Why is there a flying saucer in The MERL garden?

Science engagement officer, Robyn Hopcroft, reveals one of our new growing projects and the feat of DIY ingenuity behind an unusual landmark in our garden.

If you’ve visited us in the last couple of weeks, you might have noticed that something funny is going on with our garden. Perched above one of the raised beds there’s a suspicious object. Something that bears an uncanny resemblance to a spaceship. Well let me put your mind at ease. I can explain. It’s all part of a new growing project and that spaceship is here to help.

Image of flying saucer - like object in The MERL garden.

Alongside our new community growing spaces, we have built a raised garden box with a focus on science and technology. Our inaugural project will see us attempt to grow sugar beet. Being museum folk, we love a terrible pun, so I feel no shame whatsoever in revealing that our project is rather dubiously titled ‘Beet Box’.

Image of sugar beet by Okt154 (through Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike License).

Who knew this is where much of our sugar comes from? Image by Okt154 [CC BY-SA 4.0].

Is the world ready for Beet Box? We think so. Around 7.5 tonnes of sugar beet is grown in Britain each year and these crops are used to manufacture a large proportion of the sugar that we consume. With this in mind, we’re keen to learn more about the history and practicalities of this industry. We might only produce a few kilos of beets and a very small amount of sugar, but this provides a good opportunity to explore the process of sugar production from first-hand experience. It seemed fitting that we sow our seeds on British Science Week, and using expert growing advice and seeds provided by British Sugar gives us the best chances of success. Let’s cross our fingers that conditions will be right to take our tiny crop to harvest.

Image of science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

Science engagement volunteer, Don, watering in our newly planted beet seeds.

So where does the spaceship come in? 

We wanted to do more than just grow beets, we also wanted to explore how technology could be used to track growing conditions. We’re delighted to be collaborating with Reading Hackspace on the project, and several their members have kindly donated their time and expertise to design and set up a monitoring system for Beet Box. Having installed soil and weather sensors, they also plan to use a solar-powered camera to capture information about the growth of the beets, and the solar panel is intended to sit inside that nifty Perspex spaceship enclosure.

Image of Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box garden bed.

A work in progress: Prior to planting, Richard and Mike from Reading Hackspace
started installing monitoring equipment in the Beet Box.

The Hackspace folks are a community of enthusiastic makers who use rLab – a peer led workshop, open to anyone who is interested – as a base for knowledge sharing and work on a wide range of fascinating projects. The team working on Beet Box have taken care to design a system for the garden box that is open source and uses widely available components, providing an opportunity to use the project for educational purposes and to allow anyone to replicate or take inspiration from the setup.

Image of our newly-sown Beet Box garden bed.

In the weeks and months to come, we will share more detailed information about the system and the progress of our beets, and get feeds up and running so that data from the project is freely available online. In the meantime, we anxiously await the germination of our beet seeds.

Tanya Harrod: Archaic Modernists: Women, Textiles and the Margins of Europe

Paddy Bullard reflects on Tanya Harrod’s seminar as part of the Department of English Literature and the MERL speaker series on the ‘Tangible and Intangible Countryside’

Tanya Harrod is the doyenne of modern folk art studies, and the most distinguished historian and critic of craft working in Great Britain today. She is best known as author of the monumental Crafts in Britain in the Twentieth Century (Yale, 1999), and of The Last Sane Man: Michael Cardew, Modern Pots and Colonialism, which won the James Tait Black prize for biography in 2012. Most recently she published a collection of journalism and occasional writing, The Real Thing: Essays on Making in the Modern World (Hyphen Press, 2015). She is a founder-editor of The Journal of Modern Craft, and previously was visiting professor at the Royal College of Art, 2000-2010.

A giant teapot by Michael Cardew, on display in the MERL galleries.

On Tuesday 31 January 2017 Tanya came to MERL to give a paper on ‘Archaic Modernists: Women, Textiles and the Margins of Europe’. Tanya’s research focused on a group of ‘erudite, rather intrepid women’ who brought a huge charge of invention, spontaneity and ambition to British textile design during the 1920s and 1930s. They included Phyllis Barron (1890-1964) and Dorothy Larcher (1884-1952), who together led a revival in hand-block printing in England, and their sometime employee Enid Marx (1902-1998) and her partner Margaret Lambert, designers whose collection of ephemeral and vernacular art was put on display at Compton Verney House in 2004.

Tanya argued that these women and others in their circle were united by a determination to find a principle of progress for their craft – textile manufacture – in the ‘living vernacular’ of small scale rural manufacturers. These artists were progressive, modernistic thinkers, quite distinct from the ruralists and proto-organicists (she mentioned MERL favourite H.J. Massingham among others) of their day. Above all, they felt that the British countryside was exhausted as a source for their new designs, because truly local and vernacular traditions of textile design had been so long superseded by machine-led designs and processes. So these women looked much further afield. Tanya’s paper was at its most revealing as she described their undaunted travels and discoveries in some of the remoter corners of western Europe and the Balkans. As she summed her discoveries, ‘abroad was their deep country’.