are their comments about being involved in this project.

"I love Grayson Perry and I love his work. I think it was an act of genius to display his tapestries in Temple Newsam House. As a volunteer I have been impressed by the amount of time many of the visitors spend in front of each tapestry - unpicking the layers of meaning, finding the hidden jokes, recognising parts of themselves and generally marvelling at their splendour, detail and technical prowess. Many ask pertinent questions, demonstrating a genuine curiosity to access the work, both visually and technically.

One fun thing has been to point out that every tapestry has Grayson Perry's signature trade mark - an anchor with a W on top. Young and old, male and female, fans and critics have all enjoyed the anchor treasure hunt!"
 - Harriet Allen

"One of the great things about working on the Grayson Perry exhibition is the look of wonder, surprise and delight as visitors come into the first tapestry room and see 'The adoration of the cage fighters'. The best comment has to be from a little boy re tapestry 6, who said in an excited voice to his Mum, 'Look its Fireman Sam' and refused to leave the room for 5 minutes as he looked at the tapestry." - Janet Blackledge

"Does Vanity of Small Differences, represent an update of Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen Sketch?" I have only been volunteering a few weeks, helping to safeguard and with visitor “interpretation" of Grayson Perry's fantastically colourful tapestries.....but am losing count of the number of visitors who engage with it in competing for middle class-ness! 

What an absolute joy it is to come to work and hear visitors saying, “No, I'm not middle class because I don't have either an Aga, or a cafetiere" or ladies arguing about ownership of Cath Kidston items & Penguin book title mugs. It was ever thus, Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch (preceded earlier by bowler hatted John Cleese, “I look down on him", also featuring Ronnie Barker, sketch). 

There is no doubt we Brits have an unparalleled streak for competing to parade our Class or Tribe credentials, and Grayson has "tapped" into it wonderfully. But how it makes us all laugh, thank goodness for self-deprecation and irony! A wonderful work within, or visit." - Sally Pickersgill

"Volunteering, what's in it for me, I got to meet lots of nice people including the staff at Temple Newsam House who made all the volunteers feel very welcome, as well as having the opportunity to see some fantastic tapestries and other great works of art." - Val Priest

"I also just wanted to thank you again for this volunteering opportunity. I thoroughly enjoyed my first day on Friday and had a wonderful time speaking with all the visitors. It was a very rewarding experience and I am very much looking forward to these next few weeks!" - Alexandra Anderson)

"It's proving to be a real privilege, stewarding - the team are great!" - Pauline Heywood

Comments from the general public also revealed how valuable the volunteers proved:

It was the third time I’d seen the tapestries and still found so much more in them thanks to the enthusiasm of the volunteers. 

The predominantly voluntary staff chosen to work at Temple Newsam during this superb exhibition are brimming with pride and enthusiasm in their role. 

As you can see volunteers and staff worked well together to provide a unique experience to visitors and we hope to recreate this sort of volunteering role at our other sites in the near future.

By Wendy Breakwell, Volunteer Coordinator

Thursday, 4 December 2014

Crinoid Cake

​To celebrate the arrival of our new Geology Curator, Neil Owen, Natural Science Curator Clare Brown created the Lemon Drizzle Crinoid Cake – celebrating a mysterious creature from the oceans.

Looks can be deceiving as crinoids are animals not plants. They are members of the phylum Echinodermata. This group of animals is made up of starfish, sea urchins, sand dollars, sea cucumbers and sea lilies. First appearing in the fossil record during the Early Ordovician, 480 million years ago and survived to present day. They were prolific from the Carboniferous to the Cretaceous with over 6000 species discovered.

The seas at this time would have been teeming with crinoids gracefully swaying in the currents, almost resembling plants in the breeze.

Unlike their relations, they developed a unique body structure with a body (calyx) was covered in a flexible membrane and was made up of interlocking plates, held aloft by a long stem made of individually stacked plates (ossicles)to form a column. At the base of this column they attached themselves to the sea floor with a root like structure (holdfast). On the upper surface of the body they developed arms (brachials) with tiny filaments (pinnules) to filter the passing water currents.

Unfortunately this body plan has been lost in time as modern crinoids have evolved to resemble sea urchins and are entirely mobile.

You can learn more about our Geology Collections over on the #GeoBlitz blog​.

By Lucy Moore, First World War Projects Curator