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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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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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