21st May, 2015

Vicky Slowe, Curator at Coniston's Ruskin Museum, on why she became a curator and about her museum

An idyllic Lakeland childhood, raised on a farm, hefted on the fells; art-loving parents, interested in history, birds, wild-flowers, who took me to numerous museums, galleries & historic sites; an early-years Ruskin-inspired liberal arts education, courtesy of Charlotte Mason, complete with Nature Note Books, Century Books, and an introduction to Art History and early civilisations, followed by a rigorous grammar school education half-way up Wansfell where teachers included an eminent geologist and a keen geomorphologist who taught me to read landscape and a pioneering industrial archaeologist who took us all field-walking, recording and measuring


Nature and nurture drove me to Abbot Hall Art Gallery in Kendal, first as Museum Assistant, permitted to help the legendary John Anstee to create, first, the Hawkshead Courthouse Museum, the temporary precursor of  Abbot Hall’s Museum of Lakeland Life & Industry, the first Museum of the Year. I joined the Museums Association, and started on the Museums Diploma when it was managed by the MA, attended courses, took – and passed – the Intermediate and Final Exams, including the dreaded ‘Practical’ held in the bowels of the V & A during a power cut in the ‘3-Day Week’. I was promoted Keeper of Art, Deputy Director, and finally, in 1986, Director. By then, we were managing Kendal Museum for South Lakeland District Council, and the [working] Stott Park Bobbin Mill for English Heritage. I served as an AMA mentor, and, when the Registration Scheme was introduced, Curatorial Adviser to Windermere Steamboat Museum, Heron Corn Mill at Beetham, and The Ruskin Museum in Coniston.


Registration identified The Ruskin Museum as the holder of one of the most important collections at risk in the North West. I was appointed Project Officer to devise, cost and fund-raise for its redevelopment, to meet the [then] MGC’s Standards for Museum Buildings and Collections. Fortunately, the project co-incided with the advent of the Heritage Lottery Fund. The Ruskin Museum opened in May 1999, to popular and critical acclaim, achieving Registration, an Interpret Britain Award, and later identification as the NW museum with the lowest carbon footprint in the first cohort taking part in the ‘Greener Museums’ programme.


The Ruskin Museum was founded in 1901, by W.G . Collingwood, as Coniston’s permanent memorial to its most famous resident, the Victorian polymath and pundit on art, architecture, and society, John Ruskin, 1819-1900. Collingwood was fascinated by Ruskin’s belief that all things are connected and his working method of exploring his ideas visually before composing his thoughts - and philosophy - into lectures, pamphlets and books. Collingwood selected a thought-provoking array of Ruskin’s drawings, watercolours, sketchbooks, crystals, plaster casts and ‘model’ feathers, to illustrate this, and he added a local context by encouraging his archaeological and antiquarian cronies to contribute finds and bygones and geological specimens and other local curiosities. The result is a right royal telling of the story of Coniston – a place that, from its name, was once, from the early 10th to the late 11th century, the centre of a small Scandinavian mountain kingdom.


There are now two additional chapters to that story. The first relates to Arthur Ransome, who regarded W.G. Collingwood as a surrogate father, who learned to sail with the Collingwoods on Coniston Water, and who pinched the secret harbour of Peel Island as the model for one on his fictional Wild Cat Island in his [semi-autobiographical] Swallows and Amazons series. The sailing dinghy, Mavis, inspiration of the fictional Amazon, is now on long-term loan to The Ruskin Museum. Apart from being the Swallows’ and Amazons’ adventure playground, Coniston Water was the race-track, from August 1939 until January 1967, of, first Sir Malcolm Campbell, and then of his son, Donald, who broke 5 World Water Speed Records on the lake. Donald Campbell was killed on 4 January 1967, when his hydroplane Bluebird K7 crashed in pursuit of a new World Record in excess of 300mph. Treated as a grave, [fiercely protected by locals], for over 34 years, the wreck, and later Donald Campbell’s remains, were recovered in 2001. The Ruskin Museum now has a new extension, The Bluebird Wing, opened in 2010, to house Bluebird K7, which is currently being conserved and rebuilt to operative order by volunteers, at no cost to the museum. The volunteers, on Tyneside, are adept at blagging materials, processes and expertise, in kind. 


The Ruskin Museum is not primarily a natural history museum, but it aims to tell the story of Coniston as thoroughly as possible, and to treat ‘natural history’ in the broadest sense. The museum was recognized by Lancaster University’s SPRITE research team as a prime exemplar of rural sustainable integrated tourism. The Coniston Fells, both geologically and aesthetically, brought Ruskin here. The community provided the laboratory for him to experiment with his socio-economic & educational/learning theories. And the glaciation that created Coniston Water brought Sir Malcolm & Donald Campbell here.


This certainly includes:

  • -the geology of the mountain scenery that surrounds us,
  • -the evidence of glaciation around us,
  • -and the extractive industries of slate quarrying and copper mining.
  • It also features the local vernacular architecture and drystone walls, with their beck cobbles and slate slab ‘squeeze’ stiles; and the geological genesis of this area plus the museum’s ‘green’ low carbon credentials inform the debate about climate change & how it might be mitigated . Our immediate hinterland provides much evidence of prehistoric industry [Neolithic Langdale axes], the Monastic water-powered, charcoal-fired wool trade and iron industry mill & bloomery sites/leats/slag: coppiced woodland]. ‘Natural history’ relates very closely to the philosophy & interests of the great Victorian polymath, John Ruskin, who believed that everything connects. He developed his own geological classification: the museum holds a page of his Geological Dictionary. He collected his mineral & crystal specimens for aesthetic as well as scientific reasons; he writes that Nature is a better colourist than the finest artists – and a finer draughtsman, as his studies of mountain peaks, clouds and trees/leaves demonstrate. The museum holds 16 plaster casts of leaves, made as teaching aids, by Mr Atkinson, at Brantwood in 1881, under Ruskin’s direction. The museum also holds six greatly enlarged ‘models’ of feathers, made as teaching aids by W.E.Dawes of Denmark Hill, [Naturalist, Furrier & Plumassier]. Ruskin’s purpose is to teach people how to see. For him: ‘To see clearly is poetry, revelation & religion in one.’


Ruskin visited various sites in the Alps, following in the footsteps of JMW Turner. Ruskin drew the actual views and then compared his drawings with Turner’s paintings in an attempt to identify the basis of inspiration & imagination, and how inspiration & imagination transmuted actual scenery into great art. Ruskin also studied – and approved - the accuracy of Turner’s geology, and understanding of clouds. Ruskin produced geological studies of peaks, [relating them to crystals in micro/macro ways], and was interested in studying the effect of mountain peaks on the movement/non-movement of clouds. There is great scope to develop this combination of natural history, aesthetics, philosophy & creativity.


Ruskin’s interest in geology stretched as far as the musical qualities of certain stones: he commissioned a lithophone/set of musical stones/’rock band’ [hornfels] made by the Till family of Keswick. LMEN, the Lakes Museums Learning Network, [shortly to be renamed The Lakes Learning Network] commissioned a Teacher’s Pack, with project suggestions, including the ‘Rock Bands’ to be found at Kendal & Keswick Museums, and the contemporary instrument at Brantwood. This stemmed from a Radio 4 programme in 2008 with Dame Evelyn Glennie, who is fascinated by ‘musical stones’. This programme was later broadcast on the World Service.