Discover the diversity of their collections, from art and design treasures to ground breaking scientific inventions, archaeological finds and iconic Scottish objects, wonders of the natural world and artifacts from around the world.
Have you ever been to a museum, looked around the displays then wondered what else might be hidden behind that door marked ‘staff only’?
I have, many times, as I explored museums on family holidays growing up. Having been through that door in various roles since, I feel not only privileged to have a career in the museum sector but also excited about my new job!
By training, I am a geologist (I study rocks) specialising in palaeontology (I study fossils). Over the years this subject interest has led me to voluntary work collecting fossils ‘in the field’ (in Germany, America and Morocco) and organising in storerooms finds that had been brought back by collectors over several hundred years (in the UK and America). I have been employed to catalogue the backlog that continuously outpaces staff hours and moved collections between buildings, either out of necessity or as views on what is considered suitable storage have changed. Through these, I am aware how much work goes into organising and maintaining museum collections.
Sue’s twin interests are rocks and fossils!
In March 2019 I began a two-year contract as the John Ellerman Project Curator at National Museums Scotland to find out about natural science collections in museums across Scotland. As with any journey I was given a map, an outline of Scotland with the location of more than 90 museums holding such material, spread relatively densely around Edinburgh and Glasgow with a few in the middle and a surprisingly good scattering around the coast and islands beyond. Too many in fact to investigate in one project, however long its duration. The project focuses primarily on fossils with a secondary interest in rocks, minerals, gemstones, mammals, birds and eggs, insects, reptiles, plants …. (the list goes on). This is a huge task, as I pointed out in my interview presentation, but one I very much wanted to undertake.
The foundations had already been laid in the form of two surveys, sent to museums in 2017/18 by the National and International Partnerships team at National Museums Scotland. Around 35 responses were received (a good number), providing important information on where the subject material could be found and contacts for the next stage – the actual visits. By the end of April, I will have begun the much-anticipated exploration of collections across Scotland, with numerous opportunities to go through yet more of those doors for a rare view of what is beyond. I expect to find many interesting specimens to write about, the ultimate discovery being long-lost type specimens which were used for the primary description of species.
Behind the scenes of the natural science collection at the Dick Institute in Kilmarnock.
But my work won’t end there; the documentation of specimens will be accompanied by details of how they are stored and any current use, whether in displays, education, family activities or scientific research. While I don’t expect to visit every museum in Scotland or see every fossil and natural science object in person, I do want to provide an accurate picture of natural science collections in Scottish museums, a picture that will allow me to make specific and relevant recommendations for collection development and improvements across Scotland far into the future. It is also hoped this work will lead to future partnerships and collaborations across the sector. No pressure then …
Scotland boasts hundreds of castles and old houses that were standing 500 years ago. However, surprisingly little of the furniture to be seen in these buildings, enlarged and modified as they are, is anything like as old. In fact, although documentary evidence can tell us a great deal about wealthy homes in the 16th and 17th centuries, our understanding of exactly what Scottish furniture looked like during this period is rather patchy.
Over the past year, I have been looking closely at what survives of 16th and 17th century Scottish furniture thanks to a research grant from the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Travelling across Scotland to examine, measure and photograph these objects has enabled me to consider the National Museums Scotland collection in the light of other museum collections, large and small, and alongside isolated survivals in private hands.
Chair, dated 1630, collected near Stirling, University of Aberdeen (ABDUA 18009), Photo: Nick Haynes.
Across the nations and regions of early modern Europe, there were both similarities and differences in the construction and decoration of domestic furniture. Consider, for example, two early 17th century Scottish chairs. One dated 1630, today in the collections of Aberdeen University, is of a type often regarded as quintessentially Scottish. Known by its French name, caquetoire, this type is defined by a trapezoidal seat, curved arms and narrow back. The name, meaning roughly ‘gossiping chair’, was not actually used for this type of chair during the 16th or 17th centuries but caught on among 19th century collectors. The Scottish form was probably influenced by contact with France, although it was also found in England and the Netherlands.
Chair, early 17th century, Glasgow Cathedral Joint Session. Photo: Nick Haynes.
More conventional box frame structures were also prevalent in Scotland, such as an early 17th century example now at Glasgow Cathedral inlaid with the initials AP and associated with the Glasgow merchant Alexander Porterfield. A survey of where these two chair forms are found would suggest that the caquetoire was common throughout eastern Scotland but that a square form of chair was more common in western Scotland. Such a conclusion is strengthened when backed up by examples with evidence for their geographical location at the time of manufacture.
To an experienced eye, physical clues help date an object or place it geographically, and furniture contains many such clues in construction, style, timber and condition. But an object with a documented history can be placed with greater certainty. This is the basis for the study of 18th century furniture: not only does it survive in much larger quantities, some items have never the left the houses for which they were made and the original written bills also survive. This is never the case, however, for the period before 1650 where the only evidence of this kind is generally a carved date or some heraldry.
Bed, around 1600, Biggar Museum Trust. Photo: Nick Haynes.
An example of this is the bed frame now at Biggar Museum bearing a coat of arms that points to the marriage in 1598 of Patrick Levingstoun of Saltcoats, near Gullane, to Margaret Fawside of Fa’side, near Tranent. The bed was restored, with a fair quantity of additional timber and embroidered hangings, in around 1900 by Sir Thomas Gibson-Carmichael, who found it at Skirling House, near Biggar. Patrick Levingstoun’s grand-daughter married William Carmichael of Skirling and only the heraldry locates the bed’s origin in East Lothian rather than Lanarkshire.
The classical fluted columns of the Levingstoun bed contrast starkly with an enclosed bed front dated 1641 in the collection of National Museums Scotland. When acquired in 1885, it was described as having been salvaged from the House of Cairnbulg, near Fraserburgh. Nothing in the decoration can confirm this, although it is known that in 1782 the house was stripped of its timbers, ironwork, glass and slates and these materials advertised for sale. Enclosed ‘box’ beds were not unusual at this time and provided sleeping accommodation for middle-ranking members of the household such as the lord’s adolescent children and the higher servants. Visiting Scotland in 1598, the Englishman Fynes Moryson wrote of ‘bedsteads… like cubbards in the wall, with doores to be opened and shut at pleasure’.
Bed front, dated 1641, National Museums Scotland (A.1888.185).
The vividly carved monsters on this example are unsophisticated in execution but represent a level of expenditure and display that in 1641 was still limited to gentlemen. Nor was the subject matter – two mer-people, a dragon, and a quadruped that could be anything from a beaver to a crocodile – entirely whimsical. The representation of unfamiliar creatures was quite common in painted ceilings, textile hangings and plasterwork. Such images were derived from printed bestiaries, an amalgamation of inherited classical learning and the latest discoveries in what was shortly to become the scientific study of the natural world.
I am now writing up the results of my research and a follow-up blog will appear in due course.
In February, Primary 4a from St David’s R.C. Primary School in Edinburgh had the pleasure of visiting the National Museum of Scotland to see the new ancient Egypt gallery.
We experienced first class treatment whilst we were at the museum, interacting with Enablers, dressing up in the kids areas and taking part in the exciting Egyptian treasure hunt!
As we had learned all about the ancient Egyptians in class last year, we were excited to explore and test our previous knowledge whilst interacting with various artefacts and exploring interactive games.
The minute we got back to school we shared all the amazing facts we’d learned with other classes. The team at the museum filmed our visit so we’re very lucky to have the video to remind us of our great time at the National Museum of Scotland. We can’t wait to come back with our families and show them all the artefacts we discovered as a class!
Watch the video of our visit below then read what some of the pupils had to say about their day at the museum.
A school visit to the National Museum of Scotland - YouTube
Here are a few words from the class:
“We loved it! We had lots and lots of fun! We were VIPs!” “Legendary” – Teenaidy
“I think we had lots of fun because we had loads to do and there wasn’t anything boring! There was lots to do but it wouldn’t have been the same without the helpers at the museum!” – Amber
“My favourite part about the museum was when we got to test if we were strong enough to lift our own weight on a chair! I loved the hot air balloons ” – Oscar
Science and Technology galleries at the National Museum of Scotland
“It was extraordinary because I seen tons and tons of fish and invertebrates. Also I’ve never been into two of the sections that were added in. They were incredibly interesting. I was very curious! I loved it.” – Jeremiasz
“We learned things that we never knew and I was in the museum so many times but it was better than any other time!” – Julia Kru
“We were exploring the area where there are lots of fossils. There was lots and lots of different animals to see. There was even a scale that tells you how heavy you are as an animal” – Wiktor
Natural World galleries at the National Museum of Scotland
“I liked it because we got to see new places in the museum and we got to see ancient stuff. Also we got to be VIPs and eat fruit!” – Fatima
“It was really cool because we got to go to different floors and explore different items from the past. It was really cool because I really liked the Egyptian part and where you had to pedal. It was so cool” – Daniel
Ancient Edgypt Rediscovered gallery at the National Museum of Scotland
“I really liked the basement part where it was like a maze. In the maze you could see lots of different things. There was something like a gold circle and it had a stick and it was a golden stick that had some blue things in the middle. It was like we were in the past! We saw a Viking skeleton he had a really big grave and he had some tiny bones!” – Marcel
“I think it was super fun going to the museum testing out new things and finding most things that we didn’t know about. Also the nice people who work at the museum told us things we didn’t know. I think my favourite part was that the whole class had so much fun including me!” – Lena
“I really like it because there was an electricity volt ball (plasma ball) where you put your hand and it shone electricity at your hand” – Milosz
National Museums Scotland is excited to have recently welcomed a “Solar What?!” into its energy collection as an example of Scottish technological innovation that has the potential to have genuine positive impact on the lives of people in developing countries as well as helping to tackle plastic pollution and electronic waste.
But what on earth is a Solar What?! and what is so significant about it?
Put simply, the Solar What?! is a solar-powered torch. It has been developed by the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science in partnership with Edinburgh-based design agency Cramasie, in response to the fact that existing solar lamps break down easily, rendering them useless to those who rely on them and contributing to the global problem of plastic pollution.
More than one and a half billion people internationally do not have access to an electrical grid and the easy power that brings in the form of heat and light that many of us are so accustomed to. The solar-powered lamp was seen as life-changing, as it allowed people to work, study and socialise even when the sun wasn’t shining. It also allowed people to switch from using kerosene lamps, which are dangerous and can have a negative impact on health.
Many of the solar lamps in circulation are not, however, designed to be repaired. The switches break quickly, the batteries reach the end of their charging cycle and, if a user attempts to open a unit to fix it or replace components, the plastic casing breaks easily as it was never intended to be treated this way. Like most of the electronic goods we use in our day to day lives, when a solar lamp breaks down, it is intended to be replaced. In short, despite being designed for use by some of the world’s poorest people with incredibly limited access to resources, it has built-in obsolescence, rendering it useless to the user who invested in and relies on it, and dangerous to the environment.
According to Dr Jamie Cross of the University of Edinburgh, current estimates suggest that electronic waste from the off-grid solar industry is equivalent to the electronic waste from the mobile phone industry, a fact that will shock many people who generally accept that the solar industry is clean and well-intentioned.
Testing the Solar What?! in Zambia.
Dr Cross and colleagues from the University of Edinburgh’s School of Social and Political Science have undertaken extensive field research in South Asia and Sub Saharan Africa, looking at cultures and economies of repair. They have also analysed many of the existing solar-powered products on the market, rating them according to their repairability and recyclability. This has all helped to inform the design of the Solar What?! As a result, a product has been created that comes at a minimal cost to the user, particularly in terms of on-going replacement and maintenance, and minimal cost to the environment.
The Solar What?!’s solar panel, adapter unit and lamp are held together with screws that can easily be removed to give access to the components as required. The batteries are standard mobile phone batteries that are readily available internationally and can easily be replaced by a non-expert user. All of the components can be unsoldered and replaced and it is intended that repair information will be made widely available to users. The adapter unit means that it is possible to charge the lamp using a variety of solar panels so a user can make use of what is available to them rather than being tied to the panel that came from the supplier.
Taking the Solar What? apart to repair.
25 prototype devices have been made so far, and efforts have been made to use ethical suppliers for the components. When the device goes into large-scale production, it is hoped that sustainable materials will be used as far as possible throughout, and each part will be clearly labelled with reused and recycling information.
Working with school children in Zambia.
The University of Edinburgh is currently working with charity, SolarAid, to pilot the Solar What?! with families and school children in Zambia. It is also inviting orders for the lamp from the UN and charities and is looking for expressions of interest from international solar manufacturers looking to licence the design for regional markets.
School children in Zambia investigating the Solar What?! device.
Discovering Ancient Egypt a National Museums Scotland touring exhibition is currently on display in Hawick Museum in the Scottish Borders. It brings together objects and stories from National Museums Scotland along with those from Hawick’s own collections to give a unique insight into Scots’ fascination with ancient Egypt, and the nation’s contribution to Egyptology over the past 160 years.
The exhibition also highlights the changes in Egyptian archaeology over this time. Though some early collecting was reckless, increasing care was paid by excavators, recording their finds more scientifically and working in collaboration with Egyptian colleagues.
Alongside the stories of an archaeologist, an astronomer and an artist who all contributed to the national collection, there is a selection from the Scottish Borders’ only collection of ancient Egyptian objects! This is the story of how they came to be in Hawick.
Hawick Archaeological Society was founded in 1856 by six local men. The Society quickly began collecting objects from across the world to display in its new museum. Over the next fifty years, the members of the Society collected and donated objects to this museum project. In 1910, the current museum was opened, showcasing their archaeological and natural science collections.
Before this time, a gap in the collection must have been noted by the secretary of the Society. He had also identified a way to fill this gap. In 1906, the Society responded to an advert in The Times offering a ‘set of Egyptian pottery’ to educational institutes, for only the cost of postage. Though the advert had originally been published in 1904, the excavator was able to help with their request and duly sent 38 ceramic vessels to Hawick in 1907.
1904 advert in The Times offering a set of ancient Egyptian pottery.
The advert had been placed by the Liverpool-based archaeologist John Garstang. Born in Blackburn in 1876, Garstang went to university to study mathematics, but quickly became distracted by archaeology and the ancient world. Having joined Flinders Petrie, often referred to today as the ‘father of Egyptian archaeology’, on excavations in 1899, Garstang went on to run his own excavations in Egypt, Sudan, Turkey and Palestine. He was able to fund his work through the support of direct financial sponsors, many of whom were industrial magnates in North-West England. Garstang had permission to excavate from the Egyptian antiquities service, with the arrangement at the time being that the Egyptian government had the first choice of the objects found; the remainder could leave Egypt with the excavator to do with as they wished. This is how a large number of ancient Egyptian objects came to the UK.
In Garstang’s case, he distributed his share of the finds to his backers at an annual dinner, thanking them for their support and conducting a blind ballot to distribute crates of objects. This blind ballot ensured that no single sponsor could feel aggrieved at their received lot. After two seasons working at the site of Beni Hasan, Garstang and his team had excavated over 900 tombs and burial shafts. This left him with a large surplus of ceramics and other small objects which were often deemed uncollectible by his backers. Not at all a view that we would share today!
On Valentine’s Day 1904, The Times published the advertisement in letters to the editor. It stipulated that private individuals were barred from applying and that those eligible institutions who wished to apply should be ‘open free of charge to the public’. The replies came thick and fast! From his home in North Wales, Garstang’s excavation assistant Harold Jones began to arrange their transport. Over 100 institutions replied, leading to ceramic vessels being sent across the world, including museums in Scotland, Jamaica, New Zealand, India and Canada.
A few years later, this offer must have stuck in the mind of some of the members of the Hawick Archaeological Society, leading to their contacting Garstang. Though unable to share material from Beni Hasan, he had just conducted successful excavations in Esna in southern Egypt. 38 ceramic vessels were sent to Hawick and put on display when the new museum opened.
Over the course of the 20th century, their provenance information was lost, but it was re-identified in 2006 as part of a Museums Association and British Museum project. Thanks to the unique marking system applied to the objects after their excavation, noting down the site and tomb number, Egyptologists can identify the origin of such objects, allowing us to piece together what was buried in each tomb.
We are also able to think about the lives of the ancient individuals. Two vessels on display come from Esna tomb 247, the burial of a man called Montuhotep. Thanks to a stela (a stone monument) in the Garstang Museum of Archaeology, University of Liverpool we are able to find out his mother’s name, Aarut. Though we don’t know what he did for a living, we know that Montuhotep was married to a woman called Bit and had a son, also called Montuhotep. His burial contained 11 models of the Nile perch fish, which was seen as sacred to the local goddess Neith, so perhaps he was particularly religious.
We can also determine the name of the owner of an offering plate that is on display from a different burial at Esna. Senebef held the title ‘Chief of the Tens of Upper Egypt’, which may have been a type of judge. Interestingly, his brother Reseneb also held this title. Senebef’s burial showed his wealth, and included eye make-up pots, copper tweezers, seal stones and gold rings. The offering plate would have been loaded up with food to sustain Senebef’s soul for eternity.
These ceramics may seem unassuming, but they can teach us a lot about the lives of the ancient Egyptians, as well as helping us learn about the history of archaeology.
Developed by National Museums Scotland with funding from The National Lottery Heritage Fund, Discovering Ancient Egypt is part of our national programme to extend the reach and impact of the new Ancient Egypt Rediscovered and Exploring East Asia galleries to audiences across Scotland. The review of Hawick Museum’s ancient Egyptian collection is supported by the Collections Fund – delivered by the Museums Association.
On 12 May 1919, George Pringle, foreman of the excavations on Traprain Law in East Lothian, was gently loosening soil when he hit something strange. With a bit more exploration, a silver vessel appeared on the end of his pick. The Traprain Treasure had come back to the light.
The Treasure demands superlatives. It is one of the stars of our museum – over 23kg of late Roman silver, the biggest and best such hoard from anywhere in Europe. When you see it all together, you understand the power of silver in the late Roman world. This was elite-level stuff – the fine dining vessels of the upper classes.
But Traprain lay beyond the Roman world at this time, in the early fifth century AD. How did it get there? And why is it all so broken up? It’s what we call ‘hacksilver’ – vessels which have been chopped, crushed and broken. For the excavator of the site, Alexander Curle, this was clearly the work of barbarians – pirates who had plundered the late Roman world, brought their loot back to their lair, and chopped it to pieces to divide the spoils.
This was a view very much of its time – a civilised classical world, holding back barbarians at the gates. We understand now that the world was not so black and white – Romans good, barbarians bad. Many “barbarians” served in Rome’s armies, or traded with Rome. The Roman world needed friends as well as enemies beyond its frontiers, and the people on Traprain Law, a great hillfort rising from the East Lothian plain, had been friends of Rome since the legions first reached the area. Was this silver really loot, or was there more to it?
To tackle this quandary, we’ve been looking at the hoard again over the past few years. I’ll say more about our results in later blogs – but first, let’s look at the discovery itself.
Finding the Treasure
The early work at Traprain was led by Alexander Curle, a man with a good claim to be the first professional archaeologist in Scotland. At the time of the find he was Director of both museums which became the current National Museums Scotland – the National Museum of Antiquities on Queen Street, and the Royal Museum on Chambers Street. This left him little time to dig himself, but he would visit the excavations once a week to guide the work, make records and review the finds.
Alexander Curle relaxing on fieldwork later in his career, at Ness of Burgi in Shetland. (Courtesy of the Curtis family).
The work itself was done by three men – George Pringle, and two others Curle refers to only as Young and Johnnie. Detective work by Claire Pannell in East Lothian Museums Service and her volunteers has suggested that “Johnnie” was John Pitt, Pringle’s step-son – but who was Young? We’d love to track down this third player in the Traprain story.
The workmen the day after the discovery: from the left, Johnnie, Pringle and Young. (Courtesy of the Curtis family).
When the find was made, Johnnie was despatched to East Linton to call Curle, but his message was so guarded to avoid being overheard that Curle didn’t realise its importance, and he didn’t come out to site till the next afternoon. His diary takes up the story:
“It was a glorious afternoon, & I strolled up leisurely to the hill taking a photo here & there as I went, not expecting that Pringle’s ‘find’ was anything of importance … Imagine my surprise on reaching the site of the digging to see, ranged against the bank at the edge, a great collection of what appeared to be strange, battered & broken vessels of silver, much tarnished though in places still bright, and even in places gilded.”
Parts of the Treasure as found. (Courtesy of the Curtis family).
The find aroused enormous interest. Articles in The Scotsman, The Glasgow Herald and The Times brought it to public notice (though the rumour-mills of East Lothian had already spread the word, it seems). In 1920, within a year of discovery, the freshly conserved hoard went on display for the first time. It attracted considerable interest, including the first ever Royal visit which the Royal Museum received.
The impact of the hoard is seen in some unlikely places. Cigarette cards issued in the 1930s depicted it among a series of ‘Treasure Trove’ which included the treasures of Tut-ankh-amen and the Rosetta Stone!
Cigarette cards featuring the Treasure.
Old and new
Curle published his great book on the Treasure within four years of its discovery – a remarkable achievement, given that he was also running a museum at the time. It’s still a standard reference work – though copies are hard to come by now.
Curle’s Treasure of Traprain (1923)So why are we looking at the find again? Well, scholars have not been idle these last 100 years. There are many new ideas about Roman silver, and many new finds – the amount of late Roman silver known has more than doubled since Curle’s time. There are also new approaches. Curle was focussed on the original vessels, and saw the hacking as a barbaric inconvenience. We see it as a critical part of the story, vital to understanding why the silver came to Traprain and what it meant.
Our approach has been to look at the whole life cycle of these vessels, from their manufacture, through their use as vessels, to the hacking processes, their role on Traprain Law, burial, rediscovery and afterlife. This is more than one person can do – we have an international team of 19 scholars from five different countries. The results of their labours will be going to press shortly, with a big book due to emerge this summer. It’ll contain all we currently know about Traprain and its context – and we hope that it will inform, provoke, and stimulate new work.
If you can’t wait for the book, we’ll look at different aspects of the hoard’s story in a series of blogs during 2019. And over the summer (11 May – 27 October) you can see some of the hoard on display in the John Gray Centre in Haddington for a special centenary exhibition, the first time it’s been back to East Lothian since its discovery.
So – there are more stories still to come. But let’s finish with a wonderful evocation of the find. We’ve no photos from the day itself, but this didn’t stop the makers of Cadet sweets creating an “artist’s impression” for a card which was used in packs of candy cigarettes. It shows George Pringle, with oversize moustache, his oversize pick to one side, among a pile of silver. Most are shown quite accurately – but the find he is proudly admiring seems to be a silver soup tureen!
An imaginative reconstruction of the find, on a candy cigarette card from 1964.
Today I’m going to take you on a journey through space and time to visit one of the most iconic jewels to have graced the neck of planetary royalty.
This piece, which has become iconic within the Sci-fi community, was not commissioned specifically for the film it appeared within but was acquired within the progressive studio of one of the emerging new wave of jewellery designers from earth’s mid-twentieth century. And was selected for its ‘otherworldly’ appearance due to the experimental use of materials and techniques by the designer, who was influenced by a wide range of subjects from the natural environment to artistic movements of the day, as well as of course, space itself.
So where does our story begin, well…
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away; well actually on a sound stage at Elstree studios near London, and maybe not that long ago for some of us. A Princess wore a necklace, oh and a bracelet but everyone forgets about that; and at least the hairstyling had got better by this scene. A necklace that though not forged from chalcedony or featuring Kyber Crystals from Ilum, had a name like all iconic totems, that of Planetoid Valley’s.
A necklace that became a star in its own right, far outshining the medals this Princess bestowed on the rebel fighters she had fought alongside, and had absolutely nothing to do with the lack of dialogue in the scene, well apart from Chewie’s triumphant interjection at the end obviously, that all eyes ended up being fixed upon her neck.
Star Wars: A New Hope - Ending [1080p HD] - YouTube
This now iconic necklace, one of a few Crown Jewels of Alderaan that survived the destruction of the planet by the Galactic Empire, with its ethereal beauty was a very Earthly design and no mere prop, or ‘costume jewellery’. It was bought from the London store of Lapponia, a Finnish jewellery house, whose head of design Björn Weckström had created revolutionary designs since the 1950’s, inspired by the natural environment of the Nordic landscape, and unlike anything that anyone had seen before.
The capturing of the natural environment within decorative arts, crafts and design wasn’t new by the time our Princess appears in the multiplexes of Earth in the mid-1970s. It had, in fact, emerged as a significant subject of inspiration in the middle of Earths twentieth century, and most notably within the decorative arts of the Nordic tribes of Earth. However, I’m sure if Hoth did have an indigenous population rather than just the slightly menacing yeti-like wampa’s, they too would have been inspired by their environment creatively.
Now the tribes of the Nordic states you could say were truly futuristic, that they were light years before their time, pushing the boundaries of design in creating works of decorative art and craft which were characterised by simplicity and functionality, and inspired by the nature, landscape, and climate of the North. Often referencing unique forms and textures found within geology, casting directly or using moulds that incorporated stone, wood and plants to achieve this. Whilst also looking to capture the more ephemeral natural phenomenon, such as the quality of light, or how ice is formed, and the way snow settles expressing this through glass, plastics and the finishes they applied to the surface of the metal. Within jewellery design, they positioned themselves away from influences in the rest of Earth’s Europe, far from the ornate jewellery design that was prevalent elsewhere, towards simpler forms which celebrated the beauty of the materials they used.
One designer who challenged the conventional norms of jewellery design to create truly futuristic pieces was the Finnish artist Björn Weckström . Whose studio, I have to say from this image taken in the 1960s, wouldn’t look out of place in a sci-fi film. Weckström is now internationally recognised for his artistic jewels, though in the late 1950’s he was at first seen as too radical for the Finnish market, placing his pieces within the same field of importance as his fine art and sculpture, which prompted one contemporary commentator of the day to say that he should come back in 100 years when society would be ready for such designs.
However, fellow goldsmith Pekka Anttila saw the significance of Weckström’s revolutionary designs and asked him to join his newly established company Lapponia. Here Björn Weckström created a range of pieces that drew inspiration from the shape and matte surface of gold nuggets found in Finnish Lapland, hence the name of the company. He was also one of the first designers to combine new materials such as acrylic with traditional precious metals. His highly sculptural designs came to international attention in 1965 after being awarded the Grand Prix for the above design ‘Flowering Wall’ at the International Jewelry Contest in Rio de Janeiro.
But back to our Princess’s necklace. Planetoid Valleys was conceived by Weckström in the late 1960’s and ironically because of its association with the film, many do not realise that the form and shape was conceived following Weckström’s study into how snow falls in drifts and not the sand dunes of Tatween.
It was during earth’s late 1960’s and the success of the Apollo 11 mission to land a man on the moon, that saw a number of jewellery designers creating pieces that directly responded to the exploration of space as well as the advancements in technology that this decade had brought. Wecktröm was part of this movement, with his Space Collection, which Planetoid Valleys sits within, exploring the creation of worlds within silver, gold and acrylics.
These were radical pieces, highly sculptural, often incorporating large acrylic elements that stood proudly away from the body. No dainty set was to be seen in the showrooms of Lapponia, these were pieces for the fashion and art-conscious new generation of women who bought for themselves, and wanted to stand out. And this is the essential thing, these were available on the open market, you could acquire them, and still can.
As we can see from these examples, Wecktröm’s designs are pieces of art in their own right. They also have a timeless quality to them, and you could conceivably think that they were created today. So we can see why Lucas Films were so drawn to his designs, and how they reflected a futuristic or alternative civilisation that was the ethos of Star Wars.
Just as a side note, originally Wecktröm had been approached by Lucas Films in the spring of 1976 to design a bespoke piece for an undisclosed science fiction film. However, due to a film scheduling mishap, they needed a quick alternative, so Björn suggested they went shopping at Lapponia’s store in London, where they had an outlet in the mid-1970s. This was where they acquired Planetoid Valley, and also Wecktröm’s Darina bracelet let us not forget. Slightly tactless though, Lucas Films forgot to tell Björn or Lapponia which film the pieces were to appear within. So, it wasn’t until Björn’s friend went to see ‘New Hope’ at a cinema in Helsinki that he found out, and was how the legend began.
But our heroine’s story does not stop there, after all she was a Princess, even if of an aforementioned blown up planet. She still did have some ancestral pieces stashed away in the vaults of the Bank of Aargau, even if she did have to sell some of them to pay for a new fleet of X-wing fighters.
Luckily for us mere Earthlings, the women who played her, the late and great Carrie Fisher, knew the importance of heirlooms within this narrative and was instrumental in the placement of jewels within the most recent episodes.
A Tribute To Carrie Fisher - YouTube
Though the pieces that adorn her as General Leia Organa in ‘The Last Jedi’, a rather striking arts and crafts style ring; an Etruscan style bracelet; and those amazing earrings; have not been credited to a known designer, as yet, this doesn’t mean they were just merely created by the props department. As we have already seen with her ceremonial necklace, Lucas Films are happy to source from contemporary practitioners of the day, or in fact, more accurately, designs that had been conceived in a previous decade or generation to intone the aesthetic they desired.
Because, you know, the more I look at those amazing earrings, the more I keep thinking to myself, I have seen them somewhere else before….
On the ears of one of Norway’s most celebrated modernist and contemporary jewellers. Highly respected for her work that references Norse ethnographic and archaeological decorative arts, Tone Vigeland developed her earrings for PLUS Applied Arts Centre in Fredrikstad, when she joined the company in 1958 and was put into production by Norway Silver Designs in the same year.
The first range of pieces she created for PLUS, many of which she had developed whilst still a student, followed the modernist aesthetic that combined good form, clean surfaces and sensitivity towards materials. She was part of an emerging generation in the 1950s that created pieces that came to epitomise Norwegian Modernist Jewellery design, that played on their Norse heritage incorporating stylised Viking motifs such as axe heads, and abstracted geometric designs, often incorporating enamelled decoration, which showcased their strengths within manufacture.
There was a lot of references to mythological and ancient religions during this period throughout Europe and the United States, think wide torques with large symbol pendants. Kind of like Jenny Agatar’s Logan Runs torque and ankh. Possibly here too is another example where the costume department got their idea for her look.
Anyway, you can definitely see the influence of traditional Norse jewellery within the forms of the earrings. Similar pieces can be found in Viking hoards across Northern Europe, and was a recurring design trope within the Modernist movement to reference or show influence, through the abstraction of designs from both ethnographical and archaeological collections of ancient civilisations. So, it would seem logical, opps that a different franchise; the Force would dictate, that to establish an aesthetic for the ancestral heirlooms of the House of Organa, one must journey to find those designers or pieces that evoke a sense history and yet at the same time seem futuristic.
I have to say there is a strikingly similarity to the pieces worn by the esteemed General Organa and Vieglands creations, it may be just coincidence as they are not credited, but it seems highly likely that these, if not her own, were inspired by Viegland’s Sling earrings, or like herself, the archaeological collections of a once great warrior nation.
How often do we look at our favourite mug or vase and consider its history or its design?
Honestly, I cannot say that I have done that very often. This, however, drastically changed once I started my internship at the National Museum of Scotland. While I was labelling and cataloguing the Modernist Collection, I learned a lot about the individual objects, their design and history. It also made me realise that I do not question or examine the design of products, glassware and ceramics around me enough.
I have picked some objects of the collection which particularly caught my interest due to either their unique form or the story behind them. Of course, this is only a very small glimpse into the Modernist Collection which holds many more compelling objects and stories
1. Juicy Salif, designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi
The appearance of this iconic lemon squeezer is rather unusual. It looks more like a creature out of a science fiction story than a kitchen utensil and its functionality is often questioned. Some love it, others hate it. What do you think?
Juicy Salif, designed by Philippe Starck for Alessi. Museum reference: K.2015.23.412
2. Trulla glasses, designed by Michael Boehm for Rosenthal
Just like the Juicy Salif, these glasses already stand out due to their unusual, scoop-like form. That is also how they have been advertised on their packaging where they are described as the perfect glasses for parties of the unconventional, fun-loving people.
Trulla glasses, designed by Michael Boehm for Rosenthal. museum reference: K.2015.23.243
3. Aalto Vase or Savoy Vase, designed by Alvar Aalto for Iittala
Another object which has become known for its unique shape (aalto = wave). In fact, its wavy form left such a big impression that the vase won the first prize in the 1936 Karhula-Iittala Glass Design Competition.
Aalto Vase or Savoy Vase, designed by Alvar Aalto for Iittala. Museum reference: K.2015.23.223
4. Brunch-set, designed by Annemette Kissow for Vipp
Here not so much the appearance but rather the backstory of its manufacturer caught my interest. It all started with Holger Nielsen being asked by his wife to construct a bin for her beauty salon and due to the request of her clients, he began to produce more of them. Now, 80 years later, the family business has expanded and also manufactures kitchens and ceramics that go with its aesthetic. From bin to brunch-set.
Brunch-set, designed by Annemette Kissow for Vipp. Museum reference: K.2015.23.262
Find out more about Modernist Designs in our collection:
I have just completed eight-weeks’ work experience at National Museums Scotland in the Learning and Programmes department. This is unusual, as most work experience placements last a week, but thanks to Learning Officer Sarah Cowie, I was able to spend eight Thursday afternoons with the team. I used this opportunity to expand my experiences in S6, my final year at school before I go off to study History and Sociology at Glasgow University.
My time at the museum has been fantastic: who knew how many passionate people work behind the scenes to create a learning experience for all? I spent my time surrounded by staff motivated and enthusiastic about attracting as many people to the museum as possible!
I couldn’t explain my whole experience in this blog even if I had all the time in the world because it’s been a whirlwind of events, tasks and conversations with the staff and the public. I can however give you a taster: I was lucky enough to experience a Spotlight talk about the new galleries on East Asia and ancient Egypt. These talks are free and on regularly for the public to attend, giving them an in-depth background to the exhibits. I thoroughly enjoyed the one I attended as I got to hear from experts passionate in their fields of study.
The new Exploring East Asia gallery at the National Museum of Scotland.
Another event I assisted with was a late night event at the museum called Robots Retro Film Night. This allowed me to revert to my primary-year-old self as my task was to create challenges using robots for adults to participate in at the event. The event allowed the public to come in and enjoy the new Robots exhibition with the added bonus of some robot experimentation, plus a movie screening. Events such as these are a perfect example of the fun and creative plans concocted in the Learning and Programmes department to entice members of the public to get involved.
Two ‘Marty’ robots looking forward to the Robots Retro Film Night!
The Careers Hive event was another I got to witness and experience. This event allowed students from across the capital to come in and experience science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. It included countless interactive activities which were aimed at encouraging students to pursue these career options, although they also provided great entertainment for everyone involved.
During my time at the museum I met with Cairn, a student currently undertaking an undergraduate events assistant work placement, who quickly showed me that my whirlwind experience is common practice at the museum. Every placement student here is given the fantastic opportunity to meet, talk and be involved with as many events and staff members as possible. This opportunity has allowed me to develop my creative skills, learn about different career options and witness the bustling museum at its finest.
This whole experience at the museum has been incredible, I can’t stress highly enough how worthwhile it is to take part in. The opportunity encourages you to openly participate in as many projects and events as possible giving you a wide variety of experiences.
As a band, Snow Ghosts, have always been interested in the meeting of the modern and the ancient. Times may change but humans face the same challenges in different contexts.
Our new album, A Quiet Ritual, focuses on how people deal with loss in their own way. It’s a theme that is ubiquitous throughout time so we wanted to find an instrument that was used in a ritual context.
We came across the carnyx through a TV documentary appearance by John Kenny, and it seemed to fit the bill perfectly. It’s an enigmatic instrument, because of both how it sounds and its appearance. It can be loud and terrifying, suggesting its use in battle, but also quiet and nuanced, alluding to a more ceremonial purpose. With its bronze boar head and articulated tongue, it is not only visually impressive but also imbibed with a personality. This was amusingly highlighted by Ross’ dog, Indy, who was convinced it was some kind of being and directed his barking at the instrument’s head, not the player. As the Deskford Carnyx was ceremonially deposited and ‘sacrificed’ as a votive offering, it suggests a strong connection with the ritual. Peat bogs were seen to be sacred places in the Iron Age, possibly because they were seen as a portal between worlds or because of their preserving powers (as bog bodies attest to).
The Deskford carnyx, on display in the National Museum of Scotland.
Replica of the Deskford carnyx, on display in the National Museum of Scotland.
When we were writing and recording the album, John Kenny brought two carnyces, a replica of the Deskford and one in the Tintignac design to our studio. Seeing and hearing them in real life brought home how otherworldly they were and what a dramatic effect they must have caused, either in battle or part of a ceremony. John has a unique knowledge, and his insight added so much context and depth, in the same way that experimental archaeology can inform us about how tools were used in the past.
Our fascination with the instrument led to it being incorporated throughout the album in many different ways. It has an enormous range and can produce delicate high tones and thunderous low notes that we balanced against modern elements.
The artwork for the album, etched by the amazing Irish artist David Rooney, features the Deskford Carnyx pierced by a stake, an interpretation of how it may have been sacrificed and laid to rest.
Artwork for the Snow Ghosts’ album A Quiet Ritual.