If any of you picture archives and libraries as stuffy, repressive places where you must sit tight on your seat and keep buttoned up at all costs, think again and read on!
Every year we take part in Arts Across Learning, a city-wide festival in which local organisations and venues work with freelance art practitioners to provide workshops and activity sessions for Aberdeen City Council’s primary schools. For us, it’s an opportunity both to explore our historic collections in a fun way using different art genres, and also to keep adding to our repertoire of skills for interpreting our collections of rare books, manuscripts and archives to young audiences.
This year we were paired with a dance tutor to put together a creative movement workshop for very young children of P1-2 (roughly age 5-6). New territory for us! Most of our school audience is upper primary, and while we use the visual arts, creative writing and even drama regularly in our workshops, dance was something new for us altogether. We chose the treasured Aberdeen Bestiary, a sumptuous 12th-13th century manuscript book of animals, as our source material for the workshop. The Bestiary is a gift for working with children, with its gorgeous gold-illuminated illustrations and its quirky accounts of animal behaviour. Illustration: a (blue and spotty) panther, from the Bestiary. According to the writers, the panther is such a sweet-smelling animal that the other creatures of the world follow it wherever it goes, drawn by its lovely scent. One gets the feeling that the monks who wrote the Bestiary had never seen a panther in action! However the factual basis for the animal stories was not so important for the monks as the religious meaning that could be drawn from them: the story is primarily a metaphor for the attraction of Christ for His followers.
Our dance tutor was Linzy McAvoy, representing Aberdeen’s Citymoves Dance Agency. We knew right from the start that Linzy was going to be fantastic to work with, and so it proved. Linzy immediately perceived the dramatic potential of the Bestiary and entered wholeheartedly into our plan to bring the book to life for the children, bringing her expertise in teaching dance to create a fun, movement-based exploration of the numerous mythical beasts of the book.
The structure of the workshop followed our usual format, where we introduce the children to the topic as a whole, and then get down to showing the original items from the collection. Seeing an original historical book or archive is an awe-inspiring experience, and we always try to show them as much original material as possible. Of course, our Bestiary is one of the few items in our collections that is just too precious to be taken out (in fact, it is still “resting” after its star turn in our 2012 Gilded Beasts exhibition), but we do have a beautiful, high-quality facsimile copy of our Bestiary’s sister book, the Ashmole Bestiary. Using digitised images from our book, and showing the facsimile of the Ashmole, the pupils got an idea of just how stunning the Bestiary is itself. We talked a long time about the making of the Bestiary: who made it (monks), and how it was made (using vellum, gold leaf and ink written with a feather quill). We also speculated about how the monks knew about some of the more exotic animals in the book, in a time when very few people travelled and the only way you could travel faster than you could walk was by horse. In fact, it was remarkable how focussed the children were, and how many pertinent questions they had to ask. I spent nearly twice as long with these 5 and 6-year-olds as I usually do with the older children! Their curiosity about the book seemed limitless.
From then on, it was all about movement and energy! First of all the children warmed up by moving across the room like some of the real animals in the Bestiary, thinking about how each animal moves and what kind of noise it makes. We had lots of stomping elephants, wriggling snakes, scuttling crabs and hopping frogs.
Once the children were warmed up we honed in on some of the rather more fantastical creatures in the Bestiary, such as the ever-popular Bonnacon (a bull-like creature that, when hunted, farts fire at its pursuers), and the anphivena, a two-headed, snake-like monster. The children worked in pairs to experiment with ways they could make a two-headed creature like the anphivena by joining their bodies together in different places. After making a series of different two-headed monsters, they then tried to make their creatures move around the room – quite a difficult thing to do when you have two brains wanting to go in different directions. Some serious negotiation was required in order to get those two-headed beasts walking!
Then it was on to imagining new mythical monsters, made up of parts of different animals. Individually the children tried moving like one animal while making the noise of another. Then, after seeing Tony Meeuwissen’s interactive book Remarkable Animals, which features real animals that can be mixed up with each other to create altogether unheard of combinations, the children worked with each other again to figure out how they could each contribute different animal parts and amalgamate them to make new monsters. The workshop finished with a demonstration of all the different mythical beasts, and then it was back to school.
Although we had both felt initially nervous about how well dance and rare books would go together, and also how well a rare books-based workshop would work for such a young age group, we were amazed at how successfully it went down with the children. Since then we have worked together on another similar-themed event (see our previous Family Fun post on Marvels of the North), and we hope to find opportunities to create more creative movement workshops in the future.
Thanks to Kingswells and Holy Family RC Primary Schools for coming to the Library and creating some fantastic mythical monster movements for the Arts Across Learning Festival. It was great having you.
For more on the Aberdeen bestiary, follow the link to the Bestiary website. There you can discover more about the history and codicology of the book and read translations of each page. You can also read about the many other events and activities we have run with children using the Bestiary as source material. In addition, new, high-quality photography has been carried out recently on the Bestiary by the Centre for Heritage Imaging and Collection Care (CHICC) at the John Rylands Library, as part of the redevelopment of the Bestiary website. The new images will eventually be available online. Read more about the project on the Special Collections website and Facebook page.
Posted by: Sarah