Cumbria’s Past, Our Future: Rediscovering Tullie House’s Designated Geology Collection

Written by Gabrielle Heffernan, Curatorial Manager, Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust

Tullie House’s recently designated natural science collection is, perhaps, currently best known nationally for its recent, somewhat over-sized, acquisition of Driggsby the whale; a juvenile fin whale stranded on a West Cumbrian beach in 2014. In addition, local visitors have for years enjoyed our fascinating collections of taxidermy, botany and entomology, celebrating local habitats and species. But it is our comprehensive and somewhat lesser-known geology holdings which form the basis of our latest work; a two year project to document, research and ultimately increase use of this nationally significant collection thanks to a grant of £83,855 from Arts Council England’s Designated Development Fund.

For those who are not yet familiar with it, this significant collection comprises more than 9,000 specimens covering geology, palaeontology and petrology. It contains more than 6,000 palaeontology specimens; these include vertebrates, invertebrates, trace fossils and plant fossils. Of particular interest is the comprehensive coverage of graptolites, brachiopods and corals which range from the Cambrian to the Holocene. A further 2,000 mineral specimens cover multiple key sites from Cumbria, including the Caldbeck Fells, West Cumberland iron fields and the North Pennines.  A final 1,000 petrology specimens provide examples of igneous, metamorphic and sedimentary specimens from Cumbria and the Lake District. In all, the collection tells a vast 500-million-year story of Cumbria, its landscape and the species that have called it home.

Flourite, dolomite and haematite (from Ullcoats Mine, Egremont). © Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Over the next two years, a curator will lead a project to reinvigorate this collection through working with colleagues, regional networks, experts and volunteers. Its foundation will be the documentation and digitisation of 9,000+ objects; each specimen will be identified, photographed and documented to ensure that our collections database is accurate and up to date. But, beyond this, we will find new and different ways to engage communities with the collection; working cross-departmentally with learning and community teams, we will develop schools resources and public sessions, focusing on engagement with underrepresented and vulnerable groups through handling sessions, loan boxes and outreach in the gallery. These will each give people the opportunity to delve into the exciting geology of Cumbria and uncover some of the stories from our deep past – trilobite specimens from the Skiddaw Slates, carboniferous forests that blanketed Cumbria, and Permian plant fossils from the Hilton Plant beds – as well as the people who have helped to develop our collection and understanding, over many decades such as Prof. Robert Harkness and Mary Jane Longstaff. Through this, we will facilitate conversations about what our collection tells us about the past, and how it can help us to better understand our future.

Type specimen of trilobite (Ormathops nicholsoni, from Skiddaw). © Tullie House Museum and Art Gallery Trust.

Of course, we will also work with colleagues and experts across the country to ensure that learning from the project is disseminated and developed effectively. We will work with Museum Development North West to facilitate workshops and bespoke support for local museums, attend and present at conferences to invite feedback, and collaborate with experts to increase understanding of our collection.

Through this activity, we hope to increase opportunities for engagement, research, and collections development. Fundamentally, we want our collection to be used and enjoyed by everyone; our local communities, museum visitors, researchers, volunteers, and colleagues. This project comes at a very exciting time for Tullie House, as we embark on ‘Project Tullie’, a masterplan to reimagine our site and redevelop our gallery offer over the next 15 years. This project, therefore, provides a perfect opportunity to ensure that stories from our fantastic geology collection are included in our long-term planning, and that five-million years of earth’s history are a fundamental part of Tullie House’s offer, both now and in the future.


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