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  1. Home
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Things To Do

Behind the Door of… Discovery Museum

Join us as we take a look behind the scenes of one of Newcastle's finest museums

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The Discovery Museum

The Discovery Museum is one of the most fascinating museums in the North East: a jewel in the crown of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums.

It covers so much that there’s bound to be something of interest to everyone, whether they’re keen on science or society, history or boats.

We spoke to Kylea Little, Keeper Of History at the Discovery Museum, to find out a little bit more about what the museum has to offer and why it’s a fascinating resource for anyone interested in the history of Tyneside.

Discovery Museum At Blandford House Discovery Museum At Blandford House

Kylea’s position is Keeper Of History, which is an excellent title. As Kylea explains, it means she’s the curator of the Discovery Museum.

“I’ve got oversight of the history collections of the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museum. The collections comprise of science and industry material. We’ve got lots of maritime stuff which includes ships models and we’ve got a brilliant costume and textile collection, and a lot of social history. Essentially I oversee the collections’ care, deal with enquiries – along with my team – and we curate exhibitions featuring the collections and look after the permanent galleries.”

Kylea is local – she’s from Houghton-Le-Spring – and studied history and then museum studies at Newcastle University. She’s been at the Discovery Museum for twenty years, mostly in her current role.

The Discovery Museum is housed in a grand Victorian building on Blandford Square - Blandford House - which was previously the old Cooperative Wholesale Society building. Prior to its arrival at Blandford House in 1993, the Discovery Museum opened in 1934 in one of the pavilions built for the 1929 North East Coast Exhibition, when it was known as The Municipal Museum of Science & Industry.

The old Cooperative Wholesale Society building The old Cooperative Wholesale Society building

“It was the first science museum in Britain outside of London,” Kylea explains. “It was supported by the Science Museum: they transferred a lot of collections to us and we had lots of support from local industrialists as well. And then over time we’ve added other collections, which has meant we’ve broadened out into social history and costumes and textiles. We've become more of a social history museum now.”

Kylea is based full-time in the museum (“we’ve got the stores in the Discovery Museum and I need access to the collection and the galleries and exhibitions, it’s fairly critical for me and my small team of two curators who are based here as well.”) and her enthusiasm for her job and the museum is infectious.

“I think it’s a really varied job, there are no two days the same!" says Kylea. "At the moment we’re planning a big exhibition around the North East energy revolution and green technology, so we’re doing a lot of liaising with local businesses on that, which has been really fascinating - to find out all the innovation and green tech that’s happening in the region today. 

"But then we get the more routine things like store tours, people wanting to do research into various local industrialists," she continues. "I’m always doing something different – sometimes I’m moving objects and it’s very physical and other times, I’m out meeting people and hearing their stories. It’s a very creative role and it feels like a massive privilege really! I’ve met some brilliant people and worked on loads of different types of projects from football to issues around disability, migration, music exhibitions. I feel like I’m always learning which is really lovely.” 

Since the collections in the Discovery Museum now reach beyond its science and technology origins, we asked Kylea to sum up what the museum offers.

“Generally, it’s telling the story of Tyneside and how it’s changed, from the industrial revolution – although we’ve got galleries from Roman times - up until the present day, so we cover a lot. Everything comes back to Tyneside and its story but we’re about innovation and ordinary people’s lives as well, lots of social history.”

Steam To Green Steam To Green

As well as its permanent collections, the Discovery Museum hosts various temporary and touring exhibitions too, and Kylea was very enthusiastic about some coming attractions.

“We’ve got an excellent touring exhibition from the National Archive called The Spirit of Invention coming next year that’s going to be absolutely brilliant for families - it's all about inventions from the Victorian era up to the present day. There’ll be lots of things for people to do in the gallery, and the exhibition opens on 16th March and runs until 23rd June," she explains.

"The other big one I’m working on which I already mentioned is Steam To Green: A North East Energy Revolution," Kylea continues. "It’s the story of how we get our energy, and how that impacts on the climate crisis. It’ll be really positive and hopeful and should inspire some local pride because there’s so much happening in the region now. We’re working with companies who are producing solar panels - stuff from the largest windfarms in the world - and with Nissan, talking about the electric vehicles they produce. It’s going to be a really big exhibition, opening on 20th July next year. And that will run for two years because it’s so epic!

Destination Tyneside Destination Tyneside

One of the most important and interesting permanent collections in the Discovery is Destination Tyneside, something that is clearly close to Kylea’s heart.

“That’s a project I led on that opened in 2013 and it was the first permanent gallery in the country to focus on immigration. It tells the story of people moving to Tyneside from the 1800s up until today," explains Kylea"You had massive amounts of people coming to the area when we had shipbuilding, coalmining and the chemical industry because the pay was really good. It’s been likened to the Gold Coast in America, all these people coming here. 

"It tells the story of people from Italy, of Jewish migrants from Eastern Europe, people moving from rural locations like Cumbria, moving to the mines at Boldon. People from Yemen, which was then part of the British Empire, coming to South Shields and creating one of the oldest Muslim communities in Britain," she describes. 

"We have individual stories from people from all of those communities, and we bring that right up to date with people who’ve moved here since the 1900s, so you had people coming from India, Bangladesh and Pakistan – again, part of the British Empire – and then new people arriving from the EU, a lot of people coming from Poland. These are personal stories, sometimes from people who knew where they were going, sometimes they didn’t. Sometimes they kept a lot of their traditions and culture but sometimes they had to adapt a bit. So it’s an interesting, human take on migration.”

Joseph Swan's Lightbulb Joseph Swan's Lightbulb

It’s traditional to ask people in roles like Kylea’s what their favourite exhibit is and she didn’t have to think about it.

In Tyneside Challenge we’ve got a replica of Joseph Swan’s lightbulb, because he did just beat Thomas Edison to the patent. But that case also has a filament-laced collar created by his wife, she took all the filaments that he was experimenting with and made it into this lace-style collar. The two objects together are really interesting.

The museum is free (donations are always welcome) and it offers a variety of learning programmes, especially in school holidays so people can book places on events. But when asked to sum up the Discovery Museum’s relationship with the city, Kylea had this to say:

I think the stories that we tell through the galleries and exhibitions have a really strong sense of place and what it means to be from Tyneside, and pride in the things that we’ve done in the region to make a difference in the world.

The Turbinia The Turbinia

And that surely makes you want to visit? The museum is a treasure trove of social and scientific history and has some fascinating exhibits, from Charles Parsons’ Turbinia steam ship to Joseph Swan’s aforementioned lightbulb. You can lose yourself in the wealth of attraction and get a real sense of the history of Tyneside, so why not plan a visit next time you're in Newcastle?

Discovery Museum is on Blandford Square and is free to visit. It’s open from 10am to 4pm (11am at weekends). 

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