13 March 2014

I am Curious

I am rather ashamed to write that this is my first attempt at a blog entry. It is one of my goals, this year, to combat my computer illiteracy and my fear of the digital domain. There is only so long that I can hide my ignorance behind a sort of sanctimonious rejection of technology as if I were an angry Luddite. My friends and work colleagues simply do not believe me anymore.
I desired to write this blog, not just to tell everyone about the past few weeks, but also as penance to Caroline for not having my photograph taken with a rather morose looking Vic Reeves.
While the Beatrix Potter Gallery has quietened down somewhat after the tumult of the half term, Kath and I have been compiling a quiz for children. Last year’s quiz was a tremendous success and it was the idea of Visitor Experience Assistant Daisy to have four levels of questions appropriate to different age groups: Bronze, Silver, Gold and Platinum. These levels increased in difficulty, of course, from the mildly taxing to the fervently fiendish. The challenge was to keep the experience enjoyable and enlightening.
Our mission, in short, was to make the children really look at the paintings and to experience them fully; their luminosity, their detail and their immense delicacy. It is rather a magical experience to see these illustrations in the flesh, as it were. To be within such close proximity to them and witness the breath-taking skill of a master draftsman who created them over 100 years ago is rather special and such a privilege
So how does one achieve this with questions? How can one prompt children to look closely at each piece? How should these levels be laid out?
Beatrix Potter tailored her illustrations to fit the size of her little books. This was partly to visualize how the finished product would look and also for pragmatic reasons, for it was easier for the engraver to transcribe them into the published article.  (On many illustrations, one can see Beatrix’s pencil marks where she has measured the width and height of her little creations.) Just imagine, therefore, the sheer amount of detail that Beatrix has crammed into such small spaces.      
Kath and I decided that the bronze questions should dedicate themselves to details. These questions are for very young children, so the key here was simplicity. We composed questions such as: what colour is Jemima’s bonnet? How many squirrels are fishing in “The Tale of Squirrel Nutkin?” What is Johnny Town-Mouse carrying? What can be spotted behind Jeremy Fisher as he is walking through his house?
This year’s exhibition has such an eclectic mix of bits and pieces that it became important for us that the quiz did not focus solely on illustrations from the stories. We wanted children to think about the whole nature of holidays and compare Victorian excursions to modern day holidays. How are they different? How are they similar? Would you include two bird skeletons in your luggage? Would you dedicate huge amounts of time to studying the movement of fungal spores? Perhaps not. But perhaps you would collect shells and fossils and perhaps you would take your pets on holiday with you. Although, admittedly, not as many as Beatrix did.     
This year of course, we are frightfully lucky to have the cabinet of curiosities on display. This is doubly exciting as it has never been on public display before. We thought it integral to include teasers on this marvellous piece of natural history and Kath came up with several questions the answers to which can only be found by searching on the touch-screens.
The search for Platinum questions led us on quite a journey. Kath and I scoured the paintings and photos and information boards for the minutest detail, the most cryptic clue, any frustratingly unfathomable enigma. I decided that the subject of Victorian and Edwardian fashions was becoming increasingly distant from the minds of today’s youth, so I included four questions about hats. We also included questions about Beatrix’s unpublished stories and finally, a fiendish riddle that incorporated the myth of Medusa and a deadly reflection. After noting the puzzled faces from our colleagues, we knew it was ready to be unleashed on the unsuspecting public.
The prize? Honour, dignity, and a rather fetching badge with Pigling Bland on it.
On a slightly different note, I’ve noticed that Pete the gardener always finishes his Blog posts with a musical link. As many will know; I’m rather an admirer of horror films and when speaking to visitors I regularly have to stop myself from accidently calling “the cabinet of curiosities,” “the cabinet of Dr Caligari.” And so, I leave you with this, and remember: "Du Musst Caligari Werden!"