To paraphrase a traditional January sentiment, it’s ‘new year, new Collections Gallery’ here at Gressenhall, and plans and renovations are in full swing.
As a masters student at UEA, I’ve been on placement in the Museum since November, working with the Learning and Collections teams to think about new ways of making the extensive collections accessible and interesting for every visitor to the Collections Gallery. For me personally, this has meant helping to pack up, clean, store, and even photograph the objects, in preparation for an exciting redesign of the space and its displays. From bricks to dolls, animal traps to taxidermy sheep, I’ve been able to see first-hand the expansiveness of the collection here and the work that goes into preserving, conserving and interpreting the history of the Workhouse and Norfolk’s rural heritage. For me, even being born and raised in the county, this has been an incredibly eye-opening experience. In researching the background to specific objects and wider themes of rural life, I’ve found out so much about the history and culture of Norfolk that was almost entirely new to me.
Perhaps I can place some of the blame on being city-bred, but swathes of the county’s crafts, traditions and trades, as represented by the Museum’s eclectic collections, are only now coming into focus. Through the biographies of individuals like George Edwards, whose path from crow-scarer to MP touches upon so many elements of Norfolk life in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, I’ve been intrigued by linking objects to stories and finding new ways of engaging with everything from unionisation to Primitive Methodism. Edwards’ account of his father’s 1885 imprisonment for taking five turnips from his master’s land to feed the family, of leading horses as a young man and having his feet trodden on time and again, or of his mother working sixteen hour days at her loom, bring new resonance to the hardships (and comic interludes) of his time. Whether a suitcase owned by Edwards himself, general assorted horseshoes, or century-old trade tools, the objects might resonate in any number of ways. One of my first tasks here was to select bricks for display from Costessey’s Brickyard, historically run by the Gunton family. This might not leap out to many beside the brick-enthusiast as a subject of fascination, but reading up on this little part of Norfolk history means that now I know – and notice – their decorative contributions to buildings in Norwich I’ve passed almost daily for two decades. I could talk forever about the intrigue behind these objects, and the richness of Norfolk’s rural history, but what the Collections Gallery hopes to do is allow people the space to find their own sparks of interest or recollection.
The items Gressenhall has are so much more than just things, and the history they represent is not consigned fixedly to the past, but carries on in the living traditions and memories of Norfolk residents today. That’s something that I will definitely take from my small role in the ongoing development here and something that, whether through research, roaming or reminiscence, I hope everyone will get to experience first-hand at the Museum.
Maddy Goodall (MA Cultural Heritage & Museum Studies)