Monthly Archives: May 2015

#askthecurators Natural Science Special

A busy bank holiday and half term has filled up our #askthecurators board with some really great questions. Our curators have been hard at work trying to answer some of your questions.

We’ve had so many questions we’ll have to do two blogs! First up our visitors during the school holidays have been particularly interested in some of the animals on display in What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice, so we’ll start with a Natural Science special!

spidersWe have a case on display in What’s in Store, with a collection of spiders. Jack asks Where did the spiders come from?

That’s a really good question Jack these spiders were all found in Cumbria, in shipments of fruit. If you look really closely you will see that most of them came in crates of bananas. Most of the bananas in Britain come from South American countries like Columbia, Equador and the Dominican Republic – so it is very likely that is where the spiders came from too!

Molly and Megan would both like to know a bit more about spiders, Molly asked How many different species of spiders are there? And Megan told us I have learned and read about spiders and I want to know more about spiders.

Its great to see people so curious about spiders as often people are scared of them, so here’s our top five spider facts for you Molly and Megan.

  1. There are about 37,500 species of spider that have been identified and named, but new species are discovered all the time.

    Goliath Birdeater Spider

    Goliath Birdeater Spider

  2. Spiders live on every continent in the world, except Antarctica
  3. The biggest species of spider is called a Goliath birdeater and can grow to 28cm wide.
  4. The smallest species of spider is called the Patu marplesi and is only half a millimetre wide!
  5. Spiders repel water, making a layer of air between themselves and the water – meaning they don’t get wet and can float or even survive under water!

Daisy Ditchburn has asked Do you have more about frogs? Unfortunately Daisy we don’t have a great deal about frogs, there is some information in the Wildlife Dome, but to tide you over, here’s our favourite frog fact:

For centuries the frog has been considered lucky in Scotland. So you may see stone frogs in gardens and they often given as housewarming gifts.

sharkOur porbeagle shark is also making visitors curious about sharks.

The porbeagle shark is one of around 50 species of shark that live in UK waters, another British shark is the basking shark, Archie asks What do basking sharks eat? The basking shark eats plankton it is one of only 3 planktivore sharks. Plankton are small animals and plants that float in the water.

An anonymous young visitor asked What do sharks do? That’s an interesting question, and all species of shark are a bit different. Porbeagles like the one in our exhibition spend their days swimming, if it were to stop it wouldn’t be able to breathe. The porbeagle shark is also interesting because it may be one of the few fish species that plays, they have been spotted chasing one another and passing floating objects to each other.  

Jessica Gourdino asked How many sharks are there in the world? No-one is quite sure how many sharks there are in the world, there are about 450 known species, some are critically endangered but others are quite numerous. It is also thought that there are many other species of shark living in very deep water which has not yet been discovered. It was recently estimated that 100 million sharks are killed every year by people, for food and sport.

The fastest shark, the mako

The fastest shark, the mako

The slowest shark, the greenland

The slowest shark, the greenland

And one visitor asked the tricky question Will there ever be a boy born that can swim faster than a shark? What a brilliant question! And here is something resembling an answer! The fastest swimmer in the world in Frederick Bousquet, who swam at an average speed of 5.34 miles per hour, over 50m. The fastest shark in the world is the shortfin mako shark which can reach speeds of about 60 miles per hour, so it is very unlikely a human will ever catch up with the mako. However the Greenland shark travels at about 0.3 miles per hour, and is thought to have a top speed of 1.7 miles per hour. So even a slow human swimmer could outrun a Greenland shark!

dolphinStaying in the water, our dolphin skull has attracted a couple of good questions Katie asked Is the dolphin’s head real? and Grace asked Do you have the rest of the dolphin and how big is it?

The dolphin’s skull has come from a real dolphin, more specifically a Common dolphin. It was collected in 1975 We do not have the rest of the skeleton, but an adult Common dolphin would have reached between 1.9 and 2.5m and weighed about 80-150kg.

There will be more of your questions answered in our next blog, if you have a question for our curators then leave a note in What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice, or tweet us @TullieHouse using #askthecurators


Behind the Scenes: A Case Study

This month before opening time, like the shoe maker’s elves, our Museum Assistants have been continuing our Spring clean of the cases across our main galleries. Yes, this has involved more vacuuming, but it has been a fabulous opportunity to see some of the objects we walk past daily up close, and seeing them from the other side of the glass. Eloise has written another blog to let you know what’s involved behind the scenes, taking care of our collections.


A lady sits under the jasmine


A cow and dog decorated candle holder, because why not?!

The Williamson Collection of eighteenth century porcelain, on display in Old Tullie House, has been the most challenging cleaning task yet. Porcelain is of course very delicate, and so all items should be carried gently, with as little pressure on the object as possible; one hand underneath and the other on the side (purple nitrile gloves of course!). Lids, separate sections and saucers are also removed and carried separately. Faced with some of the more intricate ones, it becomes impossible to know exactly where to grab hold. Every centimetre seems to be covered in filigree and tiny flowers.

Cleaning the Williamson Collection

Cleaning the Williamson Collection

We clean these with a delicate soft bristled paintbrush, just to take the surface dust off, but it is so difficult to imagine the task of the poor scullery maids, when faced with a whole dinner service to wash, plus the table decorations. This is probably why it is rare to find pieces in good condition.

With this task, it was invaluable to have the help of our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art, Melanie; since she has handled these objects before. Moving porcelain can involve a certain amount of pot luck (terrible pun there!) When removing lids, or lifting objects there are all sorts of hidden dangers- wobbly bases, broken edges, and above all, old glue which has begun to come apart. I experience the constant terror that a valuable vase I am picking up is going to come apart in my hands. But by having someone who knows what to expect, it helps to prevent accidental breakages, although there is still an aura of danger about the whole process!

It is definitely worth it however. Once the glass shelves have been cleaned, the newly dusted collection is shown off to its best advantage and looks shiny and new.

Notice the iron in the goat's mouth, that tells us the man is a tailor!

Notice the iron in the goat’s mouth, that tells us the man is a tailor!

The tailor and his wife with their goats

The tailor and his wife with their goats

We also got to see some of the designs on the reverse of the ceramics, which are not seen in the cabinets. Some of the expressions on the faces of the figurines are really funny; grimacing dancers, herd boys and shepherdesses with cheeky expressions. There are also some bizarre objects, including the pineapple-shaped pot pourri holders, covered in phlox flowers, and the tailor and his wife riding goats!

Dessert service showing intricate designs of exotic fruit

Dessert service showing intricate designs of exotic fruit

The dessert services are exquisitely painted. Dessert is actually from the French ‘desservir’ which refers to the clearing of the table. Rather than an elaborate pudding, as is normal today, this portion of the meal is all about showing off the elaborate tableware of the host. Light fruits, sweets and other delicacies would be served, but the focus is on the expression of wealth. As a result, many of the plates are gilded, with glorious designs of fruit, flowers and exotic birds of paradise.

Gilded frames in Old Tullie House

Gilded frames in Old Tullie House

Another tricky task this month involves a degree of ladder gymnastics, as we tackle the gilded frames down the tiled staircase. It somehow doesn’t feel natural to be on a split level ladder leaning over the stairs, in spite of all the ladder training. The frames have similar challenges to the porcelain; cracks and loose pieces as well as elaborate mouldings, only this time, we have to move around them, rather than move them to us.

Gilding is also a hard task master, it is very delicate and shows up any finger marks if you don’t wear the correct gloves. Wearing the gloves combined with the soft brush, makes it feels a bit like dusting for prints in a forensics lab.

Certainly an exercise to keep us on our toes this time! But all in a days work at the museum.

#askthecurators More Questions Answered

A few weeks into our new special exhibition ‘What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice’, we have had some more questions from our brilliant and inquisitive visitors.

Edwin, our Curator of Social History and Melanie, our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art have got some answers to your questions.

Amanda and Luke visited the exhibition and left this lovely comment “We liked the Lowry pictures and my son started to sing the matchstick cats and dogs song, a song they sing at Caldew Lea School” so we asked Melanie if this song was written about LS Lowry. She replied:

“Yes, the song ‘Matchstalk Men and Matchstalk Cats and Dogs’ was written in 1977 by Brian and Michael, in memory of LS Lowry who had died the year before. The title refers to Lowry’s signature style of painting figures, which can be seen in both the Lowry works on display in ‘What’s in Store’.”

Group shot

Sophie, age 9, asked “Where do you get all the stuff?” That’s a really good question Sophie, Tullie House’s collection of ‘stuff’ now adds up to over quarter of a million objects, but how did we get them?

The collection here at Tullie House began in 1893. Objects are often given to us by members of the public, but we have to make sure these donations fit into our collecting policy as we don’t have the space to collect everything! Other items, particularly those in the Fine and Decorative Art collection come to us as bequests, which means someone has left them to us in their will when they have passed away. The museum also has some loans which we might need to fill a gap in our collections for an exhibition, these come from other museums and private collections.


48 haaf netThere is some information in the exhibition about where some of the objects on display came from, for example, this medieval jug was found in the gardens here at Tullie House – whilst a proud fisherman donated this haaf net to help us to protect and tell the story of a traditional method of fishing.

toiletOur Edwardian toilet from Garlands Hospital continues to provoke curiosity, with one visitor asking “Where did all the other lovely toilets go? I would love one!”

The toilet is part of Edwin’s collection, so he replied “Most Victorian and Edwardian toilets were disposed of and replaced with modern toilets. Some have ended up on the antique market, but there are others in museums, which allows them to be seen by many people.”

One visitor wondered “Have you got any more memories or bits and pieces for Her Majesty’s Theatre?” which was a theatre, cinema and gig venue on Lowther Street in Carlisle, which closed in 1979 and was demolished in 1980 to make way for a car park.

Edwin looks after collections relating to the recent history of Carlisle and replied “the museum has very little of HM Theatre but would be interested if any one had any further material they could donate. For the time being I would recommend a book by Mary-Scott Parker, that charts the history of the theatre from 1874-1979.

Jessy asked “How do you become a curator?” Good question Jessy, Edwin answered this one:

“Normally you would go to University and get a degree in the subject you are interested in curating, so for Social History you might study History. You can also study courses in Museum Studies at many Universities now too. To get hands on practical experience working in a museum volunteering and work experience placements can help and open doors to becoming a curator.”

Thank you all very much for some more great questions! If you’re visiting Tullie House over the bank holiday or half term be sure to take a look at What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice and take the opportunity to #askthecurators. You can also ask us a question via twitter. Tweet us @TullieHouse using #askthecurators

Creative Responses to Kiefer Unveiled!

As our ARTIST ROOMS Anselm Kiefer exhibition enters its final weeks we are unveiling some brilliant creative responses from groups that we have been working with – you can see these in the flesh by visiting Tullie House.


Starting in the reception area we have an impressive display of torsos created during workshops with NACRO and Carlisle Key – two local organisations working with young people.

The workshops explored identity a key theme in Kiefer’s works. The young people thought about what makes us who we are, and how much of that is linked to a ‘national identity’.

sideThe resulting decorated mannequins are a representation of themelves; their inspirations, their aspirations, and the things that influence the direction they have taken and who they have become.

They range from being a celebration of the music they enjoy, the colours that make them smile, or a tribute to lost loved ones.


The Tullie Toddlers were even inspired by the work of of our young people and created their own mannequin!

As well as the mannequins our Community Room is playing host to a large scale mixed media piece created by visitors to our Kiefer inspired Museums at Night event. The Mob Masterpiece uses some of Anselm Kiefer methods and media, and was created over the evening.


Many hands make art work!

The work our family visitors created during February Half Term inspired by the exhibition is also still on display in the Community Room.


As well as art works some of the young people we work with have also developed an innovative new gallery trail. Kiefer2Music explores the use of music and song lyrics as a way to express their thoughts and feelings about Kiefer’s work. You can check out the blog here or use your phone or tablet in the exhibition to experience the music and art works together!

That isn’t all – we have one more exciting response project to come. Local school James Rennie have been working with Prism Arts to develop an exhibition of creative responses to the Kiefer exhibition which will be on display in our garden from the 27 May!

#AsktheCurators Your Questions Answered

Our new exhibition What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice is now open. It is your chance to explore some of the objects normally kept in our stores and your opportunity to have your questions answered by some of our curators.

We got some great questions in the first week of the exhibition, which have been posed to our curators, check out the answers below.

wolfEmily Ford asked “How do you stuff the animals?”

Good question Emily! The animals and fish are preserved for study and display by a process called taxidermy. When an animal is brought to the museum the first thing we do is freeze them in a giant freezer. It kills a lot of the insects and pests that live on wild animals, like fleas – freezing the animals also keeps them intact until we are ready to get them stuffed.

Once all the bugs have been killed, a taxidermist takes the skin of the animal and dries it. In the early days of taxidermy they would use chemicals such as arsenic to preserve the skin, but now we know that to be poisonous and dry the skins instead.

When the skin is dried it is applied over a model of the animal – the model is often made from a cast of the animal, or its skeleton and padded out with wood wool (very thin pieces of wood).

This method will preserve an animal so that they can be studied or shown in museums like Tullie House to help people learn about the animals in the world around us.

troutAimee Ford asked “How did you get the fish stuffed?”

Well Aimee, much like the answer to Emily’s question, the fish has been stuffed to preserve it using taxidermy, however most taxidermists will say that fish are more difficult than other animals like birds or mammals, because their skin is much thinner and loses its colour very quickly.

Like with other animals they will be stuffed, but sometimes with a much softer stuffing, like foam. The taxidermists will then repaint the skin so that it matches the look of the fish when it was alive.

christian diorAnother visitor asked “Who would have worn 4?” 4 refers to the Christian Dior dress on display in the exhibition.

Melanie our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art tells us that the dress was worn by a Carlisle lady called Mrs Agnes Glaister. Unfortunately we do not know much more about Agnes, other than that she wore this dress to go to dinner dances in Carlisle in the 1950s, and clearly she had an eye for fashion!

When we collect items of costume today we try to collect as much information as possible about the person who would have worn it.

toiletAnna asked “Why do you have a toilet?”

That’s another great question Anna, why would we show a toilet in a museum? Edwin our Curator of Social History answers:

“We collected the toilet because of where it came from. It is from the Old Garlands Hospital, a mental health hospital in Carlisle. It is a good object to begin a conversation on the history of mental health treatment in the area. The toilet is also highly decorative and was used by a patient in a private ward. This shows that wealthy patients received a different experience within hospital in comparison to the other classes.”

penny farthingTwo visitors asked “How do you get up onto the unicycle?”

Good question! The bike in question is actually a penny farthing, it does have two wheels, but one is very small so its easy to see why you might think it is a unicycle. Edwin answers again

“There used to be step attached at the rear frame of the bicycle, however the one in our collection is missing this component part.”

This video shows how to get onto and ride the penny farthing

Thank you for all your questions so far – you can ask your own question to the curators by visiting What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice or tweeting us @TullieHouse using #askthecurators.

We’ll be back next week with more answers!

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