Craft catalogued!

MERL 74/131/63. A rug made by Mrs Eva Norris of Reading and part of the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and thrift rugs.

MERL 74/131/63. A rug made from strips of French knitting sewn together. Made by Mrs Eva Norris of Reading and part of the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and thrift rugs.

I have just completed enhancing the digital catalogue records for the approximately 4500 objects in the MERL collections which were originally classified as ‘craft’ (see previous post). Some of these had been enhanced during previous cataloguing projects, while others were essentially empty records. I started with the 1300 untouched records, and then went back to edit the others. Each record has now been enhanced with information about provenance, use and historical context. In some cases, further enhancements incorporating more specialist information, such as details to do with materials and techniques, have also been added. The crafts at MERL are divided into seven materials-based categories – clay, leather, metal, straw, stone, textiles and wood – so I worked through the records material by material to enable me to cross reference them, to rationalise object names and descriptions, and to generally bring all the records into line with one another.

I have also systematically keyworded all of the records to make them more easily searchable on MERL’s online catalogue. This element has tied in with the work I’ve been doing on another project at MERL, Countryside21, which has involved updating the MERL Classification and developing a structured keywording system based on it.  Each craft record now has a top level process-driven and materials-based keyword – CRAFTS : clay-working, CRAFTS : leather-working, CRAFTS : metal-working, CRAFT S: stone-working, CRAFTS : straw-working, CRAFTS : textile-working, CRAFTS : wood-working. The generic keyword CRAFT S has been given if the material is not known, is not listed, or crosses many materials. Further and more specific keywords have then been added to help narrow down the searching, based on craft disciplines which are well-defined or of which we have significant numbers of objects, e.g. brick and tile making, saddlery, tinsmithing, stonemasonry, rope making, rug making, basketry etc. Take a look at the project page for a full listing of craft keywords.

During the cataloguing, I’ve come across large craft collections which I had no idea we had (such as the Hemeon Collection of rug-making tools and samples), collections which have enthralled me (my love of our basketry collections is well known), and collections which have left me asking ‘why?’ (such as the Alec Coker Collection of corn dollies).

It’s enormously satisfying to have completed this work, and I know that it will be an incredibly useful resource – especially to craftspeople. It will also be beneficial to future projects at MERL, as the importance of knowing what you have and what you know about it (all of which can now be easily found) cannot be understated. However, I’d also like to think that the craft cataloguing isn’t over – it would be great if craftspeople, when looking at our catalogue, could let us know if we’ve made mistakes or if they have further information to add (email Furthermore, I really hope that engagement with craftspeople in terms of building connections, opening dialogue and raising awareness of our collections, which formed the second aspect of the craft strand of Reading Connections will become an ongoing activity at MERL.


Greta Bertram, Reading Connections Project Officer


Reading Connections and Craft: Baskets, corn dollies and more!


The basketry collection at MERL.

One of the five themes of the Reading Connections project is craft, and this is what I’m working on when I’m not helping Felicity with the Historic World Objects work at Reading Museum. In my spare time I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), a charity which supports and promotes traditional crafts, so I absolutely love working on anything to do with MERL’s craft collections.

MERL has a fantastic array of traditional craft products and tools in its collections, from such crafts as blacksmithing, wood turning, carpentry, lacemaking, leatherwork, pottery, stonemasonry, straw crafts, and wheelwrighting, amongst many others. My particular favourite is the basketry collection – we have over 600 tools, baskets and other basketware objects.

As part of Reading Connections I’m going to be building on the cataloguing work done on earlier projects at MERL (such as A Sense of Place) to enhance the database records for the approximately 1300 objects which are classified as ‘craft’ but have yet to be catalogued thoroughly. I’m hoping to add details about provenance, use and historical context, and all of this information will be immediately available to the public via MERL’s online database. If I get the chance, I’d also like to add more specialist information, such as details to do with materials and techniques, but this requires more research as I’m not a craft expert.


MERL 86/124/2. The ‘Ambridge Circle’ corn dolly made by Alec Coker.

I’ve started by enhancing the records for the Alec Coker Collection of corn dollies and other straw-work items. Personally, I’m not much of a fan of corn dollies, but I do appreciate the skills involved in making them (take a look at the Guild of Straw Craftsmen). Alec Coker developed an interest in the craft when he first saw corn dollies used as props on set in the 1930s when he worked at the BBC, and devoted his retirement from 1965 to his death in 1986 to spreading knowledge of the craft. I did get quite excited when I came across a script from a 1972 episode of The Archers in which Alec Coker appeared as a corn dolly lecturer who was asked to identify the local ‘Ambridge Circle’ – a corn dolly he then created.

I’m also going to be working on building links with craftspeople, especially from Reading and the surrounding areas, and with those whose craft we hold in the collections at MERL. I’m hoping to raise awareness of our collections and to open dialogue with local craftspeople, with the long-term aim of possibly working together in the future in events or on skill- and knowledge-sharing projects. Exciting stuff!