The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Where There’s a Quill, There’s a Way

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

How do you engage young people with old books?

The margins of medieval manuscripts are a curious place. In the Bird Book of Hugo Fouilloy, written in the 13th century, there are creatures known as blemmys with heads hovering in their chests. In the margins of The Breviary of Renaud de Bar, a gothic manuscript written in France in 1302, things get arguably stranger; a rabbit jousts a dog whilst riding a snail with a bearded head (pictured). In more manuscripts than you’d imagine, rabbits appear to have taken over the world. Alongside these murderous rabbits, folios from the middle ages abound with serpents that fly, web-footed beings and grotesque hybrids of humans and reptiles, known as ‘drollery’.

Wild animals at war in the The Breviary of Renaud de Bar, c. 1302-1305. (British Library, Yates Thompson 8, f. 294r.) 

Much like our own, the margins present a world turned upside down. And no one is quite sure what all these doodles mean. It is certainly a surprise to find intricately painted toilet-humour beside a sacred text. It’s possible the purpose of such vulgar visions is to moralise the reader (sin and you’ll be roasted alive by lascivious rabbits) or satirise the society. Either way, it grabs your attention and makes you giggle.

Not only are medieval manuscripts funny, they are luxurious. The Lindisfarne Gospels, written in the 8th century on a small island off England’s northeast coast, may have required 130 animal skins to make it. It also involved a rare pigment from the Himalayas known as lapis lazuli and the cover is barnacled with shiny jewels. Not one to take a chance, medieval abbots would attach precious volumes with chains to stop touring scholars from leaving the monastery with them. Such books were worshipped …and sometimes given a tender kiss.

The cover of The Lindisfarne Gospels, c.700 (British Library, Cotton MS Nero D.IV)

Norwich Castle, a stronghold turned gaol turned museum, is no stranger to literature. At its heyday at the end of the 12th century, it was the administrative capital of East Anglia with a cavernous library of paperwork.  In the museum’s collection, we have the 16th century commonplace book of Henry Appleyard and the 15th century Castle Acre Processional, used by monks just outside of Norwich. Thanks to a £20,350 grant from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust, these superstars of vellum will be preserved and restored in time for display in our new Medieval Gallery. And as it happens, the East Anglian School of Illumination was particularly fond of drollery. The Gorleston Psalter, a 14th century manuscript, is infamous for humorous marginalia such as rabbits (of course) conducting a funeral procession and wielding an axe (pictured).

Gorleston Psalter, c. 1310-1324. (British Library Royal MS 49622, f. 13v.)

Such a colourful history deserves to be investigated. Grotesque beasts and bejewelled covers would surely, we reasoned, capture the imaginations of children and families. To coincide with World Book Day 2021, Norwich Castle’s Learning Team launched a brand-new event: Scribe School; a series of creative writing workshops that bring manuscripts to life.

Over February half-term, our virtual scriptorium opened its doors to an ambitious cohort of fledgling scribes. Three workshops (‘Capture the Castle’, ‘Ye Olde Comic Strips’ and ‘Scribe and Scribble’) helped scribes craft their own manuscript using nothing but pen and paper. Each one was an hour long and free to attend and whisks you back in time to 1121 – the year of Henry I’s visit to Norwich Castle.

A poster for Scribe School. “A series of online workshops that will turn you into a medieval scribe!”

It was important that Lee Warden (Project Learning and Engagement Officer) and I looked the part. To appear as a master scribe, I borrowed a costume that once dressed a manikin in Norwich Castle’s dungeon, and in my webcam’s foreground, I lit a candle and uploaded a background image of a medieval bedroom. Hooded in hessian and smelling suitably stuffy, we were ready to scribe. When the time came and our screens were full of expectant children and families, our workshops began with a good old stretch to limber our writing muscles. We then tested our ‘quills’ on a test sheet, a process known as a ‘pen trial’, and participants were encouraged to hear they were the perfect age to carry out long hours of scribing.

A screenshot of the Scribe School introductory video

I then had some alarming news to deliver. To my dishonour, I had been scribing late into the night to finish a manuscript for a noble client and low and behold, the pages caught fire. We urgently needed a new story. At ‘Capture the Castle’, scribes wrote an adventure story inspired by the sights, sounds and smells of medieval Norwich. ‘Ye Olde Comic Strips’ took tales from history and applied them to comic form and our final event in the series, ‘Scribe and Scribble’, journeyed into the art of uncial script and bestiary. We finished our manuscripts just in time for the royal visit. Scribes were hurried along by an animated rabbit that moved across the screen and to focus the mind, each session was accompanied by a playlist of hip-hop classics, like Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity’, rendered with medieval instruments.

The first challenge of our ‘Capture the Castle’ workshop

It’s important Scribe School is accessible to all. To support scribes on the autism-spectrum and with SEND, we sent a short film describing these novel sessions; helping to quell any anxiety. Slides were subtitled for the visually impaired and tasks were open-ended and scaffolded with sentence-starters. Each workshop was capped at around 30 participants, like a school’s classroom, to help us offer tailored support and activities were curriculum-linked; offering a healthy dose of ‘edutainment’ during the school holidays. In the end, three workshops sold out and 150 people visited our scriptorium.

What effect did the year 1121 have on our audience? One adult described it as “a life saver for us frazzled parents” and another said it was “a lovely break from home-schooling”. A young participant said what they loved most was “being able to write about poo and fighting”. Scribes were most likely solitary people, but we found joy in a shared experience.

A screenshot of David and Ben’s stop-motion animation, a creative response to ‘Capture the Castle’.

And what relevance does scribing have to our modern lives? Manuscripts are not such a distant history. Until 2017, all laws in the UK that passed through the Houses of Parliament were written onto parchment. And today, marginalia continues to inspire local creative fiction. In Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, the eponymous beast is described as coming from “the illuminated pages of a manuscript”.

Scribe School, with its costumed characters and a cohort of scribes, helps to animate this history. It is an invitation to live amongst it and discover the joy and relevance of old practices. What better way to understand the scribe than by becoming one? It also reminds us of the magic potential books have to transport us. In our scriptorium, the past is just a bunny hop away.


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The Wonderful World of Hazards

By Hemali Chudasama, Collections Management (Hazards) Trainee

It’s been a whirlwind these past few months since I started the traineeship. What has it been, nearly a year since I stepped into the world of hazards? I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m Hemali and I am one of the teaching museum’s collections trainees working on a project to manage the hazardous objects in collections. Starting the traineeship in the midst of the pandemic really did throw a spanner in the works! It completely changed the whole dynamic of the traineeship. There went all the hands-on work, and in came a load of uncertainty. Thankfully, with the amazing staff at NMS, we were able to find a way around a bad situation.

Prior to this role, I had a bit of experience with hazardous objects in collections from volunteering at The Science Museum. This proved to be an extremely helpful starting point when researching hazardous object as I had an idea of what I was looking for. What I found to be the most useful when I started was the Museum of London’s Hazards in collections toolkit. Anyone thinking about hazards, this is the first place you want to go, trust me! This toolkit gave a good indicator of the variety of hazards you could come across in different collections such as asbestos, mercury, radiation, poisons etc. I know it sounds like a scary list of objects to work with, trust me I was thinking of running for the hills, but they are not as bad as you think. Most of them are encapsulated in the object so pose no immediate threat, very low risk or pose risk only if ingested such as arsenic minerals (I highly recommend that no one does this, please!).

After this, I researched all the hazards and created management plans and risk assessment for each one to be added to the collections database (MODES). Along with this, I have started desk-based surveys to flag up hazardous objects to be checked when we are allowed back on site. I recently came out of a meeting discussing implementing hazards icons next to flagged object and it was strangely one of the most satisfying things I have seen since I started the project, who would have thought?!

As much as I love hazards, it’s not the only thing I have been doing during my traineeship. I have had the opportunity to attend multiple Museum Association webinars and Collections Trust bite size session. I highly recommend anyone that is interested in the museum industry or already in the industry to watch these. It’s very important to keep up with what is happening in all sectors of the museum industry especially in times like this! I have also had a chance be exposed to different aspects of collections management such as loans and acquisitions as well as working on the emergency plans for the museum. I am grateful for all the experiences I’ve had so far and looking forward to seeing what the rest of the traineeship holds!

Don’t worry, there are more hazard posts to come in the future but for now I leave you with one of the first asbestos containing objects I found when starting the traineeship, a Bakelite hairdryer.

1950’a Morphy Richards Noiseless Electric Hairdryer made of Bakelite

Hazardously,

Hemali 


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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!


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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!  


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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*