Glorious

Today is International Museum Day. I love a museum, so I’m going to recommend two. The one in my home town of Whitby, North Yorkshire is a complete gem. It’s packed with all sorts of fascinating stuff. It began life in 1823 as the collection of fossils from the nearby alum works and from there it has really grown in all sorts of surprising directions. There is a shoe made from a metal teapot (no idea why), a folding screen decorated entirely with stamps from around the world and an inexplicably large collection of things inside light bulbs.

Probably its most popular exhibit is the ‘Hand Of Glory’. It is the severed and pickled hand of a hanged criminal. Such objects were charms used by burglars which would render a whole household insensible whilst they carried out their work. There are stories about hands like this one found all over Europe which date back centuries. The Greek historian Herodotus even mentions a thief who used the hand of a corpse to avoid capture and he was writing in the fifth century BC.

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A Hand of Glory seems to have been used in one of two ways. The fingers could be lit like candles. In this case, if one of the fingers refused to light, it would indicate to the intruder that someone in the house was still awake. The second method is even more gruesome. The hand would be used as a holder for a candle which had to be made from fat taken from the same corpse. Some descriptions told me that his hair must be used to make the wick. Sometimes the light is only visible to the holder. Sometimes it has the power to unlock doors. This is an old, old story and it has had plenty of time to develop a lot of variations.

One of my favourite exhibits is Dr. George Merryweather’s ‘Tempest Prognosticator’. Dr. Merryweather had read a poem by Edward Jenner (the man who pioneered the smallpox vaccine) called ‘Signs of Rain’, it went like this:

“The leech disturbed is newly risen; Quite to the summit of his prison.”

At this time people were travelling the world in relatively small and vulnerable wooden sailing ships. Weather forecasting was in it’s infancy, so a leech that could predict a storm by climbing to the top of its jar could be very useful. George Merryweather fashioned this marvellously baroque object which consisted of twelve jars arranged in a circle, each containing a single leech. Each jar contained a piece of whalebone which was attached by a wire and a fine chain to a small hammer. If the leech climbed to the top of its jar, it would trigger the hammer which would then strike a central bell. The more times the bell was struck the greater the chance of a storm. I once thought that the jars were in a circle to indicate which direction the storm was coming from, but I have since found out this was not the case. The jars, Merryweather explained, were arranged in a circle so that the leeches would be able to see each other and not feel lonely. He proposed six different models of his invention to suit different clients. What we have in our museum is a copy of the most lavish ‘drawing room’ version which was made in the 1950s. The original was made for the Great Exhibition in 1851, but it was lost. Dr. Merryweather first called his invention “An Atmospheric Electromagnetic Telegraph, conducted by Animal Instinct.” but Tempest Prognosticator is a much snappier title.

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So if you’re ever in Whitby, I can thoroughly recommend a visit to the museum in Pannett Park. The museum I’ve visited most recently though, is Bowes Museum in County Durham which is also lovely. I went specially to see this eighteenth century mechanical silver swan.

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It is a magnificent building. A beautiful French Palace that was purpose built as a museum. There is loads of fascinating stuff, and it is all really beautifully lit. If you get a chance to visit, don’t miss the taxidermy calf with two heads, two tails and seven legs. In a stroke of what is probably genius, they have placed it in the ‘toy’ section.

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