Why all the fuss over Grayson Perry and his toy bear coming to the Yorkshire Museum? STEPHEN LEWIS finds out.
A STUFFED bear stands in the library of the Yorkshire Museum. You can’t have missed it if you’ve been there. It’s quite a favourite with visitors, says Gaby Lees, the museum’s assistant curator for arts learning.
“Not least because a similar bear used to live in the Museum Gardens. Having escaped and chased a member of the philosophical society across the lawns, the bear was sent to London Zoo.”
That was in the early 1830s. Sadly (or thankfully, depending on how you look at it) the stuffed bear in the library isn’t the preserved mortal remains of that man-chasing bear of long ago. It’s a ‘taxonomical’ bear which comes from the museum’s science collection.
“But it is a very similar kind of bear,” says Gaby.
The museum and the York Museums’ Trust, of which it is a part, has quite a collection of bears.
As well as the stuffed bear, there is a teddy bear given to a little girl in York by her father when he went off to war in 1914, while the art gallery collection contains some beautiful pottery bears. They include 19th century salt-glazed ceramic jugs shaped like bears. “The body of the bears is a jug, the head of the bears is a cup,” says Gaby.
When she learned that Grayson Perry, the cross-dressing, Turner Prize-winning artist and ceramicist, was one of ten artists scheduled to take part in this year’s Museums at Night event, Gaby realised York’s collection of bears could be a good way to persuade him to visit the city.
That is because Perry is very attached to his own childhood teddy bear, which he has named Alan Measles.
Various accounts of the artist’s early life describe how, to escape from a difficult childhood – his parents had separated – he would retreat to his bedroom, or to the garden shed, and create a vivid fantasy world in which his bear became a starring figure.
Alan Measles was the “benign dictator of my fantasy world” the artist is reported to have once said.
Certainly, the bear has featured prominently in much of Perry’s work. There he was, sitting in a specially designed shrine on the back of a motorbike on which Perry toured Germany a few years ago. And there he was again, popping up repeatedly in an exhibition Perry curated at the British Museum in 2011.
The artist, who was recently awarded the CBE, has even created a Twitter account for his bear: @Alan_Measles. In it, the bear describes himself as “a 50-year-old teddy bear, dictator and God of the imaginary world of artist Grayson Perry”.
The aim of Museums at Night is to stage events at local museums around the country after hours when they are normally closed, to encourage a different audience to visit.
Gaby decided that a fun family evening in which Grayson Perry brought Alan Measles to meet some of the bears in the York Museums’ Trust’s collection would make for a great ‘Museums at Night’ event.
She wrote a proposal, telling the story of York’s bear collection and suggesting that Perry and Alan Measles join an evening bear ‘hide and seek’ in the Yorkshire Museum and Museum Gardens.
“The bears will be positioned around the museum during the afternoon, and our evening visitors will be invited to find them all,” she wrote.
Perry clearly loved the idea: he promptly shortlisted the York Museums Trust proposal alongside plans from three other museums – the Freud Museum, the Courtauld Gallery and the Museum of Soho, all in London.
People were then asked to vote for which of the four they thought was the best idea, the public vote deciding which one the artist would take part in.
The York Museums’ Trust launched a huge online campaign to win votes, backed by local celebrities such as Berwick Kaler. And York won hands down, garnering 5,500 votes.
“That’s the most any museum has ever got in the history of the Museums at Night,” says a thrilled Gaby.
So Perry and Alan Measles will be heading to York on Thursday, May 15.
Exactly what he will do is still a bit vague, Gaby admits. “We haven’t had a chance to consult with him yet.”
But it will be an after-hours event in the evening taking in the museum and the Museum Gardens – and it will certainly involve the cross-dressing artist getting involved in some sort of ‘hide and seek’ bear hunt.
Children will be invited to bring their own toy bears, and there will probably be storytelling, stargazing (the old observatory in the Museum Gardens could be trained on the Great Bear in the sky, weather permitting, Gaby says) and even a bit of fun making bears out of old socks.
A fun event for all the family, in other words – involving toy bears and one of Britain’s most unique and interesting artists.
What’s not to like?
What Grayson will be doing during his night at the museum
Grayson Perry and Alan Measles at the Yorkshire Museum as part of Museums at Night, about 6-9pm, Thursday May 15.
Perry may also be in conversation at the museum earlier in the day. The event will be free, and families will be welcome.
Tickets may be required for the earlier Perry in conversation event, even though this event too will be free.