Local archaeologist Ben Normington interviewed the co-curators of the current exhibition in the archaeology museum at Lakeside Arts - Prof. Hannah O’Regan and Dr. Liam Lewis, both from the Department of Classics and Archaeology, University of Nottingham. The exhibition is called Bears! Nature, Culture and Beyond and gives an insight into the cultural history of bears…
So could you tell us about the current display in the Archaeology Museum at Lakeside Arts?
The exhibition is called ‘Bears! Nature, Culture and Beyond’, and tells a long story about how humans and bears lived alongside each other in the past, and how they are still part of our cultural heritage today. We’ve been lucky enough to loan artefacts from museums across the Midlands, where bears seem to be especially important in culture and heritage. So this is a rare chance to see items like a Roman jet bear or badges that feature Warwickshire’s famous bear and ragged staff. Usually, you’d have to travel to Sheffield, Buxton or Coventry to see these objects. And it’s free!
What drew you to study bears?
Hannah: As an archaeologist I’ve been studying the bones of large carnivores for years. I’ve also worked on remains from the Royal Menagerie at the Tower of London, and in cave archaeology. Bears link all of these topics. Most recently I’ve been leading a research project at the University of Nottingham called Box Office Bears, which is looking into the lives of bears and dogs in early modern (Shakespeare’s) England.
Liam: I first became interested in bears through my research as a medievalist. I wrote a book about animals in mediaeval texts like the illustrated bestiaries that record stories of bears alongside lions and unicorns. I was fascinated by the idea that, even though bears were extinct from the British Isles by the Middle Ages, we still find them in the pages of manuscripts in stories like Reynard the Fox. And there’s even a bear on the Bayeux tapestry! I wanted to explore this history in more detail, so I joined the Box Office Bears project in 2022, and I was excited to be able to co-curate this exhibition.
How have perceptions of bears changed over time?
In Britain it’s hard to say how bears were perceived a long time ago as they have been extinct for so long there are very few references to them in ancient legends. But in other places around the world, they were highly respected and, in some cases, worshipped. In the Middle Ages they were often considered to be lowly animals compared to other animals like eagles or lions, and were used for human entertainment – in bear-baiting, as dancing bears and in zoos. Now bears pop up everywhere in culture and heritage, such as on bear pots produced by Nottinghamshire potters, or in the teddy-bear trade, in music (The Teddy Bears’ Picnic), and more recently, on TV. We tell this long story in the exhibition through the wide range of objects on display.
This is a rare chance to see items like a Roman jet bear or badges that feature Warwickshire’s famous bear and ragged staff
What cultural impacts have bears had on UK culture?
Once you start looking, bears are everywhere! In advertising, on T-shirts, and as children’s toys. The exhibition features ancient wild bear bones, as well as showing their role in human culture. We have a Roman figurine of a bear, a bear's grease pot lid for curing baldness, and the story of Goldilocks on magic lantern slides, just for starters! When we were curating the exhibition, we realised that there are lots of links with local companies, so the exhibition also features bear-themed products from Players, Fox’s, and Boots.
What happened to wild bears in the UK?
Hannah: At some point bears became extinct, but we don’t yet know when. This is the subject of some of my current research with colleagues from Aix-Marseille University. We hope to have some answers for you soon. My guess is that bears became extinct quite early, as unlike beavers and wolves, we have very few bear place-names, which perhaps suggests they were extinct before many of the villages and towns we know now had developed.
What impacts do you want this display to have on modern viewers?
We hope the exhibition interests and surprises people who come to see it. We hope it makes people think about an animal we might take for granted, and next time they see Paddington Bear on TV, they will know a little bit more about the complex history of bears.
In broad strokes, what is the conclusion of your research?
We’re currently drawing together the conclusions of our Box Office Bears project. There will be lots of results coming out in the next year or so, which will show that bears were just as important for early modern entertainment as Shakespeare’s plays. Now, that’s a story worth following! Keep an eye out for updates on our website, and for bear-related events around Nottingham too – we have quite a few in the pipeline!
Bears! Nature, Culture, and Beyond is on display at the Archaeology Museum at Lakeside Arts until 31 December 2023, with various related events happening throughout November
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