First Time Out: From baubles to masks, museums and galleries swap ten treats

By Ben Miller | 06 June 2013

Between now and July 31, ten weird, wonderful and beautiful previously unseen objects go on display at ten venues. In a twist, they then swap venues halfway through the run for a re-interpretation by their new hosts. Here, we get the hosts' takes on the first five...

The Fool's Bauble, prop for RSC Production of King Lear (2007)

A photo of a puppet on a stick
The Royal Shakespeare Company:

"This bauble, or marotte, was designed by Christopher Oram and made to look like Sylvester McCoy who played the Fool in the production.

The bauble is made of wood and textile and has a mechanical mouth. It was made by the Props department in Stratford-upon-Avon who produced all the small and soft props, including handwritten letters passed between characters and an intricate shoulder bag to hold the bauble and other inseparable items belonging to the Fool, such as the spoons he played in their miniature violin case.

In this production, King Lear, played by Sir Ian McKellen, carried the bauble after the Fool was hanged.

This strong visual link between the two characters reminded the audience of the Fool's constant judgement that it is King Lear who is a fool.

Real court jesters would carry similar objects to mimic a King's sceptre, so when King Lear carried the mock sceptre in the play it represented his foolishness and fall from grace.

This production was first performed in May 2007 in Stratford-upon-Avon at The Courtyard Theatre."

Horniman Museum and Gardens:

"The Fool is a powerful character in many theatre traditions. Fools are subversive and they can break all the rules and turn the world upside down.

Laughter is the greatest antidote to power. Through ridicule and mockery the Fool can reveal truths that no-one else dares to speak, and expose the unquestioned authority of powerful people as absurd.

The Fool is an inverted reflection of the King – and the Bauble or Wand he carries is his sceptre or ceremonial mace.

This Fool's Wand or Bauble was made for a Royal Shakespeare Company production of King Lear in 2007 directed by Trevor Nunn.

The face and costume on the wand is traditionally modelled on that of the Fool who carries it; in this case, those of the actor Sylvester McCoy."

Charles Darwin (1809-1882) Letters on Geology: Extracts from Letters addressed to Professor Henslow (1835). Privately printed with corresponding original letter

A photo of an ancient handwritten book
© Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew:

"Twenty-four years before his most famous work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, Charles Darwin published his first book, Letters on Geology.

During his voyage on HMS Beagle, Darwin wrote to Professor John Stevens Henslow, his mentor at Cambridge. This book is composed of extracts from his letters. Fewer than 100 copies were printed.

Darwin recounts what he saw in South America that ultimately led to him formulating his “species theory.”

He would spend the next five decades continuing to investigate nature’s secrets. This modest book started one of the most important pieces of thinking during the 19th century.

The original letters are now in the Archives at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. The letter here, written in Monte Video, corresponds to the page the book is open at. Comparing them, you can see only a small part of the letter was published.

This is the first time that this book has ever been on display outside of Kew’s Library and it has never been displayed with the original letter beside it."

The Lightbox, Woking:

"It is very exciting to see Darwin’s original handwriting from Monte Video and read about his observations of the natural world.

The detail of the animals and fossils are observed and reading the letter we get a sense of his literary skills in describing the scenery.

Darwin conjures up a pictorial image worthy of Turner and shows that he had a very creative side, enjoying nature for its own worth rather than the detailed analysis we usually associate with his writing.

It also gives us an insight into Darwin as an ordinary individual. Unimpressed with the coastline of Patagonia, he writes: ‘an enormous brackish river – is enough to make any naturalist groan.'

Letters on Geology gives us a real insight into the man and conjures up for us the wonder but also the boredom experienced on his lengthy voyage of discovery."

Eric Gill, Torso - Woman (1913) Bath Stone

A photo of a grey stone bust of a woman on a small brown plinth
© The Estate of Eric Gill
The Lightbox, Woking:

"The Lightbox gallery and museum manages and displays The Ingram Collection of Modern British Art. The collection is growing, with key acquisitions made by the owner, Chris Ingram.

The collection features Britain’s most significant artists of the 20th century and can be seen through changing displays at The Lightbox.

Torso – Woman is a significant new sculptural addition to the collection because of its historic and artistic importance.

Made soon after Gill began direct carving of stone figures and around the time of converting to Catholicism, the sculpture highlights Gill’s mastery of linear expression and is evidence of his interest in medieval religious art, Egyptian, Greek and Indian sculpture.

The Lightbox is delighted to be showing ir for the first time as well as lending the piece for others to enjoy at the Marianne North Gallery at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew."

Christopher Mills, Kew's Head of Library, Art and Archives:

"I saw this sculpture, in the Ingram Collection and knew immediately this is what Kew should borrow and that we had to display it in the Marianne North Gallery.

It is a work of simple elegance achieved by great technical skill.

It is exciting - an unknown piece, made for Gill’s own pleasure, having no thought it would one day be seen by thousands of people.

The work is modern but also recalls the carvings of prehistoric goddess figures.

It invoked strong reactions and is enduring in their appeal. It celebrates beauty and purity.

It is anonymous, like many of the women who have contributed to Kew becoming great.

It would be a thought provoking intruder, a complete contrast and the only thing in the gallery not made by North.

An interesting coincidence is that Gill was born in the same year (1882) that the Marianne North Gallery opened to the public and Charles Darwin, originator of the First Time Out object we have exchanged with The Lightbox, died."

Dzunuḵ̓wa or "Wild Woman of the Woods" Mask (circa 1900)

A photo of a brown mask
© Horniman Museum and Gardens
Horniman Museum and Gardens:

"This powerful mask tells many stories. It was created by the Kwakwaka’wakw people who live on the Pacific Northwest Coast of Canada, to tell the story of Dzunuḵ̓wa, or Wild Woman of the Woods.

She is a hairy, smelly and terrifying giant who can kidnap naughty children, as well as bringing wealth and fortune.

This mask was danced around the fire in a cedar Big House during a potlatch ceremony to tell the story of the ancestors and privileges of the host family and owner.

This mask also tells an epic story of resistance and resilience. Potlatch ceremonies were banned by the Canadian government from 1885 to 1951, and this mask was taken by the police along with some 500 other sacred items after an illegal potlatch in 1921.

The Kwakwaka’wakw negotiated for decades to retrieve items sold to museums and private collections around the world.

Most of the regalia has gone home and is now shown at the U’mista Cultural Centre in Alert Bay, where it is a source of great joy and pride for the community.

The Kwakwaka’wakw people are grateful to the Horniman Museum and Gardens for listening to the story of this mask and entering into positive discussions about its return.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens is working in collaboration with U'mista Cultural Centre, Alert Bay, British Columbia."

Royal Shakespeare Company:

"'Hu! Hu!', she cries through pursed lips. Dzunuk’wa, the Giant of the Woods, strode through the forest crying out and terrifying the disobedient children playing amongst the trees.

"With a huge basket on her back, primed and ready for the naughty children, she hunted them down to take them away to be eaten for her dinner. But the children knew Dzunuk’wa was very vain and clumsy, so they outwitted her attempts to kidnap them.

They played games and made the giant dance in circles so she would get tired and fall asleep. So the children escaped, taking her supernatural powers with them.

This is just one of the many different stories of Dzunuk’wa from the Kwakwaka’wakw people which have been re-told in important and theatrical ceremonies.

It is this re-telling of stories and interpretation of characters that has such a strong link with Shakespeare and theatre; the Dzunuk’wa mask transforms the individual into the giant, as a costume transforms an actor."

Rough-toothed dolphin skull with scrimshaw decoration (mid-19th century)

A photo of a large ancient bone
© Natural History Museum, London
Natural History Museum, London:

"We inherited this skull in 1936, from the private collection of Baron Rothschild. It has never been on display because it didn’t come with any information and it didn’t fit with other specimens in the galleries.

Our mammal curator has since identified it as a rough-toothed dolphin, a relatively large species that lives in deep tropical waters.

The drawings are a craft known as scrimshaw, specific to crews of long-haul whaling ships.

Sailors spent the long days at sea decorating bones and teeth from their catches. They used needles from their sewing kits to scour the designs, then coloured them in with ink or dye.

A scrimshaw expert at the National Maritime Museum in London told us that the black-and-white checks along the jaw are typical of scrimshaw from merchant ships, and dated the vessels drawn on the back of the skull to around 1850.

But who the sailor was, we’ll never know."

Peterborough Museum:

"Craft techniques such as the scrimshaw designs on this skull were commonly practised amongst sailors.

They also inspired prisoners of war who were locked in confinement of a different kind with little to do.

For example, French captives from the many naval battles between Britain and France during the 18th century, crafted objects from bone, straw and wood. It was a means to keep them busy and stop them thinking of ways to escape.

They were allowed to sell items they made to local people, either for pocket money or as trade for home comforts such as tobacco.

You can see examples of objects made by French prisoners at Peterborough Museum, including model ships and guillotines, decorated jewellery boxes and games."

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