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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Norwich Castle Museum: a snooper’s paradise!

Each week we take a look at what’s been going on with Norfolk’s Teaching Museum Trainees.  Today we see Dan, trainee within the Archaeology Department at Norwich Castle Museum & Art Gallery.

Spring has turned into summer in the blink of an eye for this trainee! Starting a new job and embarking on the teaching museum training programme has certainly kept all of us trainees very busy. It’s great to see all of us steadily developing as museum professionals on the scheme. Here’s my personal insight into the programme so far from the Archaeology Department…

Atop Norwich Castle battlements with Meg, Morgan and Sue.

I must say I’ve had a highly interesting and rewarding time to date – long may it continue! I am very privileged to be here. My colleagues have been incredibly welcoming and supportive and the department is bustling with activity, welcoming students, volunteers, academics and members of the public to view and catalogue all sorts of amazing things from socketed Bronze Age axe heads to animal and human remains.

I have been fortunate enough to already involve myself in a number of diverse projects and activities, including:

  • arranging the touring display of the Rudham Dirk, a ceremonial Bronze Age dagger, around regional museums
  • writing a funding application for the acquisition of gold coins of the Iceni, a Celtic tribe perhaps best known for their warrior queen Boadicea
  • attending the Dying Matters event with Anglo-Saxon grave goods at The Forum in Norwich alongside fellow teaching museum trainees
  • familiarising myself with and contributing to the proposed Norwich Castle keep redevelopment and redisplay project

Gold ‘Norfolk Wolf’ coin of the Iceni.

Dying Matters with fellow trainees, and a Stormtrooper!?







The latter is a truly exciting project and again, I am thrilled to be involved in such an important undertaking which will have a lasting impact on the future of the museum. Part of my work has seen me helping research, document and catalogue papers and relating to the Victorian conversion of Norwich Castle from a prison to a museum by the notable local architect Edward Boardman & Son in the 1890s. Recently, I accompanied a photographer around the building to document the Boardman architecture, fixtures and fittings, including about an hour spent in a ladies toilet – prior to opening I must add!

Photographer snapping an old window shutter in Norwich Castle Museum.

I’ve had opportunities to snoop around other areas of the museum not normally accessible. Being a nosey sort, I love museum stores, nooks and crannies, and the dark places where arachnids and other creepy crawlies dwell. I’ve been fortunate enough to be guided around the Fighting Gallery of the castle keep and see ancient graffiti up close, which is gradually being documented by my manager Dr Tim Pestell. There is certainly plenty more to be discovered throughout the museum which I’m keen to see over the coming months.

A bit of fun with a replica helmet from the Learning Department’s handling collection.

Before I go, I should mention the training which has really exceeded expectations. Trips to the Norfolk Record Office and attending courses meant to give us trainees a broader understanding of museums have been particular highlights. I’m excited by the other valuable skills and experiences we’ll acquire and encounter. I’m convinced that this is without doubt the best thing for me in my early career in the museum sector.

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Time To Pack Up My Desk

Happy December all! As the excitement for Christmas ramps up in the Castle for most, things are slowing down for us trainees. Come early January, our contracts will end and we will each go our separate ways. Hopefully, many of us will stay in the cultural sector but it is a slightly uncertain time for many museums.


Feeding back to the group at our Costume & Textile training session.

Before we all become Scrooges (from my blog) I want to focus on the many positives of the year. Being a Norfolk Museums Service Trainee has been an incredible experience. It has opened many doors, windows and cat flaps- you name it, it has opened it. Despite not having a permanent job for next year, the difference of having this traineeship on my CV has been huge. The year has taught me much about how museums work generally, with training from museum professionals, and given me a better understanding of how a Learning team works. I started off the year not being the best public-speaker but as time has gone on I have learnt to control my nerves and developed my own style of delivery. Now, even though it is scary, I am happy to deliver talks to people and have mastered the use of ‘pauses.’

One of the best things that I will take away from this experience is that we were each valued members of our relevant teams with specific roles and responsibilities. This may seem small but having a huge amount of pride and ownership over a task makes all the difference to the outcome. In my case tasks like; children’s birthday party packages at Norwich Castle, developing an informal adult talk on Alfred Munnings and becoming a regular team-member of ‘Snapdragons’ have given me pride in my work. I think this is special about the Traineeships, with the support of our supervisors we have advanced actual, practical skills that are highly transferable.


Working in costume at ‘How the Romans Cut the Mustard’

I am, however, one of the first to recognise that cultural jobs are in short supply. That is why programmes like the Teaching Museum Traineeships and special events are great ways of learning about the sector. One of my colleagues, the Volunteer Co-ordinator for Norwich Museums, enlisted my help in organising an event like this- titled ‘Routes into Museums’. The purpose of this day was to tell people about the different ways into museums outside of general volunteering.

Just before Halloween we started planning this event and each of the trainees was recruited to deliver a short session. We met in October as a group and Rachel talked us through the ideas she had for the day. Each of us had around a 20 minute slot to fill with; a short talk on our department and the various job roles, a short activity and answer any questions they may have had.

Pirates 014

Working at Time & Tide for their Easter pirate themed offer.

The event happened last weekend, on 13th December and each of us delivered fun, informal yet educational sessions. I was first up and talked about the role of the Learning Team in Norwich. For my activity I used an object pairing activity with both contemporary objects and replica objects from the handling collection. The idea behind the activity was to get the participants to think about the conclusions they had arrived at for the object pairings. This sort of activity would usually be used for formal schools sessions like our Anglo-Saxons and Vikings offer. So, comparatively for adults, it would seem like an easy task. As adults we are fully able to comprehend that if there is for example; an iron from the 20th century and a non-contemporary object with similar visual properties, the latter must be an iron too. This is a difficult concept for children to understand as they haven’t experienced as much as adults. We use object pairings to help children connect to non-familiar things through using familiar objects-like an iron. This then helps the children to learn about a given time period. My activity did challenge the participants, as it got them to think outside of what they know and use the objects’ physicality to interpret different pairing options.

Overall the day was a success- the people that came left feeling more informed about the work that museum professionals do and the wide variety of skills we have. It also helped to show them that despite museums being a competitive field, there are alternative ways of getting into it. For instance; customer services roles, project volunteering and working in building maintenance are all ways of showing an interest in museum working.

Hawk and owl trust day2

Goodbye from Katie!

As for myself and the path I am going to take post-traineeship that takes some extra consideration. I do know that I want to be in museum education and that I enjoy working with early year’s children. Therefore, it is likely that my career path will divert for some years into more formal teaching with the idea of ending up in museums eventually.

Lastly,if you are applying for a traineeship next year- good luck and for those of you that are not, have a Merry Christmas.


A Christmas card from our collections.

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Tying Up Loose Ends  

Over the last few months I have been working on several projects including installing ‘The Life Room and the City: John Wonnacott and John Lessore’ temporary exhibition at the Castle, designing and making a working model of the Castle Keep.

W&L install 3

‘The Life Room and the City: John Wonnacott and John Lessore’ – Install

I have also created some life like reeds, a nest and bird pooh for the ‘Water Ways: Art and Nature on the Broads’ exhibition at Time and Tide Museum. The reeds were to decorate a reading area within the exhibition so needed to be robust enough to withstand being outside of a case but look natural enough to fit in with the rest of the exhibition. I used willow withies, paper pulp, wonder web and wire to make the reeds and some were used inside the case in particular one reed was used to mount an insect.


‘Water Ways: Art and Nature on the Broads’ 

Throughout the traineeship I have also been developing plans and ideas for a re-display of the Fitch Room for which I created some mood boards which I hope to find time to evaluate with members of the public over the next few weeks.

blue finalgreen final

Sadly I won’t see this project happen whilst I’m still here but feel as though I have got it to a stage where it is ready to hand over and carry forward.

From the first day of the traineeship I knew it was going to be an amazing experience and without doubt I have been proven right.

What I couldn’t have predicted though is the volume of various and varied projects I have worked on throughout the year and the level of responsibility I have been given. The range and quality of skills I have gained and developed will be invaluable for my future career and the development programme has given me a really solid grounding and understanding of wider museum practise.

As this year comes to an end I do feel sad about leaving but also excited, armed and ready to venture out into the world of museums.

I am looking forward to new challenges as I move to Nottingham and develop plans to go back towards the North West, continuing to seek out opportunities and put my creativity to good use.