The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Lists, Lists Everywhere – Preparing for an Exhibition

Since starting my traineeship at the Norfolk Regimental Museum in April, I have been helping prepare for the Armistice: Legacy of the Great War in Norfolk exhibition opening at the Norwich Castle in October. As preparations for the exhibition were well under way, the first thing I had to tackle were all the curator’s lists.

Brainstorming up an exhibition is truly a creative process. Due to the vast collections held in museum stores sprawled all over the county the result is A LOT of lists. Finalizing the object list for the exhibition is a big job. So off to the costume and textiles store I went. Every object has to be measured and recorded on the list in order for the display team to be able to plan how they will present the objects. There is a lot of people involved in putting together an exhibition. Therefore it is crucial for the object list to be as accurate as possible!

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Measuring one of my favourite objects – a commemorative textile featuring a bugler playing “Fall In”.

Although keeping track of nearly 500 objects is no easy task, we got to remember that every object on the list tells a story and it is up to us how we present that story in the exhibition. One of my favourite stories so far is that of Elfrida Long, born in Norwich in 1910. The family kept a scrapbook for their daughter, which in time turned into an eyewitness record of the experience of the First World War in Norwich. I am currently working on presenting an abridged version of the scrapbook in the form of a flipbook to include in the children’s section of the exhibition. Not only do I get to interpret an amazing primary source illustrating life in Norwich during the First World War, but also I get to work directly with museum volunteers who have already done extensive research on the scrapbook. Volunteers have been crucial in compiling research for the exhibition and it’s great their hard work will be put on display.

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A photograph of Elfrida with her father Sidney Long. Elfrida’s scrapbook will be on display at the Castle in October.

I can’t wait to see what the next couple of months of my traineeship will have in store. I love hands-on-history and appreciate having the opportunity to be able to help think of ways to make the object list come alive with stories. You can help tell the story of the First World War in Norfolk by sharing your family memories about loved ones living in Norfolk during and in the aftermath of First World War by emailing regimentalmuseum@norfolk.gov.uk.

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Storing a Samurai

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Phase 1 complete, the samurai waits to be taken down to conservation

Before Norwich Castle Museum’s spectacular Paston Treasure exhibition could be installed and revealed to the world, the bittersweet task of dismantling the departing Square Box on the Hill exhibition was necessary. After a popular run of four months, it was time to make way for something new, and give the objects on display a well-earned rest. As the Costume and Textiles trainee, I was asked to assist the conservation team with the removal and repacking of the items from our collection, including a museums attendant’s uniform, army surplus parka, and most gruellingly the 17th century samurai armour.

Phase one was to get it out of its glass display case, and onto a trolley; a more challenging endeavour than one might imagine, involving many supporting hands, much body contortion, and measured movements. With limited space for maneuvering within the glass case, the box the armour sat on was cautiously inched forwards. The separate plinth upon which the feet rested was temporarily removed to facilitate a smooth exit, meaning two of us had to hover over others whilst supporting the feet. Once out and securely positioned on the trolley, the armour was steadily moved down to the conservation lab to be taken apart piece by piece, inspected for any stress that may have occurred, and finally packed away into custom-made boxes.

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Condition checks before being packed away

The multiple components of the armour occupy a total of nine boxes; with supports, padding and ties used to protect the pieces and keep them in place. The various materials and techniques displayed from head-to-toe are incredible, and worthy of much photography! Helmet, face-plate, shoulder guards, chest piece, faulds, sash, armoured sleeves, shin and thigh guards, shoes… each intricately constructed, and just as intricately arranged around the body using cords and ties.

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Face plate in its box; the red interior is seen below

Dismantling the armour was a slow process, releasing and removing each piece individually, whilst ensuring those elements left behind remained well-supported with minimal disturbance. Taking the best part of a day, such care is essential to ensure all components are safely returned to storage and that the samurai may be preserved for future enjoyment. It was a joy to help out on the day, allowing me to inspect up-close this fascinating display of craftsmanship.


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An ‘Ace’ Find

 

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Late 19th Century Playing Cards belonging to Minna Watson

Strangers’ Hall is home to our Toy Collection, a fascinating and sometimes nostalgic mix of books, games, puzzles and toys. There are some absolute gems in amongst these stores, and today I want to share with you a truly ‘ace’ discovery – apologies for the terrible pun.

We currently hold over 70 packs of cards, but one deck in particular really stood out to me as something extra special. Whilst the artwork on the reverse of these late 19th century cards is undoubtedly beautiful, it’s the other side that warrants a dedicated blog post.

 

In this deck each card has been hand decorated, using the suit as a focal point for the drawing. Clubs are used to make faces, hearts used as hats, diamonds as watering cans, and spades as tennis rackets. Some of the drawings have writing on them as well, with a few of the hearts playing cards referring to ‘The Queen of Hearts’ poem.

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‘The queen of hearts
She made some tarts,
All on a summer’s day
The knave of Hearts
He stole those tarts
And with them ran away:
The king of hearts
Call’d for those tarts,
And beat the knave full sore;
The knave of hearts
brought back those tarts
And said he’ll ne’er steal more.’

These drawings are the work of Norwich born artist Minna Watson (nee Bolingbroke). Watson was a keen painter of views and animals, some of which were exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts between 1905 and 1926.

We might never know why Minna decorated this deck of cards, maybe they are just private doodles, a way of making a normal pack of cards personal to her or a gift for a friend. Whatever the reason behind these drawings, to have something so personal to the artist is a privilege.

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Portrait of Minna Watson – painted by her husband Charles J. Watson (undated) 

 

 


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During one of his first tasks as a Teaching Museum Trainee at Lynn Museum, Andrew Tullett discovers a surprising fact…

Not all visitors are welcome in our museums. Some manage to gain access behind the scenes without permission and, if left unchallenged, can cause permanent damage to the objects on display or in storage. It is often the smallest individuals that do the most damage. Staff of the Norfolk Museums Service therefore routinely use sticky traps to catch and monitor these pests.

02_20180604_154158Placed against walls in museums, in dark corners of storage areas, and even inside display cases, the sticky traps play a crucial role in keeping our collections safe. The type and number of each species of insect and other ‘creepy crawly’ caught in them are identified and recorded. If increases in population size are noted over time, which could quickly lead to destructive infestations, action is then be taken to remedy the problem.

Only a small proportion of the 100,000 or so species of insects found in Europe are a potential threat. However, among these are several that pose a serious danger. The trick is to know which ones. The larvae of the beetle Anobium punctatum, for example, are a threat to collections of wooden furniture, whilst the immature forms of Tineola bisselliella can be a major problem on fabrics. Fortunately, the most common pests are now so familiar that they have been ascribed English names, usually based on their foodstuff of choice – so A. punctatum is also known as the ‘furniture beetle’ (the larvae are commonly known as ‘woodworm’) whilst T. bisselliella has been ascribed the moniker ‘webbing clothes moth’.

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Titles such as biscuit beetle, common booklouse and cigarette beetle give obvious clues as to the pest’s diet. Others suggest an alarmingly restricted regime, for example, the Guernsey carpet beetle. However, not all common names are as revealing. The death watch beetle is partial to damp oak wood, for example, whilst the brown house moth is, unsurprisingly, less fond of eating brown houses than it is gorging on furs and feathers.

Some of the creatures caught on the traps are not pests. Indeed, spiders might even offer a pest management solution if they were given a chance, albeit that their methods are unsightly and may distract from the displays. Silverfish and woodlice can cause some damage in their own right, but their presence on traps in large numbers are also indicative of damp conditions. Such a climate would be optimal for a number of other, far more significant, agents of degradation and so measures to remedy the problem would have to be taken.06_20180604_154128_b

Inevitably, traps located near doors and walkways also collect a fair amount of debris other than insects, such as dust and human hair. Down on all fours, retrieving sticky cadavers on cardboard traps from the deepest darkest crevices of our collections is not the most glamorous work, but it is essential to keep the objects under our care safe. It’s a dirty job – but someone’s got to do it.

 


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Andrew Tullett, one of our new museum trainees, takes a (rather circuitous) trip through time …

One of the wonderful things about being a museums trainee is that you get to visit lots of fascinating places and can justify it by calling it work. This week part of my training involved visiting three independently run museums: Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History, Sheringham Museum at the Mo and the Museum of the Broads. It was a prospect that would have horrified my wife – three museums in one day and a round trip of almost 100 miles.

00a_TourA circular route around three independent museums: B – Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History, C – Sheringham Museum at the Mo, D – Museum of the Broads. E – Start/Finish

I am a proud owner of my Norfolk Museums Pass, but it occurred to me as I set off from home on Wednesday morning, that it has perhaps been rather restrictive. I have lived in Norfolk since the early 1990s and have visited most of the NMS sites with my family, several of them on many occasions, but I have somehow failed to visit any of the three museums on our schedule. Perhaps I thought with all the Museums Pass had to offer I had no need to seek out further gems. It turns out that this was a mistake, because each museum on our route was fascinating, unique and often quirky in a way that only the best museums can be.

The Fakenham Museum of Gas was a revelation. First, it was an industrial site, an anomaly in a county which is usually associated with wide open spaces, beaches and the Broads. Second, despite having taught chemistry lessons to high school students for the last fifteen years, to my shame I simply had no idea that gas could be extracted directly from coal, and that in the past every town had their own gas works that did exactly that. Third, and most incredibly, of the 4,000 or so gasworks built across Great Britain only three survive. The site at Fakenham is the last example in England. The museum deserves greater recognition – and far more visitors.

01a_The Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History (8)The retorts at Fakenham Museum of Gas and Local History where coal was once roasted to release trapped volatile compounds

Sheringham Museum at the Mo (which, incidentally, sounds like the ideal venue to host a temporary exhibition – ‘it’s on at Sheringham Museum – at the Mo’) is a different place altogether. With direct links to Norwich by train and lots of passing trade walking along the seafront, visitor numbers are much higher. It is obvious that far more time and money has been spent on the displays – but then the museum has been fortunate to have more money – and a much larger cohort of volunteers willing to give their time.

Sheringham is reputed to be the only coastal town where all of its lifeboats have survived, and the main gallery of the museum displays several of these. The building itself was constructed around one of them. Other parts of the museum employ the device of shop windows to display an array of artefacts. A new display will soon celebrate a notable bookshop in the town which closed down recently. Upstairs an exhibition recalled the life and career of the portrait photographer Olive Edis, who was one of the early adherents of the autochrome process and, in 1919, became Britain’s first official female war photographer.

02a_Sheringham Museum at the Mo (14)Part of Sheringham Museum at the Mo was built around the exhibits

Our third museum, in Stalham, is appropriately sited on the water’s edge. Originally based in Potter Heigham, the Museum of the Broads moved to its present location in the late 1990s. It is an eclectic mix of exhibits, showcasing the intriguing history of the Norfolk Broads, its wildlife and how the waterways have evolved from an important transport network to a holiday destination for those who simply enjoy messing about in boats. It even has a display of toilets used onboard watercraft. The highlight of the visit, though, is a trip out on ‘Falcon’, a Victorian steam boat, the only one of its type.

03a_Museum of the BroadsAndrew Tullett on ‘Falcon’, the unique steam-powered boat at the Museum of the Broads

From the extraction of gas from coal in Fakenham, to my coal-powered tour around the Broads, I returned home full circle. It may have taken me a while to discover these fantastic independent museums, but my return visits will occur much sooner – just not all on the same day next time.