Five years ago, you would have got a surprise if you had opened Pip Strang’s freezer at her home in Thirsk. Instead of frozen peas and ice cream you would have found something completely different: a barn owl, a red fox and three red squirrels, all perfectly preserved, if a little chilly.
The reason they were there is that Pip, along with Nicola Newton, runs a very unusual business. The two women met in 2005, when Nicola worked as a Curatorial Assistant at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle and mentored Pip who was on a placement as part of her Museum Studies course at Newcastle University. After finishing her course, Pip got a job at the Yorkshire Museum as an Assistant Keeper of Biology, but the pair kept in touch and an idea started bubbling away.
‘We always said how great it would be to set up our own business providing natural history exhibitions for venues, not just museums, that could be tailored to their size and budget, but we thought it was just a pie in the sky,’ explains Nicola.
Raising capital was a problem. ‘It’s so unusual. It’s not like you’re starting up a nursery or a community group, says Nicola. ‘It doesn’t really fit into any category.’
But in 2010 Pip received some inheritance money, so they decided it was time to go ahead and try. They both left their jobs and set up Blue Tokay (named after the fun-looking tokay gecko) which now tours throughout the UK curating exhibitions.
Their second problem was the distance between each other. Pip, who is originally from Wimbledon, lives in Thirsk, North Yorkshire while Nicola lives in Lanchester in County Durham, an hour away. ‘We used to meet at one of the pubs along the A19 to talk about the business,’ recalls Nicola. ‘We did that for about a year. We’d work from home and meet at the same pub once or twice a week and talk through our ideas.’
From these early chats they chose to focus on creating three exhibitions: British Wildlife, Bare Bones, and Snakes. Next they needed to build up some stock, which meant a very unusual shopping list. Using their museum contacts, they found a local taxidermist – ‘There’s a lot of them in Yorkshire, surprisingly!’ laughs Nicola – and asked which animals were available, what was easy to get and what type he could prepare.
After making their first purchases they started filling up Pip’s freezer and garage, but as that space reached capacity, they realised they needed a base which also offered better storage facilities. The collections are now stored in a unit on an industrial estate. To prevent the skin of the taxidermy from drying out or splitting, everything needs to be kept cool and each item is stored in its own individual case to prevent pesky, nibbling insects.
Finding snakes was particularly tricky, especially the venomous kind. However, Nicola and Pip hit lucky when they were preparing an exhibition for Liverpool’s World Museum. The nearby Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine stocked venomous snakes to produce anti-venom. ‘We popped along to meet them and asked them what they did with the snakes that had passed away,’ explains Nicola. ‘They showed us the freezer where they were kept, and let us take some of the stock to be prepared by a taxidermist.’
Nicola and Pip’s exhibitions aren’t just full of dusty, old taxidermy that visitors have seen a hundred times before. They aren’t balding and looking more dead by the minute, decaying in a dark, musty room. They’re modern and lively and startlingly expressive. Prepare to see displays that look striking and tell a story through multimedia, graphic, audio and text interpretations, with items displayed in a lit glass case, viewable from all angles, paused in a snapshot of their lives, wonderfully up close and revealing.
For example, you don’t just see a barn owl. You see a barn owl with its wings spread wide, ready to swoop, in a wonderful moment between life and death (for the presumed poor mouse trying to escape in a field). You don’t just see an osprey skeleton. You see an osprey skeleton pouncing on a pike; a coastal gannet diving into a shoal of fish; squirrels chasing each other round a tree; a huge salmon leaping out of the water, its body straight, its head cocked. All the animals look active and alive (even the skeletons!). The centrepiece of one of the exhibition’s is a stunning, enormous, 12-foot skeletal mount of a Burmese python ready to eat an unsuspecting animal. Everything is frozen in an action-packed moment.
As well as creating natural history exhibitions and displays for venues including The Dales Countryside Museum (who were so impressed they commissioned two dioramas for their permanent displays), Blue Tokay also work with the National Trust to create permanent interactive displays. ‘It’s an interesting sideline for the business,’ explains Nicola. ‘The National Trust tell us what they need. We design it. They buy it. We install it. We’re actually thinking of patenting the design we used for one of the displays, it just worked so well.’
Pip and Nicola have also done conservation work for those who own taxidermy, and one of their clients is the Duchess of Northumberland. ‘It was a nice little job,’ says Nicola. ‘We went to her home and assessed her private collection, and then sent it to one of our taxidermists to clean it and fix any splitting.’
With so many different aspects to their business, an average day doesn’t exist for Nicola and Pip. ‘Every day is different from the previous one,’ laughs Nicola. ‘With it being our own business, we could work seven days a week 24/7 but we have family commitments, so we generally work three or four days a week. It’s a little bit of a juggling act.’ In between designing, transporting and installing displays, they also write briefs, contact potential clients, meet with museums and small venues, and work on building their social media presence.
Thankfully, they’ve never lost an item or had anything go horribly wrong – their biggest problem came with the newts. ‘They are in a cube of silicone, so it looks like you’re looking through the side of a pond,’ says Nicola. ‘We noticed that the newts started to look a little silver. There were chemicals coming out of the silicone, leaching onto the newts and discolouring them. We sent the display back to the makers in Leeds and, no matter what they did, the newts kept turning silver! In the end, they had to paint them with a different kind of paint to stop it from happening. It’s taken us nearly two years to sort that out!’
With busy days, lots of travelling and the pressure of being self-employed, do they ever consider returning to their museum day jobs? ‘Because we’ve been involved in these big projects, we know we are capable of so much more than what we were doing in the past,’ says Nicola. ‘We don’t want to go backwards, we just want to keep moving forwards with our exhibitions.’