Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Braintree Museum 1st December 2013



Sunday: Dr.Tooms and I arrived at the Braintree Museum around 10:45, we were not due to kick off until 13:00 but we allowed time for setting up as well as any gremlins that might attend the show. Outside the museum is a statue of the naturalist John Ray (1627 – 1705) and I can quite honestly say that I knew nothing about this man but his name at our point of arrival.

We met Julie Birkumshaw who showed us to the school room where we would be doing our magic lantern shows. The prudence of early arrival paid off; as soon as we walked into this old fashioned school room we could see that it was not going to be a good location. Julie had checked earlier to find that only half the windows had been covered with black bags, the rest were just too high up and would have needed long ladders and lengthy risk assessment to be blacked out. There was a little note of despair in the air; this was going to be a big day for the museum and the light show was one of the main features. Sadly the schoolroom was unusable but the show must go on and we were not going to give up just yet.

While we pondered on our next strategy, I found an old display case with some birds in it; there were a pair of kingfishers, a pair of bullfinches (a bird so scarce and shy and I have only seen a handful in my life), a goldfinch and a wryneck. The last is a small grey woodpecker and I once found a roadkill that was little more than a smear on the tarmac but I managed to identify it from what few feathers remained. My hiking buddy was most impressed.

The gallery next door was not really suited to audiences but there was only one small window and we could turn the lights off. It was The John Ray Gallery and the eminent naturalist had come to our rescue! As we set ourselves up John Ray watched us from a portrait and a bust, clearly he was rooting for us but I had some doubts about the life size model of the Puritan lady perched overhead holding a large butterfly net ready to ship us and our infernal machine off to Bedlam.

We were ready for our first show when the sun came out, the light shone through the little window behind us and lit up the screen in the same way the rising sun had lit up the map room in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’. We had about 20 minutes to work something out and lucky for me a little light bulb flicked on in my head – I went to the schoolroom and retrieved one of the blackout bags to block out the light. The Show Must Go On!

Our first visitor was Debby, it was a sort of guest appearance, although she turned up on the condition that we did not perform ‘Birds and Their - insert profanity of choice - Nests’! Our line up consisted of ‘The Life and Times of Emperor Norton I’ and a few light hearted sets for the kids. We had a very good turn out and included an extra show for one of those wonderfully curious kids who turn up every now and then.

Between shows I had the chance to explore the room and got to learn a bit more about the amazing John Ray; I had not realised that he invented the Latin species name system that Carl von Linne (Linnaeus) gets the credit for. I was also amazed at the number of species that Ray catalogued; he even visited fishmongers in search of new species, definitely a man after my own heart. Ray lived in troubled times as evidenced by the woodcut showing Matthew Hopkins the Witchfinder General. The drawing shows a couple of ‘witches’ and their familiars including the famous Pyewacket. As a man who knows stuff and invents odd words I would not have stood a chance against the likes of Hopkins and his horrid kind. While on this subject there is a little witch doll in one of the cases that was used to ward of spells of witches. Interesting that in a Christian society folks relied on very pagan charms to ward off the evil eye.

It was soon time to pack up and as we moved our things out to the car, carol singing was in full flow and we were there long enough to see the tree outside the museum light up with fairy lights. What a wonderful mish-mash of a ceremony Christmas is and if buggers like Hopkins had got their way we would not even have plum duff! On the way home we passed the Fountain which is a most beautiful structure; there is a young ‘Neptune’ holding a fish in each hand standing on a giant upturned gastropod shell while an otter eagerly waits for dinner at his feet. In what I took to be the cardinal there is alternately an otter and a sea lion. I am curious about the sea lions since they are not native to the North Atlantic or the North Sea…unless you include the out of place colony in ‘Local Hero’ when we should have been looking at grey seals. Just out of town is a sign that says Black Notley White Court which reminded me, in that sideways sort of way, of a Clint Eastwood movie. We would like to thank Julie and the volunteers/staff at the museum for all their help and wish them a very Merry Christmas.

This is Prof Grymm…