Funded by Arts Council England and devised and created by Amanda and Richard Johnson of Kidology Arts, Crate 39 is an art and sound installation inspired by these questions. It is on display at Buxton Museum and Art Gallery until Sunday 19 April.
On the afternoon of 12th December 1940 British Monitoring Stations detected X-Verfahren radio beams being laid down across the country by German forces attempting to locate their next target. By 6.15pm it was clear that the beams converged on Sheffield and the alarm was raised. Operation Crucible, Hitler’s plan to halt steel production and armament manufacture in Sheffield had begun.
At 7.41pm the first raid started. Wave after wave of Luftwaffe bombers dropped hundreds of bombs mainly on the City Centre until 4am the following morning. At 7pm on the 15th December the second raid started. This time more accurate the bombers found many of their targets and did much damage to the steelworks of the Don Valley. While the raids failed to halt steel production they did kill more than 660 people and they injured 1500 more.
During the raids a bomb was dropped on Mushroom Lane, the lane that runs down the side of Weston Park Museum. The explosion ripped through the museum causing extensive damage to the building and to its precious contents. Sustaining a large amount of damage were items from the Puttrell Collection – a collection of fragile and beautiful objects carved from Blue John.
A keen climber, pioneer caver, collector and talented amateur geologist, J.W. Puttrell bequeathed part of his large collection of Blue John to Weston Park Museum in 1939. The remainder of the collection was left to Buxton Museum and Art Gallery. A year later, and with much of the Puttrell collection reduced to smithereens by the bombing, Weston Park Museum carefully wrapped up their surviving art treasures, put them into storage crates and evacuated them to the safety of rural Derbyshire. Once there, they were stored in a farmer’s barn. Precious, rare, valuable objects waiting out the war to a background of farmyard noises.
London’s museums undertook a similar process at the outbreak of war – storing their treasures (along with the Crown Jewels) in the tunnels of Manod Quarry in North Wales. They took many precautions transporting their treasures including using lorries disguised as delivery vehicles for a chocolate company.
No records remain of the route Weston Park Museum took to Derbyshire. It is likely that the crates travelled by truck along the A57, a dangerous road that twists and turns around high cliffs and steep ravines. In 1940 Ladybower Reservoir had not yet submerged the village of Ashopton and the truck would have passed close by.
Although accounts of the Sheffield Blitz raids describe them taking place on bright moonlit nights, the Meteorological Office reports show that the following weeks and months suffered abnormally high amounts of snow with drifts of up to 12 feet deep. These conditions would have hampered Weston Park Museum’s plans to get their treasures to safety. The period also witnessed the unusual weather phenomena of Sun Pillars, Solar and Lunar Halos, Mock Moons and the Aurora Borealis. To add to the journey’s danger, German planes had been known to attack random targets in the area before returning home.
Carrying such a precious cargo over such a dangerous route would have been a difficult and stressful journey for the driver of Weston Park Museum’s truck. She would have had to contend with wintery conditions, a hazardous road and the danger of attack from the air. The chances of something going wrong were high.
What if a German plane shot at the truck as it rounded the corner on Cut-throat Bridge? What if a bullet dislodged the crate containing what was left of the Puttrell Collection? What if that crate fell off the truck and down the cliff into Ladybower Brook? What if the crate was found by Ivor, a little boy evacuated to Ashopton village a few months earlier?
Ivor may not have appreciated the value and importance of what he found. He might have seen the crate and its contents as his. He might have looked after the crate, hidden it from view. He might have transformed its contents into his own world. A safe and peaceful world of his imagination. A world in which he could escape the harsh reality of his life as an evacuee.