The Teaching Museum

Norfolk Museums Service Traineeship


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Brueghel; Defining a Dynasty

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.

Today we see Freya Monk-McGowan, trainee with the Collections Management section.

Hello all! My name is Freya and I’m one of the newest trainees within Norfolk Museum Services, I am also a new arrival to Norfolk itself, so have been taking my time settling in and getting to know my new surroundings. My apologies for not writing sooner, but I must admit that my mind has been exploding and imploding from the utter amazement of the position I find myself in, and the exciting things I get to do within this traineeship. As this is my first blog post, I will give a short introduction to myself and how I came to be here, as well as one of my most recent achievements within the service.

I graduated in 2015 from Brighton University with a History, Literature and Culture BA Hons, after which I moved home and found myself managing a cinema for just under a year. Although an exciting and educational experience, I realised that my passion for history and culture was not being completely fulfilled, so I spent a while sending out a whole host of applications, but having only studied to an undergraduate level, I was not qualified for most museum jobs. So began my applications for internships and traineeships, I was lucky enough to get onto Culture &’s SOCL traineeship (Strengthening Our Common Life), based here at Norfolk Museum Service, and the rest (as they say) ‘is history.’

Since then, my traineeship has been a bit of a whirlwind, within a few days I was being let loose on objects hundreds of years old, and being involved in training sessions, with my fellow trainees, about aspects of the museum service that I had frankly given no consideration before. (I must clarify that my term ‘let loose’ here refers only to my excitement, there was of course training before I was allowed to handle any objects.) So far, I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in training sessions on Community Engagement, Improving Access to Museums, Marketing, Working with Display Teams, and a whole host more!

By far however, one of the most exciting (and nerve-racking) things that I have been asked to do (apart from being asked to go on the radio later this year, updates will follow), was being asked to courier an object that was going out on loan. As seems to be the case for me currently, it was serendipitous and a complete surprise – due to calendar clashes and a few lucky (for me) cross-overs, I was asked in the third week of January to do a courier trip to the Holburne Museum in Bath. Although having visited Bath when I was younger, I had not much recollection of the place, and was excited to go. My excitement grew evermore as I was told exactly what object I would be taking.

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Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s The Rent Collectors 1618 (also known as The Payment of the Tithes, Village Lawyer, and Paying the Tax – The Tax Collector).

When this was confirmed my excitement could barely be contained. As well as the nerves/doubts of the dreaded ‘what if.’ However, my nerves being set aside, I began planning for the trip by getting a foundational knowledge of the procedures of loaning to another museum, the different job roles that are necessary, and getting my head around the scale of work involved when putting on an exhibition that is made up of mainly of borrowed works.

The Holburne Museum in Bath is bringing together a range of paintings from across the UK, for the first time, in order to display the dynasty of the Brueghel family. This will give the viewer an ability to see the similarities between the artists, yes, but also their differences. The ways in which they were influenced, but by no means the way they ‘copied’ on from one another (- a critique of the family that has been repeated over the centuries). The exhibition itself is ambitious and exciting, and definitely one worth visiting.

The next part of my preparation involved actually coming face-to-paint with this piece (-yay!). Myself and a colleague (Fiona Ford, registrar) visited the piece in store, in order to review the condition check before packing. This is done so that we can keep an eye on the condition of the painting before and after transit to Bath, before and after the exhibition, and before and after it has gone on loan and been returned. It was during this condition check that I really got the chance to indulge in the piece. This painting really does demand attention – it requires the viewer to attend for a lengthy period of time, and will not let you leave easily. I found myself (four hours later) still finding aspects of it that I had not thought of before, and if you will, dear reader, let me share those with you.

(I hasten to add that although I am an art lover, I have not studied art, in the practical sense, academically. I say this in order to allow myself room for error, and to allow others who are similar (-having not studied art), to engage, agree/disagree with me on my findings.)

As with most pieces of art, this painting asks more questions than it answers. And with its different names, the meaning behind it is enigmatic.

If, for example, we take the name of this piece as ‘The Rent Collector’ we are positioned to assume that the man far right, with his jauntily placed black hat and thoughtful expression, is there in an official capacity. He is there merely to collect these poor wretches ever-so-dear ‘rent’. As we can see, all are attempting to pay with everything that is not money: a chicken, a basket of eggs, a bunch of grapes. This therefore makes the painting both dark and harrowing – these people that have no money for rent, are now handing over their precious food stuffs, to leave (we assume) to hunger, and a life not made much better by this moment.

If, however, we take a different name for this piece, and instead assume that it is titled ‘Village Lawyer,’ the man in the black hat becomes less of a dark presence within the piece, and instead is a welcome relief to those clutching their food within.

This title encourages us to focus on this encounter closer:

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The man seen pointing and whispering into Black Hat’s ear, we can assume is a peasant, with his clothes filled with patches, and his tanned skin. The expression, and meaning, of ‘Black Hat,’ who I assume to be the Village Lawyer in this scene, changes with the title. Instead of a discerning, prudent and imposing presence, he becomes a wily, (seemingly) intelligent lawyer attempting to work through tons of paperwork in what I can only assume to be a helpful way. The total scene shifts and my focus moves from ‘Black Hat’ (or lawyer), to the man sitting slightly left of centre, quietly working through papers.

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This man now becomes the official figure, there to record the present scene, but who does not seem a helpful or welcome presence by his fellow characters. I presume this from the wide berth given to him, the clear sight-line we are afforded to stare at him, and also the emotions of the surrounding figures. If we look closely (and use a wild leap of imagination) we can see that those nearest to this gentlemen hold expressions of:

Sadness

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Anger

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And in other cases, seem to hide altogether:

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Now, that is not to say that all the rest of the people in the scene look wildly happy to be there, but if we focus again on the man talking to ‘Black-Hat’ (-I like the name, so will continue using it):

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Although it does feel that there is desperation in his face, I can see, dare I say it, some excitement there. Maybe at the possibility of paying less, getting off, or some of other positive possibility from speaking to ‘Black-Hat.’

Of course all of these opinions and assumptions are my own, and you are welcome to agree or disagree depending on yours. I cannot help but feel that this is exactly what we are encouraged to do by this painting, and whether you are a lover of art, or not, I believe this painting does encourage contemplation.

Even if this is not the case for every viewer, the painting (/painter) offers us another opportunity – of reveling in his ability to capture the likeness of both people and inanimate objects. I must admit that I got quite obsessed at the smallest parts of this piece. For example:

This window, and its peeling panes.

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This perfectly painted knee.

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And the numerous images of papers strewn all over the floor, piled high over wardrobes, and even stuck into window panes.

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This painting, encourages the novice and the experienced viewer to search within, and then again, and then again (a similarity that is shared throughout the dynasty).

My advice for those visiting the Holburne to see this exhibition, take nothing with you but time.

I feel I have gone off topic (only slightly) with my musings of the painting itself. Back to the actual trip.

After agreeing with the condition check, getting all the relevant paperwork (loan agreement, my travel documents, the condition check, etc) in order, picking up some conservation tools (to check light levels, humidity and temperature), and packing my things, I was ready to go. The next day, the painting and I, were picked up from Norwich castle by professional art movers, and were safely packed away for the drive to Bath (stopping at Cambridge along the way to pick up another piece). Arriving at the Holburne that evening, we met with one of the curators of the exhibition and the director of the museum. We discussed the movements of the crates, and began. We unloaded the van (I say we, I did literally no heavy lifting), and moved the crates upstairs to be safely stored away for the evening, and the whole next day. As this piece was painted on a wooden panel it needed a ‘rest day’ to acclimatise to its new temperature, and humidity. This gave me the opportunity to explore Bath for a day, and visit a total of 5 museums/art galleries, which I would be happy to write on although possibly not in this piece.

After its rest day, I arrived again at the Holburne to see it’s unwrapping, and its installation – this really was the exciting bit. The exhibition space is well designed and engaging, with muted colours on the walls that highlight the rich colours found within the Brueghel’s themselves.

After taking it out of its case, and double checking the eye-line and its straightness, the freelance art technicians fixed it to the wall, and we all (6-7 of us), stood back to admire this piece once again.

I really cannot explain how exhilarating it was to be involved in this piece being put on show within such a fantastic museum, nor such an exciting show. I couldn’t help but imagine the hundreds (and hopefully thousands) of people who stand where I was then, contemplating the same piece and having an infinite amount of different thoughts when staring at it.

I really do count myself lucky to have been involved in such a moment, for that I am extremely grateful, to Norfolk Museum Services Teaching Museum, to Culture &, and to the Holburne itself. Good luck, and I hope this exhibition brings in all the attention it deserves.


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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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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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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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 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.

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          Gressenhall’s café in mid-winter.