The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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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.

 


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‘So what do you actually do?’

Laura answers the question everyone has been asking her the past six weeks.

I am now just over six weeks into my traineeship with the Collections Management team, and six weeks into living in a new city. It has been nothing short of brilliant.

Catching up with friends and family over the bank holiday weekend brought about the question ‘So what do you actually do?’ – a perfectly valid question because if I’m being completely honest I wasn’t entirely sure what Collections Management was before I started.

Norfolk Museums Service holds over 3 million objects and records. As much as we would love to have all of this on display to the public, our museums simply don’t have enough space. Only around 15% of our collection is on display, so what happens to the other 85%? This is where Collections Management comes in.

All our objects need to be looked after to ensure they last as long as possible into the future, so Collections Management have a variety of responsibilities to make this happen. We work with a number of people across the service including conservators, curators, volunteers, and the general public. Our tasks can range from documentation to cleaning, and in this blog post I will provide a brief explanation on each of these tasks.

My time is split across 3 NMS sites – Shirehall, Stranger’s Hall, and the Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall. Each location is associated with a different aspect of Collections Management.

Shirehall and Documentation

My time at Shirehall has been dedicated to documentation for the Hallam Ashley Project. We have 1000s, and I mean 1000s of negatives produced by Hallam Ashley – a Norfolk based photographer who was active from the 1920s to the 1980s. Much of his photography was taken around Norfolk so the collection is under the care of NMS.

Negatives can be challenging to work with since they gradually deteriorate over a long period of time and can even combust it they are not stored at low temperatures. (They also smell of vinegar which can be a bit overwhelming!) Our task here is to scan the negatives to make sure we have digital copies, this reduces the need to remove the negatives from protective storage. Also, it allows us to create detailed documentation in MODES to allow the public to access the collection.

Side note – MODES or (Museum Object Data Entry System) is a digital database containing information on all the objects NMS holds. It shows us dates, statements of significance, images, and descriptions.

Strangers’ Hall and Auditing

Strangers’ Hall has the most incredible collection of Toys – but they need auditing. This means making sure that their MODES records are up-to-date with locations, dates, descriptions and imagery. This not only ensures that the collections are easily accessible in search functions for the general public and curators, but it also allows us to check that our objects are in tip-top condition. During the audit we might find objects that need a bit of cleaning, or need alternative storage – particularly objects that are fragile.

In the Toy Store we have a huge collection of children’s books which I cannot wait to explore – I did my dissertation on children’s books, but more on that in a future blog post.

The Norfolk Collections Centre and Deep Cleaning (and a bit of everything else)

The Norfolk Collections Centre at Gressenhall consists of two large warehouses where we store oversized objects from across the Museums Service. It is an Aladdin’s Cave, any object you can name we probably have it in store – sofas, fireplaces, sewing machines, even toilets…

Our traineeships started just in time for the annual deep clean which has taken up the majority of my first six weeks. I recommend you read Nicole’s post on this – it’s fantastic! To quickly summarise, whilst we continually assess the condition of our collections, we use the annual deep clean as an opportunity to do this on mass with big teams here every day for two weeks. We give all our objects a thorough clean, check for any pest infestations and ensure they are stored appropriately.

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Deep cleaning a toilet with Jessica

 

Sometimes curators will call on us to retrieve objects for temporary exhibitions. I never thought I’d say I was responsible for moving a historic piece of Great Yarmouth’s jetty across Norfolk for Time and Tide’s ‘Drawn to the Coast’ Exhibition.

The Collections Centre is also open to the public on specific occasions. I was able to observe the unveiling of Samson, a huge fundraising project to conserve the famous Norwich carving back to its original glory. This week we have our May Half Term events in store along the theme of Toys and Games, but that is a topic for another post.

Collections Management also have a number of other responsibilities within the museum. These include loans in and out of the collection, rationalisation, and improving public access to the database. I am yet to learn about these functions but I will update you when I encounter these in the coming months.

So next time someone asks me what my job actually involves I can direct them to this blog. Collections Management is very much behind the scenes in the museum world but serves a number of purposes to ensure there is still a collection of objects in years to come!

 

 


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Cleaning Collections

 

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Today we find out more about what Collections and Exhibitions trainee Nicole has been up to at the Norfolk Collections Centre.

The Deep Clean at the Norfolk Collections Centre is an early highlight on the Teaching Museum Traineeship calendar. It opens up the opportunity to delve deep into the helm of the Norfolk Museum Service’s Aladdin’s Cave of collections. Although each museum within the service has its own on-site archives, this is the mother ship of them all. Based in the grounds of the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum, the Collections Centre consist of two large warehouses, broken down into aisles of high shelving lined with history. From Mammoth Tusks to Snap Dragons, Colman’s Mustard Presses to intricately carved wooden mantelpieces, each corner turned or aisle passed catches your eye with objects of bait that tempt your curiosity with what could turn into hours exploration. Alas, there is a job to do, and a big one. Although collection care is a continual process, the annual deep clean offers the service an opportunity to thoroughly assess and maintain the condition of objects on mass. It calls upon teams of conservators, collections managers, volunteers, and of course trainees, to grab small brushes in one hand, low powered vacuum cleaners in the other, and clean shelves object by object.

It tempts you, when you are presented with a dusty piece of wooden furniture, to grab the furniture polish and shine away. The same may be said, when facing a large wooden canoe, to get a sponge and soapy water, roll up your sleeves and rub it down. ‘Sacrilege!’ the conservators would cry, and come after you with pitchforks (of which there are surely many at the Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse museum, so it’s probably best to stick to the system). No cleaning products are used, nor water unless in very small amounts and applied by a lightly dampened cotton bud. Objects are generally cleaned using a fresh paint brush, with masking tape fastened around the metal which joins the bristles to the handle as to avoid inducing scratches. Brushing is done in short flicking motions, as any rubbing may cause dirt to ingrain itself further into the object. It reminds me of dentistry, where by a latex gloved dentist removes debris from teeth using a tool in one hand, a suction pipe extracting it in the other. Gloves on, low suction vacuum cleaners at the ready, the dirt is dislodged with the brush, the vacuum cleaner removing it entirely. To reduce damage (especially when dealing with fabric conservation) the end of the vacuum pipe is covered in a fine gauze to prevent any elements of the object getting sucked up.

It is a two week process, of which I am assigned two days away from my usual museum site, the Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth. On the first day, I am teamed with Collections Management trainee Laura, whose training is based upon the collections between the Norfolk Collections Centre, and Strangers Hall Museum (Norwich). Together, we tackle a single shelf over the course of the day, a testament to the time consuming process of careful cleaning and conservation. I begin with two mannequin heads, with long eyelashes and removable ‘bob’ wigs. They smile charmingly as they oversee the careful vacuuming of their wavy locks, a section of gauze laid flat over the entire wig to prevent any hair loss. Then there is a wooden crib, a corner table, and a wicker linen basket. If you have ever attempted to dust wicker, you will sympathise with the idea of cleaning such an object. However, there is a sense of the therapeutic in the slow rhythm of the overall process, wrapped in one’s own little bubble amongst a hive of activity. A forklift truck bustles around retrieving cumbersome objects and crates from the lines of shelving. Outside, trainee Ruth gears up in a full Tyvek suit and mask. She cleans spots of mold off a retro orange and brown patterned sofa set, which splits the team with a Marmite dilemma of love and hate.

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Trainee Ruth removing mold

A piano stool with a hinged seat reveals an internal compartment containing old sheet music. Within museums, every object acquired is done so through a process called Accessioning. This is a process of documentation where the object is correctly logged into the collection and recorded upon a digital achieve database. The object is given an Accession Number, an official record number which is discreetly and reversibly marked onto the object using pencil or ink. The piano stool has several different components, and we mark each with the object’s overall Accession Number so that they could be identified if separated from the set.

 

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A wooden table prepared for freezing

The Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse Museum sits out in the glorious Norfolk countryside, a perk for any visitor to the museum site and grounds. However, it is also a perk for creepy crawlies who like to munch on wood, as the Collections Centre offers a gourmet buffet of aged wooden furniture to choose from. Careful pest management is therefore key and continual. A pram and a table on which we work show signs of Woodworm, tiny burrow holes giving them away. Wood darkens with time, and so when old wood is freshly eaten it will appear lighter in colour inside the hole. An object will still bare traces of old infestations, however due to the ageing and possible accumulation of dust or debris, these holes will appear darker. If in doubt, freeze it out! Freezing is the adopted process of eradication, a freezer the size of a small room creating a temperature controlled chamber for two weeks per freeze. If correctly wrapped, a domestic freezer could be used for household pest removal, however is less easy to control. At the Collections Centre, objects are prepared first by filling any ‘void’ space with tissue paper wadding. This reduces spaces in which condensation can form during the defrost. They are then wrapped in thick plastic sheeting, and carefully shelved within the freezer chamber. After two weeks, the freezer is left to fully return to room temperature before any objects are removed, as when frozen they can become brittle and difficult to transport.

On week two the whole team is assigned a collection of wooden printing blocks: carved alphabet letters set into blocks, once used for newspaper or poster printing. We spend the whole day in the speckled sunshine of the Collections Centre forecourt, getting lost in the dusting and hoovering of individual wooden letters, spaces, and punctuation. Slow but satisfying, it is far from an average office day. Then again, there are no average office days upon the traineeship, and the next day I return to the Tide and Tide Museum and watch loans from Tate and the Fitzwilliam Museum being installed into the new exhibition, Drawn to the Coast.

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Wooden Printing Blocks