The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


Leave a comment

Five Things I’ve Learnt Working for a Museum from Home

Written by Lara Lourie, Youth Engagement & Learning Trainee, Time and Tide Museum.

A photo of Lara on a ‘Time Traveller’s Christmas’ film set.

1

The first time I met my colleagues was online, their faces contained in small rectangles. Same at the next meeting. And so on. One day I woke up and wondered if they actually existed or if they were cyber characters in some game. The next day I woke up and wondered if there really was a museum called Time and Tide. Reality has always been something to smell, touch, breathe. And now it consists only of seeing and hearing, plus it is contained within a 2D screen.

I can confirm Time and Tide does exist (I was admitted to some parts of it once, briefly). I’ve also met colleagues (a few of them, once, briefly) in person. But apart from that once, briefly, all our interactions are on screen. A new job involves a lot of assimilation and new understanding, it’s a jigsaw and normally I’d have completed it inside a week. Now I’m nine months in and half the pieces are still missing. I’ve learned that 2D saves hours of commuting time but 3D saves months of assimilation.  

2

Hmm, the museum’s closed. That’s a bit of a problem for someone whose job is to engage with people. It took me a long time to realise something important. There are two museums! Yes, really, two Time and Tides. One is a building in Great Yarmouth. The other exists online. That other museum has a postcode: its social media accounts. But it also can be found on websites full of archives and collections, YouTube, WordPress… The museums overlap but operate separately. The online museum is not just a replica of the original, it has an approach and style all of its own and can be made just as special.

3

Here’s something I’ve learnt about young people. Yes, they’re online all the time. But that doesn’t mean they’re open to being engaged online. Some can’t cope with it. A few groups are greatly depleted until members can meet again: they want to see each other in a room not on a screen. It’s even tougher when we form totally new groups online with young people who mostly don’t know each other. Spoken communication is hard enough when you’re young. But communication on screen with a dodgy internet connection? I’ve learned that this sort of engagement doesn’t necessarily work for young people, even though it’s easy to assume it must because they’re the very cohort which has grown up with screens.

4

I’ve learnt you don’t have to be Steven Spielberg to make a film. I have created or creatively edited a number of short videos (okay, but even Steven Spielberg had to start somewhere) and loved it. Of course, there have been many limitations – like not being able to film at the museum and having little access to the collections. I’ve had to find alternatives from whatever I see around me – the kitchen clock (I didn’t know it could run backwards!), a historic local barn (all that wood, it’s just like a ship!), a nearby woodland (made magical with fairy lights). And there’s been a lot of painting and a bit of puppet making as well.

These videos have been for Time and Tide’s Learning Team and I think making them will probably have added a lot to my delivery when I do meet school groups. It has taught me about storytelling, structuring and presenting information. And I’ve learnt there’s no substitute for planning your film. Otherwise, you spend weeks correcting it in editing.

Screenshot from our ‘Pirates’ video of the pirate puppet ship.

5

I love my job. In this time of uncertainty, I can’t believe I do creative things and am trained as well. Experts give us fascinating lectures. Colleagues generously pass on their knowledge and experience to me. People are kind about my mistakes. This job has not been a picnic: I’ve worked hard every day and I’ve also worked long hours and I sometimes panic because it feels there’s too much to do. And then I remember something important I’ve learned. I am so very lucky to be here. 

So thank you, Time and Tide. Thank you, NMS colleagues. And here’s to actually meeting you in 2021!


Leave a comment

Capturing a collection during a Pandemic.

By Kelly West, Exhibition and Collections Access Trainee.

The first time I was able to go into Time and Tide Museum as an employee, I was six months into my traineeship. But that’s nobody’s fault. When I started this job in April, I didn’t think my first day on site was going to be in September. Once I got into the museum, the few staff that I did meet were friendly and very thorough with the social distancing guidelines. Everyone was being careful – even the visitors.   

I managed to get into the museum a couple times during the pandemic, with the agenda of photographing some of the objects in the collection. In these strange times, Time and Tide Museum felt it was more important than ever to finally have some good quality images of the collections; especially now that the world is online. With no schools or visitors in over lockdown, seeing things in the flesh and doing things like object handling, were (and are) off the table. Social media became our only form communication. It’s hard to show off an item online with an image that is either the size of a child’s thumb or blurry and impossible to make out what it is.  

While I was at Time and Tide Museum, I set up a little photography station consisting of two daylight bulbs and a light box on the table. I have had some experience photographing objects before – I have a degree in Photography so have done many photography projects. But the objects I usually photographed weren’t objects older than me or more valuable than my life. Object handling was something new to me too, it’s strange having to think: ‘how am I going to pick this object up?’ every time before picking something up. Constantly having to second guess everything was strange at the beginning.  

Photography studio set up, with two daylight bulbs and a table top light box.

I have also been able to go into Strangers’ Hall to photograph some of their objects. I chose to focus on some interesting and beautiful nutcrackers. While I was at Strangers’ I also finally got to meet some of the other trainees and Norfolk Museum Service staff members in person. It was strange to see that everyone has legs, for the past eight months I’ve only been able to see everyone from the waist up on my laptop screen. The other two trainees, Amber and Natascha, also got the opportunity to photograph objects; they chose doll’s house furniture and dolls. Strangers’ has a wonderful collection of children’s toys in store and on display, especially some amazing doll houses in the Children’s Toy room.   

These are some strange times, but I know we are all trying to get the most we can out of them. I hope in the new year I can meet all nine trainees in real life: not just through a laptop screen!  


Leave a comment

Ready…Set…ST*ART Online: Creative Learning over Lockdown

By Alex Day, Learning Trainee at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery

 *Schedule meeting – copy and send invitation – admit participant*

Two stills from a ST*ART Online ‘Meet the Artist’ interview

On my screen is Peter Brathwaite, Britain’s foremost opera singer, explaining how he would fight a horse-sized duck. His tactics are exemplary (jump on its back) and I can only nod in agreement.

My name’s Alex Day, Learning Trainee at Norwich Castle, and here I am interviewing an eminent artist for ST*ART Online – our arts and creativity programme for ages 8-16. ST*ART began way back in 2015 and involved three annual courses: drawing, painting and sculpture. It was over-subscribed, artist-led and held in the belly of eye-popping galleries strung with dioramas, Dutch paintings, Pre-Raphaelites…

(Before this job, I applied to volunteer at ST*ART Club but in a twist of fate ended up sword fighting children at Knight Club).

…enter the COVID-19 pandemic. When the galleries closed, ST*ART loomed in our calendars demanding a revolutionary twist to its delivery. A torrent of brainstorms and Teams-enabled conversations led us to ST*ART Online, the club’s digital iteration. ST*ART Online features six double-page PDF activity sheets, lovingly decorated with hand-drawn titles, fitted with alt-text and made screen reader-friendly using PAVE. These are complemented by ‘Meet the Artist’ interviews (as shown above) in which I ask probing questions like “what’s your favourite colour and why?”.

Our activities, engineered by sculptor and arts educator Ali Atkins, don’t require fancy materials but instead re-purpose universal ephemera: a lockdown time capsule, land art and an investigation into symbolism. One PDF asks you to reimagine an artwork in our collection. I must live by example, so to get the ball rolling I swiftly put a pillow case over my head, covered tubular paper in turmeric to evoke a harp (not pictured) and pretended to retch in the style of William Hogarth’s Francis Matthew Schutz in His Bed c.1755-1760. 

Left, William Hogarth, Francis Matthew Schultz in his bed c.1755-60. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Right, Untitled c.2020
Left, William Hogarth, Francis Matthew Schutz in His Bed c.1755-60. Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery. Right, Untitled c.2020

Lying there in my pillow-case night-cap, covered in turmeric, I was forced to ask myself… “what is the point of all this?”.

This year the disease containment of COVID-19 has caused increasing levels of loneliness and anxiety in young people. Creativity is a remedy that sparks joy and wellbeing – something we need now more than ever. Turning your home into an art studio and spending time outdoors are proven to help mental health (in Scotland doctors have piloted “prescribing” outdoor activities).  ST*ART advocates for both – and it’s free for anyone to access, anytime.

ST*ART has other benefits: it fosters confidence in young people to believe in their own ideas – there are no wrong answers – and it teaches the transferable skills of curiosity and experimentation. It does not prescribe a pathway of further study, rather it opens the door to independent thinking. Whatever state the world’s in, access to art and creativity are paramount to a healthy society.

Around the country similar activities have spread like wildfire, offering solace and entertainment, filling windows with rainbows. 70,000 of us downloaded Firstsite’s ‘Art is where the home is’, a pack of artist-led activities – granting Sally Shaw, director of Firstsite, recognition in the Queen’s Birthday Honours list and an MBE. 

You may argue that launching our in-person events into cyber-space is no match for the real deal. Early this year, a participant told us what she liked best about ST*ART was “making new friends, being inspired by the artwork around me in the Castle and… having a snack”. A PDF can only supply so much.

While the communion and commotion of shared space remains missed, myself and the team will continue to share captivating activities, conscious of the digital divide and accessibility. Our activities are committed to addressing racism and increasing representation within the sector. And wherever possible, we aim to make our practice environment friendly. Following our robust evaluation, we will be designing a flurry of activities in response to J.M.W. Turner’s Walton Bridges c.1806 and producing ‘Art Labs’ for Kick the Dust participants.

Safe to say, I’ve learnt a lot – namely how to translate physical workshops to the small screen and how to apprehend a horse-sized duck. Seven months in and I’m poised and equipped to flourish in our ever-shifting present.

Until next time…

*End meeting*


Leave a comment

Exploring a Museum Collection during Lockdown

By Natascha Allen-Smith, Digital Communications Trainee

A page from the Norfolk Museums Collections website, which contains information on over 190,000 objects from our three-million-strong collection

Let’s face it, 2020 has been a weird year for everyone. The timing of the Covid-19 lockdown happened to fall precisely one week before the start of our Teaching Museum traineeships, which meant that we – and our supervisors – were suddenly thrust into an unprecedented situation which completely changed the nature of the programme.

One of the biggest changes brought on by the pandemic was that the traineeship is normally very hands-on, with participants gathering every week at sites across the service to learn how to handle, conserve, document and interpret museum artefacts. How do you get to know a collection of three million objects when you’re stuck at home – in my case, 150 miles away in Yorkshire? And how do you share your collection with the public when you can’t open your museums?

Using our object database, Modes, and the collections website, staff across Norfolk Museums have been sharing the most fascinating items in their collections on social media, releasing specially-designed digital worksheets and craft activities for schools and families, and making fantastic videos for our YouTube channel. As the Digital Communications Trainee, I was tasked with uploading and promoting much of this material on social media, and have also worked on two digital exhibitions hosted by Art UK and Google Arts and Culture.

One of the brilliant videos produced for our Norwich Castle YouTube channel

A few months in, I also took on social media responsibilities for Strangers’ Hall, a medieval merchant house which is now a museum of domestic history. This gave me the excuse to delve into the wonderfully eclectic smorgasbord of artefacts which make up the Social History collection. The objects curated by Strangers’ Hall alone range from intricate Victorian dolls’ houses to 16th century table carpets to board games carved by French prisoners during the Napoleonic Wars. But my favourite object so far – and the one I’m going to focus on here – is something that made me laugh incredulously when I stumbled across it: the wonderfully inventive ‘chamber horse’ from the late 18th and early 19th century.

The chamber horse, or library horse, was an early form of exercise machine used by wealthy Georgians who preferred not to venture outdoors. The seat was a leather concertina filled with layers of metal springs, and the user would grip the mahogany arms and bounce up and down in imitation of horse riding.

A late 18th or early 19th century chamber horse from the Social History collection

In the later 18th century, when the chamber horse became popular, riding was considered the ideal upper-class exercise, the perfect means to burn off those enormous Georgian dinners and cure all manner of ailments. George III even had one installed as a nursery ride for his 15 children. However, much like modern exercise bikes, many people bought a chamber horse in the hope that it would motivate them to get fit, but gradually lost interest after a few weeks. Many Georgian auction catalogues featured adverts for used models which had been sitting idle in the echoing rooms of the Georgian upper classes.

I love this object because it’s such an endearingly ridiculous piece of furniture. The image of a Georgian gentleman in a waistcoat and breeches sitting stiffly on the chair and bouncing earnestly up and down never fails to make me smile. In the coming months, Covid restrictions permitting, I can’t wait to travel down to Norwich and finally see the incredible collections at Norwich Castle, Strangers’ Hall and the other Norfolk Museums sites for myself.

Another favourite from the Social History collection – a pair of Victorian ceramic boot warmers which were filled with hot water and placed inside footwear on cold days!


Leave a comment

#NMSLoves: My Introduction to Museum Work

By Hanley Quintrell, Collections Management (Digitisation) Trainee

I loved Sharpe as a kid. Couldn’t get enough of the books, to the point that my mother once grounded me purely so I couldn’t go to a book signing and likely mortify the author – retrospectively, I can understand why she thought a ten year old gushing about his love for Bernard Cornwell’s ultra-violent, ultra-graphic historical fiction to the man himself was best avoided. She tried to get me into Hornblower instead, as they were supposedly less racy, but, you know. Ten-year-old boy.

I mention this because it meant that I grew up having an out-of-time idolisation of Wellington, and no love for Nelson – he was the dude on the column I met my friends by sometimes, when I was a little older and stowing away to London. Nothing more.

By Belinda Fewings.

The first thing I did when the traineeship started was a little project on Nelson. Compared to everything else I’ve done so far it was barely a blip, but it was first, when I felt very confused and lost in this new world of history; so I clung to him, reading so many biographies that Nelson factoids are now banned in the house.

HMS Victory is still part of the Royal Navy, despite being a museum herself.

Thus, Nelson became my introduction to museums – and more importantly, to Norfolk Museum Service. I saw everything in my first month through a Nelson lens, getting to grips with every nuance in this brave new world, from specialist terms used in the Collections department to understanding why art can be arresting. See, throughout my headfirst dive into Nelson I kept coming back to the famous Civic Portrait, commissioned by the City of Norwich during his lifetime. Unlike many of the images we have of him today, Nelson actually came and sat for this one, and it was said by his contemporaries to have been his greatest likeness.

By Sir William Beechey.
Andy, a 2017 trainee, speaks of seeing that hat in a prior post. Not that I’m jealous.

I’d never considered before that a portrait may well not be how that person looked, making me appreciate this image all the more. I had to keep returning, and every time I saw something new, this time an appreciation for the art rather than only the man. I thought about how vibrant the colours are, and wondered how the brushstrokes would look up close. I thought about the illusion of his missing arm, and wondered how many more times I’d come across another disabled person represented with such respect, and thought about how few times I had before. I thought about all the possibilities this career could hold for me, and all the stories I could help uncover.

I love looking at this picture. One day, forty years from now with a long career behind me, I’m going to look at the print I’ll have on my wall, and think of the time I finally got to go and see him in person.

One day.