For the last 10 years, there has been a large willow and paper elephant suspended in the museum entrance hall. The Barnstaple Elephant, discovered in a clay pit in Summerland Street in 1844, has become an important part of the museum’s identity. The carnival version has provided a friendly welcome to the museum to thousands of our visitors. Our current project, however, will “return our entrance hall to its former glory”. Should that include a huge white elephant?
In 2008, we were approached by local councillor Simon Harvey, who wanted to raise money for CCTV cameras in Trinity Street. The area was plagued by damage caused by those returning home after a night out in the town. Simon was looking for a theme for a community event and we suggested the fragment of tusk in the museum collections.
Sarah Montague had already created a version of the elephant in our Geology gallery, based on reconstructions of the extinct straight-tusked elephant (palaeoloxodon antiquus) created for other museums. We felt that more people in the town would like top know about this poor mother elephant (and her calf) which came to a sticky end in the muds of the Taw estuary some quarter of a million years ago – and as far as we knew no-one had ever created a community festival based on an extinct mammal before!
The first Elephant Day duly took place in August 2008 at the Moose Hall (now White Moose gallery). Mrs Recycle came and helped the residents create a recycled elephant, which took part in the Barnstaple Carnival that September. The day was great fun, and we began planning for a bigger and better Elephant Day for 2009.
In 2009 we got a grant from the Arts Council to create a carnival elephant, working with local people at the Moose Hall. Elephant Day was moved to June, to be part of the popular North Devon Festival, and we also tied it in the Darwin Centenary celebrations that year. Elephant Day in 2009 included craft workshops, a parade around the town and a visit from “Charles Darwin”. Andy Currant, curator or quaternary mammals from the Natural History Museum brought the other surviving bits (the teeth) of the Barnstaple Elephant from London, and we published a booklet about the discovery of the elephant remains and its significance.
The following years brought more activity. The event moved to the Square outside the museum, and tied in with the new Play Activities at the Museum. In 2010 Ashleigh School created a play about children working in the brickfields and the lives of the elephants. Andy Currant came back again to support the event, which he said was the only community festival based on an extinct mammal that he knew of!
It is now ten years since the elephant’s birth. The children who helped make it are off to university now and other projects (including our extension) have taken our attention at the museum. What shall we do with our elephant? Over the years it has been painted with fire retardant to allay the fears of risk-assessors, and slimmed down to enable it to get out of the front door when that was altered, but if Elephant Day has run out of steam how long should we keep the elephant?
We still love the story of the elephant, and its remains still have pride of place in the geology gallery. The reconstructed front half is not going anywhere, and we are still celebrating the elephant in our great new museum logo, which combines ideas of the elephant, the Long Bridge, and “M for museum”. Carnival elephants sadly don’t belong in grand entrance halls, but perhaps we will see if we can squeeze it into the new wing. or perhaps we should be making new and exciting carnival things based on some of the other 75,000 or so objects in our collections?
Answers on a postcard please.