Live Well: supporting older people in accessing their local museums – by Ben Jones Assistant Outreach Officer (Live Well)

Live Well is a three-year programme of cultural events, creative and museum activities and opportunities, skill and knowledge sharing for Tyneside people over 50 years of age and the organisations and community groups that work with them. Taking place between 2016 and 2019, it is a partnership between Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) and National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) and supported by the Big Lottery Fund. It sits under The Platinum Programme, TWAM’s Outreach programme of inspiring activities and experiences for people over 55. Myself and my colleague Ruth Sheldon (and Sophie Mitchell currently on maternity leave) run ‘Live Well’ and we will be posting a number of blogs over the next few months, showing you what we have been up to over the three years.

The aim of the Live Well programme is to understand the health and wellbeing benefits of creative activities and visiting museums and gallery for people over 50 who don’t usually go to museums or galleries. This can be for a number of different reasons, such as people with early stage dementia and the people who care for them, social isolated people and/or have been recently widowed, people with mental and or physical issues, people with learning disabilities or people who maybe just don’t think museums and galleries are for them. There are two parts to the programme over the three year period. The first part of the project took place from September 2016 to August 2018. It involved working with organisations, community groups and older people on six themed sessions, chosen by the group, doing creative activities and at least one visit to a museum or gallery. We worked with a wide range of groups, from large well known organisations such as Age UK, smaller organisations such as Live at Home or Your Voice Counts to local community organisations such as Gateshead Clubhouse.

AGE UK Gateshead Culture Club having a guided tour of the Hatton Gallery December 2017


Live at Home Chopwell group visiting the Hoppings exhibition, Discovery Museum


Sessions included local and social history, art, food, Roman history, Tai Chi, fashion, home life through ages and natural history, amongst others. These sessions were led by TWAM staff and artists and included using TWAM’s object handling collection, Box of Delights.


Southwood Retirement Housing visiting Laing Art Gallery April 2018


The creative sessions included painting, printmaking, digital art, animation, photography, batik, ceramics, murals, sound art, digital art and future wearables, as well as activities such as cooking, walking and, in one case, designing a board game. We made sure the project was flexible and that it fitted into the needs and interests of the group. Participants’ ages ranged from 50 to 100, with many varied and different life experiences, and in some cases we were learning from them. Many, if not most, were retired, yet still have a lot to offer through lived experience, knowledge and skills that are still of use and relevance today.

Group visit to the Shipley Art Gallery October 2017


Older Peoples Association working with artist Lalya Gaye making future wearables October 2017

TWAM’s mission is ‘to help people determine their place in the world and define their identities, so enhancing their self-respect and their respect for others’ and this was important as to how we approached the delivery of the project. The purpose of Live Well was to improve how museums and being creative can help people’s health and wellbeing, and to understand the barriers that currently stopped participants engaging with museum activities. To see how museums and galleries can help people with their health, we used the Five Ways to Wellbeing (Keep Learning, Connect, Be Active, Take Notice, Give) to record how participants engaged with the project and with other people in their group. We focused on providing a range of positive new learning opportunities that instilled individual’s confidence in their existing and new found abilities and to understand their place in the world. We wanted to provide opportunities for individuals to progress, learn and improve overall quality of life through being creative and being engaged with local museum collections.

Group visiting the Discovery Museum

For the final year of Live Well, we are disseminating and sharing our experience of the project through offering six free informal training sessions aimed at people and volunteers across Tyneside who work with older people. We will be showing them how to run their own Live Well and creative sessions and giving advice and tips on how to bring large groups to our venues. We are also holding a series of social events for workers to come together at a TWAM venue and support each other in developing creative sessions and consider best practice. At the same time, we are working closely with six museums and archives across Tyne and Wear, Co Durham and Northumberland to develop and deliver two Live Well sessions in their venues and to support them in creating an older people programme. These six venues are Bowes Railway Museum, Cragside, Durham County Records, Durham Oriental Museum, Souter Lighthouse and Leas, and Washington Old Hall.

Finally, we will be holding the Live Well Symposium on 12 June 2019 at Discovery Museum in Newcastle during Creativity and Wellbeing Week asking the question What would a long term strategy look like for museums working with social care and health specialists when dealing with loneliness and isolation in an aging population? This will bring together people who work in the creative sector, as well as those who work in the health sector to see how we can work more closely together.

Over the next few months, Ruth and myself will be posting more blogs about what has happened during Live Well and sharing future plans for the project.


The Family La Bonche Circus Collection, Part 3: Playing the Fool – a guest blog by Alexandria Brown

This final post on the Family La Bonche Circus Collection focuses on Steve Cousins – fool, street performer, and one time ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ contestant – who happens to be husband to Madame La Bonche, donator of the La Bonche collection to Discovery Museum.  In a previous post titled ‘Tools of the Trade’, it was noted that La Bonche collection consists of items gathered from contemporary circus performers and artists throughout the region.  Several of these items, which include a bundle of hair and a human-sized trick balloon, once belonged to contemporary fool Steve Cousins.  To delve into the stories of these rather wacky items, I’d like to explore how they relate to their former owner through the concept of ‘the fool’ as a character and entertainer.

The Look

An important aspect of any performance is to have the right look for the act. Iconic depictions of the fool vary from a zany and aloof jester-like character to a poor and ragged hobo-like character.  In the case of Steve Cousins, his main persona (he has a few i.e. Dental Dan, Steve Mischief, and The Balloonatic) consists of bright colours, big hair, and a friendly demeanour – more similar to that of the jester.  And so, one of the more unusual items in the La Bonche collection is a bundle of Steve’s bouncy spiral locks.  As hair is quite a personal thing and one of Steves’ more recognisable features, perhaps this item will give future inquirers insight into the persona of a world-travelling, self-described fool.  Why else would this bundle have been considered and cut for donation?

Steve Cousins’ hair. TWCMS : 2014.70


Steve Cousins, contemporary fool and street performer

The Act

Apart from the look, a performer must capture and engage their audience through an associated act.  The most famous act of the family-friendly persona of Steve Cousins would be that of ‘The Balloonatic’.  This act consists of a man in spandex that inserts himself in a comical manner into a large inflated balloon and moves about.  Its lasting appeal is due to its simplicity.  As intended, the act looks quite ridiculous and requires no culturally specific knowledge to be humorous.  Steve has performed the Balloonatic in 17 countries on four continents.  No doubt it has been so successful due to its slapstick visual comedy which is easily accessible to both children and adults.  In fact, in 2008 Mr. Cousins was featured on Britain’s Got Talent to perform The Balloonatic.  He was initially buzzed out by the judges, but given a second chance to perform in another round.  For those interested, Simon Cowell most definitely smiled and laughed – a true testament to the power of ‘the fool’.  You can watch his performance here

Although Steve has performed in various coloured balloons, red is the most frequently used.  A now-retired performance balloon has been added to our collections.  For a long time, it has been debatable as to whether these are custom made or purchased from a speciality supplier – I’ve certainly never seen a balloon this large at a party store – but it has been established that they are custom made.

Performance balloon. TWCMS : 2014.83



The Balloonatic


For additional information, videos and photos, feel free to check out The Balloonatic website:

Delve into the drama of the big top and explore the incredible stories behind the spectacle in Circus! Show of Shows (until 2 June 2019), Discovery Museum

The Art of Nature Part 2: Edward Lear – A guest blog by Immy Mobley

Hello, my name is Immy and I am researching the use of art in natural history illustration during my placement at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library. The Natural History Society of Northumbria (NHSN) has a wonderful collection of books about the natural world that is located in the library. Many of these have beautiful illustrations with examples dating back to the 16th century.

My first blog concentrated on the use of lithography in natural history illustration. For my second blog I have focussed on the natural history illustrations of Edward Lear.

Edward Lear 1812 – 1888

Edward Lear was a prolific painter of natural history subjects in the 1830s, for which he earned universal praise for the accuracy, originality, and elegant style of his depictions of birds and other wildlife. During his brief yet intense focus on natural history, his ability to capture the life of his subjects would ensure him a lasting place among the great natural history painters of all time.

David Attenborough said ‘Other animal painters may have other ambitions – to convey the character and temperament of a particular living creature at a particular time. To excel in both skills is rare. And the ability to combine both aims in one picture is even rarer. Edward Lear was able to do so, and with such success that he may fairly be accounted one of the greatest of all animal history painters.’

The NHSN library has two of Lear’s most famous and popular publications: “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots” published in 1832 and “Gleanings of the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall” published in 1846, both of which I was mesmerized by.

Lear’s Illustrations of Parrots

After discovering his passion for wildlife from an extremely early age, Lear was quick to realise that the Zoological Society of London would not only provide him with a source of appealing subjects for his pencil and brush, but also the opportunity to secure illustration commissions from the naturalists and wealthy patrons associated with the society. He was especially besotted by the parrots, and decided to paint as many as he could. In June 1830, at only the age of 18, he formally applied for, and received, permission from the society’s council to make drawings of all the parrots in its collection for the purpose of creating a book on the subject. Lear ended up creating 42 hand coloured plates that would comprise “Illustrations of the Family of Psittacidae, or Parrots: The Greater Part of Them Species Hitherto Unfigured”, which was issued in parts between 1830 and 1832. It was the first English natural history book to focus on a single family of birds, and allowed Lear to become the artist of choice for many leading ornithological publishers in Britain during the 1830s.

He sketched the parrots from life, adding detailed notes in order to capture them and then re-drew them in reverse on the lithographic stones from which the prints were taken, and then coloured by hand. He measured wingspan, length and legs while the zookeeper held the bird still. He then chose their most defining poses, the tilt of the heads, and details of their colour and texture with great accuracy. This was done at a time when natural history drawings were traditionally made in profile from stuffed specimens. I think that a great example of capturing the birds life-like pose, in particular the ruffling of the feathers and the glistening eyes, is the Blue and Yellow Macaw.

Blue and Yellow Macaw

He made his pictures large enough to have an impact, but did not aspire for them to be life size, as the lithographic stone would have been too heavy to move for the larger species. He would first make a sketch with pencilled colour notes, and later draw or complete it with watercolour washes, tracing his pencilled notes in ink.

Lear’s Sketch of Lesser Sulphur Crested Cockatoo

It could be said that the subject matter of Lear’s parrot book may have contributed largely to its success, as of all birds, parrots are among the most appealing to humans. I certainly enjoy the bold, bright colours, and the thought that a bird could possibly communicate with us by talking our own language. Maybe it was his inexperience, lack of academic training, and his naivety in the field of scientific illustration which freed him from the confines of existing traditions, allowing him to add life and movement to his work. Nevertheless, this did mean that his book lacked scientific information. Lear was aided when attempting to identify the birds he painted, but this was sometimes inaccurate as there was still so little known about the birds he was depicting. After many hours of observation, he became highly knowledgeable, leading him to discover several new species, including a large all blue Brazilian parrot, named after himself (Anodorhynchus leari).

Knowsley Menagerie

Lear’s parrot book caught the attention of who would be his single most significant investor, who at the time was looking for an artist to assist him with his plans to publish an illustrated book on his rare collection of birds and animals. Located at Knowsley Hall, near Liverpool, the thirteenth Earl of Derby was president of the Zoological Society, and therefore aware of goings on in the scientific world. A mutual interest in parrots is almost certainly what brought the wealthy patron and the talented artist into contact with each other. It was on his behalf during six or seven years in the 1830s, that Lear created many of the finest natural history paintings of his career. The Earl established a private menagerie and aviary, which at the time of his death, would be described as the most complete and important private zoological collection in the world, providing Lear with unlimited subjects and the opportunity to secure and expand his reputation as a natural history painter. Not only did this relationship help Lear stabilize his previously fragile economic condition, but it also boosted his confidence as an artist and as a person.

Once again, in the “Gleanings of the Menagerie and Aviary at Knowsley Hall”, which was published in 1846 including a number of Lear’s bird and mammal portraits, several of the species depicted were new to science. This allowed the book to achieve a lasting place in scientific literature, and for it to rank alongside Lear’s Parrots as one of the rarest and most desirable colour plate books of the nineteenth century.

Red Macauco

The illustrations from Knowsley Hall menagerie are not as rich in colour or as spectacular as his paintings of the parrots. Each animal, however, is depicted with a convincing lifelikeness and an undeniable accuracy. I am astounded by how talented and dedicated Lear was at an incredibly young age, and the sheer number of lithographs he managed to create and publish in such a short period of time.

As much as he enjoyed his time at Knowsley Hall and the financial security, by 1836 Lear felt a growing desire to move beyond the increasingly repetitive routine of delineating caged birds and mammals. At the age of just 25, his ongoing health problems began to worsen, and the English winters became too much for him to endure. His declining eyesight meant that he could no longer meticulously draw the details he once could, and consequently his career as a zoological illustrator was to end.

Later Life

The Earl’s generosity enabled Lear to move to the warmer climate of Rome and turn to landscape painting, creating oils and watercolours of the beautiful places he travelled to. He published two books of lithographs from his landscape paintings called “Views in Rome” (1841) and “Illustrated Excursions in Italy” (1846). Though Lear is also remembered for his zoological studies and his landscape painting, his Book of Nonsense series made him a household name and would achieve for him the sort of literature immortality that few others share. He revolutionized children’s literature, and continued to create limericks and drawings along his travels.

The Great North Museum: Hancock Library is free to use and is open to everyone. As well as the copies of Lear’s “Parrots” and “Gleanings” it also has other examples of this artists work, and a number of books about his life and achievements.

Further information about the library can be found at

Read part one
Read part three

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage

The Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project is an exciting new UK wide project led by the British Library and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund. Part of the British Library’s Save Our Sounds Programme, the project aims to digitally preserve almost 500,000 endangered sound recordings from across the UK and make 100,000 available online, transforming the visibility of sound archive collections in the process.

The UK’s audio collections are at risk from both physical degradation and from play back technology becoming obsolete. Professional consensus is that we have approximately 15 years to save the UK’s sound collections before they become unplayable and are effectively lost. The solution is to digitally preserve them, but there is a significant amount of work to do and time is running out.

A glimpse at the digitisation studio at Discovery Museum

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM) is one of ten Hubs across the UK which is working to preserve some of our most at risk audio recordings before they are lost forever. TWAM is the Hub for the North East and Yorkshire and will be digitising material (which has already been identified) within the region over the next 3 years.

This collection of wax cylinders will be digitised as part of the project

These recordings tell a rich story of the UK’s shared history through traditional, pop and world music, drama and literature readings, oral history, local radio and wildlife sounds. There will be events and activities taking place throughout the project and by 2020 the British Library will make some of the recordings available via a new sound portal on the British Library website.

Part of the Tyne & Wear Archives collection, this reel features the carillon in the Civic Centre

The ten Hubs are: 

 National Museums Northern Ireland 

Archives + in Manchester

Norfolk Record Office

National Library of Scotland

University of Leicester

The Keep in Brighton

Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums

National Library of Wales

London Metropolitan Archives

Bristol Culture

If you would be interested in volunteering with the Unlocking Our Sound Heritage Project, please keep an eye on our volunteer website where opportunities will be posted.


Unlocking Our Sound Heritage is funded by a grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund, as well as generous funding from charities and individuals.                                     


The Family La Bonche Circus Collection, Part 2: Tools of the Trade – a guest blog by Alexandria Brown

Equipment in the La Bonche circus Collection

This post explores the world of circus skills and equipment using objects from the La Bonche circus collection at Discovery Museum.

Circus skills and tools

As artists, circus performers aim to awe and entertain through the use of their bodies and physical talents.  Different performances require certain skills to carry them out, such as balance, acrobatics or manipulation, among others.  Oftentimes, performers develop interdisciplinary skills in order to carry out multifaceted performances. Examples of this would be a clown (theatre) who also uses a trapeze (acrobatics) or unicyclist (balance) who also juggles (manipulation).  Once mastered, many skills are transferable to different types of equipment and performances. In the La Bonche collection there are many objects which represent a variety of acts and skills; here I’ve listed a few under different circus skills to illustrate some of the tools of the trade:

Skill set: Balance – when one balances themselves or an object.

Object 1: Unicycle (user must balance their body on one wheel).

Unicycle. TWCMS : 2014.58

One of the more versatile pieces of circus equipment, the unicycle allows the user to engage in multiple activities at once, such as juggling, clowning or theatrics.  Although heavily associated with circus and festival communities, unicycling has expanded to be become a relatively popular hobby.  This one was last used in St. Charles car park, Gosforth and owned by Helen Averley aka Madame La Bonche.

Object 2: Aerial Rope (user must balance their body on a thin rope). User climbs the rope and holds on using different physical figures or knots in the rope.

Aerial rope. TWCMS : 2014.60

Ropes have many practical uses, but a popular circus use is that of ropewalking.  In this context, ropewalking is performed in one of two formats, tight rope or slack rope.  Depending on the give of the rope, the centre of gravity of the walker changes which requires different positioning to stay atop.  Acts incorporating ropewalking can include acrobatics, partners performing atop, or walkers balancing additional items on themselves.  This particular rope is a cotton aerial rope, with an eye at one end which has quick link which is used to fix to an anchor point and a loose end at the other. Once suspended it works in a vertical plane and can be used to climb up to another piece of aerial equipment, eg trapeze, or used as a piece of aerial equipment in its own right. It was donated due to reaching its age requirement, 5-8 years, for after a certain period of years, all textile equipment must be disused to prevent breakage and injury to users.

Skill set: Aerial acrobatics – when one does hanging acrobatics or dance moves.

Object 3: Aerial silk (user must hang from a flexible, stretchy silk).

Aerial silk. TWCMS : 2014.84

Aerial silks must be both flexible and strong to allow for complicated movements; as a result, they are generally made from a 2-way stretch polyester lycra.  An aerial silk performer creates routines and tricks rooted in three types of moves: climbs, wraps, and drops.  To give a proper sense of scale, this silk is half the length of those typically used for performance.  Additionally, just like performance ropes, silks have a predetermined expiration date in order to ensure safety.

Object 4: Trapeze (user must hang from a horizontal bar in the air).

Trapeze. TWCMS : 2014.59

One of the more traditional performance arts, trapeze can be performed with single, double, or multiple artists.  Not simply used for swinging, creative manoeuvres can include hanging from feet, chins, elbows and knees.  This particular trapeze was used in regional Hang Aerial Dance shows Sirens & Sailors in 2005, Get Knotted in 2007, and Buzz Off in 2008. It has been rigged from trees, outdoor aerial structures, buildings and from a Tall Ships rigging. It was used and owned by Helen Averley aka Madame La Bonche.  Along with the rope and aerial silk, it was donated due to reaching its use expiration date for safety reasons.

Skill set: Manipulation – when one controls the moving of objects in space.

Object 5: Juggling clubs (user must throw and catch clubs).

Juggling clubs. TWCMS : 2014.69


Heavily worn and dented, these juggling clubs are one of the older items in the collection.  They formerly belonged to Mike Bridges, a juggler who taught circus skill and workshops within the region beginning in the early 90s.  These clubs could easily be 20+ years old.  They are lightweight and hollow with the heads slightly heavier than the handles, allowing for spin when thrown into the air.

Object 6: Diabolo (user must control a piece using two sticks and string).

Diabolo. TWCMS : 2014.62

Colourful and active, diabolos easily draw the eye in and allow for a large variety of tricks, including spins, tosses and multiple diabolos being manipulated on one string.  The modern diabolo originated from a Chinese form of yo-yo and despite its devil-sounding name, diabolo is a combination of the Greek words ‘dia’ and ‘bolo’ roughly meaning across throw.

Personal favourite

Skill set: manipulation

Object: poi

Poi. TWCMS : 2014.82

Poi refers to both the performance and the object being used; it is an object manipulation art originating from a Maori martial  tradition, where weighted objects are purposefully spun from a cord using the hands and wrists.  Poi has been adopted by the circus community as a form of show, typically with added elements for an increased effect such as music, streamers, or lights.  These in particular are bags filled with little balls for weight, they are attachable to poles or sticks to be swung and feature streamers.

Delve into the drama of the big top and explore the incredible stories behind the spectacle in Circus! Show of Shows (until 2 June 2019), Discovery Museum