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 merlobjects@reading.ac.uk). 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 in the Lake District

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Walter Lloyd and Project Co-Ordinator Sarah Thomas getting to grips with some of the tools.

Last week I was lucky enough to visit the Lake District for a couple of days to help out on a project called Walter’s Tools, which has been funded by the HLF’s ‘Sharing Heritage’ scheme and led by The Woodmanship Trust. Walter Lloyd is a fascinating 89-year old who has been (and still is to a certain extent), amongst other things, a bow-top caravan builder, charcoal burner and fell-pony breeder. He has a barn piled from floor to roof with all sorts of agricultural equipment, including a wide selection of hand tools from a variety of rural trades and crafts.

The Walter’s Tools project aims, with the help of a team of volunteers, to catalogue and restore these hand tools to create a ‘tool library’ for use by craftspeople and educational organisations – basically, the tools can be borrowed and, most importantly, used! It’s a fantastic idea! I really do love working at MERL but it can be sad knowing that the tools in our collection have reached the end of their functional lives – not because they’re no longer in a suitable condition but because that’s what museums do – so it’s great to know that there’s a project happening which runs counter to that vein. The tool library will be housed at Stott Park Bobbin Mill near Newby Bridge in Cumbria from 2015.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

By Monday afternoon the sun was shining and the shelter was finally up.

Having spent the last year at MERL working on the craft strand of Reading Connections, which has been all about cataloguing craft collections and making connections with craftspeople, I was really keen to get involved in Walter’s Tools and to share some of my craft cataloguing experience. It was quite a challenge in some ways, as a collection like this doesn’t need the same sort of cataloguing as a museum collection. Working with Sarah Thomas, the Project Co-ordinator, we assessed the needs of the cataloguing and devised a cataloguing workflow to take into account what needs recording, at what stage in the process, and how best to do it. The much more exciting aspect of the project – the restoration of the tools – is yet to come. A local blacksmith and a local handlemaker will be working on site with volunteers to restore and refurbish the tools into a working condition. In some cases this means a good scrub with wire wool, in others it’s a case of sharpening or re-handling.

By Tuesday afternoon we'd started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

By Tuesday afternoon we’d started sorting through some of the tools and giving them provisional numbers.

The project is only just getting underway, so a lot of the time during my visit was spent preparing the site – clearing rubble, putting up a shelter, and shovelling huge piles of woodchip. I had a wonderful time! The weather was beautiful and it was great to be out of the office and doing something active on a Monday and Tuesday! We also started to do fish out the tools from the piles in the barn, put them into crates and conduct an initial assessment as to whether they were suitable for inclusion.  We managed to give 200 tools provisional numbers by the time I left on Tuesday afternoon.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter's collection.

There must have been over one hundred billhooks in Walter’s collection.

There’s a lot to do and I think Sarah’s got her hands full running the project, but I’m very envious! I really hope I can go up again in a couple of months’ time and do some more volunteering – perhaps a weekend scrubbing billhooks?

 

Greta Bertram

Project Officer

A ‘badger’ of bodgers at MERL

Some of the objects the bodgers looked at. Unfortunately, although there was lots of photo-taking, we forgot to take any photos of the group!

Some of the objects the bodgers looked at. Unfortunately, although there was lots of photo-taking, we forgot to take any photos of the group!

On Monday MERL hosted a visit from the Berkshire Bodgers, a local group of greenwood workers which was formed in the summer of 2013. The visit was part of craft connections element of the Reading Connections project, to engage with local craftspeople to raise awareness of our collections, the work we’ve been doing with them and their availability for research purposes.

MERL has a wonderful array of greenwood craft products and tools – including bowls, spoons, walking sticks, handles and chair spindles. One of the highlights for many woodworkers is the chance to see George Lailey’s lathe, tools and bowls. Lailey lived and worked in the Berkshire village of Bucklebury (find out more on the Sense of Place project blog), and is widely known as the ‘last bowl-turner in England’. He turned wooden bowls on a foot-powered pole-lathe until his death aged 85 in 1958. It was reported that the craft died out with him, but it has since been revived and is now popular with many greenwood workers.

The majority of the spoons at MERL (unfortunately we have no spoon-carving tools) were part of the British Council collection, which was put together in 1946 as a touring exhibition sent to Australia and New Zealand to show crafts that were still being practised in the British Countryside. Many of the pieces in the Collection were made specifically for the exhibition and have never been used. The spoons were beautiful – so highly finished – and some were surprisingly large!

Historically, the term ‘bodging’ refers to the craft of turning legs and other cylindrical parts of chairs. The examples we have at MERL were turned by Sam Rockall, the last in a line of bodgers who worked in the Chiltern beech woods. We’re lucky enough to have a few of the tools he used, as well as some spindles.

We had an amazing turnout for the visit, with eighteen bodgers – so we divided into two groups. While half looked at the Lailey material on display in the galleries, the other half had the chance to look and handle some of the other greenwood craft items, as well as exploring the Mezzanine and the wider collections. And during the lunchbreak we took a few minutes to listen to a BBC recording with George Lailey made in the late 1940s.

I love visits from craftspeople, as their enthusiasm, passion and knowledge is incredible. Simon Vowell, who demonstrated bodging at the MERL Fete in 2013 and helped organise the visit, said he was “vibrating with excitement”. And Chris Allen, head of the Berkshire Bodgers, described MERL as a “bodger’s heaven”. The visit also provided Phillippa Heath, Digital Content and Online Engagement Officer for Reading Connections, with the opportunity to conduct some oral history interviews with some of the bodgers, with more to follow next week. And the visit also got me really excited about the spoon-carving course I’m going on in April with Martin Damen, who also demonstrated at last year’s MERL Fete. So all in all, a great day all round!

Thank you to all the bodgers who came to visit. We really hope you enjoyed your day – it was great to have you! And don’t forget to take a look at our online catalogue to find out more about our craft collections.

 

Greta Bertram, Project Officer

MERL collections to be given a human voice

As you will have gleaned from previous posts, a really important aspect of the Reading Connections project is to make the MERL and Reading Museum collections accessible so that they have the potential to be viewed and used by as large an audience as possible. Partly this has been achieved through the creation of digital resources (such as the Memorial Book flickr site which details those who had connections with the Reading University College and who lost their lives during the First World War). As 2014 gets underway, however, an additional oral history strand will come into force which will provide another way for communities to engage with the collections.

Oral history (or the the conducting of interviews with people who participated in or observed past events and whose memories and perceptions of these are to be preserved as an record for future generations) has been increasingly used in museums as part of their interpretation.In particular the last 20 years, which has witnessed the reinterpretation and the democratization of museum spaces, has also seen an increased use of oral histories in heritage settings. For many museum professionals and visitors, this has been a welcome change. Mark O’Neill (Director of Policy and Research for Glasgow Life) describes that: “museums are places where people go to think and feel about what it means to be human”. Oral testimonies can provide a human voice, increase relevance and can capture aspects of life which are informal and unwritten and which might otherwise disappear without trace. We are now in a position where more museums than ever are taking notice of the things that people remember.

In MERL we are lucky to have an extensive Evacuee Archive which comprises, among other things, interviews conducted with evacuees during the Second World War. The interviews were carried out by the Research Centre for Evacuee and War Child Studies at the University of Reading. The collection mainly relates to evacuation schemes within Britain and the British children who were sent overseas to Canada, the USA, South Africa, and Australasia. As part of the Reading Connections project a group of volunteers have formed a Transcription Group and will transcribe the interviews in full. These transcriptions will then be catalogued and made publicly available. Also as part of the project, we will be conducting new interviews. These interviews will complement the different themes of the Reading Connections project including: Reading at War, Craft, Local Collections and Village Communities and we are set to interview a range of individuals from craftspeople to members of the Women’s Land Army. These will go far to further enhance our collections.

Phillippa Heath

Reading at War Project Officer, Museum of English Rural Life


Reading Connections – the half way point

The project has reached the half way stage and the project team have achieved a lot so far:

Reading at War

Phillippa Heath and, project volunteer, Jeremy Jones have been to talking to Tony Blackburn on BBC Radio Berkshire, and have been interviewed by the Reading Post about the World War I Memorial book held by the University.  People have been discovering the Flickr site and adding more information on the people in the memorial book enriching the information already held.

Zoe Watson and Danni Mills hosted a visit from the Berkshire World War I project.

The Evacuees Archive is now available for research use.

Project intern Laura Farrell has been researching using the Evacuees Archive, and Huntley and Palmer archive for performance pieces by Dr Teresa Murjas.

Ian McDonnell Jessiman_10r

Ian McDonnell Jessiman evacuated to Vancouver, Canada in 1940 (D EVAC A/2/23)

Village Communities

Dr Ollie Douglas and with Dr Bridget Yates recently gave a talk entitled Looking for Lavinia: An American collector in 1930s in Berkshire, which generated good feedback and some new leads to follow up on.

Craft

Greta Bertram recently gave a successful talk to Southcote Library.  She has now finished cataloguing all clay, leather, metal, stone and straw crafts (leaving just textiles and wood crafts to go), and has enhanced craft catalogue records by adding images to them.

Historic World Objects

With photography work completed over the summer, all 600 objects selected for the online catalogue now have at least one high quality photograph. Research is well underway, with project officers Felicity McWilliams and Adam Koszary having fully researched 120 of the 600 objects so far. Plans are also underway for museum ethnography specialists to visit the collection and offer advice about its potential for further research or community engagement.

Local collections

Danni Mills has reached the milestone of digitising 4000 images, and has catalogued 2 500 images from the Collier collection.  Sophie Fitzpatrick has been working on Reading Chronicle glass plate negatives, and approximately 500 images have now been researched and prepared on MODES out of approximately 2000, with the help of project interns Sarah Beattie and Evelyn Williams.

We are looking forward to achieving even more by the end of the project.

Zoe Watson 

Project Archivist/Project Manager

Reading Connections – April to July update

It has been a busy few months for the project team – working out what we need to do, how we are going to do it, and then getting stuck into actually doing it.  We have also been skills sharing and recently the team learnt about writing blogs and social media from project team members Greta and Felicity, and Liz McCarthy UMASCS Librarian.

There have been a few exciting new developments we’ve posted blogs on previously – the new camera and the creation of the A-Z list of the archives of Museum of English Rural Life list and two interns starting on the project, one based at MERL and one at Reading Museum.  The interns will post a blog on their experiences on the project soon.

The Brook, Chalgrove

Updates on the project themes:

Reading at War

Evacuee Archive – the cataloguing of the collection is on-going.  We are working to make the archive available by October.  The catalogue will be available on our online database and the archive will be available for consultation in the Reading Room

World War 1 commemorations – Hayley is setting up a Flickr site.  The new intern Ceri will be assisting with adding information for each photo .  The University’s book of remembrance of those members of The University College Reading who fell in the War 1914-1918 is now available on the online database with images attached.  Hayley is also working on a WWI temporary exhibition.

Craft

Greta has been working on cataloguing corn dollies at MERL, so far enhancing 142 records.  She has also been working on craft connections aspect of the theme and connecting with new craft groups and re-establishing links with previous MERL contacts.

World Cultures – Historic World Objects at Reading Museum

Felicity, Greta and Ollie have been working towards the main task of creating an online portal to a selection of 600 Historic World Objects.  So far the target of 2738 objects have been checked, 1000 objects have been long listed and then 600 of these shortlisted.  Felicity, Greta and Ollie have recently had photography training from University photographer Laura Bennetto, and have started photographing objects, photography is nearing completion.

Local Collections – photograph digitisation and cataloguing

Danni has digitised 1386 and catalogued 1067 Collier negatives.  Sophie has been long listing negatives of Reading Chronicle at Reading Museum and has begun scanning them, completing approximately 250 so far.  Danni has also been sharing her digitisation skills with Sophie and helping her to get started.

Village Collections

Ollie has recently been to East Hendred, with Bridget Yates who is working on researching Lavinia Smith.  They have lots of leads to follow up relating to The Lavinia Smith collection at MERL.  There will be a seminar in the autumn series on this. 

Great progress has been made on the project by the whole team. Look out for more posts on different aspects of the project and we’ll give an update again later in the year.

Introducing the Reading Connections Project

 Welcome to the Reading Connections Project blog.

The purpose of this blog is to keep you updated with progress on a new project called Reading Connections. So let’s start at the beginning….

The Arts Council England Reading Connections project aims to develop community engagement through the creation of digital resources, oral histories, exhibitions around the theme of “Reading at war” and local Reading photography based on a partnership between the Museum of English Rural Life and and Reading Museum.

The Renaissance funding will enable both museums to share skills and collections to create a programme which reaches out to and engages with local communities and MERL will work with Reading Museum on a new programme for 2014/15, including a series of “Reading at war” events commemorating the First World War Centenary in 2014.

We are in the initial stages of this exciting project and this blog is going to be an important tool for providing an insight in to the work we are doing and for sharing news on all aspects of the project.   Evacuees at Reading Station

The Reading Connections Project team will be blogging regularly on different elements of the project all linked to four themes: Reading at war, Craft, World cultures and local collections. Look out for posts on  WWI commemorations, local photography, crafts, objects, oral history, evacuees, local collections, exhibitions and much more!

For now why not visit our project page www.reading.ac.uk/merl/research/merl-readingconnections.aspx and look out for our next blog coming soon.