November 7, 2014

It’s Friday, and in exactly one week, it will be the dress rehearsal for Wonderstruck. Just one week. It doesn’t seem too long ago that we were at the first workshop, but that was a whole month ago. I guess that’s the thing about spending a lot of time in a place where things exist entirely out of time. We can be forgiven for losing a few days.

Only a few of use went to the rehearsal last night, the Keen Guerillas who fancied singing in smaller groups. It wasn’t the usual reverential quiet that greeted us when we got to the museum. Every so often, Manchester Museum hosts After Hours, billed as ‘evening social events where you encounter the unexpected’, and hearing the blast of an electric guitar on entering the foyer was very unexpected. Quite appropriate, actually, for what we’re trying to do. Except we’re doing it with voices and stories, not electric guitars and projection screens.

Tina from People United was there last night, presumably to make sure that we were actually working and not just pulling silly faces before stuffing them with biscuits. She added an extra voice to ours. The Guest Guerilla.

We gathered in the Kanaris lecture theatre, which suddenly seemed very big with only a few of us in there. I don’t need to tell you about warm-ups by now. Funny faces etc. And of course the travel mugs and biscuits were there – we definitely would have been lost without them. Half of the group (me included) stayed with Boff and Sarah – the Keen Guerilla leaders, the Premier Primates – and the other half went with Dan and Josh to work on some storytelling. That’s the other part of Wonderstruck. Bringing the exhibitions to life through performing, telling stories, communicating the wonder of learning and investigating through the power of words.

They vanished, and we began.

Considering that there were only eight of us in total, we still filled the room with song. I suppose that’s the point – if we couldn’t fill an empty room, how would we cope when the audiences were there? And when you took away the Guest Guerilla and the Premier Primates, that left us five. The first song we learned was called Deeper on Down and was very much in the style of a barber shop quartet, minus do-wops. But there was a harmony. And clicking in time, which felt a bit like West Side Story. No jazz hands as of yet, but I’ll keep you posted. Then a reprise, of sorts, of Deeper on Down, called Higher and Higher. Harmonies again, and no clicking. And finally, we were taught A Song for the Scientists. There were harmonies to this one initially (and beautiful harmonies they were as well), but we decided to leave them when we were told the original inspiration for the song.

The HMS Challenger was one of the first research ships, fitted out with laboratories and dark rooms. Frederick G Pearcey was only seventeen when he joined the expedition as a cabin-boy-lab-assistant, and started off by getting paid seven old pence a day. He worked his way up through the science-y ranks to taxidermist, and when the voyage returned, was employed in the Challenger Office in Edinburgh before an expedition took him back to sea. Eventually, he ended up in the Manchester Museum in 1889, helping in the arrangements of the natural history collections.

So, a Song for the Scientists is a sea shanty. Call and response. And somehow, we didn’t think that the sailors of times gone by would have organised themselves into harmony groups.

We decided to leave the Kanaris and go into the depths of the museum, walking through the route we would (I think) take during the performances. I don’t want to give too much away, but there were a lot of stairs, and a lot of clicking. And a sense of mischief. Singing in a museum. I think we got the feel of it, the feeling like our parents had given us unexpected permission to jump in a puddle.

We can only imagine what it must have been like, setting off to explore and investigate the world. And that was the purpose of the Challenger. They were exploring to expand the knowledge of the deep sea, but they were exploring to explore. To know more about the unknown. And they must have stood there, on the deck of the ship at night, staring into the infinite horizon, and thought: there is so much we don’t know. And there is.

Sadly, I can’t make the rehearsal on Sunday. Someone has to caffeinate the general public. But Monday night’s rehearsal will be attended with vigour. It can’t come soon enough.

Set a course for next weekend, shipmates. Second star to the right, and straight into wonder.

Image: Drawing of the laboratories on HMS Challenger from Natural History Museum

Leave a Comment