For the final location of City As Material 2, with Andrew Hunter and Lisa Hirmer of Dodolab, Josie Mills from the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery and Leila Armstrong, we arrived in Oxford on a chilly morning, out of keeping with the good weather from the last two events. Once again, we were trailing Professor Starling as he investigated the declining numbers of his kind in the UK, talking to people whilst on his travels throughout the city.
Although reactions to the Professor during the first half hour of the day were restrained, with students and scholars rushing around us on the pavements or zipping by on bikes with only cursory glances, the route to the high street soon swelled with tourists clutching raised cameras and smart phones, the source of their amusement filtered through tiny digital screens. The more permanent residents of the city seemed to think a theatrical troupe had come to town, or that some odd collegial stunt was at hand. A group of contractors cleaning stonework engaged in light banter, despite clearly being busy, their voices strained over the hum of mechanical equipment.
We entered the Oxford botanical gardens to the patter of drizzling rain, and were greeted by several inquisitive ducks who had wandered from the water, obviously charmed by one of their avian brethren. Minutes later, the Professor was spotted by a gang of children on a school trip and was soon answering frantic questions, handing out cards to tiny delighted interviewees. After chatting to gardeners toiling on muddy patches and being targeted by a potential bird spotter with a huge camera lens, he departed, ambling down quiet side-streets and eventually into the Museum of Natural History.
There were some great scenes here as the Professor was accosted by visitors, prodding at his suit whilst he shared his knowledge of the Dodo and other feathered creatures. We witnessed a high school student gawping at all the taxidermy specimens, loudly asking if they were real, whilst others pressed their noses to the glass cases and shrieked at the preserved contents. It’s likely many people there believed he was associated with the Museum, who despite our initial concerns, were happy to let him wander around.
Giles and I looked around the Museum of the History of Science, containing beautiful early microscopes made from gleaming brass, and intricate astrolabes with mysterious shifting layers. I found a case dedicated to the origins of the Ashmolean Museum with a sketch of its founding collection, crammed from floor to ceiling – very different from the carefully curated space of today. One statement in particular interested me: “Not everyone liked the early Asmolean Museum. Some visitors were shocked that access was not restricted to scholars and gentleman”. Prior to our outing we had talked about the migration of knowledge, namely what routes and structures it travels through in a city of prestigious institutions, and who in society has access to it, especially in earlier times. The Ashmolean’s open door policy from the outset felt like an open challenge to a belief that certain information was the preserve of the academic elite and the upper classes.
Professor Starling’s next destination was the river, where we saw the college rowing teams in the midst of practice, whole boat-fulls staring in unison towards the bank and momentarily easing their grip on the oars. A river steward told him that she thought Starlings were likely to gather in nearby areas, but he had arranged to meet everyone else back in the market where we had started the day. Dodging a hectic stream of bicycles along the narrow path, we walked back into town and browsed the stalls.
Here, the Professor met a character with facial tattoos and a piratical grin whose name was allegedly ‘Raven Hawk’, and discussed Starling sightings with a knowledgeable trader. It’s great that the market, our final area for the day, yielded quite a few people who were eager to engage. On top of this, Josie and Leila said they had been shown around the amazing Pitt Rivers Museum earlier by an associate, telling of numerous priceless artifacts half-hidden in the niches.
Whiling away the time until shops started to shut and evening crept in, we took refuge in the Turf Tavern for food, beer, and to share the highlights of our Thetford–London–Oxford expedition.
The eBooks inspired by City As Material 2 are in production. Look out for them soon.