The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


Leave a comment

Sharing a Passion: Ted Ellis

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.

Ted Ellis in is natural habitat

Ted Ellis in his natural habitat

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

One of Ted’s many ‘Nature Notebooks’

 

One of Ted's many 'Nature Notebooks'

Amazing detail of Ted’s ‘Nature Notebooks’

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.

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

The Breckland landscape in the Ted Ellis Norfolk Room at Norwich Castle Museum

 

A young Ted Ellis, and me

A young Ted Ellis, and me

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


3 Comments

Bugs, Skulls & toilets!?

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.

Wow! The first four months of the Teaching Museum traineeship have absolutely whizzed by! (And yes, as you will soon discover, I am the only male on this year’s traineeship!). It really only feels like yesterday when the 2016 trainees sat down for our first day’s induction, and for me, hopping straight on a train afterwards to head for Derby to attend the NatSCA (Natural Sciences Collections Association) conference. This was also the first official meeting with my supervisor, Senior Curator of Natural History for NMS, David Waterhouse. I can’t remember what I first found more daunting as I arrived, either meeting my new boss, or having to socialise (in a pub) with some of the most highly regarded Natural History curators in the UK! But once I arrived, I found them to be very approachable (albeit with a curious fascination with collecting animal dung!). It was a great event, both in learning valuable information that would help me over the next year, but also having an early chance to network with some major players in the museum sector.

Me, auditioning for a role in 'The Fly 3'

Me, auditioning for a role in ‘The Fly 3’

 

My fellow 2016 trainees and me

               My fellow 2016 trainees and me

During the month of June, I was involved in two public events held at Norwich Castle by the Natural History section. The first of these was to celebrate Norfolk Wildlife Trust’s 90th anniversary, which involved curating a temporary display of different objects related to naturalists during the 1920s, the same time as the founding of the trust. One of the star objects in our display was a 1926 nature diary by former keeper of Natural History here at the Castle/East Anglian nature TV celebrity, Ted Ellis. When Ted applied for the position of ‘Natural History Assistant’ at the Castle in 1928 (at the age of 19), he brought along a selection of his nature dairies to the job interview as proof of his love of nature, and it worked! So it is very likely that 1926 copy we had on display was used by Ted at that interview! It was great to be able to explain this to our visitors.For me, that is the very essence of what working in a museum and having a passion for history is all about. Being able to connect objects with people, and discovering a story that can be amazing, sad or funny, or even all three at the same time.

 

The Natural History display cases for Norfolk Wildlife Trust 90th anniversary event

The Natural History display cases for Norfolk Wildlife Trust 90th anniversary event

The second public event was a ‘How the Horse Became’ handling session, to coincide with British Art Show 8’s ‘History Train’ event, which saw heavy-horses delivering the artwork to the Castle. Our display centred on the evolution of the Horse, from its relatively unknown evolutionary links to Hippos, how they are able to generate such speed, right up to why Horse-chestnuts gained their name. My favourite part of this display was the real Hippopotamus skull, and the excitement on visitor’s faces when asked if they could identify which animal it was.

A large part of me deciding to try and forge a career in the museum sector was down to the memories I developed from visits to museums when I was a child (especially Ancient House Museum in Thetford). It was amazing to see how excited our younger visitors became when faced with the huge Hippo. I truly hope that memories were formed that day which will inspire a future generation of museum goers, or even future museum professionals!

The Hippopotamus skull used in our ‘How the Horse Became’ event at Norwich Castle

                          The Hippopotamus skull used in our ‘How the Horse Became’ event at Norwich Castle

 

To sum up my first third of the traineeship in a paragraph is a difficult task. The ‘Understanding Museums’ training really did open my eyes to how many different factors come in to play when dealing with museum work. Even though it didn’t really feel like I was being schooled at any time, my knowledge of how museums work has expanded on a huge magnitude. My days are so varied, which makes the time absolutely fly by. I’ve been well and truly adopted into the Natural History section, and feel that any idea I have, great or small, is always considered and never muted. I could have written all day about the different experiences I have had over the last few months.

I’m sure that when I come to write my next blog entry, my museum knowledge will have stepped up another level.

And, if it all goes wrong, I could cut out another career path with a certain skill I’ve recently acquired… (See photo below)

Me, cleaning a Victorian toilet-bowl at Gressenhall

Me, cleaning a Victorian toilet-bowl at Gressenhall