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:


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Terrific Trails Training Day

Over the past year I have been organising a programme of family trails at Lynn museum, King’s Lynn. The trails have been really popular with our October Half Term trail ‘Amazing Autumn’ getting over 180 visitors.

Amazing autumn trail

Amazing Autumn sticker trail

world war one trail

Remembering World War One trail

As part of the Teaching Museum development programme which runs alongside our work I was asked to develop and deliver a day of training at Lynn Museum about making fun and engaging museum trails. I spent some time before the day pulling together all the ideas and thoughts which go into making engaging trails – not just another worksheet! From running a training day about ‘What do curators do?’ back in June I had a better idea about timings and knew activities are often more popular than just lecturing!

The trainees all made the journey over to King’s Lynn and warmed up with plenty of tea and coffee. We started off by all having a go at two very different trails used at Lynn Museum over the last year and thinking about what a visitor would get out of a trail. The first was an Amazing Autumn sticker trail and the second an object spotting trail titled Remembering World War one. Everyone had some great comments about the two trails and each person had brought an example trails from another museum to talk about and compare.

We discussed the learning principles which underpin trails and take them from a fun activity into an engaging learning experience. We talked about how a museum can encourage visitors to learn through being welcoming, providing accessible activities and rewarding achievement. The Every Child a Talker initiative and the Early Years Foundation Stage Principles of Learning  are good examples of the ideas the trails programme has been based on.

After looking through the trails I had produced for the summer holidays we talked about making activities relevant to your museum and which of the Lynn Museum trails had done this better than others. For the afternoon session I was keen for the trainees to have a go at putting what we had discussed into practice. We all enjoy some arts and crafts and I set everyone the challenge of picking a theme from the museum and designing a spotting, sticker or colouring trail to take families around the museum.

Group working on activity

Everyone hard at work coming up with ideas for trails

Seahenge trail

Lauren’s trail about Seahenge

 Everyone got into the activity and produced some great ideas which I would love to be able to use at the museum. Lauren put together a lovely sticker trail asking visitors to find the missing parts of Seahenge hidden around the gallery. Rachel did a very different trail encouraging visitors to find all the different objects in the museum relating to domestic life, answering questions as they go.

domestic life trail

Rachel’s trail about domestic items in the collection

I really enjoyed developing the session and was pleased that everyone had lots of questions during the day and enjoyed the activities. Delivering the session has been a great opportunity to try out some of the activities and discussion we hope to run as part of a SHARE Museums East training day about making museum trails which will be held at Ancient House Museum, Thetford on 1st December. Click HERE to find out more. 

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Haunted Dungeons & Prison Pirates: Halloween @ NMS

What a crazy couple of months we have just had in the Norfolk Museums Service!

October Half Term & Halloween are arguably our most busy period during the year and it certainly felt that way at times. Again, I have had the unique opportunity of being involved with the events at two different sites; the Spooky City event at Norwich Castle and the Pirates event at the Tolhouse Gaol Museum in Great Yaaarmouth! See what I did there? Sorry… While I got to play an important part in the Norwich offer, I organised, resourced and coordinated the entire event at the Tolhouse; high pressure stuff!

The amazing 'Sleeping Pirate' activity @ the Tolhouse.

The amazing ‘Sleeping Pirate’ activity @ the Tolhouse.

First, Norwich: I loved being part of the infamous Halloween dungeon tours at Norwich Castle. We had 12 tours per day, one nearly every half an hour, with one member of staff giving a standard tour (which is scary enough on its own), while another person ‘haunted.’ Haunting effectively involved members of the Learning team hiding behind displays and walls, out of sight, making doors bang, chains clank and flicking the lights on and off. It may seem slightly novel when you read it, but when done unexpectedly in a dark medieval dungeon, it usually has the desired effect; good fun!

Yet it was organising the Halloween event in Great Yarmouth which really stretched me. I have no experience of event planning, especially within a museum, and quickly ran into the usual restraints we face in the museum world, such as a limited budget, but this was often overcome by us simply using what we already had creatively and thinking outside of the box. I always knew that a pirate theme would be perfect as the Tolhouse Museum has a pirate collection, and the awards nominated Stories from the Sea schools project, which had an entire creative writing offer dedicated to pirates, is set to come to a triumphant end in March 2015. The Halloween event would therefore be a mini-celebration of this fantastic project while also a great opportunity to have some fun!

Wicked Witches trick & treating @ the Tolhouse

Wicked Witches trick & treating @ the Tolhouse

I wanted every child & adult who walked into the Tolhouse that evening to be completely swept away by the atmosphere, and with the help of the fantastic team in Yarmouth, some fishing nets, flags, hammocks and bubble wrap (I’ll explain), we were able to transform the Tolhouse into an incredible pirate ship! Lots of staff dressed up and got into character, making all the right ‘yaaarrr’ noises, while creaky ship and sea sound effects played throughout the museum. Visitors could make their own pirate hats and eye patches, handle replica pirate weapons & test their swordsmanship skills against a pirate, or get themselves a pirate tattoo. We had scary storytelling down in the dark prison cells.

 My personal favourite activity was definitely the ‘Sleeping Pirate.’ The sleeping pirate, played brilliantly by our Learning Assistant Patricia, was snoozing on a chair in front of a treasure chest filled with cuddly sea creatures, gems, diamonds and other jewels. We covered the floor in front of the sleeping pirate with bubble wrap, meaning anyone walking on it made a noise and risked waking her, and we had another pirate on patrol. The aim of the game was for visitors to try and steal as much treasure as possible, without being spotted. The kids (and their parents) absolutely loved it! You can see for yourself in some of the pictures I have attached.

The Tolhouse transformed into a pirate ship!

The Tolhouse transformed into a pirate ship!

The event went really well and there were so many happy and excited faces; I felt very proud to have helped make it as good as I envisaged and I am totally grateful to the wonderful Yarmouth team again for all their help and effort on the night. It’s opportunities like these and the huge amount of creative freedom I have been allowed which have helped make my traineeship be so rewarding and enjoyable.

Please do take a look at the Time & Tide/ Tolhouse Museum Facebook page if you would like to see some more pictures of the event. Anyway, I am off to write a session plan for our new Cinderella offer in Great Yarmouth (more on that next time), before revising my notes on the Roman Soldier session which I am delivering 3 days in a row in Norwich next week. The fun never stops for a Learning Trainee!BLOG4

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A Sense of History – Making Museum Collections Accessible For All

Before I began to work in museums I could never have envisaged the labyrinthine storage rooms full of objects. Shelf after shelf of taxidermy birds, pharmaceutical bandages, fine art and everything else you can possible imagine. Not to mention row after row of furniture, ploughs, boats and other large objects!

In Great Yarmouth we have a few thousand objects that visitors can see every day but there are approximately 40,000 objects in the collection in addition to a huge maritime archive.

Secrets from the Stores Maritime Effect Project

Secrets from the Stores Maritime Effect Project

Making all of our collections accessible, even those in storage, is a huge priority for the museum. That is why I have spent much of the last six months at Great Yarmouth working on a rationalisation project. Rationalisation can be defined as ‘Improving public benefit by refining collections in line with the museum’s statement of purpose”.  I see it as the process of assessing and developing a collection to improve accessibility, documentation and collections care. At Great Yarmouth I have been working with approximately 15,000 objects to better document and move them by the end of the year.

On my first trip to the museum stores I was amazed at the breadth of objects housed there. The movement of these was a daunting task at the outset of the 8 months but we have made real progress.

The Learning Trainee Sam and I went to a recruitment fair at a local 6th form college and we now have a team of six very dedicated young volunteers. They have been trained in object handling, packing and cataloguing. Every week we systematically go through more boxes discovering more of our hidden collections.

Orla with Jimmy and JJ at Time and Tide Museum

Orla with Jimmy and JJ at Time and Tide Museum

These Secrets from the Stores have even inspired a youth engagement project. Tricia our Youth Engagement Officer brought the Maritime Effect group to visit last week. These ten young people each choose an object which inspired them and will be developing their own creative response. Armed with a photograph of their object and a cardboard box they are tasked with coming up with a piece of art, music, drama, anything they want to create!

Meanwhile our young collections management volunteers are also using the objects for inspiration and with my guidance they will be developing their own display for the museum.

At NMS we do strive to make our collections accessible to all but this isn’t always that simple. One of my most challenging and rewarding tasks this year has been to facilitate a visit to the museum for a deafblind gentleman. Jimmy came on his Summer holidays to Yarmouth with his communicator JJ and family. I developed a handling session and tour which told the story of Great Yarmouth and Time and Tide Museum through our collections.

A real sense of history! Some smoked herring to touch and smell

A real sense of history! Some smoked herring to touch and smell

Amongst the objects I choose to give Jimmy a sense of this history were a barnacle encrusted wine bottle from a shipwreck, a drill bit from the off shore industry and best of all a piece of smoked herring! JJ runs a charity enabling alternative access to the arts for the deafblind and you can learn more about this here.

For those who cannot travel to be at the Museum virtual access can be the next best thing. At the beginning of my traineeship I wrote object profiles for the Norfolk Museums Service’s collections website.

More recently I have worked with our Learning Officer John on his Stories From the Sea Project. This project is run with the National Maritime Museum Greenwich and is all about developing literacy skills in young people. John chose fifteen objects from the collection on the theme of Explorers and I provided him with the necessary information and organised a professional photographer to capture images. Next month these object images and profiles will be up on the website of RMG. This enables people from all over the world visiting the site of this national museum to learn more about museum collections in Great Yarmouth.

Working with the collections at Great Yarmouth and Cromer Museums is a real privilege and being able to make them accessible to the entire community is what really makes it all worthwhile!

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A Passion for Fashion? The Goings on at a Costume and Textile Event Day

This week I am writing about my experiences with the special event day ‘Fashion and Passion: A Celebration of Costume and Textiles.’ The Costume and Textile department at NMS unfortunately does not have its own gallery. Therefore, examples of costume and textile have to fit in wherever possible and a day like ‘Fashion and Passion’ gives the department a chance to showcase the best of what they have. ‘Fashion and Passion’ was a day to celebrate the 25yr long relationship between Norfolk Museums Service and the Costume and Textile Association. Volunteers, staff and specialist groups were all there to tell Norwich about the fantastic work they do including Stitch Norwich, the Early Dance Group and Norfolk Lace Makers.Corset

Patricia Day, Adult Learning Officer and lead on the event, asked me to create a trail around the theme of C&T. I didn’t really have a clue where to start when I began working on this but I relished the challenge as I would develop a new skill. I began by walking round the galleries in the Castle and trying to think from a visitor’s perspective, which areas they may dwell in or what objects catch their eye.

Next I took these ideas back to Patricia, who then passed them onto the Costume & Textile department’s Curator, Ruth and Curatorial Assistant, Lisa. This dialogue between departments is essential as it helps accurate yet accessible information get out to the visitors and help them enjoy their day through tools- like a trail.

Boy making lace

I then met with Ruth and using a very hastily drawn out route we walked the route. Ruth is an absolute fountain of knowledge- she helped me to identify the things that would be a real draw to the public. For instance, did you know that there is a section in the Arts of Living gallery dedicated to Victorian mourning jewellery…made out of the hair of the deceased person? Or, did you know that the pine motif that we readily associate with Paisley prints is actually inspired by Indian shawls and that Norwich shawls were the first to use it in Britain? No? I didn’t know that either.

Armed with my new facts about textiles I went back to Patricia and together, we worked on making it accessible to both children and adults. I think my most favourite part of creating a trail is the part where I get to research new things and think of ways to make it fun for all. For this trail I really wanted there to be acharacter for the younger audiences to connect with, therefore I created Jackie Loomer- a play on the Jacquard Loom used for weaving. I also added thought bubbles throughout as a visual aid to help instigate conversations between adults and children doing the trail together. The trail was a success, with many families picking it up on the day and orientating their visit around that. I saw one family with two boys really getting into it and asking questions- that was nice to see. Click here to take a look at the trail and download it yourself.

Norwich shawlThe day itself was fantastic too! The atmosphere around the Castle was electric and every person I saw and spoke to was deeply engaged. It was clear that due to the nature of the event, specialists were coming out of the woodwork. I was also responsible for ‘live-tweeting’ on the day, meaning that I took photographs or saw things happening and put it straight onto social media. I used #CastleFashionDay so that people who wanted to get involved online, or at the Castle, could do just that. I mingled with visitors, stall holders and staff alike and I got to see some lovely moments- including this little boy who spent ages perfecting his lace caterpillar. I also took several photographs of the Early Dance Group who were performing period dances at set times during the day. Nice outfits, don’t you think?

Early Dance Group

It was a real treat to be involved and I enjoyed it very much.