Monday, 14 November 2011


We heard last week that we have received our extension - the full 27 days that we applied for. To celebrate Bridget and I spent this morning planning the last few days of the original project. We have so much to do and so little time! We have been caught up with planning our SHARE wider museum community workshops - the first of which we finished on 2nd November and the second of which is on 30th November. 2nd November went better than we hoped (perhaps we have too high expectations!) and my favourite bit was hearing about the unaccessible parts of everyone's collections and thinking about how they can be used and appreciated across their museums. It really showed me how hard we had worked to involve people from across the musum - and how far we had come from just thinking about the collections for display or exhibtions to using them throughout everything that goes on in the museum. It now seems natural to me to think about how the collections can be used in learning, retail, gardening and events - but for many other museums this is a new way of thinking and it takes some adjusting to get used to thinking about our collections as resources in that way. I think it is really a tale of thinking about the curatorial role as less of a gate keeper but more as an advocate. It is not only about protecting collections - but about enabling others to love your collections so that they can advocate for you and therefore raise the collections profile and ensure their protection and long term survival. A teacher rather than a jailer!

We have also been doing some planning for the future - looking at baskets which are going to be the new collections focus once the Monument Fellowship is over. So whilst this is not strictly Monument, and hasn't been done on Monument time, it is very exciting! It shows that the Monument work has opened our collective museum eyes to other parts of the collections and how we can appreciate and care for them better.

Bridget and I have also been talking about our "best bits" - the things we have most enjoyed during the project. We both feel that one of the most fantastic outcomes has been seeing other people just fascinated by the collections - realising that these resources are there to be used and enjoyed by all of us and watching people grow in confidence and coming up with their own ideas and plans on how to use these resources. We are so excited that we are going to be able to work together as a team to re-vitalise our seed merchants store and are hoping it is going to a fantastic space for our visitors to learn more about our objects and get involved with them and the gardens.

Friday, 21 October 2011

time for an extension

We have just sent off our appliction for an extension to the Monument project. I am really excited about this as it gives me the chance to work longer with Bridget! If awarded we will work to pass on our enthusiasm for the gardening collection to an even wider audience, improving the current seed merchant's shop display.

The original seed merchant display.

There are gardening objects scattered across our museum at the moment - some on the farm, some in the collections gallery but the majority in a recreated seed merchant's shop which is part of Village Row. This display began life as a recreation of Taylor's seed shop in King's Lynn and it was located in the main museum building. It was vibrant and enticing and most importantly visitors could remember visiting shops like this in their youth. Nowadays seed merchant's shops have been replaced by garden centres and supermarkets or online buying. The current seed merchant's shop needs updating and some interpretation to help bring it to life to modern families, connect it to the historic gardens that are growing just outside and help our visitors think about they might grow more to help them towards a more healthy lifestyle.

The extension will allow us to assess what is there, open up access to more of the collections and more importantly demomnstrate why they are of importance today. There are so many opportunities to use gardening collections to do more than just talk about gardening - they promote healthy eating, physical exercise, environmental diversity and responsibility for our own surroundings. There is so much more that these objects can tell us about. I really hope we get the extension so we can follow the fellowship through to its' logical conclusion. Everyone involved has worked so hard - it would be great to celebrate the end of the project with a garden fete in Cherry Tree Cottage garden whilst we admire the new display.

We have been working hard on our masterclass workshop events which are coming up in November. We are really excited about sharing our ideas with others from the museum sector and are really looking forward to two days of sharing what we have learnt (and also sharing from the participants who will bring a wide range of skills and experience to the days). Work is steaming ahead by our collections team as we track down errant parts of the Taylors collection and improve the records. We are even thinking of introducing a heritage gardening event at Gressenhall next year. Tune in later to see how it all proceeds!

Thursday, 29 September 2011

30 days and counting...

Wow we are getting close to 30 days - a whole month of working together! Things are really progressing fast at the moment. Our heritage garden apprentices are using the collections to plan their bulbs for next year (we are sourcing heritage bulbs featured in the seed catalogues from the right period in our collections!), we are planning to use these and our seed pockets in a new learning session for Foundation Stage children and our collections volunteers are really getting to grips with the Taylor's Collection - a collection of items from Taylor's seedmerchants and warehouse in King's Lynn. Until the 1990s the collection was on display in a re-created shop, but was then packed away. Now we are updating the documentation, photographing all the items and trying to get to grips with streamlining the collection (do we really need 100 flat packed manure boxes?) and looking at improving our display of this material which is currently looking rather sad.

Our wider museums knowledge and skill sharing events are coming up (in November we are running two training days via SHARE) so we are busy preparing for that too. We also had front of house leading garden object handling over the summer so we now need to assess how that went and look to how we can improve it in the future. Being over half way we are also starting to think about how we could extend the project and sustain this excitement over collections!

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

time flies when you are having fun...

I knew it was a while since I had blogged but didn't realise it had been that long! In my defence we have had a short summer break after the second tools session - but Bridget and I have been busy behind the scenes also planning the second part of our collections sessions - where we will be working with different areas of the museum and looking at how we can integrate the gardening collections in these different areas. To whit Bridget has been meeting with the various groups and looking at different options - and they all seem really fun! Successful planning meetings with Learning, Skills for the Future, Front of House, Gardeners and Collections all under our belt. The work that will come out of this is really varied and will really show off the gardening collections to their full potential.

We are looking at developing a new foundation level learning session related to the gardens and the gardening collections - matching images from seed pockets to real plants grown in the garden, using scales to weigh out seeds and sorting big and small flower pots. All very basic stuff but great to be including real collections for these very young visitors.

The Skills for the Future gardeners and our gardening volunteers are really getting their teeth into our seed catalogues and are planning next year's planting using approriate plants identified from the catalogues of the correct periods for our different gardens.

This morning we had a great session with our collections volunteers and have decided to concentrate their efforts this winter on the "Taylor's Collection"; a set of material from a seedmerchants shop and warehouse in King's Lynn. The collection needs some work on the documentation. We also aim to photograph it in its entirety and add all these photographs to our catalogue so they can be seen on the internet. This is all in preparation for the potential re-display of our current seed merchants shop and the production of a temporary exhibition highlighting the gardening collections. It is great to see volunteers become more involved in the project and I am really looking forward to working with them on this over the next few months. I think it will be really beneficial for them to see a project through from inception through to completion and for the team to see some of the more public sides of collecting work, as we plan to work together on the exhibition too.

I am shortly off on holiday myself - so another short break will follow - but I'll be back at the end of September to record the next stages of the Fellowship!

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

tools galore

After a few very busy days we held our second collections session today and it went very well. We had a very similar format to the last session - some led introduction and then plenty of time for participants to explore the collections for themselves. Again it was a real success. It was lovely to see people finding the fascination of the objects for themselves. Highlights have to be hearing tales of childhood cutting the edges of bowling greens (objects as catalysts for reminiscence!) and sharing the story of the carved garden post!

We also tried out some of our mstery gardening objects - we asked people to use their skills of observation to work out what the objects are. We wanted to trial them before we launch them on the unsuspecting public during our summer holiday object handling sessions. We also want to provide clues in the form of paper ephemera objects that feature the plants the tools were designed for. But I am not going to say any more in case I give the game away! You will have to come along and try it.

We also tried to film some of the session - just to see what the results would be like and whether we could quickly and easily to produce object interviews for inclusion on our MODEs database and possibly also to do object training for the large number of front of house staff who lead our object handling sessions. We are hoping to see the results and then work out a plan for future filming. If it means we sacrifice time with objects then we will not be filming - I do not believe in technology for its own sake and would rather spend longer learning about the objects rather than learning how to use a new technology.

We will now begin planning our more specialised sessions for different parts of the museum. I am looking forward to doing some specific work on how we can integrate these objects into the museum's everyday life and using some of the ideas that these first two introductory sessions have come up with.

Thursday, 30 June 2011

tools are more tricky

We have been trying to plan our second collections session and it is depressing! Where is everything? Like many museums we have a computerised database that is meant to make it easy to locate objects in store - the only trouble is that too many of our locations are "Gressenhall" or "Unknown". I knew that the objects would be more difficult - but hadn't realised how disheartening it would be. I suppose the silver lining is that this process illustrates how important our Store Audit really is. We have a fantastic team of volunteers working through boxes, photographing objects, carrying out necessary conservation work and then creating contents lists and updating the database. Occasionally tedious, but essential work. Just how essential I am beginning to find out.

The other depressing thing is a lack of storage and working space. Despite being on a 60 acre site we never have enough room. We are always trying to balance the competing demands of modern farm machinery, collections, learning equipment and display space. Sometimes it feels like collections storage comes last in the list. For example we have "Gressenhall" locations for three wheelbarrows that we would like to use in our next monument session - but actually lcoating them has proved impossible. The most likely location is practically inaccessible because it is extremely crowded. So whilst the barrows may be safe in the barn we are not able to get into it to find them or much less get them out for people to look at in the time or with the equipment we have available.

Ho hum - there are lots of fantastic things about this project - it isn't all bad! I am loving working on researching the collections but perhaps even more passing that information on to my colleagues and thinking how we could use it across the museum. I was working today on our informal project newsletter - Collections Corner. The idea is that this will continue to be circulated after the end of the Fellowship so that we can all continue to learn more about the collections that are the unique selling point of the organisation. It covers a particular theme in the collection, tells some of the stories recorded in the collections and then suggests some ways in which these objects and stories could be used across the museum. Working on this just reminds me why I am a curator - an enthusiasm for objects and the things they tell us about life - and a love of passing on this enthusiasm. I just hope that our first edition of Collections Corner - due out before mid July - receives a positive reception!

Monday, 20 June 2011

monument in multimedia

as promised just a quick post to put up a few bits and pieces - first of all the thought shower Bridget and I completed - thinking about all the different ways we could use the gardening collections:

A very busy piece of paper. Bridget and I got a little carried away - but there really is so much that these collections can be used for. Although the Monument project is being carried out in a limited time period I really think that one of the best results we can get from the process is to think about collections differently - to think of them as a catalyst for everything that goes on in the museum - whether that is galleries, learning sessions or holiday activities right down to what we stock in our shop.

Following on from our review session last week I happened to be passing one of our museum comments books and caught a glimpse of a visitor's note that made my day:

I think we tend to underestimate our visitor (dare I say a Norfolk trait?) - we tend to assume that they will not be able to appreciate the collections and that they come for the safe attractive landscapes, farm animals and adventure playground. Collections often get downgraded to "mind-boggling paraphenalia" when in fact they are so much more. We need to not only advertise our collections better, but we need to value and respect our audience and not always assume that they won't be interested.

Thirdly we can hear some of the Monument project in progress - many thanks to Gabbie who recorded this  for Wayland Radio just after our first session:

A lovely example of how the project is already reaching out to local communities and encouraging more involvement in the museum and its' collections. Also how the project can be recorded and knowledge saved for the future in a variety of formats.

Finally I have plans for a Monument section on our website - containing a link to the blog, pdfs and hopefully ultimately podcasts and video clips. I'll report back and let you know how I get on.

Wednesday, 15 June 2011

reviewing and planning for the future

Had a really rewarding few hours together looking at how the first Collections Session went and planning for what happens next. We felt the first session was a great opportunity to bring different parts of the museum together - but it also made it clear that whilst it was good to get people from across the museum together for the project to have lasting impact and change the way the museum uses it collections we also need to plan in some more detailed sessions with individual volunteer and staff groups.

This then moved on to thinking about what we could do with the gardening collections - some blue sky thinking - it was great to think big, and then actually rather exciting to plan what we can do with the remaining time. We filled a flipchart paper with ideas - there are so many opportunities to use the collections once you begin to know them a little better. I'll upload a photo of the "brainstorm" later so you can see where our thinking was going.

We have also begun to plan out the rest of the project and it seems like everything is beginning to fall into place. We have enough time (fingers crossed) to do another joint in-house collections session (this time on objects), then a series of specialised sessions for individual groups followed finally by two workshops for the wider museums community. We are planning on working with the SHARE network to run two day workshops at Gressenhall - one on the gardening collections themselves but the second on how to use collections effectively across the diverse roles of a museum - how to get the most out of your collections.

We also thought about how to desseminate the inforamtion from our collections sessions to a wider museum audience and I am going to try and develop a "Collections Corner" informal newsletter that I can then continue to use and explore the collections with other staff members after the project has finished. The idea would be that I would briefly write up any particular part of the collections I had been working on - something I was requested by a researcher, something I was looking at for a temporary exhibition or a theme I was exploring for an event. These would build up into a library of informal guides to the collections - hopefully of use for my successor as well. We would aim to have these available on our website too to increase the amount of collections information available to our digital audiences. All very  I just need to find the time to get on and do it!

Saturday, 11 June 2011

Stark and Ryburgh Bells...

I promised to share some of the stories we have been uncovering. One of the collections we have been considering is that of Stark and Son Ltd, of Great Ryburgh. I have copied below Bridget's retelling of the story for the Hardy Plant Society, Norfolk and Suffolk branch:

In among the collections relating to gardening and horticulture at Gressenhall
Farm and Workhouse there is a group of some hundred certificates and
awards won by George Stark and Son at shows across the country. This
includes a commendation by the RHS for Campanula Persicifolia “Ryburgh
Bells”, awarded in 1910, as well as a later award for the same variety given by
the Norfolk and Norwich Horticultural Society.

Stark and Son were nurserymen, seedsmen and florists first in Great Ryburgh
then moving to Fakenham at some point shortly after the First World War.
They closed in 1966. Peter Trent, a local historian and bellringer in Great
Ryburgh, has found out that George Stark came originally from Fifeshire to
be a gardener at Sennowe Park and married the daughter of a local grocer
and draper in the village, taking over the shop by 1891. The shop was almost
adjacent to the church in Great Ryburgh and George’s son Arthur became
a bellringer in 1891. Fakenham Local History Society hold a number of old
catalogues from Stark and Son, and future research in these may tell us more
about the history of the firm and for how long they sold “Ryburgh Bells”

Sadly it seems that “Ryburgh Bells” appears to be no longer in cultivation, or
at least it is not in the national collection of Campanula, although the RHS
hold a pressed specimen. The Ryburgh Bellringers would be thrilled to hear
from anyone who is still holding this old variety, as would the museum who
would love to be able to add a plant or two to Cherry Tree Cottage garden as
there is such an intriguing local story to tell.

It is these intriguing stories that make working with collections so interesting - you never know where you are going to end up next...

Saturday, 4 June 2011

1st collections session done!

We did our first collections session last Wednesday. I haven't posted about it until now because I wanted to let it all sink in. We got a lot of the printed ephemera out (perhaps too much - but it did provide an idea of the extent of these collections). It was really interesting to see other people's reactions to the items. We had a group of 10 from various different parts of the museum. I think mostly they were flabbergasted by the amount of stuff - because most of the collection is normally tucked away in the stores people just forget that it is there. By getting it out it brings it to the forefront of our minds, It made me think about how much is done backwards - how we plan events, learning sessions and even exhibitions and galleries based on what we assume an audience wants rather than on our collections. Not that I am advocating completely disregarding your visitors - but that there is no sense in trying to create a museum that has no relationship to its collections. A key part of our project will be about bringing collections back into the planning stage at Gressenhall.

One of the best things about the session was the informal conversations that struck up after it - discussion about how we could use the collections throughout the museum. I think we will have to be very strict about what we can actually achieve given the limited time we have for the Monument project! The whole process is making me think more about how I can continue to enthuse and explain the collections after Bridget has gone - something that we also discussed during my recent appraisal. This is something I am keen to do but will require some thought and also a good deal of time management.

One of the key things that really stayed with me was the power of story telling. Watching Bridget enthuse about an item and telling the story about its collection and the family it belonged to reminded me that without context many of these items lose their appeal. Poke an object and stories ping out! Therefore this project is also about retaining and recording the context and stories of each object for the next generation of curators. I am hoping to highlight a few of the stories we have uncovered in the blog in later entries.

We also tried to record some of the session - so hopefully I might be able to add multimedia to the blog!

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

raising aspirations

Had an interesting discussion with Bridget about raising aspirations. We have a fantastic collection from the Stark company of Great Ryburgh who started off as grocers and drapers. The family grew sweet peas as a hobby and for fun. As they began to win more and more awards (all the certificates in our collection!) they decided to sell their seed - begin a second career and "grow their aspirations".

A second example is a couple of gardening employment applications administered by the Daniels Bros company from Norwich. My understanding was once an under gardener always an undergardener until the Head Gardener popped his clogs but here is clear evidence for workforce mobility and a wish to improve their situation - under gardeners hoping for better opportunities, and applying for posts at other large estates through Daniels as middlemen.

A key issue for rural life museums is retaining relevance - how do we make our collections more than just nostalgia? By looking at examples like those above we can see that here is the inspiration for others to make the break, raise their goalposts and "aim high". For many, particularly in more rural communities, there are "blinkers" which prevent people from seeing opportunities. By showing how it was done in the past hopefully we can encourage it in the future. In doing so, demonstrating the modern relevance of the collection and proving our worth in an ever changing environment.

a collection in which we have got lost...

I seem to be getting lost in our gardening collections. Having established the different types of item we are going to include - we have decided to concetrate for our first session on the printed ephemera. Thinking this would be a relatively easy topic - just a few seed catalogues I have become a bit overwhelmed by the huge variety of items - seed pockets, accounts, catalogues, certificates, adverts, letters, mail order forms, magazines, pamphlets - even job applications. There is so much scope in these collections there is a danger in "getting lost" in them. Tempting though this might be I think we always need to keep our different audiences in mind - both within the museum (the audiences we will be presenting the material to in our first collections session) and also our visitors. That is why I think it is so important to include a range of staff and volunteers in this process - in many cases they know our visitors far better than I do. Despite many attempts to not become the curator in my ivory tower it cannot be denied that I do not spend any considerable amount of time "on the shop floor" except with our rather more specialist research enquiries. So how does a curator start to begin to know visitors - well by working closely with those who work with them directly every day - front of house. It is going to be great for me to learn from our other staff how we can use the collections more effectively. Enticing though it might be it is important to not get so lost in our collections that we lose sight of our visitors. As with so much in the museum world it is about balance.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Collections in context

One of the key skills I want to learn as part of this fellowship is how to understand a collection in context. Many curators come to their posts with little or no prior knowledge of the collections thye are expected to care and in some cases (as mine_ from an entirely differnt discipline. In these busy times how can curators find the time to research and get to know the collections they care for? I hope to develop the skills that enable me to increase my collections knowledge over the next few months. By breaking a collection into manageable chunks and integrating collections research into projects that are already ongoing (for example temporary exhibitions) I hope to grow in knowledge and perhaps more importantly confidence in my collections research skills which will enable me to continue learning more.

We are currently embarking on defining quite closely exactly which collections we will examine and what types of object, documents and photographs they contain. Simply looking at the objects as we investigate store rooms, the library and printed ephemera files stimulates conversation and enthusiasm. Working to describe and summarise these collections helps me to get a handle on what it is you are looking after, and why it is important. I have found that just getting objects out of storage whets the appetite for finding out more. It must be the archaeologist in me that wants to tell the story stored within the objects. I hope those attending our first collections session will feel the same.


Welcome to the Gressenhall Monument Fellow blog.

This blog records a knowledge and skills transfer project, funded by the Museums Association, as part of their Monument Fellowship programme. It is written by Megan Dennis, curator of Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse and is a personal record of the project.

Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse has welcomed back former curator Bridget Yates who will be working with the current curator, Megan Dennis, and other staff and volunteers.

The project aims to transfer and record knowledge of the collections and the skills required to look after and present them to the public using a variety of different techniques including this blog.

We have decided to concentrate on one aspect of the collections - the gardening collection at Gressenhall. We aim to improve knowledge, use and display of this collection at the museum. We also hope to project will provide a template method for examining other under appreciated parts of the collection.

This blog is intended to be a record of the process of knowledge transfer and an aid to ourselves and our future successors. We also hope to receive input from the wider museums community about what we are doing.

Currently we have spent some time acquainting (and for Bridget re-acquainting) ourselves with the gardening collection and planning our first collections session with museum staff and volunteers. I am really excited to be working with such a wide variety of staff and volunteers - learning, front of house, collections, gardeners and the farm. I think it is only by raising awareness of the importance of our collections to the entire museum can they retain their position at the heart of the institution.

Oh and I am also excited about finding out more about the caterpillar crusher!