Artist brings Northumberland’s animal stories to life in new countywide exhibition

Image caption: Artist, Bethan Maddocks

A new series of exhibitions using Northumberland’s animals to tell stories of community, climate change, migration, and identity opens at Museum Northumberland’s four venues from 09 April 2022.

‘A Northumberland Menagerie’ by visual artist Bethan Maddocks uses intricate paper-cut installations to tell unique and untold stories about animals, people and places from across the county.

At Woodhorn Museum, the colliery’s historic cage shop will be transformed into a giant beehive where audiences are invited to take part in the tradition of ‘telling the bees, which involves sharing important news with the hive. It was thought that telling the bees about significant life events, like births, deaths and marriages, would help ward off bad luck.

‘Bees, Bees, Hark to Your Bees!’ will include a giant beehive book, where visitors can write down their important news to tell the bees. Beautiful beeswax carvings will line the windows, and a soundscape by musician Bridie Jackson will fill the room with folksongs and tales from local beekeepers.

A second installation at Woodhorn Museum, opening in May 2022, will commemorate the colliery’s pit ponies. ‘Putting Out to Pastures’ will share stories of pit pony life and feature three sets of pony headgear surrounded by intricately papercut coal, candyfloss and pasture plants representing different aspects of the life of pit ponies and the members of our colliery communities.

Visual artist, Bethan Maddocks, said: “Many of the characteristics and traits we associate with coalfield communities; like working as one, togetherness, and camaraderie, can be seen in the animal kingdom. “I’ve used different animals found across the county to help tell the story of each exhibition. They symbolise broader themes including migration, the environment, gender, and class, which are all important issues today, and an important part of Northumberland’s history.”

In addition to the exhibitions at Woodhorn Museum, A Northumberland Menagerie also includes exhibitions at Hexham Old Gaol, Berwick Museum and Art Gallery, and Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum.

‘Of the Sea and Of the Sky’ at Berwick Museum and Art Gallery explores themes of trade and export, and how greed has led to the loss of species. A giant paper cut Twelfth Night Pie symbolises the original 12 stone pie baked by Howick Castle’s housekeeper, Mrs Dorothy Patterson, in 1770, that was filled with ‘four geese, four turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two neats’ tongues, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons.’ A flock of paper cut birds escape from the pie to seek their freedom.

A chandelier of spinning paper birds, and sea creatures including salmon, herring and pilot, cast shadows against the walls as they circle a single light, representing the many lighthouses dotted along the Northumberland coast. This installation celebrates the biodiversity of the Berwickshire coast and the impact mass consumption has on natural resources and the environment.

A series of red, white and blue flags representing Berwick’s military history, the Union Jack, and the colours of migrating swallows to the area, explore the juxtaposition between birds that have no national identity and can travel anywhere, with the conflict that can surround borders and the movement of people.

At Hexham Old Gaol, ‘Over Familiars’, which takes its name from ‘a witch’s familiar’ – a supernatural entity believed to accompany witches that often took the form of an animal – looks at stories of witchcraft, trials and incarceration in Northumberland, and the animals connected to them. Woodcarvings of animals in the dungeon cast menacing shadows onto the walls, and a collection of elevated spinning wooden plates – inspired by the story of the Witch of Seaton Sluice – explores gender and class inequality within the walls of the Hexham Old Gaol, where being rich could transform your experience of incarceration and result in a more comfortable stay at the Old Gaol.

At Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, the building’s location next to the river Wansbeck, and its former use as a school, is the inspiration for a giant school of papercut fish swimming through the building’s beams. ‘Thou shalt have a fishie, When the boat come in’ explores Northumberland’s fishing and folk traditions through local songs and lyrics held in the Northumbrian Minstrelsy, which is part of the collection at Museums Northumberland and on display at Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum. Lines from the folk songs create the waves of the water that propel the papercut fish through the beams.

Rowan Brown, Chief Executive of Museums Northumberland, said: “A Northumberland Menagerie is a beautiful exhibition that uses animals and the natural world to address important issues in our society and share stories from Northumberland’s past.”

A Northumberland Menagerie opens at Woodhorn Museum, Hexham Old Gaol, Berwick Museum and Art Gallery, and Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum on Saturday 09 April and runs until Sunday 30 October.

For more information about A Northumberland Menagerie, and individual museum opening times and entry prices, visit www.museumsnorthumberland.org.uk.

For more information about Bethan Maddocks, visit www.bethanmaddocks.com.

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