From the Lab to the Galleries – My Great North Museum: Hancock internship. A guest blog by Amy Tooke

My name is Amy Tooke and I’m a PhD student at the University of Sheffield, researching the bacterium Staphylococcus aureus (its most famous guise is as the hospital superbug MRSA) and how it responds to antibiotics and interacts with the immune system during infection, so it might be unexpected that I am doing an internship at the Great North Museum: Hancock. As a requirement of my funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), I have to complete a three month Professional Internship for PhD Students (PIPS) unrelated to my research. The idea behind this is to broaden my skillset and experience different ways of working beyond the bubble of academia.

I approached the GNM because having visited when I was a
masters student at Newcastle University, I knew what a friendly place the
museum was, with exciting displays and exhibitions; I think that going to visit
museums when I was a child, as well as being on the receiving end of university
outreach and science communication, was a big factor in getting me interested
in and excited about science and I wanted to use my PIPS opportunity to get
involved with this. I had a look on the GNM website and saw the wide range of
workshops and resources the Learning Team provide to schools and thought that
it would be interesting to learn more about what they do.

I came to meet some of the museum staff before they asked if I would like to start my internship at the museum at a very exciting time – just before the arrival of Dippy, the magnificent diplodocus skeleton cast on tour from the Natural History Museum – so that I would be able to see the build up to a big exhibition, and the launch of it, as well as being able to work with the Learning Team.

Dippy in the exhibition space

So far, I have done lots of new things! At the moment we are
busy with school trips here to see Dippy. My teaching experience prior to this
was as a graduate teaching assistant in Sheffield helping undergraduate
students in their lab sessions, and some outreach with sixth formers, so it has
been a contrast helping with primary school workshops, and even more so with
the early years (under 5s) groups. I have particularly enjoyed the science workshops
with key stage 1 and 2 classes including Classify! and Adaptation and Evolution
where children study the handling collection of taxidermy animals and Fossils
and Dinosaurs where they investigate real fossils to work out what they are, as
well as acting out how fossils form over millions of years. It’s wonderful to
see the children drawing their own conclusions and making suggestions; sometimes
they have very entertaining things to say!

I’ve been shown around the GNM collections stored underneath the Discovery Museum, featuring thousands and thousands of objects, as well as seeing the Archaeology stores around the University. You can see virtual tours around the Biology and Ethnographic stores on the GNM website. I’m looking forward to spending some more time in the stores and seeing how such enormous collections are organised and looked after.

I got to talk about my research with the public whilst there was a Curator’s Choice event in the Natural Northumbria gallery where visitors were able to see and hold objects from the collections. It was a challenge to link bacterial infections to the museum collections. I chose to introduce the concept of looking for new sources of antimicrobials in the natural world with some fresh lavender, and a plant fossil, before explaining the threat of antimicrobial resistance and showing an image of Alexander Fleming’s famous mouldy agar plate from which he discovered penicillin. I realised how I could have presented things differently with larger objects, but I still enjoyed myself and had some really interesting conversations with visitors. I’m hoping to do some more object handling sessions in the galleries where I can put what I learned into practice!

A 3D print of Dippy’s skull

I’ve loved having the opportunity to be creative, developing resources such as museum trails and I will be making some more teaching resources. I have also made so many Dippy hats my hands kept turning green during half term, and done a lot of laminating, a key skill in the Learning Team! One of my highlights has been seeing the transformation of the exhibition space upon the arrival of Dippy and getting sneak peaks of the construction when he arrived from Glasgow “flat-pack” style in boxes; I did not actually build Dippy myself, although I think that is what some of my lab group in Sheffield think I am doing for three months… It was a special moment when we saw his skull being attached to the enormous skeleton along the length of the exhibition space. I think everyone agrees it’s a fantastic exhibition that makes a big visual impact with the moving projections behind Dippy, and spreads a very important message about the effects of climate change.

I’m over halfway through my internship now and am excited for what’s to come. It’s been a nice contrast to working on my lab project, but I’ve enjoyed still being able to work in a practical way. I’ve definitely developed my skills and it’s been giving me food for thought about what I want to do long term after my PhD; so far it’s been a successful PIPS!

Dippy on Tour is at the Great North Museum: Hancock until Sunday 6 October.

Live Well & Bowes Railway Museum – by Ruth Sheldon, Assistant Outreach Officer (Live Well)

‘Live Well’ is a three-year
partnership (2016-2019) between Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (TWAM)
and National Museums Northern Ireland (NMNI) supported by the Big Lottery fund.
‘Live Well’ is an outreach project offering learning opportunities for older
adults (50+) who do not engage with museum services. Myself and my colleague
Ben Jones (and Sophie Mitchel currently on maternity leave) run ‘Live Well’ and
I thought I would share some of the exciting updates with you as the project as
it comes to its end.

The ‘Live Well’ project was
split into two phases: phase one delivered creative and heritage sessions
engaging with older people across Tyneside to measure the health and wellbeing
benefits of culture.

For phase two, ‘Live Well’
focused on sharing the knowledge that had been found during its delivery phase.
A key aim of phase two was to work closely with six accredited museums across
Tyne and Wear, Co Durham and Northumberland on a training and development programme
that allowed them to develop and deliver sessions focused on older people’s
engagement in connection to their venues.

The six venues involved were:
Bowes Railway Museum in Gateshead; Durham Oriental Museum; Durham Archive and
County Records Office; and National Trust properties Cragside, Washington Old
Hall and Souter Lighthouse & The Leas. Ben and I have each taken three museums
to work with in more depth. We are there as mentors to help them set up their
activities, connect with community groups and help to guide the sessions where
required. We are also there to help with evaluations and reports and to be on
hand for any questions or assistance the museums may have or need from us.

One of
my three museums is Bowes Railway Museum in Gateshead. Bowes Railway Museum was
originally a colliery railway built to carry coal mainly from pits in North
West Durham to the Tyne at Jarrow. The earliest section was designed by George
Stephenson and opened on 17 January 1826, making it one of the world’s first modern
railways and it is the only working preserved standard gauge rope hauled
railway in the world. The railway remained virtually intact until 1968 with
closure in 1974. The original 1826 section was acquired for preservation in
1976 by Tyne and Wear County Council and is a scheduled ancient monument. 

Ruth sitting in an old mine train used by miners to travel down to the mines

I worked at their spring open day on 7 April 2019 to help recruit participants for their ‘Live Well’ project and share information about work the TWAM Outreach team does in the community. I met with some of the wonderful, enthusiastic team at Bowes and got to see some of the fantastic trains and industrial heritage they have on site. I had the opportunity to talk with some of Bowes’ hardworking volunteers, all who have some connection (past and present) to railways, North East industry or mining.

Spring Open Day

One of
the volunteers I spent a lot of time talking to (not just because he provided
me with endless cups of hot tea!) was Wilfred Brown, a former Colliery Fire and
Safety Officer, Officer in the Mines rescue service and Junior Officer in the
Fire rescue service. Wilfred spoke fondly and passionately about his past roles
and he had me completely engrossed in his stories. He spoke of some of the
mining safety training, walking with 5 stone of lead weights attached to his
uniform and running two hours a night to build up and maintain strength. He
spoke sadly and respectfully of some of the pit disasters he witnessed and how
miners’ families struggled to survive. What also shone through was his obvious
passion and belief in community spirit, helping each other out in times of need
and working as a team to get jobs done. He said it makes him so sad to see this
way of living disappearing from communities and that projects like ‘Live Well’
and outreach focused projects are so important for reminding people how to be a
good citizen. He agreed whole heartedly when I mentioned that learning and
sharing new skills and knowledge and trying new things are so important to our
work. Wilfred noted that without work like that seen in Outreach, he fears
communities will be all together lost, but if we catch it now and keep
community interest alive, then hopefully, it will live on for generations to

Wilfred Brown, volunteer, Bowes Railway Museum

For ‘Live Well’, Bowes Railway
Museum are working with new volunteers to set up a ‘Walk the Line’ walking
group. Volunteers are setting up a walking route along the entire length of the
railway based on the new heritage timeline which can be seen at the museum.
They will work with wildlife experts and historians to include interesting
stories and facts along the trail. Bowes are also collaborating with colleagues
at other heritage venues along the trail to produce a trail passport, where
walkers can collect stamps from points of interest and importance as they walk.

For volunteers that aren’t too
keen on the walking side of things, there are opportunities to become more
involved in the coordination and administration side of the project, as well as
the design element of the trail passport.

This project promotes health
and wellbeing whilst also learning about heritage and culture. It offers people
an opportunity to make new friends and share hobbies and interests. It is the
perfect example of how ‘Live Well’ can change the way venues work with their

Next Instalment: ‘Walking the

The Art of Nature Part 3 – Illustrations of the 16th Century. 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 and my second focussed on the natural history illustrations of Edward Lear. For my third and final blog, I have gone back to an earlier period in the illustration of the natural world and concentrated on the use of woodcuts.

We take printed books for granted these days but their production has a long and complicated history. One of the fundamental developments in printing was in the Far East around the 8th century, when the first books and prints were produced by using woodblocks to reproduce text and images.  However, it was not until the 15th century that the printing press was first used in Europe to produce books by using moveable type. This innovation resulted in the ability to produce more books at a lower cost and assisted in enabling access to printed material for a wider audience. This helped to promote the distribution of knowledge in a number of fields, including natural history. Many of these early books contained what are now known to be factual errors and fanciful illustrations, yet it can be argued that in this period the availability of the content was more important than its accuracy.

From then on, artists became more and more aware of science as a medium for their work, and images began to be created for a more scientific and intellectual purpose. Illustrated publications became more widely available from the middle of the 16th century, as progress in science led to a growing need for presenting facts in a pictorial form.

Pierre Belon and Guillaume Rondelet were particularly well known zoologists of the 16th century, examples of the artwork in their books can be viewed in the NHSN’s collection at the Great North Museum: Hancock Library.


Woodcut is a printing technique that originated in China as
a method of imprinting on textiles, and then later on paper. The artist carves
an image directly into the surface of a block of wood using a chisel, cutting
away areas that they wish not to carry ink, acting as non-printing parts. The
ink is applied via a roller and an impression is made on a piece of paper. This
process can be repeated a number of times, replicating a relatively sharp and
bold image for each print. Woodcut was the main printing medium in Europe for
book illustrations until the late 16th century, but was challenged
and eventually overtaken by metal plate prints and lithography, nevertheless it
still continues to be used to a lesser extent to this day.

Pierre Belon.

Pierre Belon

Pierre Belon (1517 – 1564)  was a French traveller, naturalist, writer and
diplomat of the 16th century. He was interested in zoology, botany
and classical Antiquity, and embarked on a tour of eastern Mediterranean
countries in order to identify species of plants and animals described by
ancient writers. Alongside the narrative of his frequent travels, he wrote
several scientific works of considerable value, such as the “Histoire naturelle des estranges poissons”
which was published in 1551 and was mainly devoted to a discussion of the
dolphin and included the earliest known illustration of a great white shark. His
text was one of the first of its time to be based on direct observation and
original drawings, and therefore gained the reputation of being a foremost body
of work in the natural history field.

Another publication of his was the ”L’Histoire de la nature des oyseaux”, published in 1555, in which he included two figures comparing the skeleton of a human and a skeleton of a bird that is believed to be one of the earliest ideas on the variances in the anatomy of different species.

Belon Comparative Anatomy

This volume contains 161 woodcuts, 158 of which were large images of birds, many of which were taken from actual specimens making the prints extremely rare for this period.  A first edition of this book is included in the NHSN Library.

Belon Bird Woodcut

Guillaume Rondelet.

Guillame Rondelet

Guillaume Rondelet,  (1507 – 1566) who had links to Belon,  was renowned for being a naturalist with a specific interest in botany and zoology. He devoted two years of his life to the writing of a great proposition on marine animals, titled “Libri de piscibus marinis in quibus verae piscum effigies expressae sunt”, published in 1554 which earned him the title of ‘the grandfather of ichthyology’. It covered all aquatic animals, making no distinction between fish and marine mammals, and debated the question of whether fresh water creatures could potentially live in marine environments and vice versa.

Rondelet Woodcut of Ray

He dissected and illustrated numerous creatures from his own first-hand observations, one of the most important being his anatomical drawing of a sea urchin, which is believed to be one of the earliest depictions of an invertebrate.

He dissected many specimens himself, including species as large as small whales, demonstrating his deep fascination for the subject. The book was used as a standard reference work for many years prior to its publication and was translated into French four years later. 

In my opinion, I think that both of these artists succeeded
in the world of natural illustration due to their shared desire to personally observe
the specimens that they studied. This provided them with the advantage of
imbuing a direct feeling of life to their prints. Although the artwork in these
earlier publications obviously does not measure up to some of the zoological
artists I have mentioned in my previous blogs, such as Edward Lear, one has to
be reminded of the different era they were produced in and the limited knowledge
available to the naturalists at the time. Both men made a deep and lasting
impression on science, and I think they should be applauded for that. 

 The Great North
Museum: Hancock Library is free to use and is open to everyone.

Further information about the library can be found at

Read part one
Read part two

The Devilfish is in the detail – by Jo Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology

Ornamental bags have always been important to the native peoples
of North America.  Not only did they
serve a practical purpose of containing important everyday items such as
tobacco or fire making equipment, their beautiful designs meant that they were
often regarded as a part of an individual’s ceremonial regalia.

These bags could come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, and here at the GNM Hancock we’re fortunate enough to have several examples.  One of them in particular has caught my attention – an Octopus shot pouch from Alaska.

NEWHM : G025 Octopus shot pouch

As well as looking rather stunning, they have an intriguing history as they weren’t designed with octopuses in mind at all.  It’s thought that they were first developed by the Metis people who lived around the Lake Winnipeg area in Manitoba.  They were based on traditional animal skin bags that the Ojibwa people made, called “Many Legs Bags” because the legs and tail of the animal were left attached to the main body of the bag.  The Metis established a bag with tabbed ends to reflect this.  This style of pouch was popular with both the Metis and Cree people, and over the course of the 19th century, the style travelled westward.  By 1870, this tabbed bag had reached the northwest coast, and it’s here that it earned the new moniker with its introduction to the Tlingit people.

On seeing this new style of bag, the Tlingit noted its
similarity to the “devilfish” or octopus that they hunted.  They became known as Octopus bags to the Tlingit
and as the name travelled back eastwards the new label remained.

Map showing origins of the Octopus bag and its gradual dispersion to the northwest coast

The octopus is an animal that features prominently among many northwest coast cultures.  It was a crest figure among some First Nations and it also had close links to shamanism.  It was also an animal that symbolised transformation due to its ability to change shape and colour.  Devilfish featured in many myths and stories of the northwest coast, especially Tlingit tales of a monstrous devilfish who could devour canoes and whole villages.  It’s not entirely clear why octopuses were called “devilfish”.  It could be a reference to the mythological beast, or it could simply be that their appearance was considered terrifying to other animals and humans.

Either way, it makes us look at our shot pouch in a
different light.

What’s also interesting with our Octopus bag is the detail – or perhaps the lack of detail involved.  Octopus pouches, along with other styles of bag, would normally be embellished with exquisite beadwork, often showing floral motifs, like the ones below .

Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

Credit: Pitt Rivers Museum, University of Oxford

As we can see, our bag has none of these floral decorations.  If anything, the maker has done more to highlight its similarities with an actual sea creature by giving it decorative “eyes”.  When examined closely, the bag shows little evidence of it ever being used- it could be that this particular Octopus pouch was made and sold as a souvenir to a European visitor or trader rather than used as any form of dancing or ceremonial regalia.

While the likes of cotton and beads were popular items to
trade for, our bag also shows something extra that its maker has acquired.  On close inspection we can see that the
“eyes” on the bag are made up of two different types of military buttons. 

The button on the left shows an eagle over an upright anchor.  This is a button used in the US Navy from before the Civil War, made between the 1830s-1850s.  The button on the right is harder to identify.  It appears to show a floral image similar to a Tudor rose. This is a specific English emblem, and it was used on high-ranking uniform buttons in the Royal Navy in the second half of the 18th century.  Both of these details make unique additions and points of interest to our curious Octopus bag.

It’s quirks like this that make our objects so fascinating to study.   As curators, we can closely examine an artefact in minutiae to help reveal its hidden stories.  Yet sometimes, it’s the lack of detail that can be just as telling.

This research is made possible through a Headley Fellowship with Art Fund

A Gift of Knowledge: discovering our Native American collections – by Jo Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology, GNM

If we wonder often, the gift of knowledge will come.

So claim the Arapaho, a group of native Americans who live in the central United States.

I can completely agree with this.  As Assistant Keeper of Archaeology at the Great North Museum: Hancock, I’ve had the pleasure of curating diverse collections  encompassing British archaeology, Egyptology and World Cultures.  For the next six months, however, I’ll be concentrating purely on our wonderful World Cultures collections, where I’ll be researching the material culture of the native peoples of North America.  Thanks to the Headley Fellowship with Art Fund who are generously funding my project, I will be able to examine and assess every object within this collection to uncover their hidden stories and histories.  I will be allowed time “to wonder”.

My initial investigations have been focused on some spectacular argillite carvings made by the Haida people.  The Haida live on Haida Gwaii, an island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, also known as the Queen Charlotte Islands.


Location of Haida Gwaii, the Pacific northwest


The type of material used for these carvings, argillite, is a unique type of rock that is only found in one place on Haida Gwaii.  Carvings such as these are known as crest poles.  They’re actually miniature versions of the large cedar wood poles the Haida would carve, sometimes referred to as “totem poles”.

Argillite crest pole, NEWHM : G009

Crest pole at Haida Gwaii












When the practice of carving these huge wooden structures died out in the late 19th century, many carvers took to using argillite to make smaller versions which made excellent souvenirs for tourists interested in Haida culture.  These were often sold to European traders, which is why many of these poles can be found in museum collections.  The crests carved into the poles show both animals and supernatural beings from the Haida past and their myths, and they combine together to tell stories.

We can often determine which animal or being is represented on a pole.

Argillite crest pole, NEWHM : G031

Argillite crest pole, NEWHM : G031












This crest pole shows a Wolf with two cubs and a frog.  It’s much harder to try and work out what story is being told by the carving though, as many of the Haida’s stories have been lost over time.  It’s been said that it is best to imagine these carvings reflecting flickering firelight on an evening, or reflecting the light of a bright sunrise, as it is at these times the argillite will come alive to tell us its story.

If you’d like to investigate one of these crest poles for yourself, take a look in our World Cultures Gallery where there’s one on display.  There are three animals on that crest pole, but I’ll let you guess what they might be…




This research is made possible through a Headley Fellowship with Art Fund.