Historian’s Creed: Valhalla (Part One)

By Hanley Quintrell, Collections Management (Digitisation) Trainee

In a roundabout way, video games brought me into museums. Sure, I was dragged to a few as a kid, and used to pop into free galleries while killing time as a teenager, but history wasn’t particularly interesting to me until we got a PS3.

It had been redundant for a couple years by that point, so it was cheaper to get one as a streaming machine than any of the contemporary alternatives. I occasionally watched as my partner had a blast gaming, but generally the violence tended to be a little too much for me.

It was a totally normal day when he brought home Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag – up until he screamed at me excitedly to come at once and see this. I put down my book to join him, discovering a new hobby and eventually, a new career. I had no interest in the naval gameplay, the Golden Age of Piracy setting, or in anything, really – until he restarted the game so I could see the introduction of the only Welsh lead character I’d seen outside of our own fiction. (Well, and the Doctor Who universe, which apparently only extends as far as Wales. TARDIS’. Everywhere.)

William Joy’s (1803 – 1856) Ship anchored off-shore, ready to boarded by pirates.

Just like that, I became a gamer. Wanting to see more of protagonist Edward Kenway myself, without having to wait for my partner to progress, I dove in for an accent and came out obsessed with the period, composing reading lists to find the fact from the fiction – and then I discovered it was a whole series set in different locations and times throughout history, becoming an amateur historian in those periods, too. As history opened up to me, so did the world, and working somewhere like a museum began to seem a remote, yet plausible, possibility.

So when I was lucky enough to be selected for a traineeship this year, I knew I wanted to find some way to bring video games with me, as I know I’m not the only one who’s become an armchair historian; fiction is the only route many of us take into the past, and I’m certain there are people out there who’d love to see the collection, they just don’t know museums are for them yet. If I can make that journey, why can’t someone else?

How Historically Accurate is Crash Bandicoot Warped?

My first step into this was a fun one, researching the medieval sections of Crash Bandicoot Warped, matching objects in the Collection to assets in the game … but that was only leading to the main event.

The new Assassins Creed game has parts set in Norfolk. 800s East Anglia, in fact. Quite good timing for someone working on the project restoring medieval elements of Norwich Castle. So that’s what I’m working on now – an exploration of a time our local history was shaped very differently, when even the castle was yet to exist.

At a time when many of us are unable to explore the beauty found in Norfolk, I cannot wait to show you how the series which brought history to my life will do the same for you.

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The Wonderful World of Hazards

By Hemali Chudasama, Collections Management (Hazards) Trainee

It’s been a whirlwind these past few months since I started the traineeship. What has it been, 7 months since I stepped into the world of hazards? I’m getting ahead of myself, I’m Hemali and I am one of the teaching museum’s collections trainees working on a project to manage the hazardous objects in collections. Starting the traineeship in the midst of the pandemic really did throw a spanner in the works! It completely changed the whole dynamic of the traineeship. There went all the hands-on work, and in came a load of uncertainty. Thankfully, with the amazing staff at NMS, we were able to find a way around a bad situation.

Prior to this role, I had a bit of experience with hazardous objects in collections from volunteering at The Science Museum. This proved to be an extremely helpful starting point when researching hazardous object as I had an idea of what I was looking for. What I found to be the most useful when I started was the Museum of London’s Hazards in Collections toolkit. Anyone thinking about hazards, this is the first place you want to go, trust me! This toolkit gave a good indicator of the variety of hazards you could come across in different collections such as asbestos, mercury, radiation, poisons etc. I know it sounds like a scary list of objects to work with, trust me I was thinking of running for the hills, but they are not as bad as you think. Most of them are encapsulated in the object so pose no immediate threat, very low risk or pose risk only if ingested such as arsenic minerals (I highly recommend that no one does this, please!).

After this, I researched all the hazards and created a management plan and risk assessment for each one to be added to the collections database (MODES). Along with this, I have started desk-based surveys to flag up hazardous objects to be checked when we can return to our museums. I recently came out of a meeting discussing implementing hazard icons next to flagged objects and it was strangely one of the most satisfying things I have seen since I started the project, who would have thought?!

As much as I love hazards, it’s not the only thing I have been doing during my traineeship. I have had the opportunity to attend multiple Museum Association webinars and Collections Trust bite size sessions. I highly recommend anyone that is interested in the museum sector or already in the industry to watch these. It’s very important to keep up with what is happening in all sectors of the museum industry especially in times like this! I have also had a chance be exposed to different aspects of collections management such as loans and acquisitions as well as working on the emergency plans for the museum. I am grateful for all the experiences I’ve had so far and looking forward to seeing what the rest of the traineeship holds!

Don’t worry, there are more hazard posts to come in the future but for now I leave you with one of the first asbestos containing objects I found when starting the traineeship, a Bakelite Radio.

Hazardously,

Hemali 

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Say Hello to the 2020 Collections Trainees

This year was always going to be interesting for the Collections Department of Norfolk Museum Service, with a major transformation of Norwich Castle set to begin, but nobody could have predicted how different this year truly has been!

Following another excellent round of applications, we were joined earlier this year by not one but two trainees – Hemali and Hanley. We think we’re long overdue some proper introductions!

By our fellow trainee Kelly West

Hemali joins us as the Hazards Trainee, assisting in our Hazards Project – so look out for the wacky side of health and safety!

A trained photographer, Hemali volunteered with both the Science Museum and the V&A so, luckily for 2020, comes to us with hands on experience and a deep enthusiasm for everything Collections!

By our fellow trainee Kelly West

Hanley is our second trainee this year, joining us as our Digitisation Trainee, supporting our Project Officer in delivering the digital arm of the Royal Palace Reborn project.

Hanley is completely new to the museum sector, previously working in theatre, and brings along transferable skills and an excitement for discovery; especially useful in these digital times!

The NMS Trainees of 2020, by Kelly West

Hanely and Hemali are joined by 8 other trainees across the service, and are extremely excited to continue showing you more behind the scenes experiences from working in our busy Collections Department.

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Talking at Time and Tide – Part Two

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee

I had the chance to present the second of my talks at both Time and Tide Museum in Great Yarmouth and Ancient House Museum in Thetford. The talk was called ‘Pleistocene East Anglia’ and focused on the environment, animals, people and plants that once inhabited East Anglia between 2.5 million years and 11,700 years ago.

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The talk gave me the opportunity to talk about the amazing creatures that once roamed East Anglia, from hyaena to giant deer, pond turtles to elephants. I was able to talk about the incredible West Runton Mammoth as well as the changing landscape as the climate changed.

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I hope that I will get the opportunity to offer these talks again in the future and feel much more confident in front of large audiences conversing about specialist subjects. I really enjoyed presenting as well as offering handling collections to support the talks!

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Talking at Time and Tide – Part One

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee

Over the past couple of months I have had the opportunity to present two talks on topics that I am particularly interested in.

The first took place in December and was titled “Axolotls: Water Monsters of Mexico”. Axolotls are fascinating creatures, closely related to salamanders, which are native to just one lake system south of Mexico City, called Lake Xochimilco.

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Axolotls are important in Mexican culture, as the animal is closely linked to the stories around Xolotl, the Aztec god of sickness, deformity, fire and lightening, and his brother Quetzalcoatl, god of wind, sun, science and learning. The Story of the Dawning of the Fifth Sun sees Tonatiuh, god of the fifth sun, needing sacrificial nourishment in order to rise. The other gods, Xolotl and Quetzalcoatl included, are expected to sacrifice themselves to sustain Tonatiuh. However, Xolotl is reluctant and hides in many forms, finally cowering in Lake Xochimilco as an axolotl. The ending of the story differs greatly from telling to telling; some say Xolotl was found and sacrificed, others say he became responsible for sacrificing the other gods and was then supposed to sacrifice himself. The other ending goes that Quetzalcoatl found and forgave Xolotl, but that he had to stay in lake Xochimilco and remain an axolotl forever.

Representations of Quetzalcoatl (left) and Xoltol (right) 

Nowadays the axolotl plays an important role in science, with the ability to regrow limbs and repair serious damage through organogenesis.

Unfortunately, human intervention with Lake Xochimilco, including changes to the ecosystem and pollution, mean that axolotls in the wild suffer seriously. A study in 2003 found an average of 6000 axolotls per square kilometre in the lake. In 2015 that number was down to just 36 per square kilometre. In 2006 the species was declared critically endangered and it is very likely by now that they are extinct in the wild.

Thankfully, a project led by the Centre of Biological and Aquatic Research of Cuemanco (CIBAC) has worked to maintain a small, isolated population in a quarantined area of the lake; a final effort to keep the species alive in its natural habitat.

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The poignant tale of an ancient Egyptian scribe

By Faye Kalloniatis, Research Associate

The Norwich Castle’s Egyptian collection includes an inscribed stone statue of a kneeling man whose arms are raised in a gesture of adoration to the gods. He leans against a stela, a memorial tablet which ancient Egyptians used in order to record inscriptions to the dead.

[1] roy statue

This stelophorous statue belonged to Roy and was dedicated to him by his mother.

The text reveals interesting details about the deceased. He was a man named Roy, who lived at a time when Egypt enjoyed great prosperity. Roy was a scribe of elevated status and had extensive duties within the state administration. He came from the Theban region, probably from the town of Hermonthis (Armant), which was situated some 15 kilometres south of Thebes. Hermonthis was a cult centre for the war-like and falcon-headed god, Montu, who is mentioned several times on Roy’s stela.

Roy belonged to a social elite and so would not have lacked for anything, but it seems that he did not live a long life.

[2] head of roy

This is Roy, an ancient Egyptian scribe.

Judging by the text which runs vertically along the front of Roy’s kilt, he died at a relatively young age. The inscription mentions that it was his mother, Tahumay, who was responsible for setting up the stela to her son. She therefore outlived him – a circumstance which surely represents a parent’s worst nightmare. In her affecting dedication Tahumay asks that Roy’s name is ‘made . . . to live’. This alludes to the ancient Egyptian belief in the potency of the name – to memorialise it on a stela would ensure that it lived in perpetuity and therefore the deceased would attain a happy afterlife.

This statue was donated by Sir Henry Rider Haggard, best known for his novels, especially King Solomon’s Mines. Haggard was an Egyptophile who visited Egypt several times and each time buying yet more antiquities, which he later donated to the museum. His love of Egypt encouraged him to study hieroglyphs and his notebooks bear testimony to his efforts to learn to write (and read) this ancient script.

[3] H's notebook

The left-hand folio of this notebook belonging to Haggard shows the novelist’s attempts to teach himself hieroglyphs.

He even asked an Egyptologist friend of his to devise some text for book labels, which he printed for his own personal use. He also used it for his personalised letter-headed paper.

[4] book label

This was printed and used as a book label and as a letter-head by Haggard. It reads: ‘H. Rider Haggard, the son of Ella, lady of the house, makes an oblation to Thoth, the lord of writing, who dwells in the moon.’

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Inter-Museum Loans – From Norwich to London

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee

Many museums offer temporary exhibitions, or permanent displays, in which objects or specimens have been loaned from other museums.

The loans process at Norfolk Museums Service is usually handled by our wonderful registrar, however, as part of my traineeship I was given the opportunity to arrange and courier a loan from our Costume and Textile collections to the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London.

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The great-crested grebe feather muff on loan to the Horniman Museum and Gardens, from the Costume and Textiles Department at Norwich Castle Study Centre.

The object is a great-crested grebe feather hand muff; a fashion piece worn to warm the hands. The Horniman Museum have a small display of nature in fashion in their natural history gallery, in which the muff is displayed. Because textiles need to rest after a period of time on display, the muff must be swapped every two years. This is due to pressure on the fabric and stitching when it is displayed, as well as the potential for light damage and fading. This grebe feather muff was replacing another of our Costume and Textiles objects, a beautiful late nineteenth century swan feather muff, which had been on display in the gallery since 2017.

To begin the process, communication had to take place between the two museums, to arrange conservation checks, monitor environmental readings, update object labels, plan the date for the swap to take place, safely package the muff for travel and for a loan agreement to be signed by both parties.

On the day of the trip, I transported the grebe muff to London with a colleague, and together with the Horniman Museum’s display and conservation staff we placed it on display and removed the swan muff, which was then couriered back to Norwich Castle Study Centre to rest in storage.

Grebe move

Installing the great-crested grebe muff in the natural history gallery of the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

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The finished display, with the loaned muff on proud display at the Horniman Museum and Gardens.

 

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Plan Chest – Drawer 1 – Hyaena

By Wednesday Batchelor – Collections Management Trainee

As part of my work at the Norfolk Collections Centre I have been working on a plan chest display filled with natural history and geology specimens from the stored collections.

The first drawer of the chest contains fossils relating to the prehistoric hyaena which lived in Norfolk.

Norfolk was once home to different species of hyaena, including the Giant Short Faced Hyaena, the Cave Hyaena and the same species of Spotted Hyaena that lives on the African plains today.

These fearsome pack animals lived here during the Pleistocene, in an environment that would have looked much like the Norfolk Broads.

Hyaena are from neither the feline nor canine families, and in fact have their own family known as Hyaenidae, which has only four living species; the Spotted, Striped and Brown hyaenas and the Aardwolf. Spotted hyaena are primarily hunters, whereas striped hyaenas are predominantly scavengers.

From left to right, the drawer contains: a mammal rib with teeth marks from hyaena, two canine teeth from the cave hyaena and a partial mandible (lower jaw) from a giant short-faced hyaena.

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Twenty-Two-Thousand Butterflies

By Wednesday Batchelor, Collections Management Trainee.

Collections care includes a vast range of opportunities. In the first six months of my role I have had the opportunity to look after historic toy collections, package medieval jewellery, clean a dolphin skeleton, present taxidermy to the public, create storage for horse harnesses and witness the conservation of incredible objects and specimens, from ancient pots to six-hundred-thousand-year-old mammoth bones.

Another breath-taking experience I get to participate in is the monitoring and conservation cleaning of huge collections of moth and butterfly specimens of international significance, collected from all around the world and dating back to the 1800’s.

Some of these specimens were collected by the Victorian lepidopterist, Margaret Fountaine. She was born in Norfolk on May the 16th 1862 and spent some time in Milan training as a singer and also considered becoming a painter, but above all she loved to travel. After spending three days with Henry Elwes, a renowned English lepidopterist, she found her passion, and went on to travel the world amassing her incredible collection of butterflies.

Margaret Fountaine

Despite her detailed studies, her outstanding artwork and her dedication to the science of entomology, as a Victorian woman much of her early work was not taken seriously. However, she persevered and subsequently had articles and watercolours printed in “The Entomologist”. In 1912 at the Second International Congress of Entomology held in Oxford, the president of the Linnean Society, Edward Poulton, invited her to join; a dazzling success for a woman, when British scientific societies had been historically exclusively male. Only fifteen years before, Beatrix Potter had been unable to attend a reading of one of her own papers at the society, because she was a lady.

Whilst collecting butterflies in Trinidad, on the 21st of April 1940, at seventy-seven years of age, Margaret suffered a heart attack. She was found on a trail by a Benedictine monk, butterfly net in hand. Her watercolours were left to the Natural History Museum, and her entire collection (around 22,000 butterflies) was bequeathed to Norwich Castle Museum, along with a sealed chest with specific instructions not to open it until 1978.

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When it was finally time for the chest to be opened, it was discovered that Margaret had kept twelve detailed diaries from the age of sixteen, discussing her travels, accurate paintings of the butterflies she studied, and the love interests she met across the sixty countries. Pasted in were also images, pressed flowers, and photographs of herself as she aged.

Now, over one-hundred-and-fifty years after Margaret Fountaine was born, we ensure that the Fountaine-Neimy collection of butterflies are kept safe from pest damage, are accessible for research and that her legacy lives on. 

 

 

 

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Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet: an immigrant in ancient Egypt

By Faye Kalloniatis, Research Associate

In my recent work on the Egyptian collection, and in preparation for publishing a catalogue of it, I looked closely at the shabtis and ushebtis – funerary figurines which were buried with the dead. These figures often had spells written on them and translating these can add valuable information. In translating the spell on this ushebti, I found it to be of a ‘standard’ kind.

[1] 2000-107 shabti front

NWHCM : 2000.107 – Ushebtis like this one were buried with the deceased to act as servants in the afterlife.

The ushebti, which was expected to magically come to life, was commanded to do all the menial work for his owner (the deceased) in the afterlife. One activity he was directed to do was ‘to ferry the sand from the west to the east and vice versa’. This instruction is thought to refer to the construction and repair of ditches and fields, an important agricultural activity if the deceased wanted an eternal supply of food. The figurine also carries hoes in his hands and at his back is a seed basket – all confirming his labouring role.

[2] 2000-107 shabti back

The seed basket is slung over the ushebti’s left shoulder. Actual baskets were filled with seeds ready for planting in the fields.

Apart from the shabti spell, the inscription also gave the name of the owner – a man named Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet, whose mother was called Sedjy. This was very useful information because it was now possible to see if that individual was known through any other artefacts – as indeed he was. As I continued to work through the translations of the spells on the Norwich figurines it turned out that there was another one in the collection belonging to the same man.

[3] 2000-167 Shabti

The second ushebti of Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet in the Norwich collection. 

In fact, it so happens that there are many other ushebtis belonging to Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet in museum collections across the world. This confirms the ancient Egyptian practice of burying not just one but hundreds of ushebtis with each owner.

Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet is also known through his inscribed sarcophagus. Collectively all these items tell us something about Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet’s background. He lived during the Saite Period (Dynasty 26, 664 – 525 BC) and was of Greek descent, his parents having come to Egypt from Greece. At that time some Greeks came as mercenaries to help maintain order in the recently reunified country of Egypt. As a second-generation immigrant, Wah-ib-ra-em-akhet was well-established and had clearly done well for himself, judging by his very finely carved stone sarcophagus.

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kalloniatis egyptian catalogue

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