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Melville at Kings 2017

At the end of June the Eleventh International Melville Conference took place at King’s College in London.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to talk about my work at the British Library as part of this event. A range of artists including writer Philip Hoare, film maker David Shaerf, curator Michael Hall and actor/director Shelley Piasecka talked about and showed how Melville had influenced their work.  

Caroline Hack, 2nd left, on the panel at Looking for Melville at the British Library

Caroline Hack, 2nd left, on the panel at Looking for Melville at the British Library

I focused on my recently completed work Cetology based on Melville’s classification of whales by book sizes. It was a wonderful opportunity to share my work with an audience who would understand the context of my practice and appreciate the nuances without explanation.  But it was also a chance to meet some of my Melville heroes. Kind people who have supported my endeavours and authors of books that have been important sources of inspiration and knowledge.  It was also great to meet newer twitter contacts and put faces to now familiar names as well as getting to see the work of other people for whom Melville has been a significant influence.  

Looking back on what was one of my most memorable afternoons of my creative life I know that the ripples from it will continue spread, contacts made strengthened and new opportunities for collaborations, new works and travel will arise.  

Must be the Weather (I)

One of the defining things about being British is our obsession about the weather.  It is a safe topic of conversation and a source of constant interest. But our climate is also generally benign so it’s rarely more than an inconvenience (more of that in another post…)

 For the last few years an important component of my practice has been sea voyages to Arctic whaling destinations. I am the first to admit these were all late booked bargain cruises on smallish ships. But they were sailing from England and back and mostly in summer months.  One thing this does give you is an appreciation of distances – how big the sea is and how it feels to sail for days seeing no land, no other ships, just the sea and the wildlife. In parts of the ocean even wildlife sightings are sporadic.  I have spent hours at the front of these ships sometimes with wildlife enthusiasts and experts (who have almost universally shared their knowledge generously) and sometimes alone seeing nothing but sky and water until the water takes on the illusion of undulating solidity and it feels like you could walk on it.

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

Magdalena Fjord, Spitsbergen

In the summer of 2011 I sailed to Spitsbergen in the high arctic.  This included 10 days of constant daylight. Experiencing the disorientation of no normal day and night cues and the sun in the north was unsettling.  I was quite glad I had a cheap cabin with no window/porthole so at least I could sleep in the dark.  The rigour of the day being divided into watches would have been vital for the early whalers and walrus hunters. 

It was also a good introduction to the weather in the high arctic. Particularly the fog so thick it nearly prevented us from sailing into Magdalena Fjord but lifted in time for me to see my first wild walrus and my first glacier, calving into the sea, and so persistent that it enabled us to sail quite close to Bjornoya Island but fail to see anything except the tell-tail rise in the number of sea birds. 

As it happens 2012 was a record year of low arctic sea ice.  In fact it held the record for a bit. Arctic sea ice and weather in the arctic are important components of global climate and a great deal of measurement and analysis of the climate is now happening in this once forbidding and hostile place.

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

Ny Alesund, Spitsbergen

I was fortunate enough to visit Ny Alesund, the research base on Spitsbergen and the northernmost functioning civilian settlement in the world.  I saw the various research centres of the countries working there (and a weather balloon being released).  Huge amounts of data is being collected at places like this and being fed into climate models and analyses.


Visiting the Iconic Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Last week I was privileged to get up close to the iconic Cambridge Museum of Zoology Fin Whale skeleton during its rehang.  The museum is currently closed for redevelopment but the Collections Manager Matt Lowe invited me down to see the whale in its final stages of restoration.  The whale’s new position is suspended from the ceiling of a new double height glass-walled building which will form the entry to the museum.  It has been cleaned and conserved and looks great. 

Up close with the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Up close with the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

 I was able to get up close and personal to the skeleton (at a few points I had to be careful not to hit my head on bits of it!).  Nigel Larkin, a freelance conservator and reassembler of such things, kindly pointed out some of the interesting pathology visible on the skeleton particularly the breaks in the ribs which had healed.

Over a cup of tea in the department I was introduced to Dr Adrian Friday, retired Curator of Vertebrates, who last rehung the whale 20 years ago and as I had brought some of my whale textiles with me we all had an impromptu game of guess the species from the whale flipper skeleton! 

I have been fortunate and seen fin whales in various places (Shetland, North Atlantic. Gulf of St Lawrence) and although I appreciated they were large I never really got a sense of their size viewing them in the sea with no reference points for scale.  Standing under the skeleton at a point which would be inside the animal’s huge body I really got a sense of the enormity of the creature.  I can see why train loads of Victorian day trippers came to Norman’s Bay station to view the body when it was washed ashore at Pevensey Bay on the South Coast. 

Inside the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

Inside the Fin Whale at Cambridge Museum of Zoology

I also reflected that the skeleton only tells part of the story of what the whale would have looked like alive.  Its sleek streamlined body, dark above and pale below, with a great tail not apparent at all in the skeleton.  The tail would be outside the building as it is now positioned, the huge flukes covering the beautiful reclaimed slate of the outer wall.

 There is still time to support the rehang of the skeleton

Raise the whale donation page-

This is my version of the fin whale flipper

I can’t wait for the museum to reopen next year.


Whaler Disko Bay Account Book

An important component of my art practice is research. It informs and nudges my work.  Accuracy in some ways is vital to me, as is the ability to play with imagery, text and other found content.  Quite often I will collect something with no real reason or plan for its use, but am guided by a gut instinct that it may be useful sometime (or it’s just too interesting not to investigate).  And so I found myself at Northumberland Archives at Woodhorn last week hand transcribing a whaling ship account book from 1786.

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

I went there in the spring to see their Poppies display (which was very moving) and got chatting to an archivist about whaling heritage in the North East (as I do). We found an enigmatic entry in the collection database  ‘Account Book of the whale ship Disko’ It was from the ship Disko Bay and from 1786. I was able to view it that day, but unfortunately due to copyright issues unable to photograph the beautifully written copper plate entries.  I made some notes and was determined to come back next time I was passing.  Unfortunately I live 280 miles away.

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

My transcription of a page of 1786 Whaler Disko Bay Account book from Northumberland Archives

I finally made it back last week sandwiching it in between a visit to Edinburgh and my weekend at Cornucopia Festival. Prepared with a new notebook and lots of sharp pencils I managed to transcribe 14 pages.  Fortunately my experience with whaling log books meant I could read most of the writing with little difficulty and understood most of the terminology.

I’ve listed some of the most noteworthy entries below and added a couple of photos of my handwritten notes

To an anchor of gin £1/6/-

(a Dutch term anker? 38.75 L or 45 bottles)

To plates and dishes  £-/6/6

To an Indenture for John Linney  £-/6/3

(yes the indenture was less than the plates and dishes)

To a pilot out of Stromness £-/12/6

To boys washing £-/7/6

To cleaning the surgeon’s instruments  £-/5/0

To coals for boiling oil £1/1/2

There are also payments to rat-catchers, coopers, painters, carpenters, brewers, butcher, boat builders, braziers and all sorts of other interesting things.  And rather poignantly

To J Beaton’s board & funeral £4/9/2

At the moment I’m not sure what I’ll do with this treasure trove of information, but I’m sure it will be useful one day!

At Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn

At Northumberland Archives, Woodhorn

Woodhorn is a great place and well worth a visit. Not only does it house the Northumberland Archive, but it’s a mining museum at a disused pit head. There are displays about pit life both above and below ground, a display of miners’ banners, a gallery of Pitmen Painters’ art, a good shop and lovely cafe (OK, yes, I really like the place – but it is very good!).