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New textile exhibition reveals the stories of Workhouse nurses.

Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse Museum presents an annual exhibition exploring the themes, objects and stories at the site. This year’s exhibition ‘Making the Rounds: Stories of Workhouse Nurses Told in Textiles’ sees newly commissioned textile art alongside over 70 women’s stories to bring to life the experience of nurses who worked at the Mitford and Launditch Union Workhouse between 1777 and 1948.

We spoke to curator Rachel Kidd about ‘Making the Rounds’ and about the importance of these annual exhibitions in telling some of Gressenhall’s stories.

Can you tell us what the inspiration was for ‘Making the Rounds?’

Researching the lives of workhouse inmates is something that our volunteer researchers have been doing for a long time. We know that there are a wealth of amazing stories to be found, that have helped challenge perceptions many people hold about workhouses and the people who lived in them. However, we know relatively little about the staff who helped to care for inmates. The recent pandemic highlighted more than ever the importance of healthcare workers, and this project was a great opportunity to find out about the medical care available to poor, working people in the years before the NHS. We wanted to shine a light on how these hard-working women, many of whom started life as workhouse inmates, were able to forge careers.

Kidney dish, bandage and scissors. Connie Flynn, 2024

Why are textiles a good medium for this subject matter?

While we found lots of stories about workhouse nurses, we knew of very few surviving objects connected to their work. The works created by Connie Flynn in some ways came to stand in for those missing objects and added new layers of meaning, as well as giving visitors a new way to connect with the stories. The workhouse nurses would have been in contact with textiles every day, from uniforms to bedsheets and bandages – and so the pieces really help to evoke the feeling of life in the workhouse infirmary. In one work, Connie recycled historic bandages to make a wall hanging, giving us a real, tangible connection to infirmaries as well as creating something beautiful and thought-provoking. Connie says “Cloth is a powerful material which can hold stories and memories” which felt appropriate for the stories we were trying to tell.

A lot of the research was done by volunteers, how important are they to the work that you do; and what are some of the benefits to them?

Our research volunteers helped us produce 70 nurse biographies spanning over a 100 years. This valuable resource sheds new light on workhouse nurses, which we just wouldn’t have been able to achieve without the help of volunteers. Many of them are really skilled in archival and family history research, as well as having knowledge about the local areas many of our nurses came from. Volunteering is a huge part of Gressenhall and I think it is important that their work has real impact on the museum and the experience of the visitors. Volunteering is also great for wellbeing – and working alongside Connie gave volunteers the chance to think creatively and be involved in the art-making process.

Can you tell us about how you work with the collections to originate and research ideas for exhibitions?

Temporary exhibitions are a really important way for objects usually kept in storage to be seen by visitors, and they provide new opportunities for us to research and interpret them. I often think about how historic collections can shed light on or make us think about issues that are important today, or create opportunities to bring new voices into the gallery. Workhouse objects are rare and so the building and stories in the archive are just as important.

Medical Bottles

Last year’s exhibition, Axes to Acorns, featured heritage objects collections, but also explored progressive research and new ways of managing the land. How important is it that your exhibitions have a contemporary outlook?

It’s really important. Museums aren’t just places to learn about the past, they also help us think about and explore our place in the world today – and imagine what this might look like in the future. There is an Environment Hub on site, so placing historic rural life collections in the context of today’s efforts to conserve the landscape or enhance biodiversity is something we’re keen to explore. In the same way, thinking about how vulnerable people were cared for in the past through the workhouse can help us to reflect on how people in similar situations are treated now.

Apple Day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse

Do you have a favourite object or artefact in the collections?

That’s a really difficult one! For me, all the workhouse objects are really special. Many of them seem very ordinary but they can tell us so much about what life was like for the people who lived here. Objects used by poor people aren’t typically the objects that are preserved, so the very fact they have survived makes them special.

I really love the set of agricultural labourer’s clothes dating from the early 1800s. Working clothes as old as this are incredibly rare – they survived because they had been stuffed up a chimney! What’s really fascinating is that they have been patched and repaired so much, that there is relatively little of the original material left. You really get a sense of what life was like for the person who owned them, and how they had to get every bit of use they could out of their clothing.

How long is each exhibition in the planning (and can you give us any hints about what might be coming in future years?)

We try and plan 3-5 years in advance, and we spend at least 12 months creating each exhibition. I’m really keen to bring more contemporary art into the museum, as the collaboration with Connie Flynn has been such a success. Next year, we plan to explore an environmental theme by looking at our relationship with the landscape.

Gressenhall’s Adventure Playground

Lastly, aside from the exhibition, if you were recommending Gressenhall to someone who had never been, what would you say was its selling point?

There’s so much to do and see here, many people tell me that they could stay all day or longer. I think the variety is really special, not only do we have fantastic collections exploring the workhouse and Norfolk rural life, but there are woodland and riverside walks, historic interiors to explore, a heritage farm, and a brilliant adventure play area. For me, the museum does a great job of exploring really important topics, like the workhouse, while having lots of fun and interesting aspects for all members of the family.

Find out more about the exhibition, and visiting Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse