Tag Archives: Steam engines

New Age of Discovery – Steampunk comes to Snibston Discovery Museum

On 10 March, after enjoying a day visiting Snibston Discovery Museum’s collections, we returned to experience the New Age of Discovery – Snibston Colliery in 2100, complete with steampunks, music, film and performance. The event was billed as ‘Snibston’s past becomes the key to a very different kind of future’.

Part of the Transform Snibston programme, which has involved artists in a major project, the New Age of Discovery (NAOD) started with drinks, the opportunity to ‘steampunk’ a pair of 3D glasses, and mingle with steampunks and guests. The staff were suitably attired in steampunk clothes and vied for attention with local steampunks attending the event. We were then led through a darkened museum, with displays draped with dustsheets, while our guide explained how Snibston had been put to sleep after oil had run out. That night, though, it would reawaken to a new age of coal and steam.

Our tour led us outside and into the theatre foyer where food, appropriate to the local area of Leicestershire (including Melton Mowbray Pork Pies!) awaited us. Suitably refreshed, we entered the theatre for a showing of the 3D steampunk silent movie, Clockwork, by ADEPT’s artists Steve Manthorp and Shanaz Gulzar. Accompanied by the sound of ticking clocks, the story unfolded of a sister who was kept a slave by her brother, but who found refuge in working on clocks and making mechanical objects. While the film immersed us in a steampunk and Victorian world, I wasn’t totally convinced of its place in this event, as it did not obviously link to Snibston and the collections there, as much as some of the other aspects of the evening. The following day we visited Bradford Industrial Museum to see the Steampunk exhibition there (more of this in another blog). A key part of the exhibition was this film, and I felt that it proved a more appropriate fit for that context.

On leaving the theatre, we were led outside to a soundscape of burning braziers and sixteen ornate Victorian looking trumpets through which we could hear oral histories from people who had worked at the colliery. This provided an evocative atmosphere in which to hear these stories, but it was difficult at times to see where the next sound station was. I felt that more light or signposting of each sound station would have helped.

The path then led to the old workings of the collieries themselves. Amazing structures lit up again the night sky, these provided the backdrop to the climax and, I felt, most successful part of the event. We were first treated to a stunning rendition of opera from Lili la Scala, who sang from the pit head gear. Then, steampunks processed up from there to a walkway. Accompanied by music, images of miners, the colliery, mine workings and steam engines were projected onto an enormous screen. Finally, Kit Cox announced the New Age of Discovery, fireworks exploded over the screen and, to everyone’s surprise (or at least most people’s!), a steam train broke through the screen and charged up the track towards the museum. This was followed by a steam engine, from which jumped steampunks carrying our limited edition gifts – carved pieces of coal, very fitting for a colliery!

The evening over, we walked back through the museum where another surprise awaited us. The beam engines that we had admired earlier in the day were demonstrating how smoothly – and quietly – they could produce power; a fitting end to our visit to the Age of Discovery. We then made our farewells to steam, steampunks and 2100 and returned to the 21st century with its oil and combustion engines.


Snibston Discovery Museum: the Fashion Gallery

Snibston Discovery Museum, Coalville, Northwest Leicestershire, is an eclectic mix of science and technology activities, steam engines and beam engines (both built by Gimson and Co. Leicester), transport and a fashion gallery. In some ways, the fashion gallery sits a little uneasily with the rest of the exhibits at Snibston, it isn’t that obvious why the gallery is here, rather than at another museum.

The fashion gallery was the main reason for my visit. Containing corsets and underwear from the Symington Collection, it was of interest for two reasons – its links to Harborough Museum where I have worked on the collections, and the influences on and links to Steampunk, one of my research areas. Within the gallery, there are fine examples of corsets over a range of time, which show the development in styles and corresponding effect on women’s bodies in terms of how they should look and what the corsets were doing to them physically and medically. These objects are part not only of our fashion and textile history, but also our social history and technological history. They demonstrate developments in textiles, pigments and dyes, the types of stiffening materials – whale bone, steel, etc. – all of which show the other types of industries involved in the production of women’s clothing and the moral implications of some of these activities.  They also provide evidence of the more obvious changes in how women were supposed to look, be it high or low waists, wasp waists, and associated accoutrements such as bustles, which themselves grew larger or smaller, higher or lower, depending on the fashion in a particular season or year.

The influences of historical corsets on Steampunks are clear, in terms of inspiration for clothes. The interesting thing is how Steampunks take the basic notion of a corset and subvert it for their own purposes. The corset is to be seen, it is no longer a foundation garment, but a statement of fashion and identity. The type of corset you wear as a female Steampunk not only influences how you will be seen, but also the type of Steampunk you are, be it explorer, inventor etc. Playing with identity is an important aspect of being a Steampunk and so, just as there is cross dressing across genders and classes, so there are cross influences across types of identity; no style is definitive, mash-up is encouraged.

Steampunk corsets can be an adaptation rather than a faithful representation of a Victorian piece of clothing – there may be shoulder straps attached, which is not the case with traditional corsets. Traditional corsets sometimes included lace and ribbons, and Steampunk corsets may do so as well, but the addition of other objects is not unknown; for example, embroidered cogs and gears, or metal ones, a fob watch slung from the buttons and, in the case of author Gail Carriger‘s dress – spoons (for an image, see The Steampunk Bible by Jeff VanderMeer with S. J. Chambers). Customisation and adaptation is encouraged in Steampunk, which helps to define identity. This does not mean that the corsets are not authentic. Their authenticity comes from the underlying influences on the culture and adherence to a Steampunk aesthetic, but perhaps more importantly Steampunk ethos. The corsets meet the ‘rules’ of Victorian, technological and do-it-yourself influences. They are not meant to be copies of Victorian corsets, they are meant to be authentic representations of a culture and individual identities.