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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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


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Women Leading The Field

Each month we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees. Today we see Jen Hooker, Business Development trainee at Norwich Castle.

The start of a new year is often the time to look ahead to what is coming up, break bad habits, make resolutions and initiate change (easier said than done). However, it only feels natural to begin this blog entry with a reflection of my time spent as the business development trainee in 2016 and to follow in the footsteps of my fellow trainee cohort who have all written beautifully about what our traineeship programme has exposed us to in terms of experience across the museum sector. Hence the picture of the horse below which you might wonder how it is relevant – we had the privilege of visiting the newly opened National Heritage Centre for Horseracing & Sporting Art in November as part of the 6th annual SHARE conference.

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When I arrived on my first day back in April, there was an exciting sense of the unexpected – the journey that I was about to take and the doors of opportunity that it would open along the way. The one thing that I didn’t expect was the amount of responsibility and experience that would be gifted to myself over the next 12 months. Not a single day has gone by since starting my role where I haven’t left work thinking, ‘wow I love what I do’ and appreciate the role that museums play in educating and engaging audiences. Working in a museum beats my old office job any day, and having the chance to work in an environment that both opens up collections and displays exhibitions to people in Norfolk is something that I once dreamt of.

Speaking of exhibitions and what I really wanted to write my blog on is Olive Edis. For those of you who stil haven’t visited our Fishermen & Kings exhibition at Norwich Castle (tut), you’ve got until the 22nd January – naturally plugging and promoting exhibitions and events has been a key part of my job role over the last 9 months. There are many reasons why I wish to focus my blog on the incredible woman and it only seems right to talk about something that got me excited from day one when I heard that a photography exhibition was coming to Norwich Castle. If I was to say just one thing about the work of Olive Edis, it would be the following quote made by herself in the New York Evening World in 1920:

“I believe a photograph should represent truthfully the subject at his or her most attractive moment. I have never yet found a human being who did have such a moment”

For those familiar with her work, it can be argued that there is not one photograph that doesn’t show that ‘moment’ in the exhibition. A wonderfully curated exhibition that highlights and informs of the areas in which Olive succeeded so well; famous sitters, studio techniques, fisherfolk, influential women and the First World War. For those unfamiliar with who Olive was and what she photographed – much like myself before I met with Alistair (curator) and Liz (project assistant) to learn more – the quote offers a hook and teaser for what is to be expected and what is confirmed when you see her photographs.

 

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Olive saw photography as a career and not a hobby and that is one of the things that I admire about her most. She knew that in order to make it, she would have to be focused and a modern business woman. Olive was gifted her first camera in 1900 by her cousin Caroline Murray and the early signs that she was going to succeed are evidenced by the fact that she won a gold medal for her colour photos that she entered into a Royal Photographic Society competition in 1913. A trailblazer who established a career in a traditionally male dominated field when it was unusual for women to even have a profession, she was at the centre of many important events in the early 20th century; including the Suffragette movement and World War One. Often one can talk of heroes or role models, and I hadn’t really considered myself to have a heroine, however I now realise that it was because I was yet to discover Olive Edis. Having studied photography at university, it is a practice that I have a specialist knowledge and passion for, and so discovering a woman who not only contributed in changing the attitudes towards photography as a career practice but also had such a talent and ability to capture the soul of a human being within a single frame presents no reason why she should not be a figure to look up to.

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Even her self-portraits reflect her ability to capture her subject at ease – controlling the set-up but without being the intimidating artist. Perhaps it is most evident in her local fisherfolk images, where the phrase twinkle in the eye becomes true. Edis gave the fisherfolk their own identity, each has a name; Charlie Grice, Belcher Johnson and Latter Day Cox are just a few to name. Olive presents the fishermen of Cromer and Sheringham in the same way as the kings and royalty, a bold statement in which her style implies no distinction between status, wealth and education.

One thing that emerges from the work of Olive Edis, is how willing her subjects were to let her into their homes and environment to photograph. Even during the days of the First World War in which she risked her own safety by travelling to Europe to document the action on the front line.

2Her photographs of the hospitals and army auxillary camps present a feeling of her being welcomed in – allowed in to see the damage and wreckage that had been caused by the war. Where her photographs reflect the catastrophe caused by the war, Olive is very much a part of it; not a snooper, hiding behind the scenes trying to capture a snapshot, but the photographer documenting the war and of course she was the only official female war photographer. She even worked with a broken camera at the first canteen she visited, the gaping hole from the smashed focusing screen didn’t stop her photographing – a true testament to her self-confidence and ambition.

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The power that a museum collection has to tell stories like that of Olive Edis’ is something that is truly amazing, especially knowing that the Fishermen & Kings exhibition will raise the profile of Olive Edis and see her name become more recognisable. Our collection holds over 2000 images made up of prints, glass plate negatives and auto chromes from Edis’ studios and having made these more accessible through digitisation, an exhibition, a publication, re-displays (Cromer Museum) and a travelling exhibition, it highlights the potential for audiences to be educated and inspired, at present and in the future. I will leave you with one departing thought in that I hope that our local lady, Olive Edis will be a heroine for others too and that her courage, motivation and talent will inspire us to give it our best shot at making it in the world, whether doing our dream job or not.

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(Black & white print of Olive Edis by Cyril Nunn, 1953-4. This is the last photo of her taken before her death)

 

 

 

 


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Corset’s been Extraordinary…

Each month we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Louise Turner, trainee with the Costume and Textiles Department.

Unbelievably, we are now in the eighth month of our traineeships, and as next year’s positions are advertised, I think we are all feeling both reflective and conscious of making the most of our remaining time.  So a good juncture for a blog post.

I feel so lucky to have been given this opportunity and value everyday for its diversity, uniqueness, and privilege.  Choosing my best bits has therefore been tricky, so here are just a few of the highlights of my role…

I’ll start with the most obvious, working with the fantastic Costume and Textiles (C&T) collection.  I was recently asked to choose a favourite object and found the task almost impossible.  The department looks after some, what might be termed, ‘star’ items.  A bodice worn by Marie Antoinette, Queen Victoria’s stockings, exquisitely embroidered medieval church textiles, and male costume worn to the Coronation of George IV, can all be found in the C&T stores.  But the more everyday objects have just as fascinating and poignant stories to tell.  A set of 3 samplers, which may have the appearance of typical works of memorial from the early 1800s, but which are actually a painstaking exercise in remembrance and tell the tale of a girl who in a period of only 7 years, and by the age of 20, had lost her mother, uncle, and father, is just one example.  The library is also a treasure trove of resources, including a large collection of vintage Vogues.

Male costume worn to the Coronation of George IV in 1821.

Male costume worn to the Coronation of George IV in 1821

As the Costume and Textile collection is in the main a stored collection, a large part of the work of the department and my role is to facilitate access to objects in ways other than display.  Monthly Talking Textile events, themed object handling sessions, are always a sell-out and it’s really rewarding to enable people to learn about, and look in detail at, items from the collection and to see them so engaged by them.  I will be leading an underwear themed session, entitled ‘Brief Encounters’ (we love a pun), in February.  Tours of the stores are also a valuable way to increase awareness of the collection and I will never get bored with showing visitors around the C&T store rooms (which are a museum geek’s dream in terms of their organisation).

The C&T main store

The C&T main store

I have also been fortunate enough that my time here has fallen at the same time as a redisplay of the costume in the Arts of Living Gallery in the Castle.  As part of my involvement with this, I was lucky enough to spend some time with our Textile Conservator as she mounted the costume ready for display.  It’s amazing how much time, work and skill goes into what’s happening underneath the clothing to get that all important silhouette.

But it’s not all glamour.  I have also been dressed in lowly Medieval garb (replica, she adds quickly) whilst working with the Castle learning team, removed spiders from blunder traps as part of pest management, and donned a Tyvek suit for the annual Gressenhall Superstore deep clean.  And I have loved it all.  Which brings me onto our trainee development programme.  As much as I enjoy working with the C&T department, I really look forward to our weekly training sessions.  From the demystification of Archaeology and Natural History, to discovering the many wonders of Norfolk’s independent museums and the poignancy of becoming Dementia friendly, the breadth and worth of the programme is vast.  Having the support and friendship of the other trainees and being able to chat about what you’ve been up to that week is also incredibly valuable.  Similarly, everyone throughout Norfolk Museums Service, whether those I work with on a daily basis, including our wonderful team of volunteers, or members of staff from across the diverse departments, have been encouraging and generous with their time and knowledge.

Me, deep cleaning at Gressenhall

Me, deep cleaning at Gressenhall

There are some exciting projects coming up in the next few months so there is still much to look forward to, including our Fashion and Passion event where the C&T department take over the Castle for the day.  But I’d just like to finish with a note of encouragement to anyone who may be considering applying for the trainee programme.  The Teaching Museum scheme is everything you think it will be, hope it might be, and everything you hadn’t even considered.

Me (centre, front) and some of my fellow trainees

Me (centre, front) and some of my fellow trainees

 

 


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The Traineeship Draws to an End

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Miles,  Curatorial Trainee at  Time and Tide Museum 

A sad thing happened this morning, I got my first invite to a meeting that will happen after I’ve left the traineeship.  However this can be a good thing if it spurs me to head back to my job applications and to reflect more deeply on my time as a trainee.

Reading over my initial post on our trainee blog about my first three months I can safely say the variety of work I have been doing in the six months since then has been just as varied.

Since then I’ve been involved in more events hosting object handling session on Norfolk fossil finds and 1950s childhood toys. I’ve also been accessioning donations into the collection including Gurkha knives and Herring cookbooks. A more long term project I’ve been working on is the Google Art Project where I’ve been selecting objects to showcase on the Google Cultural Institute and then updating their records with high resolution images and additional commentary. As these objects will be available to people all around the world on this platform I’ve been adding in as much information about Great Yarmouth’s rich heritage as I can.

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A MODES record I created for a fantastic new object we recently received as a donation.

Alongside this I have been doing hundreds of smaller tasks for the museum. I have recently been researching the reactions to the sinking of the Titanic in Great Yarmouth which lost two of its inhabitants in the disaster. I was also involved in commercialising some of our collections for our Christmas cards range, I searched the collections for some of our Victorian and WW1 Christmas cards, scanned them and digitally altered them to make the colours more vivid. I was very pleased to see the cards then being sold in our shop, both giving our collections more exposure and earning money for the Museum Service.

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A Victorian Christmas card from our collection which was reproduced for our shop.

There have been some consistent themes however. I’ve worked on digitising and cataloguing the Brain Ollington photo negative collection since the early days of the traineeship and am proud to say, hundreds of digitised images later that we’ve finally completed the black and white realm of 1960s Norfolk and are moving into garishly colourful world of the 1970s. We are soon to have two teams up and running working on the project who I’ve been training and working with throughout.

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Similarly our project to sort out and clean our store rooms has been an ongoing one, from cataloging our collection of bicycle lamps and ceramics at Gressenhall to re-arranging the archive to maximise space.

I’m sure the last three months will be just as eclectic and exciting as the first three so I’m looking to make the most of it.