Curious Contraptions and Mechanical Machines come to Derby Museums in Crafts Council exhibition

Curious Contraptions and Mechanical Machines come to Derby Museums in Crafts Council exhibition

Derby Museums welcomes Crafts Council touring exhibition, A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture at Platform Gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 15 September – 19 November.

A Curious Turn is an exhibition featuring 30 pieces of extraordinary automata, the first major review of its kind since 1992. The show previewed at Habitat’s Platform Gallery in 2016, as part of London Design Festival before a national tour.


Automata are moving mechanical sculptures that are brought magically to life by sequences of cogs, cams, and levers. They have delighted and bewitched people for centuries. Visitors will be able to turn, push and crank to see many of the pieces in action, while newly commissioned films will show other pieces in motion.

As part of the autumn programme at Derby Museums, the museum will host the exhibition as well as a programme of activities inspired by the automata.

Jonathan Wallis, Head of Museums at Derby Museums said:

“The exhibition is a perfect fit for a museum located in Derby, a city of makers. These fantasticly engineered machines built for the sheer joy of mechanics will be a delight for our visitors young and old alike. The cleverness of the makers alongside the thoughtfulness and above all the humour means that there is something that will appeal to everyone.”

A Curious Turn presents automata by leading makers of the last 40 years that range from the humorous to the macabre and from the playful to the satirical. Works on show take a look at key automata makers such as Rowland Emett, famous for creating the elaborate inventions of Caractacus Potts in the film Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (1968).

A newly commissioned piece by John Grayson was revealed at the preview at the London Design festival in 2016, before going on tour with A Curious Turn. The Discombobulated Brexiteer is a satirical piece looking at the corruptibility of politics, taking inspiration from a 17th century political scandal and connecting it to current affairs.  In this work The Rt Hon Wippingdale of 1716 has his head turned by two dominating females who are ensuring he makes the right choices on future legislation. This piece was specially commissioned for A Curious Turn.

Annie Warbuton, Creative Director, Crafts Council said:

“Always charming, sometimes witty, automata never fail to raise a smile.  What this exhibition shows is that they can also be astonishing works of art with contemporary relevance. 

A Curious Turn offers a chance to see rarely seen gems from the Crafts Council Collection alongside classics of the last 40 years. Drawing connections with film, animation and comic culture, this show doesn’t shy away from pieces with a darker humour or uncanny turn. 

We’re especially proud to be unveiling a fresh commission from John Grayson that, behind its charm, reveals biting, bang up-to-date, political satire.”

Pieces and makers on show include;

  • Sam Smith, widely seen as the grandfather of contemporary automata, has influenced generations of automata makers.  His beautifully painted colourful ‘toys’ at first glance look playful and harmless, but on closer inspection they explore the darker side of human life, as with A second groom being rowed across the lake by his third bride.
  • Paul Spooner, an automata maker who has been perfecting his making process for over 30 years. Spooner’s work is humorous and thought-provoking, as with the popular Crafts Council Collection work Five Artists Reflect on Their Waning Powers.  As well as being a skilled carver, Spooner is an accomplished illustrator and some of his drawings from the Crafts Council Collection will be revealed in the exhibition for the first time.
  • Melanie Tomlinson, whose automata are printed with beautifully intricate drawings of folklore and fairy tales, which are brought to life when the sculptures move. Tomlinson works hard to keep secret the mechanisms that make her characters come to life, making her decorative work even more intriguing.  

A Curious Turn will also look at the central role that Cabaret Mechanical Theatre and its founder, Sue Jackson, have played in the revival of automata from the 1970s onwards. Recognising the potential popularity of moving sculptures, Jackson actively encouraged a group of makers in Falmouth, including Peter Markey, Paul Spooner and Ron Fuller – all represented in A Curious Turn - to make automata to sell in her local craft shop, Cabaret. She often actively guided their creative direction, looking for wit and entertainment in the automata that she collected.

Activities include:

-        Automata Workshop, Saturday 23 September and Saturday 14 October from 11am-12.30pm at the Museum and Art Gallery.
Explore simple mechanisms including cams, cranks, levers and linkages to build your very own movable, hand-powered creation!
£3.To book, please go to Suitable for families.

-        The Art Hub: A Curious Turn, Wednesday 25 October from 10am-12noon and 1-3pm at the Museum and Art Gallery.
Create your own moving artwork and discover more about the curious world of automata.
FREE, suitable for all.

-        Museums at Night: Make a Mechanical Bubble Machine, Thursday 26 October from 5-8pm at the Museum and Art Gallery. Come along and make a fantastic Mechanical Bubble Machine with Artist, Martin Smith! FREE. To book, please go to Suitable for families with children ages 8+

-        Derby Mini Maker Faire, Saturday 28 October, 10am-4pm at The Silk Mill. Now in its sixth year, Derby Mini Maker Faire 2017 has taken its place as the biggest event in our annual programme! We are all about ‘making’ at the Silk Mill and this event is a true celebration of this. From laser cutters, ceramicists, weavers, 3D printers and metal workers… Derby Mini Maker Faire has it all. Come and see what you can make in this family friendly making extravaganza! £3: Adult Ticket. £2: Discounted Adult Ticket with voucher. FREE: Under 16s. Go to to obtain your voucher

High res images

A Curious Turn: Moving Mechanical Sculpture at Platform Gallery at Derby Museum and Art Gallery, 15 September – 19 November.

For more information please contact Emma Hallam on (


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