The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship

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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:



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


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Development and developments.

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Lawrence, Collections Management Trainee at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse. 

The early part of 2016 has brought into sharp focus the amount of work required to ensure Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse opens on schedule this year, with its Heritage Lottery Funded redisplay ‘Voices from the Workhouse’. The sheer variety of what I have been up to has made this a very exciting, busy and valuable period of my traineeship in Norfolk Museums Service.


Norwich Castle’s ‘A Viking’s Guide to Deadly Dragons’ exhibition met with trainee approval.

One element of the re-display is to have digital resources in various rooms. One of these resources will show all 22 Union workhouses in Norfolk. It is proving to be a very enjoyable process researching each workhouse and finding historic and contemporary photographs of every building from a variety of physical and online archives. Inevitably not all workhouses have images which means a trip around the county will be completed to capture images of these often re-purposed or derelict buildings- a pretty great way to spend time in Norfolk! In addition, I was able to create the design for this aspect of the project and I am keenly looking forward to its completion and installation in the finished displays.

A lot of my time the last year has been spent digitising our own archived images for display in the museum. Whilst most of what we require has been found across the Norfolk Museums Service, more recently a few images have required some looking further afield. Organising and ordering images from the likes of the British Library and the National Portrait Gallery has been a valuable experience. I’ve gained an insight into how national institutions work and how their digital archives are managed but also how image licensing and copyright considerations are dealt with. I certainly didn’t expect this sort of work back when I started in April 2015 but have relished it all the same.


Sneak peak of an image sourced from the British Library for our displays.

Another unexpected aspect of my time here at Gressenhall was being given the lead on writing the text and producing the graphic style for our Engineering Gallery which contains many steam and petrol powered engines. It’s fair to say this wasn’t a topic I had much knowledge about previously! I thoroughly enjoyed this task. Experiencing the process of numerous edits, taking on board comments and suggestions from colleagues, will be of huge value in future roles.


One example of the diverse range of objects I have encountered this year. An Amanco ‘Hired Man’ portable engine.

I have not only been ‘in office’ this past year. In early February I had the privilege of researching and delivering a talk about the history of Gressenhall and the ‘Voices’ project at the Norfolk and Norwich Millennium Library. A little pre-talk apprehension aside, this was a very rewarding outreach experience and I certainly feel that I have gained a useful skill for the future.

The almost weekly training days have continued and have allowed my fellow trainees and me to visit and explore numerous wonderful museums, engage with great objects and learn a great deal of invaluable skills. Recent highlights for me include finding out more about the Archaeology and Display department and learning there is much more to plastics than I thought. With only a few training sessions ahead of me I believe I will miss these development opportunities, though it is fair to say I’ve definitely made the most of them!


 Object identification in action at Lynn Museum.        

As ever Gressenhall has been a lovely place to work over the last few months. It has been a source of personal satisfaction that I have been able to work in a historic building in the countryside of a county I have come to call home over the years. For an idea of the joy it has been to work here I thought I would end this post with an image I took back in January.


          Gressenhall’s café in mid-winter.

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Reminiscing on a job well done.

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Joe,  trainee at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum

Returning to work after the Christmas break felt odd. Something wasn’t quite right. It was the first time in three months that I wasn’t wholly consumed by the newly-launched Norfolk Regiment memorial cottages exhibition. I was no longer working to a strict deadline or dashing between the Museum of Norwich and the Regimental Museum. I could, for the first time in three months, choose what I wanted to work on for the day. Of course there is still a great deal to do before the display comes down in March, but I can now slowly begin to appreciate my first exhibition.


Images from the display including my personal favourite; a merge of two photographs taken at the same place (a 1928 snap by a Press photographer and a 2015 mobile phone image by myself).

For me, it was a completely immersive experience which tested a number of skills. Organising text, images and captions was a particular strong point, as was communicating with designers. I enjoyed our relationship throughout and believe we worked well. Refining large chunks of research was much harder, and cutting out text was extremely frustrating at times. Working with people across the service was exciting, and seeing my vision slowly develop was a highlight of the project.

Speaking with cottage residents past and present at our exhibition launch in November

Speaking with cottage residents past and present at our exhibition launch in November.

On November 30th we held a launch event. Past and present cottage residents attended alongside local dignitaries. It was a privilege to see so many people sharing memories and ideas without prompt or introduction, many of whom had helped with my research. The definite highlight was reuniting two old friends, Doreen Lemmon and Mabel Hewitt, who had not seen one another for over 60 years. Both had lived at the memorial cottages as children. That moment will live long in the memory and emphasised the real power of museums in the community.


Mabel and Doreen, reunited after over 60 years. Doreen’s childhood memories are also recorded as part of the display.

Borrowing the work of artist Paddy Hartley for the exhibition was another success. Hartley’s mannequins, made from First World War uniform and manipulated to signify operations such as skin grafting, are extremely powerful and emotive pieces. His art has been influenced by the work of Dr Harrold Gillies, a facial reconstructive surgeon who treated thousands of Great War soldiers including Robert Liddle, who later lived at the Norwich cottages. They have real resonance with the display and compliment the subject matter very well.

Norman Eric Wallace II by Paddy Hartley. At the Museum of Norwich as part of the temporary exhibition

Norman Eric Wallace II by Paddy Hartley. At the Museum of Norwich as part of the temporary exhibition

We were also privileged to invite Hartley for a guest lecture. He delivered a fascinating talk at the Norwich University of the Arts theatre, and was knowledgeable, interesting and passionate.

Although January now marks a quieter period for me, I know I will miss the buzz of an exhibition. I will miss working with staff at the Museum of Norwich, the service-wide design team, artists like Paddy Hartley, the National Army Museum (where Hartley’s works are kept), Norwich University of the Arts, journalists from the EDP and reporters from Mustard TV,  as well as everybody who assisted the research with memories and photographs. In truth, I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.


Me 7

Happy and tired after months of work. I would not have changed any of it for the world.

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Six Months at the Regimental Museum

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Joe, trainee at the Royal Norfolk Regimental Museum

The end of September marks the half-way point of my traineeship with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum and I still can’t quite believe I’m here. It is still an absolute pleasure and privilege to work with everybody at the Regimental Museum and the time has flown by.

Running Steve Miller's ice-breaker session at the Nofolk Chamber of Commerce "Business Breakfast" in July

Running Steve Miller’s ice-breaker session at the Nofolk Chamber of Commerce “Business Breakfast” in July. One of many smaller events through the summer.

With the successful Edith Cavell exhibition, the 2015 Summer School and a number of smaller events firmly behind me, my main focus since August has been the upcoming First World War Memorial Cottages Exhibition.

Helping with the deep clean at Gressenhall with Morgan.

Helping with the deep clean at Gressenhall alongside Morgan. Another small Summer event.

The exhibition (focusing on the cottages design, the disabled ex servicemen who lived there, their daily life and the advance in disability-housing) will run alongside a number of other interconnecting First World War projects. These are;

  • A new permanent display in the Regimental Museum based on the dugout sketches of Norfolk soldier (and later Memorial Cottage architect) Cecil Upcher. Upcher played a huge role in the evolution of disability housing in Norwich. .
  • A talk at Norwich University of the Arts by Paddy Hartley, creator of a remarkable mannequin we are borrowing for the Cottages exhibition. Hartley will highlight his artwork, Fist World War wounds, surgery and medical innovation.
  • A small touring exhibition by HEART on Colman’s workers and families during the First World War. This will be at the Museum of Norwich alongside the Cottages display.
A piece written by Derek James in the Norwich Evening News. He has helped massively in my plea for information

A piece written by Derek James in the Norwich Evening News and Eastern Daily Press. He has helped massively in my plea for information.

For me,  the most challenging thing has been pulling together all this information and formatting into a worthwhile exhibition. Working with the Museum of Norwich, the artist, cottage residents, the Press, our Design team and HEART has been challenging (and often confusing) but I am positive it will be an enlightening, informative and emotional exhibition. Here’s to the next six months!

Perhaps my favourite image of the Memorial Cottages site.

One of my favourite images of the Memorial Cottages site.