Monthly Archives: April 2011

Trapezius: Lisa’s Final Blog

Lisa Gunn with Columna vertebralis

Hello everybody and welcome to my final blog for Trapezius! I will use this opportunity to explain a bit more about the works and the process of installation.

Columna vertebralis is a site-specific 11 ft. scale sculpture of my damaged spinal column. I used MRIs and x-rays of my full spine, and particularly its area of damage as visual reference, to create an anatomical representation of how it has changed. It is not only intended to be a physical study of the nature of the damage to my spine in an attempt to help us understand alternate physicality, but is also a realisation of the human body’s amazing ability to adapt, evolve and heal in the most extreme of circumstances.

The spinal sculpture is held up and supported by extremely large, hand-made ‘dowelling’. The dowels hold the vertebrae together, but allow the spine to be flexible when it is not attached to the wall, in an attempt to mirror the natural movement of the human spinal column.

To make Columna vertebralis, I carved each of the vertebrae as a single piece, and then watched in amazement as I saw the final sculpture ‘grow’ in the gallery before my eyes! Seeing it fully built and in situ for the first time was fascinating for me. I hope all that go to see it will get a sense of the excitement I felt when I saw it for the first time.

Thoracic cascade

Building and installing thoracic cascade gave me an opportunity to enjoy the process of making during an exhibition installation! For me, watching it grow and evolve during the building process was incredible. It is a combination of film and sculpture depicting the power of nature through the explosive movement of the Rheinfall, and a sculpture consisting of a wooden framework, which references the structure of the human spine and rib cage.

The structure has layers of latex, giving the appearance and texture of ‘muscle’ or ‘skin’. This becomes animated with the slightest air movement, in an attempt to simulate the appearance of growth, independent movement and ‘healing’. In contrast, the film focuses on the overwhelming power of nature and its ability to age and erode. Over time, the water will destroy anything in its path. The work is intended to be a study of the cycle of life and how nature and time is capable of change, either through the process of healing or age and erosion. My choice of latex within the sculpture is intended to reference the passage of time and aging. It was fresh at the start and will gradually age, darken and change in texture as it is exposed to light during the overall time of the exhibition.


The film footage within Trapezius consists of three separate works. Two of these depict alternate parts of the Rheinfall in Switzerland. The Rheinfall is the largest waterfall in Europe, located on the High Rhine near the town of Schaffhausen in Northern Switzerland. The films are placed within the gallery space to mirror one another on opposite sides of the gallery. This footage is not only a study of the natural power of the water but also an aesthetic appreciation of the beauty of this natural phenomenon. The works are part of a series which were filmed in the summer, when the average water flow is at its highest at around 700m³/s.

The third film in Trapezius is part of the work entitled Kyphosis, which is inspired by my experience of the natural history collection at the Herbert, and is made in reference to the relief fossils that I have included within the exhibition. It consists of a large-scale hand-made ‘fossil’ portraying a life-size relief of my damaged spinal column, and a film of an MRI of my full spine projected onto it, that slowly fades in and out.

I have found working with a combination of film, sculpture and atmospheric lighting to be extremely rewarding. For me the final editing and finishing of the films to enable the projectors, media players and sculptural forms to work together fluidly, has been a very delicate and important part of the final installation.

Calvaria feminae

Calvaria feminae is a combination of bronze sculpture and a large-scale light box, detailing an adapted image of a full x-ray from my own skull. This work is intended to allow people to appreciate the aesthetic of the x-ray, something which is so important to the medical profession for physical diagnoses and understanding of the human anatomy, but is generally not appreciated for it’s natural delicacy. A bronze cast of a female human skull has been placed in line with the large-scale light box to allow the viewer to appreciate and compare its structure. I would like all who visit the exhibition to touch the bronze skull if they so wish, and effectively become part of the work in progress. I am hoping that enough people will handle the skull to encourage the process of erosion, and the dark red patina on the surface will slowly wear away in places to reveal the lighter bronze underneath. Like with the latex in Thoracic cascade, I would like this reflect the passage of time and the aging process during the exhibition.

Seeing Calvaria femininae and the elephant skull working in harmony across the gallery space for the first time was really exciting! Combining objects from the natural history collection with a contemporary art exhibition was far more dramatic for me than I could ever have imagined.

I would like to say thank you very much to Michael Edgson and the team at the Herbert for all of their time and assistance in helping me to achieve my vision for the exhibition.

And of course I am really looking forward to the evening of 14th May 2011, when the film I have made for the Trapezius Projections night will appear across ruins of Coventry Cathedral!

I hope you enjoy Trapezius as much as I enjoyed the process of making it!

All the best,
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Secret Egypt – objects in detail

Now that Secret Egypt has been open for a few weeks I am taking the opportunity to look at some of its fascinating objects in more detail. If you would like to find out more about some of the objects come along to one of our Revealing Objects gallery talks.
The next one is by Chris on Wednesday 4th May 1-1.30pm.

Cartouche of Ramesses III © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Cartouche of Ramesses III © Birmingham Museums and Art Gallery

Wooden plaque with cartouche

Sometimes photographs can be misleading, so although this wooden object may look large here, if you are looking for it in the gallery it is only about 11cm high. You might already recognise the knotted rope around the hieroglyphs as a cartouche, but what does it all mean?

From about 2900 BC all Egyptian rulers had five names. The two easiest to recognise are written with a cartouche ring around them. Egyptologists call these names the praenomen and the nomen. In Egyptian writing the praenomen comes first and is the king’s coronation name. The nomen is written second and is the king’s birth name. This is the one we use today.

This cartouche contains Ramesses III’s birth name and it has two parts to it. The first five symbols are read Ramesses, which means Re [the sun god] bore him.

The last two symbols read Hekaiunu – ruler of Heliopolis. Heliopolis, the Greek version of the ancient Egyptian city Iunu, was located in the Nile Delta area. Heliopolis was the main centre for the worship for the sun god Re.

In his name Ramesses III is not only being linked to the sun god, but also to a very famous and well respected king – Ramesses the Great. You can find out more about Ramesses the Great, or Ramesses II, in Secret Egypt.

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Trapezius: Flora’s Blog Part 2

Today’s post is from Flora Parrott, one of the artists behind the Trapezius exhibition.

The installation day for Trapezius was an extremely nerve wracking experience but really interesting and wonderful to see the work coming together alongside Lisa’s. The work had been collected the Friday beforehand and transported up to the museum along with all my tools and plans.

Because of the nature of the pieces I make I have a huge amount of work to do during the install. The pieces can look completely different in a new environment and getting the balance of the elements right is really important.

I will have a set idea and series of diagrams and measurements but often end up adjusting these on site and using eye and judgement. 

Each piece can have several objects, materials and images that are designed to fit together in a configuration that creates a diagram of a particular sensation or alludes to a series of sensations. They are descriptive but often without being literal or specific.

I suppose installing work for me is like constructing a series of sentences, which then fit together to form a paragraph.

The wall based pieces have the most possible variations and so are the most complex to install. The sculptures are pretty straight forward but need to be placed in an order in the gallery that means they have enough space around them but also refer and echo to one another. The frames on the wall and the boxes are great, the Herbert staff put these up for me and it was incredible to see the museum objects coming up in the specially made cases. It has been an extraordinary experience and a huge privilege to use the collection in the work.

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Musings on the day we hand over the baton of Kids in Museums Guardian Family Friendly Museum of the Year to Mansfield . . .

Last month our Senior Learning Officer, Robin Johnson,  left for pastures new.  He had been here for many years, and his leaving ‘do’ featured several moving and poignant speeches by time served colleagues.   Despite working here for over 7 years, these accolades revealed new dimensions to the Herbert’s history and development and set me thinking.

Robin had joined as a former teacher, but without a specific responsibility to schools.   He joined at a similar time to several other key staff, particularly among our curators.   As Robin developed his interest in making the museum a vibrant resource for schools, his colleagues were clearly on-side, and he was given an encouraging free hand by his manager.   These values were already shared and ingrained in the organisation when new opportunities appeared, such as the “Renaissance” funding and the redevelopment.  

I’ve struck thinking the concept of leadership for our creative and curatorial work.  There feels to be very little influence from the high echelons of management on creative planning, programmes of family workshops, the summer early years exhibition and other events.  I think this is because these principles are shared so widely, so there is no need to enforce these values.  It also supports so many different agendas – drawing in big numbers, offering a unique and genuinely useful service to local people, filling gaps in the activities offered across the city, being welcoming to newcomers to Coventry and the UK . . .   It’s a ‘no brainer’.  

Talking to colleagues with experience of other museums, it seems that we’ve got it easy.   It is not uncommon for inclusion and family work to have to fight its corner against some notion of curatorial purity.   Here it has been built into every corner by the curators themselves.  There is a democratic sense doing family work that I can look to wisdom from almost everyone – from the curators suggesting facts about objects that might appeal to children, to our Front of House team feeding back how families respond to what we offer.

“Family Friendly” seems to be flavour of the month in museums (and long may it remain so).   At the Herbert, these values came from principles and never from fashion.  I’m glad to say museum staff aren’t famed for their fashion sense and we’ll stick with what’s right and sensible.

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Roof work and more

Weren’t we lucky with the weather – we’ve just had some work done on the exterior of the roof, which could only be done when dry. We can’t just close galleries wholesale, so I’d organised rotas to keep a check on the weather and what was under the area being worked on each day to assess what protection was required if any – and it coincided with the longest dry spell in a good while. Now I look a complete idiot for making a fuss! – and am left with three rolls of polythene. Better that way than the other – you can’t be sure even the forecast will stay the same let alone the weather.

We hosted a meeting of archives/paper conservators within the region on 22nd March. Heard some interesting talks from other disciplines too:  my colleague Martin talked about his work cleaning some top items from the Staffordshire Hoard (no, we didn’t get to see any in the flesh, but some very pretty piccies); conservation of globes; and a talk on aircraft conservation from the RAF Museum Cosford in Shropshire.

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The Census, Past and Present

I expect you will have returned your census form by now but if you haven’t it doesn’t take as long as you think to fill it in (and apparently it’s even quicker to submit online). I’m probably sad but I quite enjoyed filling in the form knowing that I was part of a process that started in 1801. There is talk that the 2011 census may be the last…we shall see.

In England and Wales a full census has been taken every ten years since 1841, apart from 1941 during World War II. The information collected is used to plan services such as housing and transport. However once 100 years has passed information about individual people is released such as their name, age, family relationships, occupation and where they were born. These details are an invaluable aid for historians, especially those tracing their family history.

The first full census of England and Wales took place in 1841. Right is a page from the 1841 census showing Robert and Mary Ann Evans (writer George Eliot) at their house in Bird Grove off the Foleshill Road.

With every decade more information was asked during the census so later years show many more details as seen from the following 1901 census page showing Pepper Lane and Bayley Lane, just around the corner from where the Herbert stands today (pictured below).

The census images were taken from the genealogical website Ancestry which contains a wealth of family history resources. The History Centre has a subscription to the library edition of the website which users can access free of charge using our family history PCs. We also have census information for Coventry, Warwickshire and other counties on microfiche. Unfortunately the History Centre is still closed for repairs but we hope to re-open soon. When we do re-open please ask any if you have any questions about using the census and we will be happy to help.


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Object of the month – April 2011

Hidden stories – Blitz handbag

Sometimes a museum object stands alone as an engaging painting or a beautiful dress, other times you need to know its story to bring it to life. So when I was offered this little blue handbag, with dried, cracked leather and signs of rust I wasn’t sure what to make of it – until I heard its story.

The donor told me about a night in Coventry during the 1940 Blitz: ‘the sirens went and I got into my siren suit, climbed over the next door neighbour’s fence and into the Anderson shelter. When the bombs dropped I remember the candle going out and my mother screaming ‘that’s our house’. When the raid was over we got out and all our windows had been blown in. But to my horror my friend’s house which was at the bottom of our garden was razed to the ground, this being in Ashington Grove [in Whitley]. I remember seeing one of the dolls in the rubble. My friends were Enid and Andrew Moffat and along with their mother they were all killed; their father lived. It was said that the children and their mother went under the stairs and their father stayed in bed. He gave me Enid’s handbag out of the rubble which I have cherished all these years.’

While the Herbert can not collect every item relating to Coventry during the Second World War, this handbag tells a tale that connects us to the donor’s survival and the loss of her friends. Stories of the Blitz and Coventry’s experience of peace and reconciliation are an important part of the city’s history.

To find out more about our peace collecting project see Natalie’s blog:

You can also add share your stories of Coventry on the Coventry Memories website.

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