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EXHIBITION REVIEW: The Clockwork Garden @ The Bowes Museum

August 12, 2017 11:00 am

29th July – 5th November

For more information about the Bowes Museum, click here.

Review by Sarah Burgess.

The Clockwork Garden credit The Bowes Museum

Created by the national children’s arts charity The House of Fairy Tales and held provisionally at The Bowes Museum in Teesdale, The Clockwork Garden constitutes a refreshing take on the fairy-tale genre of storytelling; exploring the mythical world of children’s fiction through an interactive exhibition gallery and outside woodland trail. Opened to the public in 1892 – close to the quaint little market town of Barnard Castle – The Bowes Museum itself is visually impressive. Commissioned by Josephine and John Bowes as a home for their extensive artistic collections in the mid-19th century, the chateau-museum takes its design impetus from elegant Renaissance architecture combined with the Gothic; most notable in its vast garden landscape and internal ornamental largesse. It’s a real Northern treasure that is often, and quite heartbreakingly, subject to regional cultural ignorance (which I myself was guilty of before this visit).

What is most commendable about this exhibition is that it seeks to incorporate this serious side of the Bowes Museum’s historical significance with the more lively and childish atmosphere of The Clockwork Garden, rather than keeping them discrete. Here, I felt a sense that perhaps the curators are encouraging the belief that imagination and creativity can exist in many compatible forms; a deliberate intertwining of older generations of culture with new. Physically, this is represented by the in-house exhibition positioning itself on the second floor of the museum, amongst 125-year old displays of the Bowes family’s private collections.

When moving from the immaculate parades of the Bowes Museum’s collectibles into the metallic and erratic world of The Clockwork Garden, with its silver fronds, bronze mechanisms and the strange, spider-like installation known as the ‘Mechanical Seed’, you can get a real sense of the convergence between history and fiction – and one form of artistic expression to another. Nowhere is this better represented than in the incorporation of the museum’s signature mechanical ‘Silver Swan’ into the Clockwork Garden’s fairy tale plot-line and in its ‘magical’ trail, where real artefacts from the museum’s grounds – such as the striking ‘monkey puzzler’ tree – become part of the exhibition, as well as having their own traditional significance and history.

As the children follow the stages of the trail, they are given interactive tasks at each station which help protect the wildlife alongside the Enchanted Folk, to protect the ‘Mechanical Seed’ from the Mechanised Grizzlies. Admittedly, as a twenty year old I found the story difficult to engage with – and since there were no decorative elements at the stations, but only tasks involving the reader interacting with the wildlife (such as by singing to ancient stones or invisible bats) the trail itself is clearly designed for a much younger audience. While, therefore, I could wholly appreciate the museum and its consciousness to explore in detail the origins of the Bowes family collectibles, both ornamental and canvas, I did find The Clockwork Garden exhibition and activities tedious and inaccessible. However, for young, imaginative children interested in history, fairy tales and creative-play, the exhibition and museum grounds would surely prove a lovely day out.

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