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Bringing the Archive to Life

Thanks to Heritage Lottery Fund, 120 primary school children came to the NHSN and the Great North Museum: Hancock in one day in one visit!

A Collection of Naturalists' Diaries, NHSN Archives

Over the summer, I have been working in the archives of the Natural History Society of Northumbria, and during this time I have assisted with a number of visits to the archive and museum.

Ashleigh with the Collector’s and Collection Exhibition, NHSN Archive

Thanks to the Heritage Lottery Fund, the Natural History Society of Northumbria has engaged with children and young people in recent months, to inspire an interest in natural history. In July, a group of over 120 school children visited the Great North Museum Hancock and the NHSN archives. The focus of the visit was on naturalists and their methods of working. The children looked at the various ways different naturalists have recorded their findings. We created an exhibition which displayed the diaries and sketch books of multiple naturalists taken from the NHSN archives. Much of the work in these diaries was often rough, as it had been completed in the field. But, the exhibit was able to demonstrate to the children the meticulous methods of the naturalists. The children were learning different techniques of drawing and sketching nature in the field, and the work of these naturalists gave them a helping hand. We displayed a variety of different diaries, including those of George W. Temperley and David Green. Alongside these we also exhibited sketchbooks with delicate watercolours inside such as those by Margaret Rebecca Dickinson.

Of course, not all 120 children could fit into the archives in one session. As such, we had 12 groups of around 10 children, who rotated around various workshops downstairs in the museum and the archives upstairs. The children were able to look around the library, before entering the archives itself, and the rare books store. Most of the children had not been inside an archive before, and so the visit was quite exciting, many enticed by the rolling rack system. The aim was to teach the children the purpose of an archive and its importance, linked to their work on nature drawing.

Once inside of the rare book store, we were able to show the children some of the collection, including items related to Sparkie Williams the budgerigar and Thomas Bewick’s tooth. The Natural History Society has an extensive Bewick collection, but his tooth is often the most memorable to visitors. The children were able to hear the story of Sparkie, who is on show in the main museum, as well as see his trophy and listen to a recording of him. At the end of each session, our archivist, June, told each group a different budgie joke for the children to exchange with one another downstairs. By getting the chance to hear the back story of Sparkie, the children were able to connect the exhibit in the museum to the archives by being able to view related items in the collection. The archive holds a wealth of information which often contextualises specimens downstairs in the museum.

Ashleigh with the very exciting roller rack system, NHSN Archives

In conjunction with their project on nature drawing, the children visited Gosforth Park Nature Reserve where they were encouraged to observe creatures and record their findings, like the naturalists in the archives. A couple of weeks after their visit, we were invited into the school where the children’s own sketchbooks and nature diaries were displayed. Many of the children had written about their visit to the archives, most did not fail to mention Bewick’s infamous tooth.

Another visit to the archives was enjoyed by a group of teenagers from Children North East. This group was also learning about naturalists and the ways in which they observed and recorded wildlife. We set out a collection of diaries and sketchbooks, which can be seen to the left. Many of the teenagers were especially interested in the watercolour paintings by George Gisbone. Later, the director of the NHSN, James led a workshop on different drawing techniques in preparation for a future trip to Gosforth Park and the coast to observe wildlife in action. The group was shown how to capture animals quickly when out in the field by sketching out basic shapes and adding detail later. They were then taken around the museum exhibitions to practise some of their sketching.

As well as looking at collections from the archives, June and I took the group on a tour of the museum in order to tell them the back stories to some of the specimens on show. As well as Sparkie, the group were shown Eric the polar bear, stuffed by John Hancock, who was found to be the home of a mouse during the 1980s. We were also able to tell the group about the resident mummies of the museum and their stories before reaching Newcastle. The Natural History Society has recently created a leaflet, which can be found in the main museum and gift shop, which tells the stories behind a number of the exhibits. The aim is to highlight the connections between the museum and the archive, and engage with a wider audience. The leaflet contains a short overview of the specimen, and encourages visitors to visit our online catalogue to engage further with the archives.  The group of teenagers were very interested in the exhibits when they were brought to life with their own stories, giving them further context.

These two visits show how the Natural History Society, working in conjunction with the museum, are seeking to engage with a younger audience in order to inspire the next generation of naturalists in the North East.

Ashleigh Jackson