The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Keeping busy in West Norfolk

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Morgan, curatorial trainee at Ancient House and Lynn Museum.

It has been six months since I last wrote a blog post about my work (I have however written some ‘featured object’ posts, which you can find here and here), but it’s not because I haven’t been up to much!

Before Christmas, a lot of my time at Ancient House was dedicated to working on the latest temporary exhibition, Flint Rocks. I was responsible for one graphic panel, the interactive table, and a section of the further information folder and my tasks included research, writing text, sourcing images, and liaising with the graphic designer. I even had to find and edit the sound of a flint lithophone (a xylophone-like instrument)! As the intended audience for each part is quite different – the graphic panel is for general museum visitors, whereas the interactive table is aimed at young children, and the further information folder is mainly read by especially interested visitors – I had to tailor my writing to each audience. For the graphic panel, I also learnt how to write in the Ekarv format. Ekarv is a way of making text more accessible through using simple sentence structures and adding line breaks at natural pauses (among other rules) and is quite common in museums. In between writing text and devising ‘flinty facts’ for the interactive table, I also went to West Stow Anglo-Saxon Village to collect a flint necklace for the exhibition. Earlier in the year, I had arranged the loan of the necklace, which was crafted by Bill Basham, the same flint knapper who made Ancient House’s beautiful flint alphabet. It was a busy period, but incredibly satisfying to see it all come together.

One of my ongoing projects has been to create new handling boxes for school sessions. Armed with guidelines from GEM and a small budget, I set about creating two Romans boxes – one for Ancient House and one for Lynn Museum. To do this, I recruited and trained a small team of volunteers who work with me on a weekly basis, researching topics, selecting objects, packing them in plastazote (an archival quality foam-like material), and producing accompanying written material. John and Tracey have been working with me for six months now and more recently, we welcomed Dotte to our team. Our two Romans boxes are now in use, we have finished two ‘Awe-ful Archaeology’ boxes, and we are currently repacking existing a Tudors box and working with a freelancer to create a new Stone Age Box.

Working on a Romans handling box at Ancient House

Working on the ‘Romans’ box

At Lynn Museum, I have been continuing work on the audit and foyer displays, as well as supervising a gigapixel photography project for an online platform for the last few weeks. I have been sworn to secrecy and cannot release any more details until the launch, but it is a really exciting development for the museum. It was also a wonderful opportunity to work more closely with the art collection. As glazed artworks could not be photographed, conservator Sarah from Norwich came over to our stores to train me in how to de-frame paintings and works on paper. With two other trainees, Daisy and Shaz, and Sam from Collections Management, we de-framed dozens and dozens of works! Excitingly, we also photographed a timber from Seahenge and I’m really looking forward to zooming in on the details on the wood.

In the meantime, I’m looking forward to catching up on all the work that accumulated while the photographer was here. As the end of my traineeship approaches, the rush to finish projects and tie up loose ends has begun!

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Featured Object: Ship Surgeon’s Kit

Occasionally we feature star objects from across Norfolk Museums Service.  Today we hear from Morgan, talking about an object from Lynn Museum.

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This box of surgical instruments comes from a whaling ship and was used during the early 19th century. It is made of oak and lined with green baize, and was donated to the museum in 1904.

Whaling was a dangerous profession and surgeons played an important role. Pursuing a whale in shallops was undoubtedly the most dangerous part of the job for the mariners, as whales sometimes smashed or overturned the wooden boats. However, there were many other situations that could require a surgeon too. The weather was a constant threat and even in fair weather, accidents like slipping on deck or falling from the rigging could lead to injury. Plus, for large parts of the century, Britain was at war, and enemy privateers and frigates often targeted whalers. The combination of dangerous working conditions and naval battles on wooden ships led to many limb wounds, as bullets and splinters lodged themselves into flesh. Consequently, ship surgeons spent much of their time removing foreign material from sailors’ bodies and performing amputations. You can see this in the instruments included in this kit: needles and probe scissors to explore wounds, bullet forceps to remove gunshot and splinters, a tourniquet used with straps to stem bleeding as patients waited for surgery, and two bow saws for amputation (one with a spare blade). The smaller bow saw was introduced by Scottish surgeon Benjamin Bell in 1780 and was specifically designed for cutting through the metacarpal bones in the hand. As well as being very risky, surgery would have been extremely painful, performed on a fully conscious patient, until anesthetics were introduced in the mid-19th century.

Amputations were not the only life-saving acts whaling ships surgeons performed however. In 1788, Captain Robert Cook of the Lynn whaler the Archangel was almost killed by a polar bear. He only escaped death because the ship’s surgeon came to his rescue, shooting the polar bear dead from 40 yards away!

You can see this box of surgical instruments on permanent display in the Maritime History section of Lynn Museum.


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Featured Object: Harry Bensley Postcard

Occasionally we feature star objects from across Norfolk Museums Service.  Today we hear from Morgan, talking about an object from Ancient House.

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This object tells the extraordinary tale of Harry Bensley, a Thetfordian who became known as ‘the Man in the Iron Mask’.

The son of a wood yard labourer, Harry was born in Thetford in 1876 and grew up on St Giles’ Lane. He moved to London at the turn of the century and by 1907 was allegedly a successful businessman with large investments in Russia with a reputation for womanizing.

One evening at the National Sporting Club in London, American millionaire John Pierpoint Morgan and English nobleman and sportsman Lord Lonsdale were arguing over whether someone could walk around the world without being recognised. The original story is that Harry bravely accepted the bet after Morgan wagered £21,000 (the equivalent of £1.5million today and at the time, the largest ever recorded bet) that it could not be done. Harry’s great-grandson, however, believes that the expedition was a forfeit after Harry gambled away his fortune in a night of heavy drinking with Morgan and Lonsdale.

On 1 January 1908, Harry set off from Trafalgar Square wearing a helmet from a suit of armour and pushing a perambulator, with only one change of underwear and £1 in his pocket. The challenge included many other conditions too: remaining unidentified at all times, obtaining a postal stamp from each town he passed through, and finding a wife on the journey. This image is from one of the postcards he sold from his pram to finance his journey. The other person is the minder Morgan paid to accompany Harry on his expedition and make sure he abided by the terms.

The story goes that after six years, Harry had walked 30,000 miles and had only a few countries left to visit when the Great War broke out and the bet was called off. However, while there are lots of documented sightings of him in the south of England, there is little evidence that he got further than the UK. Harry survived the First World War and died at his home in Brighton in 1956.

A pop-up exhibition panel including Harry Bensley’s story created by children from Bishops Primary School in partnership with Ancient House and the Heritage Lottery Fund will be shown in Norfolk libraries in the coming months.


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Three months at Ancient House and Lynn Museum

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Morgan, curatorial trainee at Ancient House and Lynn Museum.

It is hard to believe that it has been over three months since I began my traineeship at Lynn Museum and Ancient House. What a three months it has been! My role as the curatorial trainee in two local history museums covers caring for the collections, exhibitions work, and making the collections more accessible. The breadth of this particular traineeship is what attracted me to it, but I could not have possibly anticipated the wide range of tasks my position covers. Just last week, I organised the emergency kit at Ancient House, helped install the new temporary exhibition at Lynn Museum, and prepared for interviews with potential volunteers for a project to create new learning resources at Ancient House. Every week is different.

Auditing Aickman's

Myself and Mike, long-standing volunteer and auditing extraordinaire

One of my (many) favourite parts of the work is assisting with the audit of the object store for Lynn Museum. Each Thursday morning, I work with the assistant curator and a small team of volunteers to document and condition check what’s in each box. It can be a little like Christmas – opening mystery boxes and unwrapping the tissue paper to see what goodies are inside! In addition to ensuring that the object records on Modes are accurate, the audit has provided me with inspiration for some of my other tasks. I recently wrote a piece for Lynn Museum’s fortnightly newspaper column, The History of King’s Lynn in 100 Objects, on a letter that I came across during the audit from a British prisoner of war to his wife during the Second World War. Another week, I found a box of hearing aids. Decades-old earwax aside, it was fascinating to see how they have evolved since the 1960s, and I am hoping to put them on display during Deaf Awareness Week in May 2016.

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The History of King’s Lynn in 100 Objects column on the prisoner of war letter

This is another wonderful aspect of my job: creating monthly displays in the foyer case at Lynn Museum. Although my fantastic colleagues are always there for support – giving me ideas, helping me transport objects, and teaching me how to make mounts – it is great fun to have my own mini-exhibitions and oversee them from conception to installation. Plus, it is great experience researching objects, writing labels, and arranging displays. So far, I have created a display on Alfred and Percy Smith, Lynn watchmakers, and worked with an intern from the King’s Lynn Festival to put on another two about the festival. Next up, the Bronze Age ceremonial dagger the Rudham Dirk arrives at the museum this week for the Lynn portion of its international tour!

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The first foyer display on the King’s Lynn Festival

At Ancient House, I have been a lot more involved with the learning team. Although I was pretty nervous beforehand, one of the highlights of the last three months was preparing and delivering a school session on sports and games in Tudor England. Not only did I get to wear a costume, I spent the day playing bowls and dice with 90 enthusiastic children! It was really fantastic to see them so excited about history and so critical of the Tudor norms that restricted women and servants from playing most games.

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The learning team for the Tudors event at Ancient House

This is just a glimpse into what my traineeship covers and I hope to discuss more of my tasks and projects in later blog entries. Furthermore, as some of the other trainees have mentioned, all this has been complemented by a wonderful development programme. At Ancient House and Lynn Museum, it has also been supported by the most knowledgeable, supportive and welcoming colleagues you could hope for. It has been a demanding three months, with a busy schedule, a steep learning curve, and lots of travel across Norfolk, but there is nowhere else I would rather be. I can’t wait to see what the next nine months have to offer.