the first and last straw

the first and last straw



The Potteries, as the name suggests, 1 is renowned worldwide as “the birthplace of the ceramics industry”; producing both fine art objects and utilitarian crockery. In recent times, as production was off-shored to third-world countries for greater profit, the entrenched Labour Council pursued a vigorous demolition programme of the city’s architectural heritage; at the same time as concentrating the finest examples of the ceramics industry in a new City Museum and Art Gallery.

As distinctive Victorian buildings were turned into lucrative parking lots pending eventual ‘re-development’, the Council proclaimed the new Museum a major global tourist attraction.

In spite of Josiah Wedgwood’s best intentions, scientific research and philanthropic pursuit of improved worker housing and education, 2 the working conditions were appalling; and almost nothing is ever mentioned about the poisonous chemicals involved in the production of fine china. 3 Despite these conditions however, the population of the Potteries remain extremely proud of their industry, its objects and … the Museum.

Although we considered the City Museum and Art Gallery an unintentional parody of postmodern eclecticism 4 we met with Jennifer Rennie, keeper of Fine Art, who was enthusiastic about the idea of an exhibition. Almost a year later, we went in for a meeting and were shown the Sculpture Court; a brown-brick four-storey atrium space with virtually no white walls and an overlooking balcony.

As we had already decided that we would work with the different departments of the museum to produce an installation we were not deterred. However, we were somewhat dismayed when she introduced us to Emma Dexter; a junior administrator despatched to the Midlands by the Arts Council to ensure the Glory of the Garden funding recently granted to the Fine Art department was appropriately used for approved culture.

Nevertheless, we talked to her about postmodernism, the Great Museum and ruined intentions; and at her request, obligingly supplied a reading list. 5

As the exhibition was to follow on from Lies in Ruins at the Institute of Contemporary Arts, the life-size bison, bales of straw and corrugated iron were delivered to the Museum from London. The installation drew on all the various departments of the Museum – artefacts; including a Tretchikoff, sewing machine, etc from the Museum’s Social History department; a nineteenth century local landscape painting from the Fine Art collection; stuffed animals from the Natural History collection and buildings researched in the Museum’s photographic archive; together with ceramic ornaments from local thrift shops. The Museum as a city and the city as a museum.

We called the exhibition Road to Ruin in reference to the controversy raging regarding the Council’s extensive demolition plans to make way for a new ring road and we featured a number of these condemned buildings in the cityscape.

We also visited the infamous local McGuinness Brothers’ scrap yard to select a beat-up Mini which was delivered to the Museum, to be taken in the lift and installed on the mezzanine balcony overlooking the Sculpture Court; much to the dismay of the guards who had been suspiciously watching the arrangement of incongruous objects.

The day after the car was installed, we arrived to find the technician busy at work removing its petrol tank … “Fire risk” he announced, nodding in the direction of the upstairs office.

Then Emma Dexter appeared with a worried look on her face and asked us whether the straw that had been delivered to the loading bay which we intended to use in the installation … was fire proof.

“No idea” we replied.
“Well” she said “Fire regulations require that it is fire-proof.”

After much enquiry, it was ascertained that there was a supplier of fire-proofing liquid for straw used in theatrical productions, in Covent Garden. Emma Dexter got on a train to London and purchased five litres which was then sprayed on our six bales of straw by the technician, whilst we continued arranging the installation.

The following day we arrived to be greeted again by an anxious Emma Dexter who wanted to know:
“Does the fire-proofing liquid kill the insects that live in the straw?”
“We do not know whether there are any insects that live in the straw, and if there are, whether or not the fire-proofer has killed them” we replied calmly.

“Well,” she said “I’ve just been on the phone to the Victoria and Albert Museum, and they have told me that a few years ago they made an exhibition which included straw and insects got out into the air conditioning system, made their way up to the costume department and began to eat the costumes.”
“Really?” we said.
“So, we need to find out whether the insects in the straw have been killed by the fire-proofer.”

We decided that it would be better if we found the answer to this administrative query ourselves and contacted the theatrical suppliers who responded saying they didn’t have the faintest idea. After much frantic research, the bales of straw were taken the following day to a council yard where there was a machine which was used in days gone by to remove fleas from mattresses, blankets, clothes and so on.

However, as this machine had not been used for many years the straw sat there whilst an obliging Council official searched for someone who could remember how to use it. When a retired operative was found, the straw was duly spin-cleansed and then delivered back to the Museum.

Shortly after its arrival, Emma Dexter appeared still looking anxious, and said:
“The Council have assured me that the insects in the straw are dead, but I’m concerned that the heat cleaning process will have made the straw extremely flammable.”
We politely suggested that she have another day out in London and bring back another batch of fire-proofing liquid … which she did.

The following day the technician fire-proofed the straw for the second time. However, Emma Dexter soon appeared and gravely informed us that she had discussed the whole issue with the Fire officer, the Health and Safety officer, the Head of Security, the Head of Administration; and, it appeared, just about anyone else in the entire Museum who might have anything to say about it.

She informed us that she had arranged a visit from the Council Fire Officer at one o’clock which we were required to attend along with all the other interested parties to ascertain whether the straw was flammable or not; and whether the exhibition would be allowed to open as scheduled.

As the hour approached and people began to congregate in the Sculpture Court ready for the long march to the loading bay, Glyn found himself in conversation with the Council Fire Officer. He was intrigued and amused that we had included in our cityscape the tower block which stood directly behind the Museum.


Drawing from Cities of the Dead: Road to Ruin 1986


Known locally as The White Elephant, it was purpose-built, at great expense, as new centralised offices for the Council; but never occupied. As the Fire Officer confirmed with much sarcasm; the floors could not take the weight of the Council’s filing cabinets; the windows would not open; the air-conditioning did not work; it broke both Fire and Health and Safety regulations … a local scandal.

Despite the seriousness of the occasion, Glyn and the Fire Officer engaged in ever more outrageous anecdotes about Council incompetence.

Once the Head of Security arrived we all trooped off to watch whilst the technician tested a sample of the straw with a lighted match. As we stood in silence, he attempted to light the straw but it would not burn. Emma Dexter suggested that it might be a good idea to test a sample from another bale … “just to be on the safe side.”

This the technician did and this time the straw caught fire. She looked vindicated. However, with a wink at us, the Fire officer stepped forward and said:
“So best of three, then?”

This time the straw did not burn. The Fire officer then agreed that the exhibition could go ahead on condition that fire hydrants were placed in every corner of the Sculpture Court, the Mezzanine, and the corridors. Also, the number of security guards for the exhibition was to be doubled; something which was to contribute, due to all the overtime involved, to the guards looking more favourably on our installation.

Finally, just before the opening, we went into the museum to be confronted by the sight of numerous large display panels of text informing the audience that “The work of Art in Ruins asks difficult questions about the relationship between nature and culture …” and so on, and so on.

We demanded that they were all removed. Emma Dexter insisted that the audience would not understand our installation without explanation:
“This is not the ICA, you know.” 6

Almost twenty-five years later, she agreed to be interviewed by Eva Weinmayr about the silence of Art in Ruins. She can be seen complaining on camera that Art in Ruins wanted to change the world, and about the difficulties of her first exhibition as a young curator working with … straw.


Road to Ruin: Press Release

Road to Ruin: Review Sentinel



German artist Anselm Kiefer is famous for using straw, tar and other ‘non-artistic’ materials on many of his large-scale paintings. We used to say that when the Tate Gallery acquired any of his paintings the conservation department would insist that they were without straw.

Following the collection of stuffed animals, corrugated iron and bales of straw for our installation in Cambridge 7 we received an extremely irate phone call from Hilary Gresty, the co-curator of the exhibition.

She told us that the art-transporters were meant to go first to the Tate Gallery to collect work and then come to us last … but didn’t.

As a result, despite the two large-scale books made by Anselm Kiefer being loaned for the exhibition, having already been carefully wrapped, protected by custom-made metal boxes and wrapped again; the conservation department refused to allow them to be placed in the van which already contained our, by now completely insect-free and fire-proof, bales of straw.


1 Arnold Bennett’s Five Towns, that is, six towns, making up the City of Stoke on Trent in Staffordshire.
2 cf. Josiah Wedgwood: Entrepreneur to the Enlightenment. Brian Dolan. Harper Perennial, London 2005.
3 For instance, mustard gas was one by-product of the glazing process.
4 See The Last Architect: Stirling/Wilford’s Clore Gallery Feature by Art in Ruins. Building Design No 838 May 29 1987.
5 Following our exhibition Emma Dexter invited a number of artists to “work with the various departments of the Museum.”
6 The notices were duly removed. One of the many security guards kept a notebook of visitors’ comments throughout the show and told us that it was the most popular exhibition the Museum had done so far, with some families returning two or three times.
7 Turning Over the Pages: Artists’ Bookworks in Contemporary Art Kettle’s Yard, Cambridge 1986

See also:
Stewart Home on institutional plagiarism Plagiarism: Art as Commodity and Strategies for its Negation Aporia Press 1987. Available at (page 26).
Terror: How Art is trying to Change the World Feature by Andrew Renton. Blitz Magazine. No 85 Jan 1990 (download below)