New art exhibitions explore Northumberland’s heritage

Northumberland's rich heritage is being brought to life in anew county-wide exhibition using animals to interpret the region’s untold stories.
Berwick Twelfth NightBerwick Twelfth Night
Berwick Twelfth Night

‘A Northumberland Menagerie’ by visual artist Bethan Maddocks uses intricate paper cut installations to tell unique and untold stories about animals, people and places from across the county.

Running across Museums Northumberland’s four venues, the exhibitions draw on nature to relay enthralling tales of community, climate change, migration and identity.

At Woodhorn Museum, the colliery’s historic cage shop has been transformed into a giant beehive where audiences can take part in the tradition of ‘telling the bees’, which involves sharing important news with the hive.

Woodhorn Museum 'telling the bees'Woodhorn Museum 'telling the bees'
Woodhorn Museum 'telling the bees'

It was thought telling the bees about significant life events, like births, deaths and marriages, would help ward off bad luck.

Bees, Bees, Hark to Your Bees!’ includes a giant beehive book where visitors can write down their important news, while beautiful beeswax carvings line the windows and a soundscape by musician Bridie Jackson fills the room with folksongs and tales from local beekeepers.

A second installation, ‘Work, Rest and Play’, commemorates the colliery’s pit ponies with stories of pit pony life and pony headgear surrounded by intricate papercut art.

Visual artist, Bethan Maddocks, said: “Many of the characteristics and traits we associate with coalfield communities, like working as one, togetherness, and camaraderie, can be seen in the animal kingdom.

Thou shalt have a fishie in MorpethThou shalt have a fishie in Morpeth
Thou shalt have a fishie in Morpeth

“I’ve used different animals found across the county to help tell the story of each exhibition. They symbolise broader themes including migration, the environment, gender, and class, which are all important issues today, and an important part of Northumberland’s history.”

A Northumberland Menagerie includes exhibitions at Hexham Old Gaol, Berwick Museum and Art Gallery, and Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum .

‘Of the Sea and Of the Sky’ at Berwick Museum and Art Gallery explores themes of trade and export, and how greed has led to the loss of species.

A giant paper cut Twelfth Night Pie symbolises the original 12-stone pie baked by Howick Castle’s housekeeper in 1770, filled with ‘four geese, four turkeys, two rabbits, four wild ducks, two woodcocks, six snipes, four partridges, two neats’ tongues, two curlews, seven blackbirds and six pigeons.’

A flock of paper cut birds escape from the pie to seek their freedom, while a chandelier of spinning paper birds and sea creatures casts shadows against the walls, representing Northumberland’s many lighthouses, its biodiversity and the impact of mass consumption.

At Hexham Old Gaol, ‘Over Familiars’ – a reference to the entities, usually animals, which were said to accompany witches - looks at stories of witchcraft, trials and incarceration, and the animals connected to them.

Woodcarvings of animals in the dungeon cast menacing shadows onto the walls, and a collection of elevated spinning wooden plates - inspired by the story of the Witch of Seaton Sluice – explores gender and class inequality within the prison walls, where being rich could transform your experience of incarceration.

Meanwhile, at Morpeth Chantry Bagpipe Museum, the building’s riverside location and its former use as a school has inspired a giant school of papercut fish swimming through the building’s beams.

‘Thou shalt have a fishie, When the boat come in’ explores fishing and folk traditions through songs and lyrics held in the Northumbrian Minstrelsy.

A Northumberland Menagerie has been made possible thanks to public funding from Arts Council England and Northumberland County Council.

Rowan Brown, Chief Executive of Museums Northumberland, said: “A Northumberland Menagerie is a beautiful exhibition that uses animals and the natural work to address important issues in our society and share stories from Northumberland’s past.”

A Northumberland Menagerie runs until Sunday 30 October.

For more information about A Northumberland Menagerie, and individual museum opening times and entry prices, visit