Real life doesn’t always sound as it should – by Kristina Holmberg

Unlocking Our Sound Heritage – from a placement student’s point of view

“Real life doesn’t always sound as it should”
(Roshani Chokshi, Aru Shah and the End of Time)

We are so used to being told stories. Even real life is turned into tales of heroes and villains and happy or sad endings through books, films and lyrics. Oral history traditions are often associated with sitting around a campfire at night entertaining, scaring and inspiring each other. Sound in all shapes and forms are part of our intangible heritage, and in its honour the British Library is currently leading a nationwide project, ‘Unlocking Our Sound Heritage’. Through musical performances, literature and poetry to wildlife sounds, oral histories and more, we are allowed front row seats to first-hand information on historical events. For the participants being recorded, these events are known simply as life. As mentioned in a previous blog post, the aim of this project is to digitally preserve sound recordings and make history accessible to the public. Each recording shares something unique about the local history of the areas they are from, which in this case is Tyne and Wear in the North East of England.

Notes on paper from a tape box which belonged to
Catherine Cookson

There is a distinct difference between listening to people sharing their first-hand experiences of the World Wars than reading about said experiences in a book. Imagine being afraid to turn on the lights at night because you cannot afford curtains and there is a nationwide blackout due to bomb threats. Imagine poverty during and after the wars being so severe that food has to be rationed and there are no jobs available, leading to a heavy drinking culture and an increase in diseases and death. It was seen as a luxury being able to rent a room in a house, let alone a whole flat, and official parish funds were established to provide families with shoes and clothing for their children. Now think about the fact that this is actually going on in several parts of the world, today. Listening to authentic accounts of people’s experiences certainly makes you think differently about the world. About history. And even about yourself.

Kristina with a tape of recordings about the Jarrow March which feature reminiscence by people who knew men who marched or witnessed the events of the time

This post was off to a bit of a dark start, but these historic accounts also make you fall in love with the country, its people and its history again. You get to relive the romanticism you are used to finding in books and films. There are stories of families growing their own produce in back gardens, keeping hens and pigeons, neighbourhood communities helping each other out, children playing in the streets and families playing the piano in the evenings, accompanied by song. Imagine getting dressed in your Sunday best and going to the seaside, or perhaps even a regatta during the summer months. Or enjoying freshly baked bread in the mornings and meat from the butchers for dinner. There are stories of attending dances and falling in love. In other words, life is not a fairy tale and it is not as black and white as good or bad and happy or sad. And what better way to learn than being handed down information from the people experiencing them?

Launch party of the bulk carrier ‘Gloxinia’ on 20th February 1958 (TWAM ref. DS.RDD/4/21/3). She was launched at the shipyard of John Readhead & Sons, South Shields. The firm played a significant role in the North East’s shipbuilding history and the development of South Shields.

The part I have played in the ‘Unlocking Our Heritage Sound’ project is to listen to oral history interviews of people from the local area talking about their work, family lives and experiences and cataloguing the information to appropriate British Library standards. The end goal is to make the stories accessible to the public. I have learnt more than I ever expected about working at shipyards during the 20th century – the long working hours and the great friendships formed there. I have learnt about the incredibly hard work carried out by the women in the household: baking, cooking, bathing and washing for up to 14 people. I have learnt about the development in possibilities for women beyond staying at home. I have heard the joy in their voices as they reminisce over how happy life was back then, despite living a much tougher life. I have heard the sorrow in their voices as they remember their loved ones who have passed away. If I can help make these stories available to the public, that is work I am proud to undertake!  

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

Hunting the Caribou – by Jo Anderson, Assistant Keeper of Archaeology

For many of the First Nations living in the north of Canada, caribou was an important food source.  These large creatures, which are very similar to  reindeer in northern Europe, were hunted by many different peoples for their meat and their skins.  One nation was the Innu, who lived  on the Quebec-Labrador peninsula in north east Canada.

Previously, the Innu were known as “Naskapi”. This was the name used by European colonisers and is a derogatory term meaning “uncivilised people”. The Innu prefer their own name, which means “human being”.


When hunting caribou , the Innu would wear beautifully decorated coats made out of caribou skins, and we have one of these in the GNM: Hancock collection.

An object as spectacular as this deserves attention, and so I’ve been researching the coat, its decoration, and what it all means to the Innu.

Many native groups across North America, including the Innu, recognised that there was a bond between animals and humans.  They believed that every animal had a spirit and their favour had to be sought if it was to be hunted successfully.  To please the spirits of the animals they hunted, clothing was often decorated with a high level of artistry.  Nowhere is this seen more effectively than in the caribou skin coats of the Innu, where the painted coat became the physical evidence of the relationship between the Innu and the caribou.

Before a hunt, careful preparation was required which involved the making of the hunting coat.  When asleep, a man would receive instructions through his dreams about the decorations needed for the coat.  He would pass these messages onto his wife.  Highly skilled artists and seamstresses, the Innu women would then produce an item of clothing that was not only functional but a major artistic creation.  

Let’s get a more detailed look at our coat to see what this involved.

It was thought that dreams would reveal particular themes and motifs that would give the hunter power.  Simple instructions about these designs would be passed onto his wife who would then use these themes and enrich them. 

In our coat we can see that the most significant motif used is the double curve. 

The Double Curve motif

Many Innu coats feature this motif, but it’s all of the added details that makes the coat unique.  Pairs of leaves can be seen supported by the double curve.  For the peoples who live through the northern winters, the first signs of new leaves in the spring with their promise of renewal and life is a great joy.  It seems completely natural for this joy to be reflected in designs for such an important garment.  Plant designs can also be seen in the shaped triangles along the curves.

The most important part of the coat was actually the back of it.  Here we can see the “back gusset” of the garment. 

The narrow triangle shape lined in red marks the back gusset

At the base of the coat, Innu women would cut out a triangle of skin and insert another piece, sometimes larger than the original to make the coat flare out at the bottom.  This replacement was done not to make it more visually pleasing, but for highly ritualistic reasons.  The shape of the gusset was triangular, similar to a mountain peak.  To the Innu, this represented the Magical Mountain where the Lord of the Caribou lived.  They believed this being sent out the spirits of the caribou to the hunter.  If the Lord of the Caribou was respected and honoured, then the hunter would have success.  It was this that was the symbolic centre of the coat’s power.

While beautiful to look at, it’s the hidden meanings behind this coat that give pause for thought.

It physically represents the relationship between the Innu’s ordinary world and the dream world, and it highlights the importance of communication and trust between an Innu hunter and his wife who creates the coat for him.  And lastly, like so many examples of native North American art it embodies the relationship between people, the land, the animals they interact with, and the spirit world.

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

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