Blog Archives

Volunteers – Working with collections

Helping give access to collections

21115_1Collections Access is a new, exciting strand of volunteering projects working with collections.  These activities help the museum make better use of stored material and make them more available to greater numbers of people.

The Head of Collections and Programming Andrew Mackay tells us a little more about the background to the projects:

“Tullie House has outstanding collections – we know because we are regularly told by this by external experts. There is very little point in having such important collections if we do not share them, so Tullie House has made a commitment to making the collections more accessible and we are delighted that we are able to work together to develop a range of collections based projects with a dedicated team of volunteers.

The ideal arrangement sees projects being developed that benefit both the museum and our volunteers. The volunteer provides time, enthusiasm, knowledge and commitment in exchange for hopefully developing their own skills and understanding by working closely on the collections with specialist museum staff. The collections become more accessible (and therefore more usable) by being catalogued, photographed, better stored and researched.

An ongoing project is undertaking an inventory of all of the archaeology stored at Shaddon Mill. This essential work allows the museum to better understand what it has in store (which in turn can help with exhibitions, research and engagement activities) and it also provides key information which will help assess future storage requirements.

We are therefore very grateful to the volunteer workforce for being so committed to helping make our collections more accessible. Without this invaluable help the level of engagement activity we can deliver by using the collections at Tullie would be so much harder to achieve.” 

191015 (5)Over the last few months two further projects have begun.  The Costume Collections Audit is a project to condition check and ensure correct data for every single item in the costume store.  The team has also been involved in preparing the costume for the Pages From History exhibition opening on 14 November which we’re all excited to be sharing with visitors.

Secondly, the First World War project is bringing together documentation, images and research for the major Carlisle at War exhibition opening in autumn 2016.  We’ve already found some telling and often poignant images of many different people involved in the war effort, not just service personnel.  These images give me (and hopefully other non-specialists too) a different and locally-focused perspective on this tumultuous period of history.

Kirsty, a volunteer on both projects says:

“It’s given me a real insight in the work behind the scenes of the museum that you don’t get as a visitor.  It’s great experience too for helping me get a job in museums after my Masters degree.”

kirsty31115 (2)Not only is Kirsty benefiting from this experience but she is helping Tullie maintain the collections for future generations.

If you’ve been inspired and we’d be delighted to welcome you to the team .  If would like to get more involved with these projects or volunteering then please visit the volunteering page.  Here you can sign up to our mailing list that lets you know about all projects first, more information about our existing projects and how to join the team.  We’d love to welcome you.


Claire, Volunteer Co-ordinator


Volunteers – Exhibitions Summer Placement

After many registrations were received to be the Summer Exhibitions Placement volunteer, we were delighted that Vanessa decided to join us. Here are her reflections on her completed placement.

Me hard at work

Me hard at work

In August I moved back to Carlisle after recently graduating with a degree in History of Art. Keen to get some hands-on experience within a museum/art gallery environment, I applied for the Summer Placement internship advertised on the Tullie House website. Meeting with Amy, the Exhibitions Programming Manager, I was happy to learn that the placement was very flexible; it could fit around my other commitments and could even be suited to my own particular interests (being the art and costume departments in particular.) The placement began a few weeks later and took place over two days- one would be focused on costume research with the exhibitions team, and the other day would be spent carrying out the costume audit alongside a team of volunteers.

The costume research was mostly computer-based and enabled me to utilise the skills I gained during my degree in a practical way. It involved studying the phases and major developments in fashion over the past two hundred years, and then cross-referencing these with the items in the museum’s costume collection in order to create a shortlist of clothes, shoes and accessories that best demonstrated these developments for an upcoming exhibition.

I was able to work independently and continuously on the same project so I was able to really get stuck-in, meeting regularly with Amy and the exhibitions team to ensure that I was on the right track.

Inside the costume store

Inside the costume store


The costume audit, on the other hand, has exposed me to an entirely new set of skills that are invaluable to my CV, from handling museum items to creating new records on the internal database, not to mention getting to paw through wonderful items of clothing that at times date all the way back to the eighteenth century!

Sophie assessing the 1920s shoes

We are currently going through the costume store box by box, inspecting the contents, ensuring they are recorded properly and are packaged so that they will be preserved for years to come. This is an ongoing project and one that I have continued to be a part of, as each week I build upon my costume knowledge and gain experience in a range of everyday tasks involved working behind the scenes in an art gallery and museum.

1900 hat with full taxidermied bird

1900 hat with full taxidermied bird


Kirsty in the cotsume store

Kirsty in the costume store

I would certainly recommend the Summer Placement to anyone else that has graduated and is looking to gain practical experience within the arts sector, especially as Amy and her team were so accommodating in fitting me in, and there is so much scope for what you can get involved in depending on your interests.

You did an amazing job and you’re an asset to the team.  Thank you for all your hard work!  Claire

A Brief History of Cumbrian Quilting

We have a huge collection of objects here at Tullie House that are unfortunately not on permanent display in the museum, one that we get asked about a lot is our beautiful quilt collection. Eloise, one of our Curatorial Assistants and Exhibitions Engagement Coordinator worked with Melanie, our Curator of Fine Art on a recent afternoon study session when we got the quilts out for some of our visitors to see. Eloise has written up a brief history of Cumbrian Quilting to share this collection with you.

Quilts offer a fascinating window into the private lives and creativity of the women who made them. Stitch-work is the image of female domesticity and industry; represents virtues of thrift, practical skill, patience and artistic flair. It also shows a scope of pattern and colour design, geometry and technical prowess.


Cord Quilting is an early pattern technique, popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Typically made of white linen or cotton, into which raised designs were stitched using cotton or woolen cord.

Corded quilt c.1700-1800

Corded quilt c.1700-1800

The Tullie House collection starts in the 18th Century. Held up to the light, this cord-quilted coverlet c.1700-1800 reveals intricate and beautiful patterns of flowers and eternity knots, including daffodils, honeysuckle, primroses and other wildflowers, gorgeously rendered into a diamond pattern.

Martha Jackson's 1790 quilt.

Martha Jackson’s 1790 quilt.

Probably the most significant quilt from the Tullie House collection is this beautiful patchwork bedspread made by Martha Jackson of Westmorland in 1790. Rare in that we know who made it- Martha actually signed and dated her work! It is also an extensive catalogue of samples of 18th Century printed dress cottons and calicos, which presumably reflect the clothes worn by Martha and the Jackson family. It is easy to imagine Jane Austen’s characters Mrs Bennet or Mrs Dashwood wearing dresses in these patterns in their youth!

It is fascinating to see how modern some of the fabric patterns and colours seem compared to designs popular on clothes of the 1960’s, 70’s and 80’s.

Georgian quilt detail

Georgian quilt detail

This rare patchwork of Georgian fabric even includes import stamps, pieced into the quilt, revealing the early beginnings of printed cottons imported from India by dress-makers around the country. For a long time, such fabrics were illegal, since they began to replace the expensive embroidered patterns produced in Britain, which denoted the rank and status of the higher classes. Before Indian cottons, the costumes of 17th and 18th Century common women would have been very plain dyed fabrics.

Framed Quilts are those which have been designed around a centre piece (medallion), for example the large printed garden motif in the centre of the cotton and silk quilt c. 1820-40.

Log Cabin quilt, Ann Rawling, 1833

Cotton and silk quilt, c.1820 – 1840

Log Cabin quilt, Ann Rawling, 1833

Log Cabin quilt, Ann Rawling, 1833

The 1883 Log Cabin design by Ann Rawling of Lamplugh, West Cumbria has a 3D effect, with carefully matched reds and beiges. Such patterns were popular in the North of England, Scotland, Ireland and the Isle of Man, indicating a distinctive regional technique.

Silk and velvet coverlet, c. 1860 - 1900

Silk and velvet coverlet, c. 1860 – 1900

The mosaic pattern on the silk and velvet coverlet c.1860-1900 has a strikingly 3D effect, almost an optical illusion, using geometric pieces of black fabric to create a cube pattern.

This truly is a form of art unique to women and also inherited; with the skills, labour and finished pieces overlapping one another, some preserved, some re-structured into other pieces; a patchwork of cultural and regional history

For more information, with further illustrations from our quilt collection a pamphlet book ‘Stitches in Time: The Tullie House Quilt Collection’ is available from Shop @ Tullie.

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.

Behind the Scenes: This is how we roll!

Eloise and some of our other Museum Assistants have been assisting our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art this week with some tasks in the costume and textiles stores. She gives us an insight into what goes into looking after our textile collection.

It definitely seems this week that everything to do with museum collections care comes in rolls.

Rolls of bubble wrap, acid free tissue, plastic, wadding, melanex, tyvex and calico all have a part to play in taking care of our collection, and in preserving vulnerable materials.

These have all been out this week, as we spend time in the costume and art stores. The costume store is definitely my favourite; a wonder-house of items, revealing the prized fashions and fabrics of women over the last 200 years. Some necessary jobs this week have been making calico dust covers for the dress rails, and a re-visit with the hoover for a general clean.

There are some great fabrics to admire whilst we do this, including a Victorian girl’s dress covered in tiny horses, and an outrageously bright rainbow puffa jacket from the 1980’s.


In the afternoon, we progress to shoes; specifically modern plastic shoes from the 1960’s-90’s. You might own a few fabulous pairs yourself! Unfortunately, plastics are rapidly becoming the new watchword in museum collections, as the amount of plastic items increase. Some plastics begin to degrade quickly, and the rubbers and synthetics in shoes and clothes are especially vulnerable.

We decide to do an emergency shoe triage, and move some of the plastic items into three quarantines; shoes to watch, shoes which are showing signs of decay and shoes which are beginning to disintegrate. These we put in well-ventilated boxes in a separate location.


The second day in the costume store is all about rolls, as we re-package a couple of quilts and some tapestry hangings. quilt

The first quilt we repack was made for a local school headmaster by the pupils using the Suffolk puff technique, and is from the 1930’s.

Tquilt2his second quilt has a wonderful cross-section of fabric patterns dating from the early 1800’s and beautiful crewel work embroidery, but has unfortunately suffered slightly from folding, and has developed wrinkles in the patchwork.

Rolling is a very effective way of storing flat fabric items, preventing creasing, and wear from folding, and in creating a protected environment for the fabric. So we now store large textile items such as quilts and tapestries rolled, like this …


White gloves on again, and we begin the careful process of wrapping the fabrics in rolled layers of melanex, acid free tissue paper, calico and wadding around large plastic tubes. It takes some practice to roll these straight, but it is worth doing right. As we roll, the quilts are constantly smoothed, to try and ease out wrinkles and creases.

The tapestries are fragile, and we have to re-locate them from a different store. At the same time, we bring back mannequins for a new display to go up in the museum in a few weeks. One of the dresses planned has a 22 inch waist, but is still so small that it needs one of our smallest available mannequins. The return journey loosely resembles the three wise men; as we carry our odd collection of items. I am holding the tapestry gingerly in front of me like an offering, because the hessian is so fragile, and the mannequins in their black bags attract some funny looks from passers-by!

We also spend time making loose covers for some of the larger sculptures in the art stores. One of the bronze statuettes; George and the Dragon by Paul Bocquillon, c. 1870-1880 has just gone into a new display opposite the reception desk, and needed a delicate clean using a museum vacuum and a soft, dry paintbrush to take off the dust.

From the small details to the bigger conservation jobs, collections care is a curious combination of monitoring, storing and cleaning; long term maintenance and short term projects are all part and parcel. Keeping the museum rolling!

%d bloggers like this: