Horrible Histories author Terry Deary pens a new chapter for Bury St Edmunds museum Moyse's Hall
Eyeing a fresh chapter for Moyse’s Hall’s gruesome treasures, the museum’s curators pounced on a memorable wishlist which led them to the master of family-friendy guts and gore.
As they brainstormed with parents and teachers for a modern spin on the Bury St Edmunds museum’s collections, a call for ‘plenty of poo, pee and blood’ paved a gloriously graphic route to Horrible Histories – the colourful book series that has introduced millions of children to events and figures from the past.
Heritage officer Dan Clarke said: “We thought we could get an exhibition so we contacted the publishers and they said while our museum was a good size, it wasn’t quite as big as the exhibitions they were building.”
To his surprise, Dan received an ‘out of the blue’ email the next day from Horrible Histories author Terry Deary, who was interested in the museum’s items from the famous Red Barn Murder including killer William Corder’s scalp and a book bound in his skin.
“We had this idea of him writing something away from Horrible Histories,” Dan said.
“It didn’t take too much to convince him – he was massively kind. He freed up two weeks for us because he was inbetween books.”
Using information from the museum and his own research, the maestro of beastly stories penned six ‘Terrible Tales’ which complement the museum’s artefacts.
Terry said working on the project was a ‘disgusting delight’.
Subjects include St Edmund, the Battle of Fornham, Mary Tudor (who is buried at St Mary’s Church), witchcraft and the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, the Red Barn Murder and the Nichols Murder.
“We asked for 400 to 500 words on each story and he ended up writing 800 words on each which is fantastic,” Dan said.
“He did it for his first ever journalist’s fee so we paid by the word. It was a fee we were able to put together using various sources. The Friends of Moyse’s Hall Museum were a big help as well.”
All are told in the first person from the perspective of the subject or another character such as a blacksmith recounting the Battle of Fornham or a nun tending to the body of Edmund, with eye-catching visuals from Woodridge illustrator Glenn Pickering.
“Every single story links back to an artefact. It’s important this leads back to them. We’re placed here by the public to interpret their collections.
“The greatest example of that is The Red Barn Murder. You can then trace the artefacts mentioned – the murder weapon and the mole spud the father (of victim Maria Marten) used to discover the body.”
Illustrator Glenn said the Terrible Tales project was a ‘genuine labour of love’.
The 39-year-old is a course director for BA (Hons) Art Practice at West Suffolk College School of Art and Design and has run student projects with Moyse’s Hall for a number of years.
After being approached by Dan to produce the visuals to accompany Terry Deary’s work, he created 24 illustrations and worked on the branding and design of the exhibition.
Each illustration took about a day to complete from start to finish.
Glenn said: “Each was created entirely digitally and is made up of multiple layers which was important as I also needed to animate them.
“Due to the historic nature of the illustrations I needed to spend time researching things like clothing, architecture, weaponry and environments from a range of time periods before I could start creating anything.”
He has worked in illustration and graphic design since about 2005 and started teaching in higher education in 2009.
Glenn added: “I have long been fascinated by history and also really enjoy creating illustration work targeted at younger audiences.
“To have the opportunity to illustrate stories written by one of the UK’s best selling author’s was the icing on the cake.”
For Dan, who was a huge Horrible Histories fan growing up, working with one of the UK’s best-selling authors was a ‘real coup’.
“Everyone who works in museums, and a few history teachers, I dare say would say Terry Deary changed everything for museums – giving history as it was rather than sanitised.
“His style I think entertains, particularly the 21st Century viewer, because he doesn’t hold back on history yet doesn’t deliver it in a salacious way. There’s an honesty to it that makes it quite fun.”
The Terrible Tales have been the perfect platform to update displays and introduce new features at the museum to provide an immersive experience.
“It isn’t just about telling disgusting stories,” Dan laughs. “It’s about making sure you’re appealing to all the senses.
“It’s multi-generational - the grotty things we put out get compliments from the adults.”
They commissoned blacksmiths Kingdom Forge to create a gibbet cage, which was historically used to display the corpse of an executed criminal.
The museum has the gibbet for John Nichols who was executed in 1794 alongside his son Nathan for the murder of his daughter Sarah. His body was left to hang in chains at Honington.
“They’ve built us a different type of shape but still a gibbet cage,” Dan said. “People can get in and experience what it was like to be a dead body 200 years ago.”
Another macabre highlight to appeal to the senses is a custom made dissection table.
“For years we’ve been thinking how do we interpret for families the dissection of criminals.
“About a year ago I was sitting down with a volunteer (Hannah Pledge) chatting through what we wanted to do and she said ‘it sounds like you’re describing the game Operation’.
“We’ve done a giant full sized variation of it in Georgian style. People will be able to pull out the heart, the intestines and other bits of this poor guy.”
It was built in-house by Lance Alexander, TIC & Heritage Operations Manager, and colleague Ron Murrell.
Already a popular feature is a disease box which visitors can open to smell a pus ridden hand.
While the museum illuminates dark corners of history, it also revels in the beauty of Bury’s past.
Several items are being brought out of storage including a mosaic of stained glass from the town’s Abbey of St Edmund site – a timely piece given 2020 marks 1,000 years since the foundation of the Abbey.
“We’ve built a new plinth and light box and taken advice from The Stained Glass Museum in Ely, which has led to us creating what we think will be quite a beautiful thing,” Dan said.
Councillor locality budgets and support from the museum’s friends group has helped fund new digital displays including touch screen systems allowing them to present more information as well as trails and quizzes.
They can also use the screens to showcase all of Glenn Pickering’s illustrations.
“I see it like ripples on a river,” Dan explains. “The first ripple is seeing an artefact and if you want the next ripple you go for the infoactive.”
The museum received locality funding from Cllrs Cyrille Bouche, Ann Williamson, Kevin Hind, Tony Whittington, Donna Higgins, Nicola Popham, Katie Parker, Cliff Waterman, Robert Everitt and Darren Turner.
For February half term, they are planning Terrible Tales themed drop-in workshops and are looking to publish a book of the stories and illustrations this summer.
“For most people, particularly in their 20s, 30s and 40s, Horrible Histories were their introduction to history,” Dan said.
“We’re seeing parents who are really excited about this project. It’s really tricky to find a project that’s multi-generational but this seems to do it. Horrible Histories is this fantastic beginning point that really sparks the imagination.
“If you think what Horrible Histories did nationally, we hope we can do a small part of that here in Bury to preserve the amazing history this town has.”
Terrible Tales is now on display at Moyse’s Hall.
More by this authorPaul Derrick