Experts look deep into Historic World Objects

As the Reading Connections project draws to an official close, a number of consultancy visits have been run as part of its ‘World Cultures’ theme. The most recent of these was a seminar to assess the potential of the Historic World Objects collection for future community engagement, but we’ll hear more about that in a blog post to follow. A wide range of people have been involved in organising and attending these sessions, and towards the end of February one of the Reading Connections interns, Farah Qureshi, helped facilitate an object research visit. She’s written a post about her experiences of the day:

‘As part of the Reading Connections project, a selection of historic world objects collected and donated to Reading Museum between the late-nineteenth century and the mid-twentieth century have been highlighted for further study. Including clothing, weapons, musical instruments and tools, the objects represent historic international cultures and give us an insight into the cultural interests and travels of Reading residents.

As an intern involved in Reading Connections, I joined in helping while museum consultants visited the Reading Museums stores at the end of February to have a close look at these objects. Two of eight consultants who will contribute to the World Cultures theme of the project, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, were invited to Reading on the basis of their expertise. Len (freelance, formerly Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter) is predominantly a specialist in West-African material, and Marina (the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford) is mostly a specialist in South American material, although their knowledge seemed to know no limits!

After studying Anthropology for my University Masters, I appreciated the opportunity to spend two days working with Len and Marina, learning from Reading’s ethnographic collections. Both consultants have worked extensively with ethnographic collections across the world, and had an impressive wealth of information to share. While they analysed a range of objects, I found that my knowledge of world cultures was greatly enhanced observing the functionality of objects, which often shed light on cultural practices. I wrote down their observations, preparing notes to be attached to database records, and enjoyed being involved in their discussions exploring the purposes of the objects.’

Sword

This ‘executioner’s sword’ from the DRC seems to have been a hit with multiple consultants and project staff!

Historic World Objects: research and beyond

Although we’ve been pretty quiet on the blog post front, plenty has been going on in the World Cultures part of the project since last autumn. Adam and I have been busy researching the 600 objects that were chosen and re-photographed for inclusion in Reading Museum’s new online catalogue. This is quite a varied process as there is a lot of variety in the amount of information already available about the objects. Some records might tell you who collected the object, when, from where, what it is, and what it was used for. Others are less informative; my personal favourite is the record that simply states ‘This is a mat’. As ever in documentation and research, you are rather at the mercy of whatever information was originally collected about an object at the time it was donated to the Museum! This isn’t to say that the sparser records are lost causes – if anything, they’re the most satisfying to research, for those ‘breakthrough’ moments when you make a connection or identification.

Mozambique door rubbing

A rubbing of a door carving from a hut in Mozambique, sent to the Board of Study for the Preparation of Missionaries as a teaching tool, researched during a recent consultancy visit.

To date we’ve researched around 475 objects, which puts us just over three-quarters of the way to meeting our target. Unfortunately this does mean that we’re now getting to all the trickier objects that, earlier on in the process, we put aside for later! The research process is generally pretty fun though – especially as I seem to have the capacity to become interested in just about anything. As just a small sample, we’ve researched: traditional Burmese puppet theatre, Tunisian ceramics, Zulu bead-work, West African musical instruments, Northwest Coast Native American basketry, Scandinavian birch bark shoes, Portuguese ox yokes and Venezuelan devil masks. Keep an eye out for announcements about the launch of the online catalogue, if you’d like to see the rest of the 600 objects!

Historic World Objects consultancy

Investigating an object described as a ‘Congolese executioner’s sword’ during consultant Chris Wingfield’s visit.

The other main focus of activity over the past few months has been planning the Historic World Object consultancy. We’ve invited six ethnographic specialists to visit the collection and offer advice on research, conservation, and the potential of the collection for future engagement projects. These will take place between now and the end of April, but the first three consultants, Len Pole and Marina De Alarcón, and Chris Wingfield have visited over the past few weeks. I will write a blog post about the outcome of all the visits closer to the end of the project. In the meantime you should hear soon from one of the interns working on the project, Farah Qureshi, who helped out with one of the consultancy days, about her experience of working on this part of the project.

Felicity McWilliams, 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


Researching the Chronicle Collection

Over the past few months I have continued my work on the Chronicle Collection belonging to Reading Museum. With the help of Project Intern, Sarah Beattie, the 2,000 glass plate negatives selected from the collection for the online resource have now been digitised using specialist scanning equipment. This strand of the Reading Connections project is now in its final phase.

I am in the process of researching the photographs alongside Project Intern, Evelyn Williams, using diverse and interesting methods including the study of microfilm copies of the Berkshire Chronicle in Reading Library, in an attempt to identify the selected photographs in their published format and any related articles. It should be noted that Reading Library are in the process of digitalising their newspaper collections amongst other items including the Berkshire Chronicle which will make future research more accessible. Books written by local historians and select websites have also been useful in providing a history of Reading, from which to draw information from.

Boshier

In researching the photographs in the Berkshire Chronicle, I have come across many interesting local stories, for example, an escaped swan in 1945, who tired of his surroundings in the River Thames was found wandering through Reading, unperturbed by the traffic. He was eventually captured by Mr L. T. Boshier (pictured above), Keeper of the King’s Swans in Reading and was returned to the river unharmed.

Harvey

Another unusual story found in the Berkshire Chronicle is that of 19 year old, Miss Ellen Harvey (pictured above) who was badly bitten by her 7 year old male lion, Mushie, who she had trained in a ‘wrestling stage act’. The inclusion of wild animals in stage performances was somewhat acceptable at the time. The incident occurred during an evening performance at the Palace Theatre on Cheapside in Reading in 1948, shortly after beginning her first act. It was reported in the newspaper that Mushie, who had seemed agitated all afternoon leading up to the performance, took a bite from Miss Harvey’s hand, his teeth sinking to her bone. Miss Harvey soldiered through the rest of her act before seeking medical attention and during her second act of the evening was wrapped in bandages. It is claimed that during the later performance, Mushie was back to his usual self and safely ate raw meat off Miss Harvey’s face, an unofficial world record in 1948.

Sophie Fitzpatrick

Project Officer

Intern Laura Farrell writes about her research


I have spent the last few weeks at MERL carrying out research for two unusual exhibitions which are to be mounted by MERL in collaboration with Reading Museum in the Spring/Summer of 2013. The exhibitions, which will involve elements of film and/or live performance, will be produced by Dr Teresa Murjas (Associate Professor in Theatre & Performance), James Rattee (PhD film-maker) and Sonya Chenery (PhD performance-maker) from the Department of Film Theatre & Television at the University of Reading. The research I am carrying out will form the basis for their two interactive, installation-based pieces.017

Postcard from child – D EVAC

My first area of research is the Evacuee Archive – MERL holds a very large collection of film, photographs, press reports, correspondence and documentation of all kinds relating to the evacuation of civilians during World War 2, as well as hundreds of interviews with evacuees (and, occasionally, with those who played host to them, taught them or otherwise played a part in the vast and complex operation of evacuating over three million people).

What has struck me most is the diversity of the evacuee experience. Like many people, I have long been familiar with the classic image of evacuation – large groups of small and bewildered children, probably from the East End of London, shepherded onto trains with gas masks in hands and labels tied to their coats to be billeted with strangers at an unknown destination. Delving into the MERL archive reveals the experience of less well-documented evacuee groups – the many who were “privately” evacuated to family and friends both in Britain and overseas, those sent overseas as part of the government’s CORB (Children’s Overseas Reception Board) scheme, the smaller children evacuated with their mothers, and the many who spent the war in temporary boarding-school -style “camp schools”. The evacuees’ stories range from the touching (happy days helping on the farm, lifelong friendships made with loving ‘second families’) to harrowing accounts of neglect and abuse, and everything in between.

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D EVAC A/1/384

My second area of research is the archive of Reading’s famous Huntley and Palmers biscuit factory, with particular reference to their role as a major supplier of army biscuits to the forces during World War 1. Reading Museum has an intriguing collection of original army biscuits (some still in excellent condition after a hundred years, which gives some idea of their hardness) which were carved, decorated, painted, written on and sometimes sent home as mementos, love tokens and even picture frames by bored Tommies at the front. The Huntley and Palmers archive at MERL sheds light on the manufacturing processes involved in producing thousands of tons of the biscuits, with handwritten recipes, correspondence with the War Office, and a great deal of documentation showing how the company struggled to fulfill their orders as ingredients and even packaging became more and more scarce and a significant proportion of their workers left to join the forces.  I hope the exhibition will shed light on this period of Reading’s industrial history, as well as giving the public a chance to see some truly fascinating objects.

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Laura Farrell

Reading Connections Intern

Internship blog post – Evelyn Williams

I have been volunteering at Reading Museum since 2010 first as part of the Reminiscences Project, then Historypin and most recently Revealing Reading’s Hidden History. Through the internship, I have the opportunity to work full time for a period and see a lot more of how the Museum works. I hope to become more professional, efficient and effective in museum related activities and tasks. The role will also contribute to my own personal development. Working with colleagues from MERL adds a stimulating dimension to this project.

Research on the Reading Chronicle Collection continues and I am working with Project Officer Sophie to prepare information relating to the images that have been selected for an online catalogue.

My time is split between Reading Library where the microfilm copies of the Berkshire Chronicle are available to look at, and Reading Museum where I add to the data and information already held about the image.

Berkshire Chronicle has transported me back to the Reading of 1939 just before and just after the outbreak of the Second World War as it reports on how the outbreak of war affects life in the town. Some familiar local places, people and events crop up but I am learning all the time about Reading’s history.

Some stunning images have been selected to be showcased online covering the length and breadth of life in Reading. From these I have selected an image from June 1939 of the staff of the Berkshire Chronicle before they set off on their annual outing. The scene is in Valpy Street outside the Berkshire Offices and alongside Reading Museum, with Blagrave Street in the background, everyone is dressed up and ready to go.

 

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Evelyn Williams

Project Intern, Reading Museum

 

Historic World Objects: photography and beyond

Felicity McWilliams – Project Officer

This summer was very busy for the Historic World Objects team. By the middle of July we had pretty much put together the final shortlist of the six hundred objects from the Historic World Objects collection that will be featured on the new Reading Museum online catalogue. The next stage was to make sure there are good quality photographs of each of the objects to accompany their online catalogue records.

Photography in progress

Photography in progress at the Reading Museum store.

To this end, Greta, Ollie and I spent a significant portion of the sunny months of July and August inside Reading Museum’s remote store, an Aladdin’s cave of objects in a warehouse-style building on the outskirts of Reading. Buildings designed for objects rather than people don’t always make fantastic working environments, but the lack of natural daylight did mean we could control the light applied to the objects during photography very well! We had two days of training from the University’s photographer and used new photography equipment supplied as part of the project – a fancy DSLR camera, a pop-up illuminated background, and flash lights with soft-boxes and umbrellas. We hope that, once they’ve been tweaked during the editing process, the new photographs will really make a valuable addition to the online catalogue.

A recently photographed object from the Historic World Objects collection.

A recently photographed object from the Historic World Objects collection.

I am now moving on with the research phase of the work on this collection. A new member of the team, Adam, will also be working on this with me for one day a week. We will be carrying out further research into the objects, documentation and collectors. This research will then enable us to write short pieces of text to accompany the basic object information on the online catalogue records. Adam and I will be starting by researching some of the collection’s known collectors. These include Dr Joseph Stevens, the first curator of Reading Museum, and Robert Gibbings, an artist and wood engraver who collected objects whilst travelling in the Polynesian Islands. Last Friday Adam and I attended a Museum Ethnographers Group study day in Birmingham, entitled ‘Researching Donors of Museum Ethnography’. The day was full of really useful tips and advice, and we made some real progress researching some of the donors whose names we had taken along to the event. We hope that some of the objects in the HWO collection will be brought to life in new ways by the stories of the people who collected them and brought them to Reading.

The Chronicle Collection

Sophie Fitzpatrick – Project Officer

One strand of the Reading Connections project is to create a web resource, in which material from the collections will be made viewable online. I am working largely on the Chronicle Collection belonging to Reading Museum; a photographic collection impressively boasting over 20,000 images taken between 1938 and 1962 for use in the Berkshire Chronicle Newspaper – now the Reading Chronicle.

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A large and interesting collection, the Chronicle’s content is diverse and covers a wide range of subjects such as war and peace, school, dance, theatre, religion, fetes, weddings, monuments and statues, sport, railways, trams and trolley buses, road accidents, floods, work outings, pubs, agricultural shows, Royal visits and famous visitors (including authors, politicians, theatre performers, film stars, sports men and women, musicians, artists, singers and variety show personalities), all centred in Reading and its surrounding geographical areas.

I have spent the last few months carefully selecting 2,000 images from the collection for the online resource which will essentially create a ‘shop window’ into the diversity and scope of the images the Chronicle Collection has to offer.

Whilst the photographs selected will reflect the varied nature of the collection, ‘war’ and ‘peace’ are particularly strong themes and link to the 2014 ‘Reading at War’ exhibition at Reading Museum. I have therefore selected a moving image from 1939 of a child being fitted for a gas mask to share with you.

Many of the images selected for the online resource are in the form of glass plate negatives which are currently in the process of being digitised using specialist scanning equipment. As this strand of the project evolves, I’ll be sure to keep you updated of my progress.

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.

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

Baskets_at_MERL

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.

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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!