Voices from the Workhouse

Gressenhall is the only workhouse site in the UK where visitors can experience a unique combination of workhouse and archives. This project transformed Gressenhall into a national centre for workhouse interpretation and resource.

Using recently revealed original accounts, the redeveloped displays tell the real stories of the people who lived and worked in the workhouse, challenging misconceptions. We explore the lives of the rural communities overshadowed by this controversial institution.

Powerful layered interpretation draws on the real stories of inmates like Harriet Kettle, our well-preserved buildings and nationally significant workhouse collections. A creative programme of activities transformed our engagement with existing and new audiences, including volunteers.

We explore the themes that make the workhouse story relevant today, including the treatment of mental illness and rural poverty. We also develop innovative digital resources, enabling people to access and share collections and stories.


Key milestone achieved!

Just a quick update to let you all know that we have reached a key milestone in the work in the Collections Gallery.

This week Lauren and I completed writing object labels for the 2000 objects inside the gallery. This represent an enormous achievement – meaning not only will we have labels for EVERY item in the gallery but also for the first time we will have accurate documentation and computer records for all of these objects.

In some cases this has meant cross checking with collections in Norwich, double checking with stored objects, trying hard to read numbers partially rubbed off, measuring items, creating sub number records and generally being really good detectives. The majority of objects have also been photographed – with the few remaining to be mopped up over the next few months.

Although this has meant progress has been slow – it has been worth doing properly. We have never had accurate records for the objects in this gallery. They weren’t completed last time it was installed making it impossible to answer any questions about the objects in the cases. Now we can be confident we know what is in each case, and we have recorded everything completely. We are really proud of ourselves and hope you will agree that it is only worth doing a job if you are going to do it properly!

The texts will now be proofread before going off to our designers for setting. They will be printed and installed in the new year.

We are now moving on to think about what items we will install on the mesh in the Collections Gallery in the new year. No rest for the wicked!

This week is also Lucy Burrow’s last week with us. Lucy has been working on our stored textile collection and has done amazing work photographing and documenting everything in Store 3 everything. She has been busy beavering away independently and we are really grateful for all her hard work and creativity thinking about how we can use the collection more in the museum. We wish her the best of luck as she returns to her research at UEA.

Into the winter closed season

A long overdue update! This gives a little bit of a summary of 2017 plus a look forward to 2018.

Voices from the Workhouse

This year has been a year of snagging in the new galleries downstairs– some successful and others still in progress!

Good news:

  • Floor repairs completed
  • New A3 people panels have been approved to begin building our “library” of personal stories so they can be regularly changed
  • Census barriers. These will be replaced with a stud wall this winter.
  • Eat and sleep platters and mugs and various object label errors. New graphics are being ordered this winter. Platters will have wrapped foamex inserts
  • Benches – obviously not working. Quotes will be routed in and the benches yacht varnished (not oiled) this winter. Fingers crossed!
  • Laundry yard pump, clock interactive, stereoscope – Mark from Myriad is coming in November (date tbc) to check all his interactive. Two replacement USB sticks have been provided for stereoscope for quick and easy repair rather than waiting for me.
  • Grey barrier tops – lots more ordered. Unfortunately can’t glue down in case we need to remove the cord to enable us to move the object behind.

Still in progress:

  • Statue repairs. We have asked Alan Herriot the sculptor for more support in terms of colouring the repair patches, offering us a day of training and pricing up replacement statues (these would be different to existing to tell more people stories from new research)
  • Laundry yard resin – the bounce back properties are being monitored. Repairs would be unsightly and expensive so just watching and waiting for now.

Comments are positive and we are interested in thinking about new ways we can use these spaces – one opportunity is to change the digital projections. Any ideas for projects to create new and or temporary material for the projectors gratefully received. In 2018 we will be hoping to complete the room folders, switch around the people A3 stories and bring in new ones. I’ll also be working with Carleton College on new digital interpretation and hopefully integrating this more with the actual displays.

Collections Gallery

Work has been slow in the Collections Gallery – particularly after May when Josh left us. We did open ready for the summer holidays as a work in progress and the space has been very well received by our visitors. We aim to have all items installed, object labels printed and installed and lights corrected before we open in March. There will still be further work to do in 2018 – specifically improving the interactives (any thoughts gratefully received – we recognise that this isn’t thought through or working at the moment), creating material for further resource folders and planning and installing objects onto the meshes.


  • Errors on 2 large graphics – to be re-printed with corrections this winter.
  • Lights – Wensum will return once all installation complete – probably just before we re-open
  • Workhouse clock – Andy and I are on the case with Colin clock man. Problem is with the modern micro-switch for the rewind mechanism – not the 18th century clock mechanism thankfully.

Rural Lives

Rural Lives was a very simple and quickly put together temporary exhibition this year – but has been really well received. It was lovely to be able to install something into our new temporary exhibition space, and to be able to showcase some of our contemporary collecting. There was some space for learning – we didn’t get everything right! Labelling was perhaps not obvious enough in the folders and some visitors didn’t realise that some of the images were of modern life. It was a great opportunity to make further links with the local photographer J.A. Mortram and Gressenhall also featured in a film about his work made by wex photography:


Collaborate – Rural Lives

Collaborate with Gressenhall is a way for Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse to share its resources and work on collaborative projects with individuals and community groups. It was started by Megan last year with a workhouse theme and display in the chapel. It is designed to be a sustainable and ongoing way of working with a different theme each year. This year the theme was Rural Lives with me coordinating it so the resources include collections and photographs on display in the Rural Lives exhibition and redisplayed Collections Gallery.

In May, we held an Inspiration Day to preview our 2017 photography exhibition ‘Rural Lives’. The temporary exhibition included photographs of Norfolk people from the past and today. Attendees explored the themes of the Rural Lives exhibition and Collections Gallery with me, Josh, Megan and contemporary photographer J. A. Mortram. Activities throughout the day encouraged participants to get creative and think about Rural Lives in the past, present and future.

Throughout the year the Collaborate blog was updated with work in progress from our Collaborators


During October half term our Collaborators had the chance to display their work within the Rural Lives exhibition. Our Collaborators were inspired by many different strands of the Rural Lives theme – the portraits, what it means to live in a rural area, J.A. Mortram’s contemporary photos and the historic photos in the Rural Lives exhibition. We had wonderful pieces on display – from poetry to paintings, sculptures to stitched works. These pieces were displayed within the exhibition alongside the pieces that had inspired the works. And we’ll be doing it all again alongside the ‘Beers and Brewing: Norfolk’s Rural Pubs’ exhibition next season!

Beers and Brewing: Norfolk’s Rural Pubs – 2018’s exhibition

Lauren is curating the exhibition for 2018 which will explore Norfolk’s pubs and brewing industry both in the past and today. It will be in the Collections Gallery but I am aiming for the exhibition space to feel very different to the Rural Lives exhibition this year. I will be working with Dave Savage to create a bar! This will be a family friendly space with the chance to play a traditional Norfolk game ‘Twizzler’.

‘Beer and Brewing – Norfolk’s Rural Pubs’ will include objects from pubs no longer trading such as The Kings Arms in Shipdham. It will explore the demise of the rural pub and ways that communities are saving their local watering hole with newly acquired objects from West Norfolk’s first Community saved pub at Shouldham. It will ask visitors to consider why pubs are in decline and if the smoking ban has affected pubs. There will also be lots of different coloured and shaped beer mats collected from a local pub. On display for the first time will be a plaster panel created by the artist John Moray-Smith which was formerly in The Jolly Farmers in Kings Lynn. There will also be items from old and contemporary breweries.

 Collaborate – Beer and Brewing

Next year’s temporary exhibition is on beer and brewing. This may be a tricky one to get people to engage with so we have a number of ideas for developing material for collaborate. Again – any ideas much appreciated!

  • Engaging with existing artists/projects inspired by pubs for example – can you please add any artists/creative people you know have been inspired by pubs or would like to be involved? See image and poem at the bottom of the email for examples.
    • Creative Arts East – Inn Crowd (spoken word in pubs)
    • Pubs and poems
    • Pub collages (Norwich exhibition)
    • Pub name illustrations
    • Paul Bommer – pub name print


  • Engaging with local creative groups – running inspiration sessions for them to create material – can you please add to the list any groups you think might be interested?
    • Dereham Photography Group
    • Silver Social


  • Engaging with local pubs – running a “Norfolk pubs” round in local pub quizzes? Promoting the museum and exhibition to different audiences – please add any local pubs you think might be interested in hosting us?
    • Asking quiz teams to design a beer mat for their pub – to be displayed in Collaborate exhibition
    • Guess the objects question
    • Norfolk pubs/brewers questions


Our volunteers have continued to do an amazing job this year. Particular projects and successes:

  • Panhard is back up and running successfully attending a local rally at Sandringham with plans for more local appearances next year.
  • Farmer’s Foundry restoration continues. This should provide us with a new steam engine ready for operation by next summer. It is proving more expensive than we originally thought.
  • Research volunteers have made fantastic progress summarising and cataloguing TNA material. Next year we will be looking at how we can summarise and catalogue the material at the Norfolk Record Office. This work has found us new person stories for the A3 panels downstairs.
  • Collections volunteers have put up with the library being out of action and have still managed to clean over 2000 objects and help us install them. We are now working on getting the library back up and running for volunteers by next year. Gina was involved in a meeting planning this – which was great to get FOH input. Once the library is back physically we will think about how and when we are opening it (and how we advertise that to visitors)
  • Our new task volunteering scheme is up and running. This allows volunteers to take more control of the type and timing of their volunteering. They sign up for particular tasks rather than join a set team. If you can think of any small tasks that could be completed by a volunteer please do let me know and I’ll advertise them over the winter.

In Touch with the Past 2018

Broad themes have been decided – please do let me know if you have any ideas for In Touch With the Past:

  • February Half term – Spring cleaning
  • Easter – Nature
  • Summer 1 – A Walk in the Woods
  • Summer 2 – Food Glorious Food
  • October Half term – Cats, rats, bats and witches

Busy, busy

Such a lot has been going on!

Tuesday 12th we hosted the SHARE Museums East Volunteer Coordinators’ Forum to share some of our learning about managing volunteers from the rest of the region.

Image result for llanfyllin workhouse

Llanfyllin Workhouse, north Wales. Well worth a visit!

Monday 18th we visited Llanfyllin Workhouse in north Wales for the meeting of the Workhouse Network and had a fabulous day learning from each other, including discussion of workhouse escape rooms and the role of workhouse sites in contemporary issues such as poverty, mental health and welfare. We learnt about the National Trust’s contemporary performance piece called Dangerous or Otherwise, created by The Workhouse, The Bare Project and Newark Emmaus Trust. It brought together contemporary stories of homelessness into the empty infirmary building at Southwell in new and interesting ways. See their website for more details:


Pebbles used as part of the Dangerous or Otherwise performance installation at The Workhouse, Southwell

On Tuesday 19th we celebrated our fabulous volunteers and their wonderful contribution to the museum with the Great Gressenhall Trail. Unwitting volunteers were invited to take part in a school holiday trail with a difference. Once they had traipsed all over the building finding out about the different contributions they make to the museum they were awarded with an “I’m a GREAT Gressenhall volunteer” badge as a prize and we enjoyed a wonderful lunch put on by the café.

Image result for heckingham workhouse

Photograph of Loddon and Clavering Union Workhouse.

On Wednesday 20th I entertained 30 members of the Loddon and District Local history Group with a Voices form the Workhouse talk. They were especially interested to hear about the history of their local workhouse – Loddon and Clavering. Like Gressenhall it started as a House of Industry. Riots broke out and inmates tried to set fire to the building when it became a Union workhouse in 1836. In the 20th century it became a home for those with severe learning difficulties and didn’t close until the early 1990s. It has now been converted into luxury flats, but we are lucky enough to have been donated a range of furniture and records of life in the institution from the union period onwards right into the 20th century when it was known as Hales Hospital. One of the stars of this donation is an oil painting of the union workhouse painted by the porter and now on display in the Board Room at Gressenhall.

And we have still been working on the Collections Gallery too! Working together with Dave Savage over the last week and a half we have installed new objects and added plinths to others. We have also completed our count up of labels and extra graphics – 185 in total!

Welcoming Lucy!

Another busy week.

We welcomed Lucy Burrows to the collections team on Monday. Lucy will be working on our textile collections with us. Firstly auditing, re-packing and improving our documentation. She will then be moving on to think about how we can use these items more effectively including in display and digital outputs. Lucy is a Ph.D. student in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of East Anglia. As part of her course Lucy has to spend three months in a professional internship developing non-academic skills and experiencing life outside the lab. She has already got busy with the collections – photographing and working on documentation.

On Tuesday we attended the Bradenham Retirement Club (don’t worry we aren’t retiring quite yet!) to deliver an outreach talk on Voices from the Workhouse. It was very well received – with many people commenting on the real lives and stories that are told in the new displays. Everyone enjoyed exploring the replica Lorina sampler too. Even better they served cake after the event!

We’ve also been busy continuing to plan the object labels for the new Collections Gallery – 158 graphics so far (we are still counting!). Now we are nearing the end of the collections management marathon which has been recording all the locations (and correcting all the previous mistakes) we can start to think about writing the object labels. This means our visitors will be able to see (for the first time) what is in each case and understand some of the wonderful stories the objects can tell.

Like the story of Freddie Beckerton:

He was born in 1908 and while he was not totally blind, he was registered and had very poor sight. Mr Beckerton used to take items for sale, which included the most basic things like salt and pepper, in the suitcases when he sold items on-foot. He also sold items from a box on a tricycle marked ‘F Beckerton Grocer’. His suitcases and contents were donated to the museum in 2012.


We haven’t previously been able to tell his story so it will be lovely to put his collection out on display with a label so people can read all about his life.

Conservation and display progress

These week we have made good progress with a number of conservation issues. We have been working together with the Conservation Department to make sure everything is safe – for our visitors and for our objects. We have been able to convince ourselves that the perry corks are not going to pop off (!) and that the pink liquid inside a bottle isn’t anything dangerous. We have also stuck together a witch’s bottle that had broken and repaired a model gypsy caravan. Checking the condition of objects as they are installed is an important step. We can make sure that they are in good enough condition to go on display – and also that the way we are displaying them is suitable and won’t damage them. We were rather worried about some of the boards from the board games we are displaying. Having looked at them with Dave Harvey, our conservator, we are re-assured that they will be ok, and that the mounts we have found provide them with plenty of support – no saggy board games for us. The Ivory Castle game is one of my favourites. Produced by Gibbs Dentifrice it was given away in the 1930s to encourage children to clean their teeth properly!

We have also met with display to discuss some rather special mounts. Some of the objects in the gallery need a little more support – either to ensure they are not damaged and/or to make them look better. One object that needs particular care is a horse gag. We have used this several times in object handling and it is an intriguing thing. This metal and leather instrument looks like a rather uninspiring item when just laid on the bottom of the case. To help our visitors understand what it is and how it was used we are planning to mount it as if it were being used to hold a horse’s mouth open. This will not only help visitors understand what the object is, but will also be useful if we use it for handling again.

Village At War

Work has been progressing nicely this week.

The grocer’s section in work is now looking lovely thanks to a large shelving unit built on site by Dave. This has enabled Lauren to install lots of small objects and make them look wonderful! There are also some price labels in here – prizes for any smarty pants who can tell us whether we have the prices correct or not!!

We have also managed to install the World War Two plan chest just in time for Village at War (including temporary object labels). This is based on the World War One case which has been moved back up from the farm. It contains different types of object on six different themes – Air Raids, Private Charlie Card, Women at War, Toys and Games, Dig for Victory and Prisoners of War. Charlie Card never came back from the front and the drawer dedicated to him contains his medals and certificates which his family kept in pristine condition before donating them to the museum in 2015. You might recognise the game in the Toys and Games drawer – this unusual air raiding board game has been used during Village at War before. It is very rare – even the Imperial War Museum don’t have one.

Updating on the computer continues – thanks to volunteers for identifying and correcting the mistakes I have made (you know who you are!) and to Lauren for updating 102 objects from the Freddie Beckerton travelling salesman collection in one afternoon.

All join in…

This week we have installed the new interactives into the gallery. Jan has worked on some new books. These are for families to read together. In each book are a number of challenges related to the story. These are designed to help our visitors really look at the objects in the cases. We’ll see how these go. Hopefully we can add and change books so that repeat visitors have new books to explore every time they come back.

We have also been continuing to work on recording the locations of objects in the gallery. This takes time but is really important to get it right.

We have also been working on the next workhouse network meeting in September. This is called “Was the workhouse so bad” and different workhouse sites are coming together in Llanfylllin in Wales to discuss how workhouse sites can tackle contemporary issues of poverty, welfare and mental health. We’ll hear about different projects and get lots of time to network and explore the topics.

Locations, labels and interactives

We are now onto Phase 2 of Collections Gallery installation. It looks like nothing much has changed in the last few weeks but we are still working steadily behind the scenes.

The majority of the objects have now been installed. We are working on updating our computer records to ensure they are all accurate. This isn’t a simple business. For every object we need to enter it’s unique accession number, edit the computer record, add the new location and revise the old locations. In some cases we need to make new records (where previously a group of 6 objects were given a single number we need to sub-number them – making a total of 6 records for 6 objects) and photograph objects. We then need to group the records per case and save and print records for each case.

Once we have done all this (and there are over 2000 objects in the new gallery) we will then move on to write the new object labels for the cases. Every single case will have a label that tells our visitors what is inside the case. This was a major point from evaluation of the gallery previously – people wanted to know what they were looking at. So we will be writing labels for each of 4 shelves in each of the 34 cases (making a total of 136 labels!).

As well as all of this computer work we have also been discussing the interactives for the gallery and very soon we will be installing new explorer cards for families to use. We hope these will help families to look closely at the objects and really engage with them.


Woss in my doctor’s bag….?!

Last week was a busy week in the Collections Gallery. We were working on large objects and plan chests.

We now have large objects installed on the  plinth at the temporary exhibition end of the gallery. This will enable us to plan what graphics will go behind these objects. We also moved plan chests around the gallery and the World War One one up from the farm. They are heavy and awkward. Many thanks to Barry, Dave Savage, Josh and Dave Harvey who all helped.

We have now re-installed the World War One case in the Collections Gallery and we have objects in the top of the unions case (this contains a range of items relating to George Edwards the famous Norfolk agricultural labourer – turned MP and trade unionist) and the health case (which includes a range of objects that were commonly found in a doctor’s bag – how many do you recognise in the picture – some of them might make you shudder!).

We are now moving on to updating their locations so in the future we (or someone else) can find all the objects in the cases. This had never been completed during the last re-display and took us over 3 years working with volunteers to audit the gallery before we de-installed. We are not making that mistake again!

We also measured and Dave made a large number of new wooden plinths for objects so they look their best in the cases. We hope to install these before the summer holidays. Next week we will be hanging objects and fixing them to the sides and backs of the cases.