Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.
Today we see John Holdaway, trainee with the Natural History section.
Back in the summer of 2016, I was kindly asked by Time & Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth, to present a talk as part of their excellent Friday talks programme. I was given the date of 3rd March 2017, which at the time seemed a long way off, but as I write this, it’s only a few weeks away!
Deciding on a subject to talk about was a hard choice. Over the past 10 months, I’ve had the privilege to work with a collection that holds over a million objects, ranging in ages from decades to well over 100 million years old. But narrowing it down to one single object to talk about for 60 minutes felt a hugely daunting task. After pondering on choices for a while, I stumbled upon the idea of not actually presenting a talk on an object, but instead, on a person. And a hugely influential figure, personality and visionary within the history of the Natural History department here at Norfolk Museums Service, was Ted Ellis.
Ted was employed by Norwich Castle Museum as ‘Natural History Assistant’ in 1928 at the age of 19, and presented at his interview a collection of his own ‘Nature Notebooks’ that he had kept from a young age. These had captured, in amazing detail, what he had observed on his many nature walks around Great Yarmouth and many other parts of Norfolk. We are very lucky to have many of these notebooks in the collection. Some of the colourful drawings of birds, wildlife and botany are truly wonderful, and show a young man with a real passion for nature, doing what he loved.
In time, Ted became ‘Keeper of Natural History’, and one of his many lasting legacies here at Norwich Castle Museum, is of course, the ‘Ted Ellis Norfolk Room’. In America during the 1930s, old-style cases which contained row-upon-row of taxidermy were starting to be replaced by a new type of 3D vista, where nature that would usually occur together in the wild, was depicted in a natural-looking setting. Ted was the driving force behind designing and building Norwich Castle’s very-own set of dioramas, regarded at the time as the best in the world, and still well-respected to this day due to their attention to detail and accuracy.
Each scene depicts a different part of Norfolk, and contains birds, botany and landscapes unique to that area. Being a Breckland boy living in Norwich, it always warms my heart seeing the Stone Curlews, meres, gorse, sandy heaths, endless skies, and the belts of twisted Scots Pines that the Breckland landscape is so famous for.
Although Ted entered the professional museum world under the instruction and guidance of late Victorian and Edwardian curators, he was part of the new breed of museum professionals, tasked with evolving the museum world from their Victorian ‘curiosity’ obsessions, towards museums representing their local communities.
In this way, I can relate this to my own introduction into the world of museums. I spent 15 years working in the logistics sector, a role I never really enjoyed. I’d always had a passion for history and heritage, and to take the big jump into the museum world was never money or job-security motivated, it was purely down to wanting to share my passion with as many people as I could, and to make new memories, just as my trips to museums as a child did for me. Obviously, the heritage sector is ever changing, and through my traineeship, I have been able to draw on the experience and knowledge on some of the most forward-thinking and experienced characters within the sector. It is nearly time for me to push on with what I have learnt and to make my own mark, just as Ted Ellis did during his time at the museum. He learnt from the best at the time, and used that to springboard his own ideas. A testament to his passion and skill is that his work, including the dioramas, are still admired over 80 years since their creation.
Ted was a man who wanted to share his passion with as many people as possible, and I’ve also been able to do that over the last 10 months. And long may it continue, wherever my next chapter may take me.
If you’d like to hear more about Ted’s time at Norwich Castle Museum, see details about my talk through this link: https://www.facebook.com/events/327175364300893/?active_tab=about