Grymm Tooms Travelling Museum
Chiltern Open Air Museum 4th -5th April 2009



Saturday: So the season that has been creeping up on us for the last four months has finally arrived. But there is no rest for the wicked, or obsessive, possibly insane collectors, of curios – we have been busy designing, researching and making new items.

We were met by Conway who took us to the Vicarage, this is a neat little building set up as a school room complete with some of the sturdiest school room furniture I have ever seen, the all in one row of seats looked as though they had come out of a Roman galley. We also had a print of Queen Victoria and a map with pink bits in it; I haven’t seen one of those maps for decades!

Once we had parked the car and we had set up Conway returned to have a look at the museum and asked the first important questions of the seasons: “Is it real?” and “What’s that?” Because we expect these questions we have decided to put in our talks a little bit about the ‘secrets’ of our exhibits; the research, materials and time that it takes to produce our exhibits.

It is an interesting fact that when you tell someone that the item they are holding is a reproduction or reconstruction they sometimes react with some derision, “So it’s all a con then!” Actually I spent a week making a platypus to look like a Victorian specimen so that you can say “Wow! I have never seen a real platypus”.

The morning was a bit on the slow side but we did have the Grand National to compete with. One of our first visitors listened intently at my story of The Last Great Auk and then said with a smirk “But I thought they all died in Lord of the Rings!” Top marks there!

There are 75 great auk eggs left in collections around the world and our museum has copies of two; one illustrated by Henry Seebohm and the famous ‘Pingouin’ egg now in Aberdeen. The first egg I had on display was a poor model from Edward Bay’s Emporium that I put up with until I could make my own – first attempt was a disaster – something horrid happened in the baking wasting lots of time. The Seebohm was a better but time consuming project, making a master is always hard and quite frankly with that useless gift of hindsight it would have been cheaper to buy a repro. Our lovely ‘Pingouin’ egg was, along with several other specimens, made by Peter Rowland of Original Egg Replicas. Actually when you include the rubbish egg and the damaged project we have had four great auk eggs, which is a little excessive for a museum of our humble proportions to say the least!

My main project this year is extinct birds, although one or two, huia and passenger pigeon were just rather rare by the 1890’s. My department now has male and female huia ‘specimens’, I am trying to illustrate human impact on wildlife during the mid-late 19thC. One of my exhibits is a simple CDV of a cat; it just sort of lies around and is so mundane that several visitors asked why it was there. That innocent looking feline represents Tibbles, the lighthouse keeper’s cat that in 1894 not only discovered the Stephen’s Island wren (Travesia Lyalli), on Stephen’s Island, New Zealand, but then proceeded to eat it to extinction! Tibbles was probably the only ‘European’ that saw the species alive.

One of Dr Tooms’s new toys is a genuine Lydia Pinkham bottle for which he has made a label and a box. While my skills tend toward models, Tooms is an extremely dab hand at the reproduction of paper items. He even sang a couple of verses from ‘Lily the Pink’ for a family who had never heard of her.

Sunday: Started slowly and then built up into a pretty busy day, although we were never inundated, allowing us to spend time with our visitors on an individual level.

I met a very interesting lady today who is the first person that I have ever met who thought that the platypus is a fake critter. I found this really interesting; there can’t be many Europeans who have never seen this creature in some form.

I had a chat with a Viking re-enactor who wanted to know how we acquired items, someone who understands that in our hobby you often have to make quite a bit of your own equipment; swords, armour, clothing, books…almost anything really. He was most interested when I told him that the Vikings hunted great auks and then by one of those strange, synchronous moments, he said “I only know orcs from Lord of the Rings!” I remember one show when several unconnected folks thought that the cannibal fork was a dried squid – not happened before or since.

A couple of kids were remarkable in that the girl was captivated by the stereoscopic slides; she went through most of them before wandering off to view the Tooms Department, and a 5 year old boy, already into collecting bugs and shells, who did not really need any more encouragement.

Well, that went well…excellent location and great weather…next stop for us: Alsace.

This is Prof Grymm, writing to you, live, from Helm’s Deep