praeternatural curios and pirates at the pitt river museum
Edit: Thanks for the fab event write-up, Sam and Holly at Childtasticbooks!
Last Thursday, I gave my new-model pirate hat an outing, to Oxford Bookfeast at the Pitt Rivers Museum and University Museum of Natural History. Now, I’ve always wanted to visit the Pitt Rivers, ever since I heard it’s where Philip Pullman based the scenes from His Dark Materials where Lyra examines the trepanned skulls. And then I started seeing friends’ photos popping up of shrunken heads and, well, you can’t really not look, can you?
But it somehow didn’t happen; I must’ve gone to Oxford twenty times last year, but I was always catching later trains to miss rush hour rail ticket prices, and by the time my Oxford meetings were finished, it was always just about museum closing time. But, at last! there I was. And it was a flying visit, but look at the beautiful architecture in the Natural History Museum! The delicate ceiling structure almost looks like it’s made of dinosaur bones, I felt like I was inside the rib cage of a wonderful prehistoric beast. I didn’t have much time. And fortunately the guard didn’t mind me running up to him and asking, Please, sir, can you tell me where to find the shrunken heads?
And the guard did better than that; he instantly sussed what kind of visitor I was and gave me a whirlwind tour of the weirder aspects of the museum. Running me past the trepanned skulls, he showed me the shrunken heads (assuring me that the people had died of natural causes first, not been killed for their heads). Then he whipped open these cabinets to show me all sorts of voodoo dolls. I think he said that the white one in the bottom shelf was a health doll, designed to help people remotely with medical conditions, not hurt them. Like acupuncture by proxy.
More shrunken heads. One of my Bookfeast helpers looked slighty wary when I mentioned these; she said that the museum is a bit sensitive about them and wants to see them repatriated and buried. But she also mentioned that illustrator Ted Dewan says they’ll only get rid of them if they take his head, too. Hurrah! I want to watch the showdown. But I do hope they keep the heads.
Another wonderful curio: a witch in a bottle. The guide said that they’re not sure if there really is a witch in there, but they’re not going to open it to find out. I really need to spend a week looking and drawing in this museum, not just fifteen minutes running around. If I ever get stuck for story ideas, I know just where to go. What a marvelous place.
And here’s my pirate event! Bookfeast really packed in the kids, I think there were at least six schools represented. I read them You Can’t Scare a Princess! (with lots of communal ARRR-ing) and showed them how I go about turning three sheets of paper with typed-out words on it into an illustrated book. Then we all together drew a picture of Captain Waffle, and then I set the kids off designing their own pirates, who are looking for their own unique versions of treasure. I do hope they go away and make stories about their pirates.
Photo by Liz Cross
Thanks so much to Blackwell’s bookshop, and the fab team who run Oxford Bookfeast! There’s the Events for Schools manager on the right, Celia Maclachlan. And publicist Catherine Alport at Scholastic UK (@CRALP on Twitter) coordinated all the day’s details for me with Celia, but the gang at Oxford University Press were just down the road and came along to say hello. That’s my new OUP editor, Liz Cross in the centre, and between her and Celia, my OUP publicist, Harriet Bayly. Hattie took me on a quick tour of the OUP Children’s offices on my way back to the train, which was fabulous, as I never got to see more than the lobby when I was working on When Titus Took the Train. Hattie’s tiny, she makes my hat look HUGE. Thanks so much for making the day a success, everyone!
And gosh, was that day HOT! Here’s me having a heatwave scream with Liz before changing clothes.