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Weeks left to enjoy The Magic of the Silver Swan exhibition

The Bowes Museum's landmark exhibition, The Magic of the Silver Swan, which celebrates the beauty and artistry of the science of automata has just three weeks left for the public to explore.

The exhibition, which has been open at the Barnard Castle based Museum since 8 July, is a celebration of automata, clockwork machines, the enduring fascination we have with mechanical devices and how we can explore art through technology.

The Silver Swan is the Museum's most iconic object and was made in 1773 in James Cox's workshop in London, and it's believed the inventor John Joseph Merlin worked on the mechanism that gives the swan its graceful and realistic movements as it gently moves its head and neck as it 'swims' on glassy water before reaching down and catching a fish from a nearby shoal in its beak.

As well as items from the Museum's collection, it will feature loans from distinguished institutions including The British Museum; Science Museum; Metropolitan Museum of Arts and Crafts, Paris; Royal Collection Trust; The National Archives, Bodleian Library, Victoria Art Gallery, Kenwood House and Guildhall Library as well as private individuals.

Inventiveness is at the heart of the exhibition which explores movement and kinetic art from all walks of time, from the historical to the contemporary, that tell different stories but are linked by their creation.

It is these stories and how they are interwoven that allows people to interpret the exhibition in new and exciting ways from experiencing a contemporary response to a historical artefact, with Kinnari Saraiya's Bioscope, which challenges and questions the original repressive use of the object, to playfulness by making items spring into life with ten interactive works from the Cabaret Mechanical Theatre.

Placement of objects is key to the flow of the exhibition, with John Joseph Merlin's patent for a harpsichord near footage of David Roentgen's musical automaton: Queen Marie Antoinette, the Dulcimar Player, and a cello and violin designed by Merlin, shown alongside a 2004 film by the Turner Prize nominated Yinka Shonibare of A Masked Ball, which would have had similar music and melody accompanying it - and a contemporary automaton that speaks to it in the form of Swedish artist, Tobias Bradford's Performer, a prosthetic arm playing a synthesiser.  All sited near an 18th century mezzotint by Richard Earlom of the inside of the Pantheon in Oxford Road, a popular entertainment venue (which also hosted masquerades) frequented by Merlin's contemporaries and customers who bought his automata.

Rebecca Moss's film Comfort Food is on display as well as the North East's Helen Pailing's collaboration with Marek Gabrysch of a reclaimed kinetic sculptural and sound piece Potential Energy (2022) and Martin Smith's Bird Wave. The show will also include archival imagery and footage by the late British artist Bruce Lacey, who was known as a modern day Merlin.

Charles Babbage's Difference Engine, the forerunner to the modern day computer, is on display from the Science Museum, as well as the Rose Engine Lathe which was used to make ornamental patterns on the plates used in printing bank notes and postage stamps. 

Alongside the Silver Swan, 18th century automaton figurines, musical boxes and a collection of 19th and 20th century clockwork metalwork and tin toys from the Museum's collection add to the 'magical mechanical' feel of the exhibition.

The Bowes Museum's Director of Programmes and Collections, Vicky Sturrs, said: "The Magic of the Silver Swan has been such a joy to curate. We’ve brought together a really varied mix of artworks and objects that all explore movement, kinetics and automation. It’s been really fun to include interactive pieces from artists Kinnari Saraiya, Tobias Bradford, Martin Smith and Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and to host such a beautiful new commission from Helen Pailing with Marek Gabresch. I’ve loved the laughter I’ve heard from visitors watching videos by Rebecca Moss and the way Yinka Shonibare’s Un Ballo in Maschera has captivated our audiences. We’ve loaned some incredible work from partners including the Science Museum, National Trust, British Library and British Museum as well as private collectors. It’s such a fitting way to celebrate automata in the year of our Silver Swan’s 250th birthday."

As well as playing with the automata on view from Martin Smith and Cabaret Mechanical Theatre, visitors can create their own automatons to add to the display in a workshop area outside the exhibition gallery.

The show closes at 5pm on Sunday, 7 January 2024.


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