Mary Anning, pioneer fossil collector and palaeontologist, never gained the recognition she deserved in her lifetime, being both a woman and working class. Despite the fact that she discovered the first ichthyosaur, pterosaur and plesiosaur she had to rely on male geologists to lecture on her finds as the Geological Society of London did not admit women until 1919. In contrast, the Geologists’ Association (GA) has welcomed anyone, irrespective of their level of knowledge or their gender, since its founding in 1858, eleven years after Mary’s death. Therefore, it is appropriate that the GA should team up with campaigning group Mary Anning Rocks, firstly to help with the crowd funding for a bronze statue (created by artist Denise Dutton), erected last year in Lyme Regis, and then to support a tour around the country with her maquette.
Exciting events planned for Mary Anning’s stay
Mary has been on tour with her faithful dog, Tray, since her statue was unveiled in May 2022. On November 6 she arrived at the Hastings Museum and Art Gallery from the GA’s Festival of Geology held in University College, London. Wherever she goes her stay is marked with special events – and Hastings is no exception. The museum has collaborated with ExploreTheArch, a company which describes itself as a multidisciplinary arts collective involving installation, experiential theatre and community projects – but is so much more. Under Creative Director Gail Borrow, it is dedicated to reaching communities that experience barriers to involvement in the arts. So, two months of exciting events when the maquette, or Mini-Mary as she is affectionately known, will be in the gallery sits well with a group which so passionately offers arts to everyone.
Sarah Stafford (Executive Secretary of the GA) and Mary were welcomed by Philip Hadland, Collections and Engagement Curator, Gail and three talented enthusiastic young women, all freelance artists in the Early Career Team. Yasmin had painted a stunning mural, influenced by Mary Anning’s notebooks. It stretched the length of the Walkway Gallery and in a nice touch, had even used inks mixed and made in Lyme Regis. Cai, a violinist, had captured the sounds of the shore and her team’s testimonies, and together with Sam, a jazz violinist, created the soundscape. Catherine and Elizabeth, both harpists from Ukraine, made up the team and will join the two violinists to give a live performance in the gallery at Christmas. All the team had contributed to an interactive display on the opposite wall. This forms the background to the Fossil Finder in Us All activities that ExploreTheArch is organizing in November and December as part of the celebrations.
Involving the whole local community
Talking to these confident, articulate young women it became clear that it was not always so with Cai, Sam and Yasmin who have coped with challenges of neurodivergence, disability or an education system that often takes no account of the individual. Each of them is also representative of Hastings multi-cultural population, brought together through Gail who sees Mary Anning’s stay in Hastings as resonating with those who have felt in some way an outsider.
Just as Mary, the working-class woman, was an unlikely fossil collector on the beach at Lyme, so Fossil Finder in Us All wants to inspire, encourage and empower groups in the community who feel in some way they don’t belong. With funding kindly offered from the Ashley Family Foundation, Yasmin, leading a team from ExploreTheArch, will be on the beach at various times in November and December to help families, friends or individuals who don’t currently access and enjoy the shore – a free resource. It is hoped that ‘finder families’ will reflect Hastings’ multi-cultural nature and that everyone will engage with their own idea of beauty when choosing rocks or pebbles to take away. Philip Hadland will be available at all the sessions to study the finds and to give the geological back stories, over hot drinks and a snack back at the museum. He loves finding fossils as he is transported from the here and now to another time, millions of years ago, where he can let go of the stress of 21st century life. Cai, on the other hand, when surveying her collection of finds from the beach, feels really proud of what she has collected. Catherine, another member of the team, recounts that finding a fabulous pebble or fossil connects her to far away shores, lost in the grand drama of creation.
No longer the ‘unsung hero of fossil discovery’
Mary Anning’s maquette will travel to Bristol after Christmas and such is the enthusiasm for her presence at so many museums, she is not expected back in Lyme Regis until at least 2025. This amazing woman whose discoveries were not publicly attributed to her in her lifetime, is now being given her proper place in the history of geological investigation and understanding, thanks to the GA, Mary Anning Rocks, our wonderful museums and community arts groups such as ExploreThe Arch.
Viewers can enjoy the free experience at Hastings Museum and Art Gallery from 7 Nov 2023 to 21Jan 2024. Tickets for the free beach excursions and after-shore meets at the museum for ‘finderfamilies’ will be available to book on Eventbrite at explorethearch.com/fossilfinder
For more information on this project, please email [email protected]