Further highlights include Chinese root sculptures and scholar’s rocks to ancient stone carvings, meteorites, and imperial relics, including Ranjit Singh’s gilded bezoar stones and a sapphire inscribed as belonging to King Seleucus (3rd century BC).
The leading highlights of the exhibition are three of only four textiles in existence produced from one of nature’s rarest materials: the silk of golden orb-weaver spiders (Nephila Madagascariensis). Consisting of two shawls and a lamba, these artworks represent the culmination of centuries of tireless human endeavour and ambition to harvest one of the most beautiful but elusive materials on our planet. They also represent the culmination of almost 20 years of work and effort by Simon Peers and Nicholas Godley who led the project in which a large team created these pieces from the silk of more than two million spiders.
The process included fifteen years of research, drawing what knowledge they could from the efforts which preceded them in the 18th and 19th centuries, designing and re-designing equipment for silk extraction in a tireless process of trial and error, and with little more for guidance than images in centuries-old notebooks, a selection of which will be on display at the exhibition. It then took a further eight years for production, during which they employed and trained a large team, including eighty men and women to scour the highlands of Madagascar for five years collecting spiders every morning for ‘silking’ before returning them, unharmed, to the wild that same evening.
The silking process was managed by harnessing groups of twenty-four spiders at a time, each spider placed in an individual compartment with equipment custom designed and built to enable the careful threading of silk from their spinnerets onto cones. Systems were then devised and adapted to accommodate the very special properties of this silk, to allow for it to be thrown, twisted and transferred onto bobbins. Finally, it was placed onto handlooms for weaving, and then into the hands of weavers who had mastered the techniques necessary to manage the special tensile properties of the silk. All of which was completed by hand, without a single mechanical process, and a carbon footprint of net zero.
Simon Peers is a highly reputed English textile designer and creator who has lived in and loved Madagascar for over 30 years and whose traditional Malagasy textiles can be found amongst the world’s great houses and museums. Nicholas Godley, whose grandmother was born in Madagascar, has been fascinated by the island since his first trip there in 1993 as a development economist, exploring ways for raising living standards in one of the world’s poorest countries. As an entrepreneur he recognised the possibilities for an unexplored natural resource with extraordinary properties of strength and elasticity whose potential to science remains full of promise. Attempts to replicate these properties into synthetic materials continues to attract enormous funding within the most innovative science laboratories across the world.
The project also produced a cape which is not included in this exhibition. The textiles have previously been exhibited at museums including the American Museum of Natural History in New York City in 2009 (an exhibition which broke the museum’s visitor records), the Chicago Art Institute in 2011 and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London in 2012, which dedicated six months to showcasing the
textiles in a standalone exhibition to wide public acclaim.