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Hero or Villain? Cultural Icons of the Museum Collective

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Members of the Museum Collective – a youth group run regularly by Royal Pavilion & Museums – worked with local ceramist Louise Bell to create figurative ceramics based on the theme of heroes and villains.

They created these works as a response to Hove Museum’s exhibition Cultural Icons: Remaking a Popular Pottery Tradition which took a modern take on the Victorian Staffordshire flatback. Victorian flatback figures were a distinctive pottery form which emerged in the 1830s to meet public demand for objects that depicted iconic people and major events.

Emperor Napoleon III, c1857 Earthenware, enamelled and gilt, Empress Eugenie holding the Prince Imperial, c1857 Earthenware, enamelled and gilt, from Royal Pavilion & Museums collection

Emperor Napoleon III, c1857 Earthenware, enamelled and gilt, Empress Eugenie holding the Prince Imperial, c1857 Earthenware, enamelled and gilt, from Royal Pavilion & Museums collection

But what is a hero or a villain? Can someone be both at once? The Museum Collective explored this idea:

Collective member Callum said his ceramic piece was “a recreation of a scene from Spec Ops: The Line, a video game adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s Heart Of Darkness. The game repeatedly states there are no clear cut heroes in war, and has the player and their in-game avatar Walker participate in horrific actions despite having noble goals.”

Spec Ops: The Line, Callum

Spec Ops: The Line, Callum © Louise Bell

Emily looked at a historical figure linked with the traditional Staffordshire flatback, “for my ceramics I chose to portray Queen Victoria in an image which she is recognisable for, older in age and wearing black, a crown and a white veil. I chose to portray this image of Queen Victoria as I envisage her as a character where the image of hero/villain can be blurred. I myself have often regarded her as a hero, a female ruler during a time where the role of women was contested and constrained. However, I have also come to see her to represent the British Empire and imperialism with the difficult connotations this represents. The image of, if not the person herself presents contradictions which can be viewed as both a hero and villain, not a clear character.”

Queen Victoria, Emily © Louise Bell

Long-term MC members, Rowan and Eliph, stated “we decided to work collaboratively, and were inspired by the story of the Gruffalo. We explored who was the villain of the story. We played with scale to suggest that the mouse was the true villain. We wanted to make the piece accessible for all ages, using a well known story like the Gruffalo.”

The Gruffalo, Rowan and Eliph

The Gruffalo, Rowan and Eliph © Louise Bell

Another member Jacob noted “with my ceramic piece, I wanted to really embrace how symbolically Medusa, as a Greek Mythological character, is an allegorical figure for fatal beauty and a statue for a feminist rage. The reason behind this is the inequality and the mistreatment of women that is still happening today – therefore this is relevant to how easily males objectify and materialise women as something to control.”

Medusa, Jacob

Medusa, Jacob © Louise Bell

New member Dorothy mused “when I was told what we’d be doing in this ceramic workshop it was really hard, at first, to think of what Heroes and Villains really were – and after hearing and seeing everybody else’s amazing work, I think it must mean something different to everyone. Who came to mind for me was Nurse Ratched, from the book (and film) One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey. The nurse really stuck with me as someone, who despite not being real, I truly detest. Possibly as despite being in a position of trust, one intended for caring for people – she is still one of the worst villains I can think of.”

Nurse Ratched, Dorothy

Nurse Ratched, Dorothy © Louise Bell

Whereas Charlotte chose a hero, she said “I based my ceramic on Sue Heck from The Middle; I chose her because her character is really quirky and optimistic even though everything goes wrong for her all the time.”

Sue Heck from The Middle, Charlotte

Sue Heck from The Middle, Charlotte, © Louise Bell

Another member Amelia said “The character that I chose was Pearl from Steven Universe. That cartoon played an important part in my childhood and Pearl has always been my favourite character. She’s smart, brave, caring, generous and strong. I admire her characteristics since she does not portray the stereotypical ideas of female. Even though she’s strong and independent, she also has a delicate heart and is a very loving character.”

Pearl from Stephen's Universe, Ameila

Pearl from Steven Universe, Amelia © by Louise Bell

Thanatcha also used a hero, “I chose ‘Totoro’ by Studio Ghibli as my hero because the character is from a film that I have watched since I was little and it reminds me of my childhood. In my opinion, the character is a representation of cheerfulness and warmth.”

Totoro, Thanatcha

Totoro, Thanatcha, © Louise Bell

Back of Totoro figure, Thanatcha

Back of Totoro figure, Thanatcha © Louise Bell

Discover More

Want to join the Museum Collective? They’re a group of young people (14-25 years) who are interested in all things arts, museums and heritage. We meet regularly at Brighton Museum and do lots of fun projects like this one. If you want to join us, email

  • Unfortunately the Museum Collective is not currently running due to Covid-19 but do get in touch as we will re-start as soon as possible.