What myths and folklore are hidden around the garden?
For Druids, mistletoe symbolised the spirit, as it grew in the air. Mistletoe was most treasured when found on oak trees because they are considered sacred.
It is thought that Druids believed that the hand of God placed it there with a strike of lightening. At the end of the year, it would be cut off by priests in white gowns who would not permit the plant to touch the ground. Two white bulls would then be slain where the oak had grown and the twigs of the mistletoe would be spread among the people. People believed the plant was protective and would place the twig above doors or carve them into rings and jewellery to ward of evils, such as attacks from witches and poisons. It could also be used as a general protection amulet. In British paganism, it was said that mistletoe was hung with red ribbon and then burned during Imbolc to protect the home and ward off disease at the height of winter.
Mistletoe (Viscum album) does not only grow from oak trees. It is a ‘hemi-parasite’, meaning it grows on a host tree, from which it takes water and support. Today there are approximately 1,500 species of the plant. You can see a bunch of it in the Meadow field, high up on a tree.
Another tree respected for its magical properties is the yew tree.
Also named ‘The Tree of Resurrection’ or ‘The Goddess Tree’, it has the ability to regenerate itself. A branch can grow down the centre of a tree, forming a brand new one, and because of this ability, it can be difficult to identify a yew tree’s exact age.
The oldest yew tree in the UK, is thought around 2000–3000 years old and is found in churchyard in Perthshire. Yew trees in England are often found in churchyards, popping up in approximately 500 around the country. It is thought yew trees could purify victims of the plague if placed on their graves.
The Elder tree is a truly magical plant. All parts of the tree can be used for good, like food and medicine.
The English elder comes from the Anglo-Saxon words, aeld meaning fire. In Elder tree folklore, the tree was believed to host a powerful spirit called the Elder Mother. People hung dried elder leaves to ward off evils from their home, and it was thought to be a lucky omen if an Elder tree grew near your home, as it would offer protection to your household. Use of the Elder tree required asking permission through a ritual, and if not asked, it is said the Elder Mother would seek revenge against the person who had offended her.
In some Christian legends, the elder tree has been given negative connotations. It was thought that Judas Iscariot hanged himself on the tree after betraying Jesus. It is also said that the wood used in the crucifixion came from this tree, although it is unlikely the weight of the wood could bare the weight of a man.
Sage has become a widely used ingredient in our food dishes today but did you know the herb has a long history of being used for healing properties?
The scientific name for Sage is Salvia which comes from the Latin word Salveo, “to heal” or “to save”.
The Romans regarded sage as a holy herb. They used it to clean their teeth and believed it aided memory function. The Romans and the Egyptians both used the herb to preserve meat and to help with fertility.
In the Middle Ages, sage was used as a medicine. An old English practise was to eat sage every day in May, which was thought to grant immortality, and fresh sage leaves were said to cure warts, which may be due to its antibacterial properties. During this time people would use sage to cover rotting meat, both to help protect themselves and cover the smell, which may be why it is still so commonly used with roasting meat now.
Myths and Legends of Flowers, Trees and Fruit, Charles. M. Skinner
We interviewed Sarah Strong from South London and Maudsley (SLaM) Recovery College about a resource to improve wellbeing while visiting the Horniman.
Could you explain the process of creating the resource – what did you do?
Participants of SlaM Recovery College attended our ‘Museums and Wellbeing’ course and, over a period of 6 weeks, developed the Horniman’s first wellbeing resource available to adults to explore the Museum with the aim of sustaining or boosting their mood.
We took the Wheel of Wellbeing, a visual framework based on positive psychology, as a basis for the activities to create an accessible introduction to the Museum and Gardens. As individuals or pairs we wandered around the building, responding to the displays by asking different questions about a variety of items and places. We then returned to the group, sharing our thoughts and suggestions, and discussed how our ideas might work.
What is in the resource?
The Wellbeing Wander is a trail of sorts, a way of discovering what the Horniman has to offer in (hopefully!) manageable portions; it’s a great introduction to the Horniman if you haven’t visited before.
There are several activities to do both in the galleries and out in the Gardens, with some pointers to help you find your way. There are also some things to think about before you get there too; how you might think about objects around your own home, as well as the objects to see around the Horniman.
We’ve also provided all the useful information about facilities that can make your trip to Forest Hill a bit easier. It’s a guide that you can use again when you visit in future. It may even enhance your experience in other museums and galleries too.
Who is the resource for and why?
The resource is, first and foremost, aimed at those who have their mental and physical wellbeing in mind, but it is available to everyone.
Those who have lived experience of conditions and issues, such as anxiety or low mood, may find it particularly beneficial. Walking around the Horniman can be a mindful and calming experience, and we’ve also provided a few hints of where to go if you’d like a few moments of quiet time to yourself.
Why did you want to become involved?
I worked in a heritage collection for many years before working in mental health. I’m passionate about the importance of museums and galleries in life in general, and encouraging new audiences to discover all the amazing items they hold. I'm particularly excited about the positive role museums and gardens can play in improving wellbeing.
How could someone use the Horniman for wellbeing?
The Horniman is well suited for a project such as this, as it has the benefit of wonderful Gardens alongside the amazing Museum collections.
There is a variety of activities that you can participate in that can marry with the actions on the Wheel of Wellbeing, actions that have been proven to help wellbeing. This might be the very act of learning something new, taking time to observe and respond to the things around you, or just being in the open air and walking around the Gardens.
What do you want visitors to know about the resource and how would you recommend people use it?
I’d like to stress that it’s available and can be used by anyone even though it has been developed with wellbeing and mental health in mind.
You can follow every part of it or just use certain sections. You could use it as a generalised guide and apply it to other parts of the Horniman that we’ve not mentioned on the resource itself if you wish. If you know someone who gets anxious when travelling or going somewhere new, we’ve included some pre-trip things to think about to help get you on your way.
Did you learn or discover anything during the process?
I discovered just how much I miss working in the heritage sector and engaging with people who visit these places.
It was great to work with others in SLaM Recovery College who have the same enthusiasm for learning and collaborating on resources for the public at large. Working alongside a diverse range of others meant that I gained from their perspectives and it made me think about the Horniman and the needs of its potential visitors in a new way.
Why is it important to have resources like this in museums?
It’s important to acknowledge that different people interact with museums differently, and also that the spaces can be used in both traditional and non-traditional ways.
I hope that resources such as these might encourage people who don't visit museums often, or even at all, to come and investigate what's available at the Horniman.
The Wellbeing Wander resource is available online to print at home and behind the ticket desk.
Grand Piano by Erard, London, c.1880, (Horniman Museum No. M99-1983). Acquired with the assistance of the Purchase Grant Fund. Horniman Museum and Gardens, photo by Sarah Duncan
Queen Victoria owned an Erard piano dating from the 1840s and used it as a child and young adult. The piano on loan to Kensington Palace is of the make that was played by Victoria, but it is a later example of the type, from around 1880. Our Erard Grand Piano in rosewood with inner rim veneered in fiddle-back maple.
Queen Victoria was a great supporter and patron of the arts and music was no exception, playing an important role in Victoria and her husband, Prince Albert’s, lives.
There are diary entries from the Queen which show her writing music, and which date back to the age of 13. Both Victoria and Albert were piano enthusiasts, and pianos would feature in every place they called home. Victoria would also be given pianos as gifts.
The Erard piano is one of Victoria’s famed instruments, and our loaned instrument acts as an example of what Queen Victoria would have had at the ball to celebrate her 17th Birthday.
While music would have also been part of Victoria’s education, Prince Albert also contributed to her repertoire. They played piano duets together, and Albert would take Victoria to recitals or the opera.
Some of the music they played together included Beethoven’s Egmont or Prometheus, as well as music by Mendelssohn, Haydn and Mozart. She is also thought to have admired Don Giovanni.
Grand Piano by Erard, London, c.1880, (Horniman Museum No. M99-1983). Acquired with the assistance of the Purchase Grant Fund. Horniman Museum and Gardens, photo by Sarah Duncan
The Erard firm were piano and harp makers, as well a music publishers. They were founded in Paris in the late 18th Century by Sebastien Erard, and he began making pianos for the French nobility.
In 1821, Erard patented a new action for pianos called 'the double escapement' which, by the introduction of an intermediate lever between the key and hammer significantly improved dynamic control and repetition.
This innovation earned Erard pianos the devotion of many well-known players, including Liszt and Mendelssohn. Although Chopin preferred Parisian rival Pleyel’s pianos, he nevertheless acknowledged the beauty of the Erards and admired their consistency in touch and sound.
The Erard firm was among the first to introduce metal bracing into the piano to help improve both structural and tuning stability.
At the end of the 18th Century, the French Revolution as well as a growing UK market, prompted a move across the Channel. Erard established a factory in London's Great Marlborough Street and the British Royal Family patronised the firm.
The show which marks the 200th anniversary of Queen Victoria, born in 24 May 1819. Each room is replicated to look as the same as when she grew up and tells stories of the young confident Queen. See it and our Grand Piano at Kensington Palace, on now.
2019 was the first year the UK celebrated Windrush Day as an officially recognised anniversary so we took this opportunity to talk with Caribbean elders and hear their experiences.
Rachael Minott, Horniman’s Curator of Anthropology (Social Practice), with the help of Shasti Lowton, created a series of events where multiple generations of Caribbeans could gather and share food, stories and advice.
Here, Mr Norman Mitchell, shares his experience and thoughts of the Windrush scandal and memories of coming to England in a moving interview by Shashti Lowton.
What are your early memories of life in England?
When the boat came in [to dock] with us at 5 o’clock in the morning, we were meant to come out but unfortunately, the ferry boat that should take us off the HMS Fairsea wanted to charge us.
Men were determined that they were not going to pay no more money, because we had paid the fare to England. When they see that the men refused to pay, we did not come off until 2 o’clock that day.
We landed in Plymouth and then the train took us from Plymouth to London. We had three trains, one to London, one to Bristol and one to Leeds - there was 300 of us that came on that boat. On the train coming up, we never see house have chimneys, so when I saw all these chimneys on these houses, I say ‘oh my gosh, look how many boiling house!’ Boiling house is where we make sugar, that’s the only thing we see chimney with. So I say ‘what a lot of boiling house they have there’.
When I get home that is when I realise that is the house, true they had the fire and they had the chimney to take away the smoke. That was my experience of coming into London.
Mr Norman W Mitchell, Photo by Sarah Duncan
I came in on Sunday night, then on Monday I was to go and sign on, and luckily, a friend that was at the house told me to follow him on Tuesday morning where he works and I got there and I got the job.
So yeah, I came in on Sunday night and then by Tuesday I was working! Unfortunately, we were loading a lorry with brick, six of us out there on the lorry, a brick went cross the lorry and hit one of the Irish men in his head. And all of them said it was my brick, they didn’t know which brick but they all said it was mine, so because of that I was dismissed.
I still went out and tried to get another job, so it was a little difficult at first because there was no hot water in the house, there was no heating and there was no bathroom.
Where did you bathe?
We went to the public bath, every Friday we went to the public bath. Even the small house lav was outside, so you’d have to come out the house sometimes and go round the back. It was quite difficult sometimes but we made it through.
It was again difficult finding room because the English people wouldn’t let the black people no rooms, and the Irish.
They used to put a sign on the door saying ‘rooms for let but no dog, no Irish and no black’.
But in the long run, things change and we get through.
So what day did you arrive in England?
I arrived on a Sunday, 1955.
And how much did you pay for your boat tickets?
In those days? £75. In those days it was a lot of money but it was reasonable.
Where did you grow up and were you like as a child?
I grew up in Jamaica.
I was a very good boy, well for most of my early days. I grew up in church, Sunday school and from Sunday school I make a member of the Pentecostal church.
My days were with church people. I lost my father at age 14, and then I took the responsibility at age 14 to assist my mother in everything that I could to assist her in until I was 27.
What was the best advice you’ve heard?
Well the gentlemen who was at my fathers' age, they used to come to me and say, ‘Boy you surprised me, I didn’t expect you to stand you to your mother as you do, and because of that I love you’ and all the big men became my friend.
And did they help and support you, and give you advice to look after your mother?
Yes, well my father was a farmer so we needed to see about the farming and see that everything gets in place and in order to move on.
So what is the hardest lesson that you had to learn?
I really do not make things bother me, don’t care how it is difficult, I try to make some way through. And I think that is what helps me that I am able to be here today.
We would say, to make the decision, and leaving home to be in England, in place that you no know no one or the land or what it is about. That’s a very big decision and something that you had to think about and over, because you going to somewhere where you don’t know no one. But I succeed.
What is your favourite family tradition?
Tradition? Well, we was in cooperation in unity. And the family tie was quite good and valuable, we used to counsel and have good consultation to try to sort out things when it becomes difficult.
What are your thoughts on the Windrush scandal?
Oh it’s very interesting.
When I understand what was going on with the Windrush people, it makes me feel a bit distressed because when we came here, it was very difficult.
It was hard because of the snow, because of the frost and because of the cold. We didn’t come from a cold country, so to make it was quite difficult. As I said to my friend, ‘Did you know, God give us a new body?’ Because a lot of us do not think of it; because when we think of it we have sun, ninety-five degrees, seventy-five, eighty degrees, we came here, zero!
It was a great change. The first time I saw the snow falling I didn’t know what it was and I was like, ‘A what dis falling down?’ The foreman that I was working with he called us together and he asked us do we want to go home. And I was so glad because I wanted to go home! Because I don’t know what dis… but it was when I get home that I realised what it was, it was snow! But it did stop.
I get to understand the movements was in those days very difficult. For some of us, nine men used to be in one room. Sometimes they had three beds with one wardrobe or just a bed. You had to put your case underneath bed.
Those were difficult days but we didn’t let those things bother us or trouble us. Well time long gone, thank God. Until today we are enjoying it.
Is there anything else you’d like to share with us that you’d like to say?
We had a lot of Windrush meetings that have been organised and going on, but one of the things that I would really love to see, is the people were deported, that they bring them back.
Because they struggled in the early years through the snow, rain and cold.
When they should be enjoying a fair life, they were put on a plane and sent back to the West Indies without relatives, without a place to live - that is most difficult and I really think about that and I wish that they could consider it.
Some people have their houses here, they left their house, they lost their house, their pension and all what they worked for. It’s sad.
Yes, yes, I trust that something better could be done for them.
Mami, talks about her experience volunteering, highlighting objects from our Handling Collection and some of our displays.
Mami holding turtle shell, Mami
Hello, my name is Mami and I moved to the UK from Japan last year. I am a housewife, and my family members are my husband and a shiba-inu dog. I have been volunteering with the Horniman since May 2019. I am really excited to be working for the Horniman, because touching objects is very fascinating. So, I’m pleased to work and learn about the objects and English simultaneously!
I really recommend that you stop by at our touch tables when you are exploring the Horniman. I found it surprising because I had never seen a table like this in Japan. I had never seen a table like this before I came here or touched any museum objects before.
We have several objects: a sawfish, a turtle shell, a sperm whale tooth, a piece of seal skin and a fish skeleton. Today, I’d like to introduce a couple of these handling objects to you and my favourite parts of the Museum.
Sawfish (Anoxupristis caspidata)
Mami holding sawfish, Mami
Sawfish, Anoxupristis caspidata, are a type of ray that are closely related to sharks! They live I in shallow coastal waters like bays and estuaries in tropical and subtropical countries. Sawfish like to eat small fish and animals without a spine. They attack groups of fishes, cutting them into smaller pieces with their saws, making them easier to eat. Surprisingly, they can find food with their rostrum (nose extension) which contain sensory organs! They also use the rostrum as a club to stun the prey or to pin it to the floor before eating it. The rostrum is used as a defensive weapon against strong enemies, using it as a club to stun the prey or pin it to the floor before eating it.
All five species of sawfish are now listed as Endangered or Critically Endangered on the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is because of loss of habitat, plastic and being caught in fishing nets left behind by humans in the sea. They are also facing threats due to plastic pollution caused by us.
You are also able to touch the shell of a green turtle. Its scientific name is Chelonia mydas. The shell is hard, like a suit of armour and so tough even a shark’s teeth can’t bite through it! Its shell enables it to swim fast, but unlike many other turtles, the sea turtle can’t pull its head and legs inside its shell to hide from its enemies. Green turtles spend their entire lives at sea and only adult female turtles come ashore when it’s time to lay their eggs.
Sea turtles often drown when caught in fishing gear, nets and long lines. Further to this, they often eat plastic bags because the bags are mistaken for foods such as jellyfish. The plastics remain in their organs and they become to be unable to eat. In the Natural History Gallery, you can see a Green Turtle, currently on loan from The Natural History Museum, London. Its surrounding display highlights the effects facing sea turtles today.
Green Turtle, Natural History Museum, London
As I Live and Breathe, Claire Morgan
As I live and Breathe, 2019, Claire Morgan, Sarah Duncan
In addition to these objects, you can see the stunning works, As I Live and Breathe, created by award-winning, internationally-exhibited visual artist, Claire Morgan. A gorgeous installation of spheres, which are made from colourful waste polyethene hang from the ceiling in Gallery Square. Inside the Natural History Gallery her series of works continues, combining plastics and nature in a touching display of taxidermy. See her body of work until May 2020 and read more about the exhibition and Claire in About the Art.
Mami with owl butterfly, Mami
Lastly, I would like to introduce another attractive display which ismy favourite place in the Horniman, the Butterfly House.You can meet a lot of beautiful butterflies, caterpillars and pupae! They are very friendly, and sometimes they will land on you (but please don’t touch them, sorry and the plants as well). The specially planted tropical garden is kept hot and humid for the butterflies, you may even feel like you are staying at in a tropical area. I missed Japan when volunteering here, as it is similar to Japans early summer season. Some of the butterflies come from South East and East Asia, including Japan. I would be pleased to show you them if you stopped by.
When I decided to volunteer for the Horniman, it was not only to improve my English, but I also wanted to get involved in a local community. Engaging in voluntary work is best practice for me and I extremely appreciate working here. Since I started working here, my life in England has grown to be more satisfying than before. At first I was really nervous but now I really enjoy volunteering, because I can work with friendly and lovely co-workers. Whenever I am struggling they always help me. Having lunch with them is the happiest time for me, and one of my favourite times of the day.
As a volunteer, I will really be pleased if I am able to speak English better and speak perfectly when you are visiting, and this motivation always stimulates me to study not only language but also the fascinating objects. Volunteering is becoming an essential part of my life, and assists in expanding my world in this country. I am gradually building my confidence and enhancing my skills throughout the voluntary work, thanks to my inspirational co-workers and all of the great visitors.
Thank you for reading my blog, and we hope you come and experience our touch tables and fascinating objects. If you are interested in volunteering at the Horniman find out more on the website. We look forward to your visit! Thank you, Mami
We’re taking a look at stories of some of the sun gods that feature in our collections.
Surya and Hinduism
In Hinduism, Surya is known as the solar deity and is often represented in iconography as a person riding a chariot of seven horses. This represents seven colours of light and seven days of the week. Surya was one of five deities worshipped throughout India and is ranked highly in the Vedas - a large body of religious texts - which date back to 1500 BC.
Surya is recognised in the Gayatri Mantra: one of the most powerful mantras in Hindu religion. The chant is said to create a powerful energy upon the users mind and body.
There are many stories of Surya, as he also features in the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, but in Rig Veda text - an ancient collection of Indian Sanskrit hymns - Surya is believed to be created by Lord Bhrama with the sound in the universe, Om and the intelligence of Vishnu.
Have you heard of salutation to the sun (surya namaskar) or sun salutations? It’s a fundamental move in the practise of yoga.
The movements are said to be of Hanuman facing Surya as the chariot travelled across the sky, showing his gratitude for the lessons he learned, honouring Surya as the source of energy and light for the world.
Shield possibly of Surya, Horniman Museum and Gardens
Ra and the Egyptians
In Egyptian mythology, Ra was worshipped as the god of the Sun and all creation, and even the king of the gods. He came in many forms, including a ram, a hawk-headed man and a scarab. In the IV dynasty, pharaohs were seen as the ‘sons of Ra’ and by the V dynasty, he was worshipped state wide, and temples and pyramids were built in his honour.
Ra is said to be a creator of all life in varying accounts. Some texts say that Ra created people from his sweat and tears, and he is also said to have brought everything into existence by uttering secret names.
Ra’s role as a creation god is strengthened by his story of renewal. It is said that Ra sailed across the skies during the day on a boat called ‘Barque of Millions of Years’. He then emerged in the east on a boat named ‘Madjet’ or ‘becoming strong’, which was called ‘Semektet’, or ‘becoming weak’ by the end of the day. Ra died by being swallowed by Nut - the goddess of the sky - and sailed in the underworld leaving the moon to light up the Earth. So, Ra is reborn at the beginning of each day and swallowed by Nut.
Scarab charm, Horniman Museum and Gardens
Amaterasu and Japan
In Japanese Shinto mythology, Amaterasu, meaning shining in heaven, is the goddess of the sun. With her brother Susano’o, the god of storms, they painted the landscape to create ancient Japan.
There are tales of rivalry between the siblings, which vary to some degree. Amaterasu proposed a challenge to Susano’o, to create people from an object belonging to the other. Amaterasu created three women from his sword and Susano’o made five men from her necklace. As these men were made from her necklace, Amaterasu said they were all created from her and in anger, Susano’o destroyed her rice fields and one of her assistants.
Because of this Amaterasu went into hiding in a cave, hiding the sun for a long time, which caused devils to come out of the darkness.
The god of happiness, Ama-no-Uzume, danced outside the cave, tearing her clothes off in front of the spirits (Kami) to make them laugh. Upon hearing the gods laugh, Amaterasu looked out of the cave to see a reflection of her light in a mirror that Ama-no-Uzume had put on a tree. Once out of the cave the door was closed behind Amaterasu, so she could not go back in, bathing light across Japan once more.
Amaterasu then remained with the gods whilst Susano’o was banished from heaven as punishment.
Item: nn1202, Embroidered panel, Horniman Museum and Gardens
Photography Student, Fern Denyer shares her experience volunteering at the Study Collection Centre and assisting with the recording of the Brain Collection Archives.
Recently I completed a three-month placement at the Horniman’s Study Collection Centre (SCC), where I assisted with acquisitions and archives from the Brain Collection. Acquisitions are objects acquired by the Museum from donations. I helped with objects and archives from 1953 that were collected in Sudan and Nigeria.
Small wooden female hand-held figure with bow, 2019.57, Horniman Museum and Gardens
Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Deputy Keeper of Anthropology, and Carly Randall, Archivist, organised my 12-week student placement which included accessioning, a way of recording new additions to collections and scanning an archive of 35mm photographic slides. I also assisted Sarah Duncan, the Horniman’s Photographer, with photographing and retouching the objects. Later in the programme I gained a unique insight into how Museum acquisitions are managed and the procedures involved at an Acquisitions and Disposals Committee Meeting.
The Brain Collection archive is made up of hundreds of photographic slides, each of which needed to be scanned and uploaded onto the Collections Database: a system called MIMSY.
I described and recorded each scan carefully, giving each one its own unique collection number. With guidance from Johanna, I also gave each slide a rough estimation of what had been shot and its location.
As well as archive material, there were lots of objects in the collection that needed to be labelled. Working with Rosamund West, Documentation Officer, I learned how to handle objects appropriately and record their measurements.
Rosamund also showed me how to label the objects using both ink and other materials. I used ink and varnish to mark the objects with collection numbers (it required a very steady hand!).
As a photography student, it was insightful to see how the Photographer Sarah worked in the studio. Sarah was encouraging and allowed me to shoot some images in the collection.
Getting hands-on experience with museum photography really helped to improve my confidence. I really enjoyed working in the studio and seeing what decisions Sarah made to get the best possible photographs of the objects. She showed me the process of editing images post-production and a layering image technique which ensures the entire object is in focus.
During this volunteering opportunity, I saw different aspects of how a collection is prepared and how museum stores are organised. I also gained knowledge about how an archive is appropriately managed.
Overall I have really appreciated my student placement experience and learned so many skills. I saw the progression of the Brain Collection as a project and assisted at each stage. I now also feel much more confident photographing in a studio setting.
We caught up with internationally-exhibited sculptor and artist Claire Morgan about her body of artwork, As I Live and Breathe.
Hello Claire, Can you tell us about yourself as an artist? How did you become an artist?
It might be a cliché, but as early as I can remember, I always wanted to be an artist when I grew up.
At some point during school I was gently told that you can’t actually work as an artist, so I started looking at fashion design, but everything kept going back to sculpture. I studied sculpture at Northumbria Uni, and as soon as I graduated I started applying for absolutely any opportunity I could find, regardless of the fact that I had no CV.
Basically, I just kept working every waking second, and eventually I got one or two temporary commissions, and it started to grow from there. About 10 years ago I was approached by Karsten Greve, and around that time drawing started to become more significant for me.
Now my practice spans a lot of different media, and the explorations in one area feed into the other areas. Day-to-day, the hands-on side of my practice usually involves drawing, painting, planning sculptures on paper, and doing taxidermy.
As I Live and Breathe, 2019, Claire Morgan
What would you like visitors to think about when they see As I Live and Breathe?
I would like them to think, and I feel like sometimes a written explanation limits the potential for that.
It is too easy to explain an artwork away to nothing, and I like my work to retain an element of ambiguity, so I don’t think it is helpful to spell out exactly what I want someone to think.
Aside from that, my work isn’t the result of a linear process – it isn’t a case of me figuring out how to make people think a certain thing, it is more that I think about certain things and the work comes out as a result of that. It’s more a process of me asking myself questions and exploring the unexpected possibilities that arise from that process of questioning.
That said, I can certainly tell you what I am thinking about, which leads to my ideas.
I am terrified by the aggressively selfish attitude we as a society have towards everything around us. We just keep consuming and consuming, and even now do little more than pay lip service to actually dealing with the mess we have made of the planet and the disastrous direction we are moving in.
I’m not for a minute suggesting that I am not complicit in this. I suppose that is part of what scares me. It is so easy to lead a double life – to be genuinely concerned about our impact, but to knowingly placate yourself by doing good yet relatively ineffectual things like refusing plastic straws, while still taking transatlantic flights and eating meat and dairy.
We hurt ourselves, mentally and physically, and we hurt what sustains us. And yet, amid all of this, there is the overwhelming beauty and frailty of life.
What is your favourite medium to work with and why?
At the moment I have been working with pastels and pigments, and the bodies of dead animals. So a bit of a broad range there!
I like having the freedom to move between different materials and techniques. The thing I enjoy most is learning. That often means I put myself in the position of doing things I find very difficult, and therefore the process can be infuriating and slow.
What is the creative process of making your sculptures and artwork?
Whether the end result is a drawing or painting or sculpture or all of those things, all my ideas tend to start in the same way.
I need to move away from my everyday working environment. That can mean going outside and walking, travelling, visiting museums, cinema, gigs and reading books. Anything that can transport me either physically or mentally.
Generally, the most productive thing is to go elsewhere. Then ideas begin to appear in the form of words or shapes. I then start to sketch these things very roughly and discover connections between them.
What drew you to using taxidermy?
When I was younger I was not interested in taxidermy at all, and perhaps I even disliked it a bit because I had jumped to conclusions and never really thought about it properly.
But I’ve always used organic matter in my work. Animals are just a part of that.
Early on I was just using bits of animals, feathers and unpreserved dead things, but as my work developed I moved away from simply exploring decay, and became preoccupied with the specific roles of the lifeforms in my work.
I wanted to be able to manipulate the specific positions of animals, and to control them visually, and to halt their decay. I found that in order to do that I needed taxidermy, and as I started to learn the various processes, my understanding of it changed entirely, and the process of touching and exploring the dead beings has become a central part of my practice.
Sliding Out Cold, 2019, By the Skin of the Teeth, 2019, Claire Morgan
What motivates and influences you as an artist? What other artists are you drawn to?
I don’t think I’m motivated primarily by other artists, perhaps more by their approach, their way of thinking, and their single-mindedness and determination.
Back when I was studying, like 20 years ago, I was really influenced by people like Anya Gallaccio, Rebecca Horn and Kiki Smith. Now I’m perhaps more influenced by people working in other artforms.
The writing of David Foster Wallace has directly inspired new ideas many times.
Music is a vital part of my process when I’m working on the more expressionistic parts of drawings and paintings, and when thinking of new ideas. At the moment I use Aphex Twin, Bjork, Jon Hopkins, Fuck Buttons, Nathan Fake, Nick Cave, and various other electronic/techno stuff. It’s not just reading and listening to tunes – I cannot make work without this.
Your artwork has been a residence in some beautiful places, such as the Musse Jean Lucrat. Where has been your favourite place to display so far? Or where is your dream location to display your work?
Working at Chateau d’Oiron was pretty amazing. The location, the historical details of the chateau, and the permanent collection of contemporary art there are all very inspiring. I was offered the attic of the chateau, and there was evidence of many animals living in that room currently – or at least using it – not just insects, pigeons and rodents, but barn owls, bats, and pine martens. There was an important renaissance fresco in the room directly below, and I developed my work in response to all these things.
Dream locations… Well an obvious one in the UK is the Turbine Hall. I’d be excited by any opportunity to work on a very large scale temporary commission in a culturally or historically significant location. That seems to be the kind of situation where I work best.
Your artworks seem to play with concepts of time and fantasy, what other narratives do you feel your artwork has?
Fantasy isn’t something I really think about in relation to my work. Everything I make stems from observations and concerns about what I see around me, consciousness and our perception of reality, and the physical world.
I’m interested in the passing of time, and our complete lack of control in the face of the change that brings. That affects every other aspect of our lives, and I think it does have a considerable role in the way we try to distance ourselves from other animals and from nature, because at the end of the day nature embodies change and mortality, and that is what scares us most.
What do you have coming up?
I’m currently working towards a solo exhibition at Galerie Karsten Greve Paris in 2020.
Some projects just culminated – my exhibition at the Horniman, and a new body of work for the Fondation Daniel & Florence Guerlain Drawing Prize.
Generally I am quite drained and need to start from scratch when I’ve finished a project, so now I’m really trying to focus on my studio practice, researching and experimenting a bit, and starting to develop new ideas for the solo show.
At the moment I also have work in some group exhibitions in Germany and France.
Two suspended installations and two paintings can be seen at Biennale Ephémères, Château de Monbazillac, France, until 30 September, and other works can also be seen at Bêtes de scène, Villa Datris, France until 3 Nov 2019, and ARTENREICH – Insekten in der Kunst, Museum Sinclair-Haus, Germany, until 13 October.
All my current and forthcoming projects (and my studio and cats!) can be followed @clairemorganstudio on Instagram and Facebook, and on the news page of my website.