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Brett Westwood explores how bears have influenced art, literature and belief. Who doesn't love teddy bears? But their similarity to us has been an advantage and a downfall.

Bears (of the family Ursidae) and people go back a long way, they are disconcertingly human-like, captured in the most popular of tales, Goldilocks, Snow White and Rose Red and Winnie the Pooh. Many cultures from northern Europe to North America to China have traditionally worshiped bears, regarding them as the spirit of ancestors. In the Palaeolithic bear bones were carefully buried in unnatural poses and their skulls in a circle. In Christianity saints have tamed bears as a sign of holiness though bears were persecuted to deter pagan cults. In medieval times the cruel and gruesome sport of bear-baiting was a common pastime, enjoyed by royalty and peasant alike. Seeing a bear tormented by dogs may have been pleasurable, but it was also a physical representation of suffering and struggle at a time when bears were still part of a greater mythology. The mystical qualities of bears is reflected in our seeing them in the stars, the Great and Little Bear track their way across the heavens. The constancy of the Great Bear constellation was used by slaves in the American Civil War to guide them to safety, away from conflict; their song "Follow the Drinking Gourd" tells how to follow the lights of the constellation - the gourd being code for The Great Bear. Today the white polar bear is a potent symbol of climate change, reliant on ice covered land it is in danger of losing its habitat. As we become more removed from nature the style of the much-loved teddy bear has changed. Originally they looked like real bears, today they are pink and fluffy and short-limbed. Our relationship with bears has always been complex and still is today.

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28 minutes

Last on

Mon 14 Sep 2015 21:00

Professor Adrian Lister

Professor Adrian Lister
Professor Adrian Lister has been research leader at the Natural History Museum since 2007 and is a palaeobiologist interested in patterns and processes of species-level evolution, adaptation and extinction. His work focuses on mammals of the ice age, especially deer, elephants and mammoths. In addition to excavating and studying fossil material from around the world, he has studied living elephants in Ghana, India, Nepal and Borneo.

He is the author of more than 150 scientific papers and four books, Evolution on Planet Earth, Mammoths: Giants of the Ice Age, Mammoths: Ice Age Giants and a children’s book, Tracker’s Guide to Ice Age Animals. Prior to joining the Museum, he was Professor of Palaeontology at UCL. He completed his PhD at Cambridge on evolution of fossil mammals.

Richard Sabin

Richard Sabin
Richard Sabin is Principal Curator in the Department of Life Sciences at the Natural History Museum, specialising in the study of the form and function of marine mammal skeletal anatomy.

He is special advisor to the NHM’s UK Strandings Project, carries out endangered species identification work for UK and international law enforcement, and develops internationally recognised protocols and techniques for the extraction of genetic material from the Museum's research specimens.

Bernd Brunner

Bernd Brunner
Bernd Brunner is a writer working at the crossroads of history, science and culture. His writing has appeared in Lapham's Quarterly, The Huffington Post, The Smart Set, Best of American Travel Writing and major German publications such as Süddeutsche Zeitung and Die Zeit.

He is the acclaimed author of Bears - A Brief History, Moon - A Brief History, Inventing the Christmas tree, The Ocean at Home - An Illustrated History of the Aquarium and The Art of Lying Down - A Guide to Horizontal Living.

Catherine Howell

Catherine Howell
Catherine Howell is Curator of Toys and Games at the V&A Museum of Childhood. Her main research interests are games, optical toys and soft toys and she has contributed her expertise to a number of exhibitions and publications.

She has played a key role in many of the Museum’s major exhibitions including Alice: The Wonderland of Lewis Carroll (1998). She was the curator of the hugely successful touring exhibitions Teddy Bear Story: 100 years of the teddy bear (2002) and Magic Worlds (2011).

Catherine Howell has worked at the Museum of Childhood since 1991 and is the collections specialist on the history of childhood toys and games.

Professor Erica Fudge

Professor Erica Fudge
Erica Fudge is Professor of English Studies at the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow. She is the author of a number of books and essays on human-animal relations in the English Renaissance and in the contemporary age.

Her work has also appeared in History Today magazine and she is the director of the British Animal Studies Network.

Professor Paul Pettitt

Professor Paul Pettitt
Professor Paul Pettitt is Professor of Palaeolithic archaeology at Durham, specialising in the European Middle and Upper Palaeolithic. In 2003, he co-discovered Britain's only examples of Palaeolithic cave art at Creswell Crags in the Midlands, and since then I've directed excavations at the Crags.

He has also co-directed excavations in the world famous site of Kents Cavern with Mark White, with whom he also wrote The British Palaeolithic.

Lee Pullen

Lee Pullen
Lee has a degree in astronomy and a Master’s in science communication. He has written on astronomy for NASA, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and the International Astronomical Union.

He is currently works in the planetarium in At-Bristol where he heads a team that produces content for over 100,000 visitors a year.

Professor Kimberley Reynolds

Professor Kimberley Reynolds
Kimberley Reynolds is Professor of Children's Literature in the School of English Literature, Language and Linguistics at Newcastle University and Honorary Senior Fellow at the Centre for the History of Emotions at the University of Western Australia.

She has served on the board of a number of national bodies and has been a trustee of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children's Books, since it opened in 2004. She has published widely across the history of children's literature including Children's Literature: A Very Short Introduction for Oxford University Press.

With the help of a Major Leverhulme Fellowship she recently completed a book called Left Out: the forgotten radical tradition of publishing for children in Britain, 1910-1949. This will be published by Oxford University Press in spring 2016.

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