Behind-the-scenes work that brings us a summer of wonder at the Norwich Castle Museum
10:00 03 August 2014
You may have a vision of a museum curator as a dusty old academic wielding a duster round a glass case, before slumping back in a cobwebby chair for a little snooze.
It’s an image that makes Dr Francesca Vanke smile wryly – and roll her eyes in frustration.
“We get people saying ‘It’s just sticking a few pictures on the wall, isn’t it?’ – but nothing could be further from the truth.”
And if you need a good illustration of what the job’s really like then just consider the hard work that’s gone into bringing you The Wonder of Birds this summer, the second blockbuster exhibition in what has been an amazing 2014 for Norwich Castle Museum.
Francesca is co-curator, with her colleague Dr David Waterhouse, of an exhibition which has won praise nationally as well as locally, and as for the public... well, as befits a bird-themed subject, they’ve been flocking to the castle since ‘Wonder’ opened in May.
And it all started four years ago, with a ‘lightbulb’ moment. As David, Curator of Natural History and Acting Curator of Geology, recalled: “The project was first suggested nearly four years ago. Dr Andrew Moore, who was then Keeper of Art, came to me and said ‘What about an exhibition on birds?’ ”
Andrew asked him for a list of Norfolk birds. “We were trying to tease out what was most important about them. One of our early ideas was the theme of migrants – that robin in your garden might have come from Eastern Europe, and the cuckoo is essentially an African bird that spends a month or so here. We think of both of them as British birds, but they’re not.
“Then we looked at the mythology of the Native North Americans with birds like eagles, but we decided against going down that line because we couldn’t really get hold of the exhibits we would have needed.
“We ticked along like that, sending each other lists.”
Francesca, who later took over as Keeper of Art and Curator of Decorative Art, takes up the story. “It was discussed at the Exhibitions Programming Committee who said it was a good idea - and that was as far it had reached when Andrew left.”
The committee is the group of senior figures within the museum service who give the green light (or not, as the case may be) to ideas for exhibitions at the Castle – both touring and ‘home-grown’ – discussing their affordability and likely appeal, and working out a timetable which balances different styles of shows. Usually the committee looks at three years ahead or so.
They loved the idea. As so, fortunately, did Francesca.
But first things first: David needed to find out more about art, and Francesca had to learn about the world of birds. Actually, it was much easier than you might have expected as there was already common ground. For as well as his scientific credentials, David is also a freelance illustrator, specialising in ornithological subjects, while Francesca, as well as being a decorative arts expert also had her own conservation link. “I worked at Friends of the Earth when I was working out what to do with my life, and ended up as one of the founders of the Women’s Environmental Network,” she said.
David agrees. “We already had that crossover. We started lending each other books. Francesca had rather a crash course in ornithology, but maybe I didn’t catch up quite as much about art! But it was a real learning curve for both of us.”
It’s this interplay of nature and creativity, science and art which has produced a string of memorable exhibitions over the years at the Castle. In fact, Norfolk Museums Service is probably unique in the country for this innovative approach, which has led to such shows as Flower Power, The Art of Faith, and Art at the Rockface (on which Francesca worked).
The idea is this: if you have an separate exhibition on birds from a scientific perspective, or one from an artistic viewpoint, then they would both be interesting. But put them together, mix them up, let one interplay with the other, and you end up with something extraordinary and much more than the sum of its parts. It’s a case where one plus one really does equal three.
As Francesca says: “The easiest thing would have been to just do something about The Art of Birds – but what would have been new and different about that? The ‘mix and match’ approach is much harder work but much more fun. And it gives us the chance to stretch our creativity too.”
David was equally enthusiastic. “I was really excited by it.”
And inevitably a little overawed: “The only previous exhibitions I’d worked on had been small-scale ones within the department – ones using a couple of cases only, that sort of thing.
“The Natural History Galleries are very large but it’s a different beast to something like this, as usually you are just dealing with your own collections.”
So now it was time for David and Francesca to take a very deep breath and start planning...
“You do start with a completely blank canvas, with just a few broad themes and ideas in your head,” Francesca explained. “With a jigsaw puzzle you have a few pieces and a picture of the final result on the cover, but with an exhibition you don’t know what pieces you’ve got... or what the picture on the box looks like!”
Ideas came and went. David said: “Initially we divided the six sections into family groups of birds but it quickly became apparent that it wouldn’t work - it was too constricting.”
So the ideas started to evolve – a ‘very slow and difficult’ process. Eventually David and Francesca agreed on six themed sections: Introducing Birds, Predators and Prey, Birds and Landscape, Migrants and Ocean Travellers, Introducing the Exotic, and The Realms of the Spirit. These were flexible enough to bring together underlying families of birds but also art with fascinating connections.
“For example,” David explained. “In ‘Realms of the Spirit’ the art is about the esoteric – like the Colombian gold pectoral from the British Museum – and the birds are the ‘passerines’... songbirds and the like.”
There are some factors that you have to take into account when planning: the size of the galleries, the time, the budget, and the big ‘unknown’... “what you can get hold of!” as Francesca puts it.
And here is where another ‘art’ comes in – the art of persuasion. Bringing in the big loan items is essential for a show like this – and number one on Francesca’s list was Holbein’s A Lady With a Squirrel and a Starling, thought to show Lady Anne Lovell from East Harling. “It was the first thing we asked for – a ‘must have’.”
This beautiful portrait is kept in the National Gallery, one of many national museums the co-curators visited. For you can email or telephone all you like but it’s the personal touch that matters: that’s when the keepers of great national treasures such as the Holbein get to know our curators and trust their professionalism – and all the networking works dividends and means you, the great Norfolk public, get to see these amazing works. “If at all possible you have to go and see for yourself – you just have to traipse about,” David said.
The Tate was another venue ‘on the list’ said Francesca. “I asked for nine works, and I ended up with eight of them. The only one we didn’t get was the Brancusi sculpture Maiastra [a spectacular golden bird] – but we ended up with a Picasso, a Turner and an Ernst so we didn’t do too badly! Tate, along with other nationals, have always been supportive of Norwich Castle’s exhibitions.”
David continued: “We would work independently, and compare notes. I went more down the line of illustrations. We went down to the Natural History Museum and spent a fascinating couple of days there. Not many people realise it has such a rich archive of art.”
That produced such gems as a work by Charles Tunnicliffe – a name familiar to Ladybird Book buyers of a certain age. Another NHM ‘find’ was a 1670s watercolour of a dodo – would the Castle like to borrow it? they asked. You bet: “It had never been exhibited before”.
There were also negotiations to be made with other regional museums, and private individuals locally and elsewhere, and involving the Friends of Norwich Museums. “As Norfolk has a big ornithological community I was keen to keep that scientific thread,” David said.
As the exhibition gradually took shape, inevitably some ideas fell by the wayside. One was to have projections of birds flying round, and even a skein of ‘flapping’ model geese. “But then we saw how we could use the taxidermy to make use of this sense of height in the galleries and realised that that was all we needed,” he continued.
One of the clever things visitors soon spot about ‘Wonder’ is how all the art and nature exhibit complement each other. That doesn’t happen by chance, as Francesca makes clear. “Everything depends on everything else. Juxtaposition is everything. It’s working out what works best alongside something else, thematically, visually and practically, and thinking all the time: What stories is this object telling? What is it contributing to the show as a whole? How does one object interact with another? Every curator has to be a designer at some level.”
While Francesca took charge of the display side, David looked after the handsome book which accompanies the exhibition, a major project in itself. “One frantic month, I was working up to 16 hours a day on it,” he said. “There were a lot of late nights for both of us, but I knew we’d get there in the end.”
The final layout of the exhibition was carefully worked out to precise dimensions by the in-house design team using computers and 3D techniques. But for all the preparation, it was still a cross-the-fingers moment when everything finally came together.
There’s one more factor that is making The Wonder of Birds something unique – the fact that it’s in Norfolk, arguably the most beloved birdwatching location in Britain. “It’s only really here that you could have done this exhibition. It works on a Norfolk level but also on a national one,” said David.
The result of all those years of planning, those hundreds and hundreds of miles of travelling, and those hours and hours of emails, phone calls and gentle persuasion is something really special, the envy of other cities and counties around the country, including – and, yes, let’s say it – London.
And it’s right on your doorstep, right now. Go see.