Two days at Tullie House museum and art gallery

Figure 1: Tullie House museum originally just comprised of this charming Jacobean hall.

When Steve Judd, my mentor from Liverpool World Museum, suggested we should meet somewhere different for our next meeting, I had little insight into what a great idea this would turn out to be.  After some initial consultation, and through meeting Steve Hewitt (Curator of Natural Sciences & Collections Development Manager) at the Botany workshop I attended at Liverpool in October, we settled on Tullie House museum and art gallery in Carlisle as a venue.   This made me think about if it would be possible to spend a couple of days up in Carlisle to get a feel for the collection and Steve’s work; and so with Steve’s agreement, a two-day visit was arranged for this week.

Tullie House is a great place for me to visit as it is quite different to museums I have experienced thus far.  Firstly, it is a lot smaller than Manchester and only has one natural sciences curator (Steve).  Secondly, it became a trust last year which means that it is now an independent museum with a board of trustees and is no longer run through the city council.  Thirdly, though small, the collection loses nothing to Manchester on its breadth of subject areas.  All major collections (e.g. botany, zoology, entomology, palaeontology, geology) are incorporated; and large parts of the collection are local to Cumbria.

The founding of a natural history collection at Tullie House was due to Hugh Alexander MacPherson, a clergyman who also became the first President of Carlisle Natural History Society and wrote ‘A Vertebrate Fauna of Lakeland’ in 1892.  Tullie House has strong links with the Natural History society and a lot of volunteers working with the collection actively contribute to both the museum and the society.  I learned that even more so than at Manchester, volunteers are the lifeblood of the collection at Tullie House.  They also provide the majority of the 600,000 records of wildlife sightings that can now be found on the virtual fauna of Lakeland website.  Tullie House is unusual in that it hosts the Cumbria Biodiversity Data Centre; where these records are held.  CBDC is one of a string of local records centres which can be found in counties up and down the country.  The main niche of CBDC is that it can supply information to ecological surveyors or members of the public on non-statutory wildlife designations like county wildlife sites.  This is only possible through dedicated volunteers submitting records and then inputting records onto Recorder 6, the Tulie House equivalent of KE-EMu which is used both for museum records from the collection and recent observations.  This, along with other work being done on red squirrel populations in Cumbria using provenance data with study skins, is a great example of how the collection at Tullie House is still being used and relevant today.

Figure 2: Working on re-mounting and recording data for the J H Day sawfly collection.

My activities at Tullie House included a guided tour of the stores by Steve and a look round the galleries.  The natural history collection on display is a small but engaging portrait of the diversity of life in Cumbria.  Many of the dioramas at the museum are very impressive; some being created by former curator and taxidermist Ernest Blezard (1926-1966) to replicate actual nesting sites!  I assisted by re-mounting some of the dried sawfly specimens from the F H Day (1875-1963) collection that were being moved to new cases.  I also inputted some of the data I had extracted from these specimens onto Recorder 6.  It was handy that Steve was around to answer my queries to do with graphology and local geography!  It was also great that he was around to sort out a few of my unfortunate breakages of these fragile specimens; many of which were over 100 years old!

Figure 3: Those re-mounted (to the left) will now go into a new case; already prepared with the species names ready.

It was good to see Donna and Steve, my mentors from Liverpool World Museum on Wednesday and also good to discuss the collection and galleries at Tullie House; and what I had been up to in my traineeship recently with them.

I would like to thank Steve, Teresa and Moustafa and all the volunteers who I met for being so helpful and welcoming to me during my time at Tullie House.  I certainly know more about caring for smaller collections and how the museum can work effectively with local records centres and volunteers than I did before; and for that I am grateful for the initial idea Steve had many weeks before!

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About Trainee Curator

I will be writing a blog about the next twelve months spent as a trainee biological curator based at Manchester Museum.
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