The real-life story of a puma who once lived in the University’s landmark Old College in the 19th century has inspired an artist to reimagine the creature’s presence for modern times.

Exploring a tale that a real puma once lived in the Old College, Glasgow-based artist Michael Barr recently was inspired to create a new performative work. Dressed in a handmade costume, Barr has spent six months making the historic quadrangle home to a strange new resident, echoing the history of the mysterious ‘feline émigré’. As Barr continues to develop work for an exciting new exhibition at the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery in April, we explore this story and find out more about his practice.

Introducing a strange new resident in the University’s quadrangle

When beasts roamed the halls

Interested in the kinds of authority and vulnerability that are at play in social encounters, Barr was drawn to the idea that an animal such as a puma once roamed the halls of the University’s Talbot Rice Gallery, which originally housed the University’s Natural History Museum. The possibility was raised by an engraving created by Scottish painter and engraver William Home Lizars (1788–1859), which shows ‘College Museum Edinburgh’ as it was in 1822 when it was run by Professor Robert Jameson.

Intriguingly, hidden among mahogany cabinets, and specimens from the French taxidermist Louis Dufresne collection of stuffed birds that line the walls, the image shows three large beasts – very much alive and roaming free. A slightly fantastical quality to the image feeds doubts as to whether or not these animals were really there in the first place, or whether Lizars made use of his artistic license when creating the engraving. Nevertheless, it seemed to Barr to support the idea that the Museum was home to more than just human occupants.

Engraving by W H Lizars of ‘College Museum Edinburgh’ in 1822

Puma on board

More concrete details are revealed in an article published in the University of Edinburgh Journal in 1976. Written by Jessie M Sweet, a specialist on the life and work of Professor Robert Jameson, it was entitled ‘The University Puma’. Sweet writes:

“On 10 October 1826, William John Napier, Ninth Lord Napier, Captain of the Diamond frigate arrived at Portmouth from the South American station with some live animals including a young female puma (16 months old), two racoons, an African monkey (also a cask of fishes in spirit) which were destined for Robert Jameson’s Natural History Museum in the University of Edinburgh.”

Sweet draws on the account given in James Wilson’s 1831 Illustrations of Zoology, a copy of which is held in the University Centre for Research Collections. Wilson states that during the voyage from São Paulo, the puma:

“was in habits of intimacy with several dogs and monkeys, none of which it ever attempted to injure; nor did it even return the petty insults which the latter sometimes offered; but if an unfortunate goat or fowl came within its reach, it was immediately snapped up and slain.”

A big cat’s life

Following a brief stay in London, the puma arrived in Leith on 8 January 1827, dispirited by the cold weather. Although it was destined for Jameson’s collection, Wilson makes no mention of the animal living in the Museum. Rather, he describes encountering it in a lumber room elsewhere in Old College. Apparently lonely at night, the otherwise tame puma caused regular disturbances leaving Jameson to wonder what should be done with it. By the summer of that year the decision was taken to move it to a menagerie in Selkirk; the Museum Report Books – held in the Library of the National Museum of Scotland – note that the puma left the museum on 15 June, accompanied by museum attendant Archibald Wilson.

An artist’s impression

Barr has previously dressed as a bird and lived in a cave on the isle of Eigg in response to the myth of Sweeney – a 17th century Irish king who was cursed with madness and turned into something between man and bird. In a similar way the story of the puma was rich with possibilities. As a glimpse into a very different world, it evoked larger histories of colonialism and Enlightenment. The costume Barr made for his performative interventions was never intended to look exactly like a puma but was intended to distil the sense of something different, perhaps ‘other’.

When in costume Barr refuses to speak and moves around the Quad in slow, methodical movements, sometimes resting – and even sleeping – in the space. Lasting a number of hours at a time, these interventions have an element of endurance about them, while also allowing numerous passers-by to spot the strange figure, or simply walk right past without noticing.

Meet the artist

Michael Barr tells James Clegg, Assistant Curator at the Talbot Rice Gallery, about what it was like to take on this role and why the figure of the University puma became so important to him.

What do you aim to achieve with your interventions?

I don’t have outcomes in mind when I make these performative interventions. I like to work in a solitary way, whereby I have control over my actions. But I also like to avoid dictating how a ‘viewer’ comes to those actions, and how they respond to them, and ultimately what the actions mean.

Why were you drawn to the story of the puma?

Ultimately, I have been drawn to the story of the puma because it presents a figure which is fundamentally ‘other’; a foreign body – dislocated – which offers an uncertainty of intention. At a time when our political landscape is littered with narratives about foreign bodies, and the perceived threats that they embody, my acquaintance with the puma seemed timely.

What has the experience of being in the Old College quad in costume been like?

To a significant degree, it has been shaped by the material qualities of the costume that I wear. That costume is heavy – it was made from approximately 5km of jute twine, amongst other things – so my movements are generally ponderous.

How do people react to your presence?

Though I never talk to people to solicit their feedback, I have a sense as to how people experience my performative interventions. For example, a tourist may not see me at all, until, back at home, they look more closely at the photo they took, in which I appear in the background. On the other hand, members of staff may see me regularly, and for them my presence perhaps begins to become much more just a part of life.

I often sit, and remain quite still. So from a distance I may look like an object. As a viewer approaches, though, and sees a little movement, there is a realisation that they are looking at a subject. I feel that there is interest in the ambiguity, and that something slight but important occurs in the realisation that we cannot be certain about what we perceive when we inhabit our social landscape.

Michael Barr will exhibit at the Talbot Rice Gallery from 13 April to 6 May 2017.

For a full list of upcoming exhibitions, visit www.ed.ac.uk/talbot-rice

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