Articles by Ollie Douglas

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The Sense of Place team pointed out to me earlier this week that I had been notably quiet in terms of posting on the project blog. In return I admitted that I had been secretly blogging quite a lot but on another blog that we have recently launched. Readers of the Sense of Place discussion posted here may also be interested to learn about this other ongoing project at the Museum, which culminates this week in the opening of a new temporary exhibition.

The exhibition is entitled What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning and runs from 6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013. It represents the labours of many people including myself and my co-curator in this enterprise, Dr Neil Cocks of the University of Reading’s Department of English Language and Literature. By working with a range of colleagues and specialists, Neil and I have sought to present a diverse  range of responses to a single illustration of rural life. Indeed, the whole this focusses on just one small watercolour by the artist Charles F. Tunnicliffe.

The Huntsman

‘The huntsman, on his dappled grey..’ by Charles Tunnicliffe (Image © Ladybird Books Ltd)

This was one of many artworks created by him for Ladybird children’s books. The painting featured in What to Look For in Autumn, published in 1960. This was part of a four-book series printed between 1959 and 1961. It was written by the biologist Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson and charted seasonal change in the countryside.

The original Ladybird artwork is held alongside the collections of the Museum. This juxtaposition inspired us to invite specialists to examine a countryside image. Their responses form the core of the exhibition and together offer different answers to the question of What to Look For. They reveal the diverse stories that one illustration can tell.

This is not simply a history of Tunnicliffe’s artwork or an exploration of the rural history underpinning this particular image but seeks to be much more. Indeed, much like A Sense of Place it aims to stimulate debate and discussion and to raise a wider set of questions concerning what the Museum holds and how these rich resources might best be understood. With this in mind, the project blog related to the exhibition asks its readership how they might choose to look at this image or read the accompanying text? As the exhibition progresses we hope that you will share your responses and join the conversation here.

By way of apology to my Sense of Place colleagues and to you, our enthusiastic readers, for allowing my blogging efforts to be channelled in another direction, I offer you this link to a posting that I made earlier today in relation to the exhibition. It is concerned with the notion of object biographies and with the important role of ‘place’ in governing how we might come to think about the history of and value of material things. It therefore touches directly on ideas that have proven such an inspiration and driving force in this context and stands as testament to the influence that the Sense of Place team themselves have exterted on this parallel project.

I’ll be away for a couple of weeks but I’m sure the project team will be blogging in my absence, and I promise to join in this important discussion when I return. I might still write an occasional post on the other blog too!

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Many of you will no doubt already know that it was Open Farm Sunday yesterday. Along with friends and family I made a somewhat last minute plan to visit one of the places participating in this scheme. The site in question was Sandy Lane Farm, near Tiddington, Oxfordshire. Here we enjoyed a tour by tractor and a series of talks delivered by the farmer, Charles Bennett, as well as indulging in the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake. There was also much more on offer and, all in all, our visit provided us not only with a great afternoon’s entertainment but also proved to be highly informative.

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

It struck me during the afternoon that there is really no substitute for a genuine ‘onsite’ sense of place. In other words, for me at least, being ‘in’ a place is always going to be more powerful and enlightening than being at a remove. Even the very best interpretation in the world cannot replace the multi-sensory feeling and direct material engagement of actually being there, in a place where rural lives both did and still do play out. In a similar and more obvious vein, a muddy and oily Ferguson tractor that kids can clamber on and pretend to drive is always going to win out over the sanitised but sacrosanct TE20 that we have on display at MERL. On the flip side of this, jumping around in the hay – as my kids and those of my friends did yesterday – is not going to explain how meadows were managed in the past, or enlighten them as to the people or technologies involved in hay production past or present. It takes intervention and an interpretive voice, whether this be the onsite words of the farmer or the gallery-based musings of a curator.

Jumping in the hay

Playing in the hay at Sandy Lane Farm

Simple as these observations may seem, I think they raise significant questions for museums, most of whose collections are inherently connected with a whole series of other places. So, the next step on from this Project and its process of re-connecting museum-held things to original contexts of manufacture, use, and collection has to be one of deepening contextualisation. It has to be a process of engagement with the people now in (or once from)  these original contexts. It has to be a process of reaching out to the rural people whose heritage is housed and represented in the Museum. It has to be an invitation to members of these ‘source communities’ to help MERL (and by proxy the wider public) to better understand the rich depth and complexity of rural history as a whole. It has to deliver inventive and creative mechanisms through which to communciate how the seemingly static holdings of the gallery and store actually connect to a whole host of dynamic and vibrant external sites and places, where rural life continues apace.

Thanks to all at Sandy Lane Farm for a great day out and a very nice cup of tea, for giving me food for thought and a fun way to exacerbate my hayfever (yes, I am a farmer’s son who suffers from hayfever!). Oh, and I checked the database and MERL has only one artefact from Tiddington, this being a type of chain used to hold restless cattle that dates to the mid-19th century. Mr and Mrs Bennett and their family appeared to dabble in farming pretty much everything but cattle. However, I still think it would still be interesting to hear what their thoughts are on this object and on the ways in which life in Tiddington has changed since the 1840s when this object was made, the interwar period when it was first acquired by H. J. Massingham, and 1951 when it came to Reading.

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For those of you who don’t get up early in order to think about rural places and ponder countryside issues, you may have missed our very own Greta Bertram (Sense of Place Project Officer) on this morning’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 series Farming Today. Don’t worry though, you can still listen to her interview online.

As a Trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association, Greta’s interests within the Sense of Place project are increasingly centred on the diversity of  intangible heritage represented by the material holdings at MERL and how these skills may be seen to link to the places where such crafts first emerged or are still maintained in the present day. In her interview Greta hints at the potential for renewed vigour within the extant networks of regional craft skills.

As the project develops Greta will hopefully develop some of these ideas and issues and bring them to bear on the mapping of MERL’s historical holdings.

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Although we are only part-way through, we have already begun to disseminate ideas generated through this project and activity that the team have undertaken to date. Last Thursday I spoke briefly about the Sense of Place project at the AGM of the Rural Museums Network (RMN), which was held at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.

Presentation slide - Sense of Place

Opening slide from Sense of Place presentation

This was an ideal opportunity to guage wider interest in the project and to get an idea of what other approaches were circulating with regards digital approaches to rural collections. I was asked about how successful our experiments with QR codes had been as, perhaps unsurprisingly, other institutions have also begun to dabble in using this technology. I’m afraid to say I didn’t yet have much to report but ‘watch this space’ as they say. As our partnership with iMuse moves forward and our own experiments with Qr codes and other forms of access kick into action, we’ll be able to offer more practical pointers and ideas.

In many respects this was the perfect forum in which to talk about the wider aims of the project and to raise the important question of how best to approach the mapping of rural material culture. Thankfully, nobody voiced concern with our basic approach and the consensus seemed to be that this was an interesting and useful departure for MERL, as well as something that the wider sector might buy-into in the future. The project will certainly have an airing at future RMN events but I was left with the feeling that perhaps this idea might well have legs beyond the lifetime of this project and that maybe our partnership with HistoryPin will generate a portal through which more members of this Subject Specialist Network wiull be able to promote and raise the profile of their own rich collections.

I was suprised how few members had heard of HistoryPin but perhaps this is not so surprising. The ‘street view’ driven aspects of the experience of this resource do arguably preference urban users and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it can be a little frustrating trying to ‘pin’ items to a rural spot. If anyone in the RMN who heard my presentation was left in the dark about what HistoryPin is and how it works, why not check out this nifty little explanatory video, or this talk by its founder and CEO, Nick Stanhope. The latter film actually reveals the inspiration behind the whole HistoryPin idea which, interestingly enough, actually pertains to a very rural narrative.

In a timely fashion, we actually have a meeting with Nick and his colleagues tomorrow to discuss the direction that we’d like to take our partnership with them in. So keep an eye out here for future developments on this front. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a nice photograph that I took at Acton Scott, and with a small note to myself that I must remember to ask Nick if he is in any way related to Lord Stanhope, inventor of an obscure photographic device known as a Stanhope Peep – I’ve been meaning to ask him this since I first heard his name mentioned. It would seem strangely appropriate if he were linked by more than name to this historical photographic device.

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

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Today marks 80 years to the day since the mass trespass movement struck out onto the foothills and slopes of Kinder Scout, Derbyshire. This was essentially an urban invasion of private rural land, which was at that time still largely gamekeeper-controlled. This divisive incident and the arrests that resulted from it were arguably a powerful precursor to several later developments in the widening of countryside access. These included the later formation of the National Parks Authority as well as the much more recent establishment of ‘right to roam’ under the Countryside and Rights of Way Act of 2000.

The Sense of Place project has already begun to consider the potential for using tools relating to museum collections out in the countryside itself. It hopes to examine ways of facilitating interested walkers in their exploration of the holdings of institutions like MERL. Such virtual rambles might thereby enable them to access information about artefacts in the very places that the items were made, used, or to which they are otherwise contextually linked.

Hopefully we’ll return to this idea as the project develops but for now, happy birthday Kinder Trespass! Incidentally, the Kinder Scout trespass movement has apparently given rise to some influential folk music (as well as other popular discourse) over the years. A good excuse therefore to mention tonight’s MERL Folk Concert.

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My colleague Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) recently joined other museum professionals from around the UK at an event held in No. 11 Downing Street in celebration of the success of Museums at Night.

Alison Hilton, Marketing Officer

Alison Hilton (Marketing Officer) at No 11. Downing Street, April 2012

This visit from a member of MERL staff to the heart of government brought to mind something that I read recently, which had been penned by the current incumbent of the property next door, No. 10. The Spring 2012 edition of the Countryside Alliance quarterly magazine features a guest article by Prime Minister David Cameron (2012_Spring_Cameron), in which he writes enthusiastically about modern country life and refers to his own personal experience of different places within rural Britain. Here the PM draws attention to his own rural roots. He was brought up less than 20 miles walk from MERL, in the small West Berkshire village of Peasemore. Somewhat coincidentally, Peasemore just happens to be the location of the pub that will host the winner of MERL’s current photographic competition. I would urge you to enter this soon as the deadline of 22nd April is almost upon us.

Whilst attempting to avoid the political rhetoric of the PM’s article, I was nevertheless struck by a couple of things. Firstly, his characterisation of rural Britain as ‘a real place of mud and muck, proper community ties and incredibly hard-working people trying to make a go of their lives.’ This seems to echo the notion that the countryside might harbour potential to offer a renewed sense of social cohesion, about which I have already posted some thoughts. The piece also appears – albeit probably unintentionally – to echo language that was popular in critiques once levelled at the nascent organics movement of the 1940s, namely that this was an ethereal and unrealistic world of ‘muck and magic’! Putting this to one side for a moment, let’s take a look at how the PM then picks up on nostalgic and romantic ideas of the countryside, attempting to contextualise these within the complex social and economic climate of the present:

‘I love the beauty and history of the British landscape but for me rural life is part of the present, with huge strengths and serious challenges too… it is my constituency of Witney in West Oxfordshire where we [David Cameron and his family] are really at home. It’s a stunning bit of Britain, on the edge of the Cotswolds, with a real rural economy and thriving market towns. You can never forget, as an MP for a seat like mine, that the countryside isn’t a vast museum [my emphasis]. It’s a buzzing 21st-century economy.’

I think that it was the last section that I found particularly problematic. There is a casualness to the popular conception of museums as warehouses of the past that has the effect of pigeonholing them and portraying them as storehouse for objects, technologies, or ideas that were once important but are now redundant, once active but now static. However, much like the PM’s take on the countryside of the 21st-century, I would argue that museums are undeniably buzzing. What is more, they are waking up to their wider socio-economic potential and becoming increasingly effective at measuring their own impact, understanding their value as dynamic sites of engagement, recognising their potential to become active agents of change, and highlighting their important role as interconnecting hubs and facilitators of social enterprise. We don’t even have to look outside the rural museums sector to find the pioneers and architects of this latter approach. The Museum of East Anglian Life and its Director Tony Butler sit at the forefront of the Happy Museum Project, which seeks to bolster the social and economic importance of such institutions within their local communities, and to draw strength and inspiration from the values of people living in these places. So, far from being backward-looking institutions, museums are actually operating very much at the vanguard of David Cameron’s Big Society.

In addition, I would argue that the countryside can operate simultaneously as the ‘buzzing’ economy of the PM’s portrayal and concomitantly the enormous museum that he is keen to declaim against. Farmers and other managers of the landscape (alongside the many diverse people who work or live within it) are not only contributing towards a host of vital modern industries but participating in a vast exercise in stewardship and custodianship. Whether we travel through the countryside, talk about it, or even directly participate in and contribute towards it’s construction and care, we are all able to enjoy the fruits of these collective curatorial labours. This links back to some of the ideas that I think lay behind the very establishment of MERL. I believe that the museum’s founding father, John Higgs, probably drew inspiration from ideas about rural community and localisation that were popular with certain thinkers of the interwar period. This included people like H. J. Massingham, whose artefactual collections Higgs secured for his fledgling museum, and which have recently been fully catalogued as part of the Sense of Place project.

This notion of the nation as a vast open air museum is not really very new. It has links to the national park movement of the 1930s and arguably has its most explicit roots in ethnographic projects that preceded these developments. Indeed, I paid passing reference to one such vision in a recent article about folklore and object-collecting during the late-19th century:

‘On the threshold of a new century, one major folklorist argued that the entirety of British folklore should be thought of in museological terms, with the nation itself the museum and all its vernacular content and attributes—living and obsolete, tangible and ethereal—a distributed but systematic collection. Here the discpline itself became a museum; an historical project in which “specimens” were to be “labelled, ticketed, and set forth for greater convenience”.’

This is far from a redundant notion. I suggest it has a valuable role to play in the present and that the idea of ‘place’ should come to form a central part of how we begin think along these lines. Rural museums should seek to foster the idea of the countryside as a ‘vast museum’, thereby highlighting and capitalising on their own potential to function as key players in the broadening of public understanding about this rich interconnecting web of places, people, and activity. They can become portals, springboards, and stepping stones by which contemporary audiences can enter and begin to understand and enjoy the rural places that make up the massive countrywide display and interactive of Britain. There is nothing shameful in seeing the countryside in these terms. Instead, much like Museums at Night, this is something we should look to celebrate and encourage.

Articles cited:

  • David Cameron, ‘Last Word: My Countryside’ in Countryside Alliance, Spring 2012, p.42
  • Oliver Douglas, ‘Folklore, Survivals, and the Neo-Archaic: the Materialist Character of Late Nineteenth-century Homeland Ethnography’ in Museums History Journal 4:2, July 2011, pp.223-244
  • Alfred Nutt, ‘Presidential Address. Britain and Folklore’ in Folklore 10:1, 1899, pp.71-86 [as quoted in my own article]

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Just in case you weren’t listening to Radio Berkshire yesterday afternoon you can catch up with what Greta and I had to say to Bill Buckley on the History Hour. We talked in detail about A Sense of Place and discussed other ongoing projects at MERL. Go to http://bbc.in/HEQUOL – the interview begins at 1.06.55 and continues for several segments of the show.

Amongst other things, we spoke in more detail about Lavinia Smith and her collections from East Hendred, as well as some of the other ongoing digitisation work being undertaken at the museum – Rural Images Discovered and OBL4HE – and about the forthcoming MERL Village Fete, which sees the museum turn its attention to a fresh diamond jubilee theme. I say ‘fresh’ because MERL actually celebrated its own diamond jubilee in 2011, staging a 60th anniversary exhibition in collaboration with none other than the BBC. As the following image shows, yesterday’s broadcast on BBC Berkshire was the latest in a long line of connections between ‘Auntie’ and MERL over the years.

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Turning my attention back to this year’s jubilee – that of HRH Queen Elizabeth – the museum is lucky enough to be linking up with HistoryPin once more as a result of this milestone event. MERL, of course, has previously partnered with HistoryPin on a project concerned with Pinning Reading’s History, and the Sense of Place project team will be working with them over the coming months to find new ways of making the museum’s artfactual collections accessible via virtual maps.

By way of extending these existing and ongoing links with HistoryPin, we’ll be using the Village Fete as a context in which to gather content for another place-related project that they are currently developing, which is concerned with Pinning the Queen’s History. Having been born within a week of the 1977 celebrations I am what is commonly referred to as a ‘Silver Jubilee baby’ and therefore have something of a soft spot for street parties and bunting. With this in mind (and just to show how all these things seem to tie neatly together) I’ll finish with a rather pleasing photograph that somebody posted on HistoryPin, which shows a Reading-based street party held around the time I was born.

Silver Jubilee Street Party Vine Crescent Reading, 1977

Silver Jubilee Street Party, Vine Crescent, Reading, 1977

I hope you enjoy listening to Greta and me on the radio and we both look forward to seeing you at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 9 June 2012!

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Just in time for a well-deserved Easter break, Project Officer Greta Bertram has just completed improvements to catalogue information associated with all the artefacts that entered the museum’s collection during its founding year of 1951. This is no small achievement, entailing as it has the enhancement of some 1344 records in the collection database. Well done Greta!

The initial object in this run of entries was a humble animal bell, which had been allocated the accession number ‘MERL 51/1‘ to indicate that it was the first item to be formally acquired during the year 1951. Undertaking research for a recent temporary exhibition I had the opportunity to speak with the man who gave this object to the museum. Back then he was a student in the University of Reading’s Department of Agriculture and he remains a local farmer, still living in the same place he did when the object was donated. In order to track him down I simply searched for the farm name online and gave one of the phone numbers I found a try, not really expecting to have very much luck. In actual fact, his wife answered the phone and, after my long-winded explanation for ringing, she told me that he was in the next room and got him to come to speak with me.

Animal bell - the museum's first object

The first artefact to be recorded in 1951

The object donor remembered giving the object but had no idea that it had become the first item to be formally recorded in the museum’s accession register. Some of the details that Greta has added to this artefact’s catalogue entry stem directly from this conversation. Of course, many farms are also family businesses and are therefore owned or operated by the same close-knit group of people for generations. This kind of successive connection represents a powerful attachment to place that rural museums should seek to capitalise on and harness when attempting to foster a stronger sense of stakeholdership in their collections.

Earlier today I was reminded of that same conversation whilst visiting another potential object donor who, as it happens, was also a student in the Department of Agriculture during the 1950s. He too had lived in much the same area for over 30 years and, although he was a newcomer all those decades ago, he had become very much ‘hefted’ to his current home. He’s a basket specialist and collector, which is really more Greta’s area of interest and expertise than mine. After editing the 1000-plus records pertaining to the ’51 objects, I think Greta deserves a break from her computer screen. So, I’m going to encourage her to visit his collection, giving her the opportunity to find out more about the University in the 1950s, but more importantly to help contribute towards shaping the MERL collection for future generations.

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I was pleased to hear from my friend that he had been reading this blog, even proving keen enough to sign up for the RSS feed. As well as coping with the stresses of what can evidently be quite a harrowing commute, this particular friend has a busy work schedule and three young children at home. As such, I am surprised that has found time in his busy life to explore what we are up to. I guess it’s entirely possible that he is just humouring me, or perhaps he browses the web on the coach en route to London! Either way, as a roundabout way of thanking him for taking the time to look, I’ve decided to see if I can chart his commute in some way using artefacts, archival materials, and historic photographs from the museum’s collection. My motivations are not entirely altruistic. This is really an experiment to see if I can find interesting things that connect to and perhaps help to contextualise his route.

Here goes… As I don’t wish to reveal my friend’s precise address, I’ll start with a central feature of his home town Watlington, as depicted by Phillip Osborne Collier (1881-1979), a commercial photographer and postcard publisher who worked in Reading from around 1905 onwards. The Collier collection comprises circa 6000 glass plate negatives of places in Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. These were produced between 1905 and the 1960s. Unfortunately, these Collier negatives have not been digitised in their entirety so for ease and rapidity of reproduction here I simply photographed them on a light box and inverted the image using editing software. They are therefore in quite a raw state but will hopefully give you some idea of the places depicted. So, lets imagine that my friend begins his day somewhere near to that central staple of English rural communities, the church:

The church in Watlington, as depicted by Collier

The church in Watlington, early 20th century

This prolific photographer’s glass plate negatives will lead on through the town and into the surrounding countryside. but the church is a nice way to start. My friend lives quite close to it and my family joined his on a visit to see the Christmas tree displays there last December. This provides me with an excuse to add in this Christmas card produced by Collier and featuring scenes from around Watlington:

Christmas card of Watlington, from the Collier collection

Watlington Christmas card, early 20th century

Turning back to my friend’s actual commute, it seems likely that he emerges, bleary-eyed, and cycles out into Brook Street:

Brook Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Brook Street, Watlington, early 20th century

Because I’m uncertain as to where precisely on the modern-day Brook Street we are in this image, here’s another shot which I think may even show the exit from which my friend most likely emerges of a weekday:

Brook Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Brook Street, Watlington, early 20th century

I’m sure there are short cuts to be had but as I’m not privy to that fine-grained residential ‘sense of place’ I’m going to guess that from here my friend might turn left into Couching Street, perhaps even using the junction shown in the following photograph (if you look closely you’ll see that its signposted to Lewknor!). However, I suspect he doesn’t travel with a cyclist’s assistant like the distant subject of this image:

Brook Street and Couching Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Corner between Brook Street and Couching Street, Watlington, early 20th century

My friend’s commute takes him down Couching Street or in that general direction:

Couching Street, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Couching Street, Watlington, early 20th century

My friend almost certainly passes close to the old town hall and market place. Collier’s work includes two different views of this particular site, which also reveal subjects relevant to the navigational theme sthat I’m exploring here. The first shot features a horse-drawn vehicle:

Town Hall, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Town Hall, Watlington, early 20th century

By comparison, the second shot of this site shows early motor vehicles:

Market Place, Watlington, as taken by Collier

Market Place, Watlington, early 20th century

From here, both Collier and my friend head out into the surrounding countryside. For my friend to have a hilltop perspective like that shown below would entail an inconvenient detour (and possibly more sensible footwear again) but I’ve added this in anyway. It’s not often that the commuters amongst us have the time to take in a vista of our departure point, so I thought he might apppreciate the opportunity, even if the scene appears to be a little hazy as a result of my rushed digitisation:

Watlington from the hills, as taken by Collier

Watlington 'from the hills', early 20th century

My friend is now out into open countryside, cycling along the B4009 to Lewknor in order to make his bus connection. On the way he passes farmland that is representative of the agricultural community surrounding Watlington. An image (MERL P FW PH2/C108/62) in the museum’s Farmers Weekly photograph collection shows combine harvesters traversing a field close to the nearby village of Britwell Salome. This is not on my friend’s direct route but perhaps helps to communicate something of the kind of farming activity one might have seen in this area during the early 1950s.

Back to our route, Pyrton is situated part-way between Watlington and Lewknor, northwest of the B4009. Somewhere beyond it lies Clare Hill, which was almost certainly the location of a place once called Clare Farm. The museum holds farm records related to this site, including a receipt book dating to 1922 and bearing the name of its then proprietor, Charles Hall:

Detail of ledger from Clare Farm, Pyrton

Detail of ledger from Clare Farm, Pyrton, 1922

This set of archival papers also contains details of the sale of this same farm in 1923:

Sale catalogue for Clare Farm, Pyrton

Sale catalogue for Clare Farm, Pyrton, 1923

This is probably enough between Watlington and Lewknor (and I may well have exhausted the museum’s holdings relating to this particular area). Suffice to say, the museum appears to hold significant materials associated with the approximate route so far. From here the road takes my friend onwards between the fields to the centre of another nearby agricultural community at Lewknor. The museum holds an artefact – a musket – that was probably once used by a farmer in this very place:

Accession form for musket

Accession form for musket associated with Lewknor

This brings us to the end of my friend’s cycle ride and the beginning of his coach journey, which follows the motorway from Lewknor all the way to London. I suspect that there are probably numerous artefacts associated with different places situated along the route of the M40. However, my friend will probably have to wait until the project team have worked their data-enhancement magic and we have mapped these holdings in an easy to visualise way!

Lewknor detail on M40 planning map, 1960s

Lewknor on M40 planning map, 1960s

For now lets hope my friend is happy enough to learn of the fascinating papers that the museum holds concerning the impact planning for (and subsequent analysis of) this stretch of motorway, dating to between the 1960s and 1990s. These stem from the rich and detailed archives of the Council for the Protection of Rural England (now the Campaign to Protect Rural England), which include maps showing the intended route as well as papers and correspondence pertaining to the projected impact on the rural area affected:

Wider shot of Lewknor position on M40 map

Map showing proposed route (from Lewknor) of the M40, 1960s

Perhaps later in the project I will revisit this exercise to see what further material has come to light in relation to the M40 route. For now though, let me close with the obscure and limited content I managed to find to link to Shepherd’s Bush, which is more or less where my friend’s morning commute comes to an end. The museum catalogue reveals only a single archival item connected in some (unknown) way with this place. This is a drawing from the archive of the engineering company Charles Burrell & Sons Limited, the catalogue entry for which reads ‘Proposed Power House for Rolling Track (Shepherd’s Bush)’. This particular drawing relates to a rival engineeering firm making it even harder to determine what (and indeed where) this machine was intended for. Here is a detail of the drawing, which does not reveal a great deal more than the catalogue entry:

Detail from engineering drawing

Detail from engineering drawing

It is nice to end on an item linked with transport, as well as on something about whcih the museum does not currently know a great deal. If anyone knows more about how this vehicle would have been used please comment. The notion that underpins much of what this project (and indeed this exercise) is seeking to achieve is one of empowering the museum’s ‘source communities’ and harnessing the rich body of knowledge and ideas that the wider public can bring to bear on complex collections like thise held here at MERL.

Now I’m heading off to catch my train…

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I was recently reminded of the links between commuting and a sense of place in another context. At the weekend, I spoke to a friend about his regular commute by bicycle from Watlington, Oxfordshire, to Lewknor and from there by coach on into London.

The route from Lewknor bus stop to Watlington

The route from Lewknor bus stop to Watlington

He told an amusing anecdote concerning an unfortunate and rather strange experience from the preceding week. This entailed an unusually late disembarkation from the coach at Lewknor, whereupon a 3-mile journey cross-country on foot ensued, complete with the authorities in hot pursuit. A number of extraneous factors had played against him in this context including the untimely misplacing of his mobile phone earlier in the day, the happenstance lack of his usual bike to ride, his choice of footwear and its relative unsuitability for an unexpected midnight ramble, as well as the bizarre case of mistaken identity that led to the arrival of a police helicopter and patrol car on the scene.

So, how does this connect to the Sense of Place project? This surreal comedy of errors further highlighted to me our ever-present reliance on material culture and on the technologies of everyday life. It also underlined the fact that even the places that we pass on a daily basis are capable of becoming rapidly alien to us in the right (or in this case, wrong) circumstances. In short, my friend was in the wrong place at very much the wrong time, became embroiled in a person hunt that was inherently linked to that neighbourhood albeit not in any real sense to him, and he simply didn’t have the requisite equipment to ease his eventual, if somewhat dishevelled, return to the safety of home. A phone with which to call a taxi, a bike to speed his return, or a less ridiculous pair of shoes might each have helped in some small way. Suffice to say he now understands that winklepickers and muddy rural terrain don’t mix (and just as a curatorial aside, perhaps some patten’s might have been more effective, or maybe even some mudboards)!

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