The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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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

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Talking Textiles; Bloomin’ Lovely!

 

My traineeship within the Costume and Textiles department has been a whirlwind of responsibilities thus far. One of the most enjoyable duties is helping out with our monthly Talking Textiles event, where members of the public are able to experience an informative and hands-on lecture within our study room. Topics range from the broad (such as Check Out Our Chintz!, which explored Chintz and other textiles inspired by Indian, Chinese and Japanese arts) to the rather esoteric (for Up Close and Personal, we examined the work of John Craske and convalescence via needlework). Making the collections accessible and meaningful to the public is a passion of mine, and seeing our knowledge passed on in such a tangible way is a delight. The sessions are quite informal, and any questions the visitors may have often drive the direction of the talk, such that the morning and afternoon sessions can vary quite a bit despite covering the same topic!

Preparations for the event have to begin a few days prior; as we are lucky enough to have such an extensive collection (over 32,000), selecting and retrieving the items to be shown as visual aids is a hard task, but one that allows me to familiarise myself with our collections and the various store layouts. On the day, I assist with setting the room up, greet and seat our visitors, assist our curator during the talk, and oversee any elements of handling that the public may engage with. Finally, after much cooing and animated discussion, everything needs to be carefully packaged away and returned to it’s rightful place within our archives.

Our most recent Talking Textiles event was Bloomin’ Lovely! which covered the huge history of floral motifs in textiles. The images accompanying this post are just some of the unique and sumptuous items that we had the pleasure of sharing with our audience- ranging from the 1670s to the 1970s, silks to woolens. Talking Textiles is taking a break over the summer, but shall resume in October. Keep an eye out for what we have planned when the latest Norwich Castle Museum What’s On brochure is released.

 

 

 

 


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A Social Media Summer

My traineeship is within the Norwich Castle: Gateway to Medieval England team. This project, known to its friends as the Keep Project, aims to transform the inside of the castle keep and recreate the interior of the original Norman palace from 1121.

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James Lumbard, Teaching Museum Trainee with ‘Norwich Castle: Gateway to Medieval England’

During the summer, my work was split between planning the creation and upkeep of the Instagram account and helping plan aspects of the Keep Giving public fundraising campaign. @norwichcastlekeep launched on Instagram on 15th September and is going from strength to strength. The launch was timed to coincide with the unveiling of the Adopt an Object strand of the Keep Giving. We chose Instagram because its visual focus is ideally suited to promoting Adopt an Object, which includes some of the most impressive and significant objects in the museum’s collection.

 

Fortunately the page didn’t launch from a standing start, as I was allowed to co-opt the museum’s dormant Instagram account (with around 300 followers), giving us an immediate, interested audience. The page now has over 730 followers, and there has been very high engagement with the posts, in terms of number of ‘likes’, and with comments or questions about the project and the museum’s activities & resources. @norwichcastlekeep is also very popular with the Heritage Lottery Fund on Instagram – the main project funders – who seem very happy that we have a distinct social media presence celebrating the project, its fundraising drive and successes.

There have been few obvious changes yet in the museum as a result of the Keep Project, but Instagram has been an important tool with which to celebrate the events programme which runs alongside it. Photos of this year’s special activities such as ‘Saturday Knight Fever’ and a digital takeover day proved very popular, and are an important way to advertise that the museum is still fully open. In November, I used Instagram to document the de-installation of the Prison Stories gallery in the castle keep, which gained a lot of interest. In the end, it was a vital way of reassuring people that the project work is confined to the castle keep, meaning the museum’s gallery spaces won’t be affected. Spring 2018 sees a temporary exhibition opening to explore the relationship between the castle and the people of Norwich. In this spirit, I organised a competition on Instagram asking people to submit photos and artworks of the castle keep using #MyNorwichCastle, for a chance to win an invitation to the opening of the exhibition in February. Entries took a while to begin, but with some more active promotion, the competition became more visible and entries picked up. It has now closed and the winner will be announced this month.

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Battle training on Castle Green as part of ‘Saturday Knight Fever’ in October.

I’m finding it very rewarding seeing daily increases in followers and interactions, and I’m continuing to improve the content I create. Of course, this is only one aspect of a much broader traineeship, which has taken in everything from collections care to delivering tours and learning activities. I am looking forward to getting involved with even more aspects of the project in 2018, including an assessment of the environmental credentials of the museum and how they can be improved as a result of the Keep Project’s work.

 


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Migration: my story

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see what Phoebe Wingate, trainee with the learning team at the Time and Tide museum, has been up to.

Before writing my own, I spent some time reading the blogs by other museum trainees. Despite the different traineeships, several common themes emerged – not least of all the huge variety within each role and the enthusiasm with which everyone has embarked on the programme. Another theme that stood out was the reference to the speed at which things happen. So it may come as no surprise that I start with the same opening gambit – what a whirlwind it has been since I started seven months ago. It is hard work and full-on yet I still feel incredibly lucky; I get to be involved in amazing projects and gain experience with a fantastic team.

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Pocketwatch belonging to second class passenger on the Titanic,  Robert Douglas Norman. On loan from the National Maritime museum.

One such experience has been working on Endeavour; part of the Collection Stories project led by the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth where I am based is a project partner and has been loaned a pocket watch that belonged to Robert Douglas Norman, a second class passenger on the Titanic who died when the ship sank. The Endeavour project focuses on using this poignant object to explore ways of recording and sharing migration stories; when I started my role in April 2017 my predecessor, Holly Morrison, had planned and delivered a number of activities and events, engaging different audiences on this theme.

Next up in the calendar was Migration – Collection stories, hosted by Great Yarmouth library. This event featured a handling session, crafts, as well as a human library where volunteers engaged visitors in a twitter-like conversation on the theme of migration. Working alongside Holly, I was able to pick up lots of tips and gain good experience in event organising within the museum sector.

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A crafty approach to capturing migration stories.

Building on this was Global Great Yarmouth (it took almost as much time to come up with the name as to plan, organise and deliver) – an event to celebrate the many cultures represented in Great Yarmouth. It was about this time that Holly-shaped hole developed in the office when she was offered a job at the Fitz William in Cambridge. In a slight daze I set to work researching objects linked to migration from our collection, coordinating staff and volunteers as well as developing craft activities.

One of the most rewarding elements was working with a group of students from East Coast College (English for Speakers of Other Languages, or ESOL). The students selected several objects from our collection that they would highlight by running tours.  Understandably anxious about their performance, working with these students was a great reminder that I wasn’t the only person who needed to overcome nerves.

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We all join in: Vandana teams up with the Afro Lusa dance group – and others – to show a traditional Indian dance.

Radio interviews done, sessions planned and staff booked, there was nothing for it but to stand and deliver – event day was upon me.  And so with the back drop of a (mostly) blue sky, the Time & Tide museum courtyard looked a riot of colours swirling to music from India, Greece and Portugal; stories were told about the first people to migrate; the ESOL students ran fantastic tours and I breathed a tiny sigh of relief…success.


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The Marvellous Captain Manby

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by Andy Bowen, Costume & Textiles Trainee

Some time ago I was offered the opportunity to take part in the lunchtime talks programme at Time and Tide in Great Yarmouth, and when asked to come up with a subject for my talk there was only ever really one choice. It would be fair to say that my traineeship has been fairly Nelson-centric (that tends to happen when you work on a major summer exhibition called Nelson & Norfolk), but for this talk I decided to focus on one of Norfolk’s lesser known maritime figures.

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‘Portrait of Captain George William Manby (1765-1854)’ by John Philip Davis

I first heard of Captain George William Manby a few years ago when he was featured in the BBC series Shipwrecks: Britain’s Sunken History presented by Dr Sam Willis. On 18th February 1807, Manby witnessed the scene as the naval gun brig Snipe ran aground just off the coast of Great Yarmouth. The stricken ship was less than 100 yards from shore, but the crashing waves near the ship made it impossible for boats from shore to reach the desperate crew. 67 lives were lost that day, and Manby resolved to come up with a device that would help to provide assistance to crews of wrecked ships in future.

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The ‘Manby Mortar’

The result of Manby’s efforts was the ‘Manby Mortar’: a line-throwing device which would allow a light rope to be fired over the rigging of the stricken ship. The smaller line could then be used by the crew of the stranded vessel to haul across heavier lines, which could then be used as a means of evacuating survivors by either boat or harness. On the night of 12th February 1808, almost a year after Manby witnessed the tragedy of the Snipe, his apparatus was used to rescue 7 seamen from the brig Elizabeth just off the coast of Great Yarmouth.

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The ‘Manby Mortar’ in action

The mortar was just one of Manby’s inventions, with his other ideas ranging from an unsinkable boat to the first pressurised fire extinguisher. His life outside of his many inventions was also far from dull, with Manby surviving at least two attempts on his life and meeting with royalty on several occasions. Ultimately he never achieved the recognition he felt he deserved. In retirement, Manby moved into his basement and converted his house into a museum of Nelson memorabilia. When Manby died on 18th November 1854, he was found alone in the chair in his living room looking out at the sea which had inspired his greatest invention.

To find out more about Captain Manby, come along to my talk at Time and Tide, Great Yarmouth on Friday 3rd November 2017 at 11.30. £3 entry (talk only) or £1.95 for Norfolk Museums Pass holders. Booking essential. Click here for further details.