Blog Archives

Welcome to the Cabinet of Curiosity

cabinet1Our new ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’ display in the Victorian Entrance of the museum has been designed to give everyone a glimpse of how varied Tullie House’s collections are.  And to show you the types of material you can expect to find in the museum if you want to come in and take a closer look.



European Cabinet of Curiosities from around 1690

We’ve been inspired by ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’, one of the first types of museums that date back to the fourteenth century.  These cabinets started as display cases in private homes where well-travelled people could display all the weird and wonderful objects they had collected and show them (or show off?!) to their guests.  The concept developed over the next three hundred years and expanded from a display case to creating whole rooms of objects that had the effect of inspiring wonder and stimulating creative thought.


A number of contemporary historians have gone a little further in their interpretation of these ‘Cabinets of Curiosities’.   These cabinets were created during the Renaissance, a time when scholars wanted to understand how mankind fit within the grand scheme of nature and the divine.   It is argued that these collections of objects were a physical manifestation of this scholarly endeavour, formed around a belief that all things were linked by visible or invisible similarities.  Some people who created their own cabinet believed that by recognising the similarities between objects, they would be brought to an understanding of how the world functioned, and what mankind’s place was in it.


Both ideas are plausible: showing off, something more intellectual or indeed somewhere in between.  Whatever we believe, many have argued that from these cabinets the modern museum was born out of this seemingly basic human impulse to collect and be curious about the world around us.


Winter camouflage, keeping warm and having fun in Winter

In our ‘Cabinet of Curiosity’(as you can see from the image above) the curatorial team have selected items from the collections around the theme of ‘Winter’.  These quite different objects have been placed together within the case creating some intriguing contrasts that is certainly in keeping with the concepts of the ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’. Below are two objects that you can see up close in the case.

Government Information Pamphlet

Government information pamphlet from the 1960s

Winter Skating by Dutch School

Winter; Skating by Unknown Dutch artist, 1700s

This is new project for Tullie House and one that we hope to develop further, so we’d like your thoughts about what you’ve seen and how you think it can develop.  Over the next few weeks we will Tweet regularly highlighting individual objects from the case, all object images will be on Pinterest and we will post another Blog featuring more in-depth information about individual objects and report on feedback we’ve received.


We’re looking forward to hearing what you have to say so Tweet or leave your comment below.


Tullie Whale Tale Part I

Follow the story of our whale skeleton here: discover how he or she was found, her journey to the Museum, and follow the, as yet to be written, story of how she will settle in.

Image 1

One of the things that I love about my job is that I’m lucky enough to go home and say things like “I cleaned a whale today!” Recently, Stephen Hewitt (previous Natural Sciences Curator) and myself created a buzz in the Museum, as we unloaded our newest addition to the ‘family’: a whale skeleton.

The whale was found washed up on Drigg Beach, Ravenglass (Cumbria) in February 2014, grabbing local headlines (e.g.  News and Star[1]).  The discovery was made by Edna Kennedy, from Eskdale who is reported to have saying, “at first we weren’t sure what it was but, as we got closer, we could see it was huge“.

Although initially identified as a fin whale by the Marine Conservation Society, Dr Emily Baxter of the Cumbria Wildlife Trust re-identified the specimen as a sei (pronounced  “say” or “sigh”) whale (Balaenoptera borealis) (which has to be confirmed by the Museum).  This strange name (sei) comes from the Norwegian word for Pollock, which it is often found with in Norway [2]

So how did this whale end up on one of our beaches?

This young individual (we can tell it is a sub-adult from the degree of fusion in the bones) may have become separated from its small pod (sei often travel in groups of up to 5 individuals) as it was migrating from its winter grounds further south (north-west Africa, Spain and Portugal) to its northern summering grounds (typically off Shetland, Faroes, Norway and Svalbard)[3].

What we do know is that this endangered species[4]  is a very rare Cumbrian visitor —most records from the British Isles come from deeper waters from their northern summer grounds.

To give you an idea of what this fantastic specimen looked like in its former life: sei can reach up to 15 m in length3 (this juvenile would have been a few metres shorter).  It is a baleen whale with long comb-like plates, instead of teeth, hanging from the upper jaws; an ingenious adaptation for capturing krill and other plankton through straining vast quantities of water in a single ‘gulp’.  However, unlike other baleen whales, this blue-grey species has an erect, dolphin-like dorsal fin, and a distinctive single ridge along the snout (distinguishing it from the similar Bryde’s whale [5]).

Image 2

So back to the story: it took several months of negotiation before a team of four, including Steve Hewitt, could recover the decaying gargantuan carcass (with the permission from Muncaster Estate, Natural England and Copeland District Council).  By August, 2014 the carcass had decayed considerably.  The once familiar outline of the whale was now gone and although one half of the lower jaw had been removed, the now exposed skeleton remained largely intact and plans were made to rapidly recover the bones.  Almost disastrously, a storm struck in the intervening days and the team arrived to find the whale – gone! However searching further around the point eventually led to a trail of detached vertebrae and eventually, to the main part of the skeleton which had been rolled along the beach by the sea.  This meant that the front part of the skull had become detached and only half of it was found.  However, most of the remaining skeleton apart from a few vertebrae may be that other people picked up some of the missing bones and if so the Museum would be very pleased to hear from them.

So what next?  Now we needed to clean the bones and remove all the grease and remaining fragments of tissue, so that the specimen could (hygienically) enter our Museum collection.  So how did we do this?  Perhaps some kind of immersion in laboratory acid?  No, we did this naturally!  That is we buried the bones in raised beds of sand, to let natural bacteria, insects and other invertebrates, complete the decomposition process and expose our ‘prize’ (albeit, with the help of some manure to speed things along).

Meanwhile, at the Museum, all kinds of rumours and intrigue were building in the run-up to the long-awaited whale.  “Have you heard about the whale?”  often popped up into many conversations.  Indeed, I often encounter many exciting things in the depths of collection areas, but I was particularly excited to actually see the whale.

And so on Thursday, October 8 2015, Stephen Hewitt drove up with the first instalment of the whale skeleton in the back of his car (the rest, still buried, needs a while longer for the slow cleaning process and will require a considerably bigger vehicle to transport it!).  Being a curator desensitises you somewhat from the fact that each bone was coated with a thick layer of muck.  As we began to clean the bones with a high-pressure water jet, I realised that my choice of clothes for that day was quite poor.  But although the jet-stream had to be powerful enough to displace the envelope of ‘muck’ encasing each specimen, it did not harm the bones- in fact we need to clean them again.  It’s a painstaking job but (apart from being actually quite fun!) is necessary before they can properly enter the collection.

Image 3

So I’m afraid now you will have to eagerly await for next instalment, in several months, when we can recover the rest of the skeleton.

So stay tuned for my next whale tale post…  But in the meantime please feel free to leave a comment…

By Simon Jackson

Curator of Natural Sciences

[1] News and Star, Thursday, 20 February, 2014, updated Friday, 21 February, 2014

[2] Office of Protected Resources: NOAA Fisheries

[3] Atlas of Cetacean Distribution in North-West European Waters.  Compiled and edited by Reid, J B, Evans, P G H, Northridge, S P (Joint Nature Conservation Committee 2003)

[4] The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: Balaenoptera borealis (as accessed 19 October, 2015)

[5] Encyclopaedia of Life

#askthecurators One Week To Go!

There is only a week left of our What’s In Store: The Curator’s Choice exhibition and our curators Tim and Melanie have been answering some more of the great questions that we’ve been asked during the exhibition.

dinosaurGrace Clowrey asked “Why can’t there be an exhibition on dinosaurs?”

Hi Grace, thank you for your question – the simple answer is that unfortunately the Tullie House collection doesn’t have any dinosaurs in it. It is possible that there were dinosaurs in Cumbria as Britain was once home to around 100 different types of dinosaur. But there have not be any dinosaur bones found in the county, most of the dinosaur fossils in the UK are found on the South coast, known as the ‘Jurassic Coast’.

We would love to have an exhibition about dinosaurs and always keep an eye out for a suitable exhibition to bring to Carlisle.

One visitor asked “Why is it so dark in the corner?

Melanie our Curator of Fine and Decorative Art answers “Light levels are kept deliberately low to enable the museum to look after the objects. Some of our objects can be damaged by light which can cause them to fade and lose their original colours“

mortatariaNiamh Irvine asked “Did Romans eat pigs?

Our Curator of Archaeology, Tim answered this one “The short answer to this is ‘Yes, they did’.

The Latin word for pig is porcus from which we get the word pork. Study of the animal bones recovered in excavations at Castle Street, in the early 1980s suggested that the animals were slaughtered before reaching the age of three years old which shows that they were being killed for food.

There are also some recipes for cooking pork that have survived from Roman times. The cookbook by Apicius contains a number of these such as one for pork kebabs. Another recipe that survives is for a pork and fig pie. However, many of them state that you need wild boar, which was hunted regularly, but there is no reason why they couldn’t have used domesticated pigs instead.”

Sophie T asked “Why do you have so much Roman stuff? Why not Tudors?”

Tim, who looks after the Roman collection here at Tullie answers “The Romans were here for about 400 years (72/3 AD to 410) and the Tudors for only about 100 years (1485 to 1603).

The Romans also had a large Empire to get stuff from and made things, like pottery, and so there was a lot to leave for us to find. The Tudors didn’t make stuff on such a large scale and so there was less around.

Also much of the Tullie House Collection comes from Hadrian’s Wall. This was only used by the Romans and so there are no Tudor objects from the places like Birdoswald because they did not live there.

There are some items in the museum which date back to Tudor times though, our Reivers gallery contains some pieces from Tudor times, as does our Guildhall Museum – which is a Tudor building in the city centre.”


Abby and Rose Holliday asked “How long has Tullie House been around for, when was it built?”

Melanie told us “The old house was built for the Tullie family in 1689, with the later Victorian extensions added in 1892.”

Tim adds “When these extensions were added it opened to the public and became a museum and Institute for the Arts. The date, 1893, can be seen over the door into the building at the top of the ramp from the garden. Until 1990, it was also the home of Carlisle’s library, which can now be found in The Lanes.

Adam has asked a question about one of the objects on display which has a curious carving on it “What is the carving on stone 39?” The stone is Roman, so Tim has answered this one.phallus

The carving on the stone is called a phallus and represents male creative energy. The Romans believed that this energy could be used to stop bad luck, They carved them onto their buildings to make sure that the buildings would be protected. They are found on many of the surviving building in the forts along Hadrian’s Wall as well as in Roman cities like Pompeii.


christian diorAs Curator of Fine and Decorative Art Melanie looks after our costume collection and so answers some questions about the dresses on display.

Jess P asked “Why do you have dresses?”

“The museum collects dresses amongst other items of clothing because they were often worn by local people and are an important part of human history.”

Kath asked “Can I buy the Dior dress?”

“Sorry Kath, we cannot sell items in the collections. The collections are permanently owned by the city for the benefit of the community today and in the future.”

As ever on #askthecurators the Natural Science collections are making people curious.

Jessica B asked “Where was the shark caught?”

Good question Jessica, our little porbeagle shark was caught just off the Solway Coast in West Cumbria, not far from Carlisle. Porbeagles get their name from the Cornish word por meaning harbour because they are often seen very close to the shore or in harbours.

The porbeagle is native to all coastal regions of the UK. The largest one in Britain was seen just off the coast of Tynemouth in the North East and is thought to have been about 12 feet long, about 4 times bigger than ours!

Jenson asked “Where did the peacock come from?”

Another good question Jenson, this type of peacock is not native to Britain, they were originally from India and Sri Lanka. But rich people in the Victorian times (about 150 years ago) would bring the birds home to keep as pets.

This one was collected from Cumwhitton in 1990.

Thank you all for your great questions on #askthecurators over the last couple of months – we’ve really enjoyed answering them and we’ve even learnt some more things about our objects! We hope you’ve enjoyed reading some of our answers.


New Aquisitions : The Jacobites

We have recently acquired some iconic new material relating to the 1745 Jacobite rebellion. Our Curator of Social History, Edwin Rutherford, has written a short blog to introduce the new objects to the collection.

jacobites1“These exciting acquisitions will open up new opportunities to examine the secret world of clandestine rebel support in Northern England and the movement’s use of covert symbolism. Two miniature portraits of Prince Charles Edward Stuart will be used to examine the cult of ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ and analyse Carlisle’s capture from a Jacobite perspective.

jacobites2A 1746 map by George Smith shows Carlisle surrounded by Jacobite forces and positions of men such as Lord George Murray and the Duke of Perth. A large symbolic soda glass also enables us to examine the secret toasts to ‘The king over the water’ and the ‘Little gentleman in the black velvet waistcoat.’ This material is integral to new interpretation and can be the basis to develop a new Jacobite display in the future.”

Edwin Rutherford – Curator of Social History

Keep an eye on the blog for more updates on how we use and expand our collections.

#askthecurators Dodo Roadshow Special

This Saturday (13 June) come and see a famous Dodo as part of our What’s In Store: The Curator’s Choice exhibition this between 10am and 11am at Tullie House. To celebrate we will be posting a Dodo Roadshow #askthecurators Special!

dodoroadshowThe flying visit to Carlisle is part of Oxford University Museum of Natural History’s Dodo Roadshow from Lands End to John O’Groats. The Oxford staff will be displaying the Dodo model from the Museum’s displays; a cast of the precious head, which is the only remaining soft tissue material of a Dodo in the world; and real foot bones from the same animal, representing some of the few organic pieces of Dodo remains.

Red Kite Portinscale 1840
This is your chance to #askthecurators about the dodo and the Tullie House star object it is coming to meet, the 1840 Portinscale Red Kite from Tullie’s Collections, one of the last of Cumbria’s indigenous red kites and oldest mounted bird specimen in our collection.

Either come along on Saturday morning from 10-11am (suitable for all, usual admission charges apply) or #askthecurators your questions about the Dodo or Red Kite to @tulliehouse on Twitter and Facebook.

As the dodo started out on its road trip, we asked it a few questions of our own…


So, tell me about yourself – who are you and where do you come from?
I’m the famous Oxford Dodo. I spent most of my life on the tropical island of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Sailors arrived on the island in the late 16th century and everything changed. My life from then on is a bit of a blur, but somehow I appeared in Oxford around the 17th century and have been a museum treasure ever since.

What is it that makes you so special?
I’m a one off. Nowhere else in the world is there a Dodo with any flesh, but I’ve still got skin on my head and even a few little feathers, so scientists are fascinated by me. Dodo skeletons pop up in a few other museums, but it’s my skin that makes me really special. I was also used by scientists to explore Dodo DNA. Turns out I’m closely related to a pigeon! I’m literary too – I inspired Lewis Carroll’s Dodo character in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Who looks after you in Oxford?
My guardian is none other than the Head of Life (Collections). Darren Mann looks after all of the Life collections in the Museum and makes sure I’m stored safely so I last another 350 years.

Do you remember life before the museum?
I know I haven’t always been in this building. In fact, 200 years before this Museum was built, I was on display at the Ashmolean Museum – the first public museum in Great Britain. I was lucky to survive with any skin left intact; back then visitors were allowed to touch me and some of them gave me some pretty rough treatment.

What does the future hold for you?
Who knows what scientists have lined up for me next? A few weeks ago I was taken up to the University of Warwick for a fancy new CT scan. Apparently they found out something pretty exciting, which they’ll be able to reveal soon. But right now, my head is out on display in the Museum’s Presenting… case near the entrance; so if you’re in Oxford before 19 July stop by and say hello!

It will be the dodo’s chance to ask our Red Kite these questions on Saturday – but what questions do you want to ask?

#askthecurators Even More Questions Answered!

Following out Natural Science special our curators have been racking their brains to answer more of your great questions on our #askthecurators board in What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice exhibition.

First up, Tim our Curator of Archaeology is tackling Caitlin’s question How do you make pottery, can you do a fun day where you make pottery?


costrel“Pottery is made of clay which is a sticky type of soil which is often found near rivers and lakes. This is collected and all the bits of twig as well as stones are removed. It is then thumped to make a block that has no air bubbles in it. It is now ready to use. The block is then shaped into the kind of pot that you want, such as a bowl or a jug. This is allowed to dry out and then it is ready to be fired. The pot is placed, with others that have been made into a type of oven called a kiln (although it is possible to use a bonfire, a kiln is more efficient). The kiln is then heated up slowly to over 1000 degrees centigrade. This causes chemical changes in the clay, making it hard and water resistant. The kiln is then allowed to cool and the pottery is removed. It can be used as it is or be decorated with a glaze. Glazes are chemical coatings that stick to the surface of the clay and give a shiny surface that is waterproof as well as being decorative. The pots are heated in the kiln again to make these chemical changes happen. Finally when they are cool, they are ready to be sold and used. Pottery is very long-lasting as pieces have been found in Cumbria that are over 3000 years old, and the basic process has always been the same. Pottery is very fragile and easily broken so it is usually the pieces rather than the complete pots that survive.”


In terms of pottery fun days, we have run sessions on making pottery before—coming up we have a drop-in session to make clay tiles as part of our Eye for Colour opening weekend on Saturday 27 June, from 1pm until 4pm.

yak yak

On a similar note another visitor asked Can you do a fun day for over 12 year olds? Thanks for you very much for your question. We have family fun days at the start of family exhibitions and at Christmas with activities for all the family. We also have a two Tullie Time Travellers club, one on Wednesdays from 4pm – 5.30pm, and another once a month on a Saturday from 1pm-3pm, especially for 10-14 year olds and our Yak Yak Youth Group for 14-19 year olds meet once a month on a Saturday.

Tim, our Curator of Archaeology and Edwin, our Curator of Social History have been thinking about some really tricky questions from Charlotte and Caitlin, first Charlotte asked What is your favourite thing here and why?


Edwin answers

My favourite thing at Tullie isn’t a ’thing’ as such, it is probably the sense of place captured in the museum. This is hard to define but it involves the coming and going of exhibitions, the familiar and less familiar objects, our diverse museum disciplines, the interaction of visitors and the past and present staff who make it all come together. I am proud to be a Curator here and part of the museum’s very own history.


Tim answers

I like the selection of coins that are on display. I think it is a great example of someone coming up with a really good idea – standardised pieces of metal that can be exchanged for ‘stuff’. I love the way the basic idea has not changed for over 2000 years. It is also fascinating to see how the idea has been used in different ways – design, metal used, size, way the coins are made – at different times. Also some of the designs are good examples of miniature works of art.

Caitlin set our curators a very tricky question, asking Why do people go to Tullie House?

othTim said

There is no one answer to this question. I go to museums when I am on holiday for many reasons and I think that some of them are the same as why people come here. I go to see things I have read about in books or seen on the internet as well as to see new things. Often the buildings themselves are interesting. With some museums, it is a case of nostalgia when you see something that you used to own (or your parents used to own) and it brings back memories.

Edwin saysfamilies

People come to the museum for a variety of reasons. Some may come with their family on a day out. Others make specific visits to see a particular object or examine collections and historic themes in more detail. Tullie House also provides many people with a place to meet friends. I come here with my young children and they are already seeing that the museum offers something completely different and enjoying trying to understand what a ‘museum’ is all about. I think people come here to discover and can find inspiration amongst the buildings collections and associated history.

Perhaps though we should turn this question on its head and get the Curators to ask you? Why do you visit Tullie House or other museums?


Thank you again to all of our visitors for your questions, there is still plenty of time to visit What’s in Store: The Curator’s Choice at Tullie House and leave your own question for our curators, and there’ll be another blog shortly with more answers to your questions.



#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

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!

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