A Sense of Place

News and updates about the A Sense of Place Project.

One of the QR codes (bottom left) in position at MEAL, linking to a clip from ‘The Darling Buds of May’.

As Felicity is busy working on other things this week, I thought I would attempt to write a post about the use of QR codes at the I Spy the Countryside exhibition at the Museum of East Anglian Life (MEAL) in Stowmarket, which we visited last week. Being a bit of a technophobe, this post won’t dwell too much on the technical issues related to using QR codes.

The exhibition was installed in two rooms in the newly-opened Abbots Hall at MEAL. The frequent use of QR codes was one of the first things we noticed when looking around Abbots Hall, and there were also several in the exhibition. Having given quite a bit of thought to the use of QR codes over the past few months, we were interested to see how they were being used at MEAL.

So, what did the QR codes in I Spy the Countryside point to? Most of them pointed to videos relating to the objects they were positioned next to, such as the trailer for the film Withnail and I next to the film poster, and a clip from the first episode of The Darling Buds of May next to a blazer worn by David Jason as Pop Larkin in the TV series. What was perhaps most intriguing was the QR code next to the Introductory Panel linking to an I Spy the Countryside Spotify playlist. Unfortunately I didn’t have any 3G signal at MEAL so I took photos of all the QR codes, uploaded them to the computer and have been scanning the codes back in the office (where 3G/wireless signal is also pretty unreliable).

This was very different from the way we’ve tried to use QR codes at MERL, which link back to the online catalogue to provide more information about the objects displayed in a particular case in the gallery. Having not been able to access the content while at MEAL, I can’t really tell how the use of QR codes affected my experience of the exhibition, but it did make me think. Would watching videos/listening to music have enhanced my experience of the exhibition? How would it have affected my understanding of the objects on display? Would I have spent more time watching/listening to things rather than looking at the objects – and does that matter? Would I have enjoyed the videos/music more or less if I watched/listened to them while looking at the exhibition rather than at home? How were the QR codes intended to be used? Are people without smartphones/QR readers missing out? How was the content chosen for the QR codes, and who chose it? Are the QR codes checked regularly to ensure that the content hasn’t been removed from the internet (as videos are often take down due to copyright issues)? Does this technology enable new interactions between the museum and the visitor – e.g. could the playlist be changed each month in response to suggestions from visitors (visitors were able to make suggestions for contemporary collecting)? How many people have been using the QR codes and what has the response been?

There’s certainly a lot to think about when using QR codes in museums, and perhaps we should be experimenting with different types of content at MERL. If you’ve visited I Spy the Countryside, what did you think of the QR codes? Would you like to see them used at MERL and, if so, how?

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 As you might have guessed from recent blog posts, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy.  Over the last few weeks, then, it has been a real relief to get back to some solid days of cataloguing again, and as a result we have finally reached another milestone – 8000 records enhanced!  Hopefully we’ll pick up pace again over the next couple of months, as we really want to reach that target of 10,000 records by the end of the project. 

 

54/45

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an object record that always makes me smile. Whenever I’m getting fed up of cataloguing yet another auger or chisel, I return to this sketch for a bit of cheering up.

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Last night Felicity and I actually had an opportunity to share news of the Sense of Place project via an ‘old fashioned’ presentation, as opposed to virtually though our blog and other online media. It’s important to mention here that it was Greta who arranged this talk and had spent time planning it but was unfortunately unable to attend.

We presented a summary of the project and progress made so far to the University of Reading’s Women’s Club.  The Women’s Club was established in 1948 and membership is open to all women who have a connection with the University. The aim of the Club is to provide opportunities for social interaction, with particular emphasis on supporting those who are combining a career and family life and on welcoming newcomers and their families to the University.

They hold various events throughout the year and have a range of interest visiting speakers, talking about a range of topics.

Felicity and I were able to show some examples of the object record files that we have been using to enhance the database with and explain more about how reliant we are on the details which are recorded at the time of acquisition, as well as through research over the years.

We then moved on to demonstrate the applications of our work on Historypin where we have begun to plot some of our collections, alongside photographs.  As previously mentioned, we’ve focused on the area of Bucklebury initially so have therefore been able to make use of the ‘collection’ tool on Historypin, by pulling together some information about George Lailey.  Have a look and you can try it out for yourself!

The talk went well and it was really enjoyable to present our work to a non-museum audience and see that it really is of interest to those who may not be so familiar with accessing this kind of information through the internet and mobile devices.

Apparently, many members of the Club were keen to get online and explore these developments for themselves.  Success!

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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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We’ve gone a bit quiet over recent months on the progress of our work with Historypin, so I thought it was perhaps time for an update on what we’ve been doing behind the scenes.  If you go to the MERL Historypin channel you will be able to see some of the first objects we have pinned to the map.  Most of these are from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, but there are also some wagons and ploughs from a wider geographic area.

Inevitably, these first trial uploads have thrown up some technical issues that we hadn’t considered.  When we export data from our own Adlib database, we want to minimise the alterations made to that data before it is then uploaded to Historypin.  The fewer changes we make in that intermediate stage, the more manageable and future proof the whole process becomes.

Initially, we had exported our data into a CSV file (it stands for ‘comma separated values’, apparently).  When we looked at the resulting pins on Historypin, we realised the limitations of this approach.  Whilst most of our objects have only one known ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’ (if at all), there are some objects for which we have more complete object biographies, where we know perhaps two or three previous owners.  Similarly, there might be a composite object, with multiple parts made by different people.

Fork - 60/290

This fork (60/290) was made in multiple places. Its handle was made by Bucklebury handle-maker Harry Wells, whilst the metal head was made by a local blacksmith.

Because of the way they work (something to do with being ‘comma separated values’) CSV files can only export one occurrence of each database field.  We had to find a new method of exporting which would enable us to pin objects to all the places with which they are associated.  We are currently trialling the use of XML files as an alternative.  We’ve yet to try uploading to Historypin in this way, but our first tests show that we can at least export multiple occurrences using this type of file.  So, we’re making progress.

Another problem we’ve been working through is trying to find a way to export latitude and longitude data for associated places.  Focussing on place has already necessitated the addition of extra fields to the database – initially we recorded latitude and longitude in the notes field of the thesaurus records, but specific fields for grid references have since been added, and we now record the information there.  Due to the way the database works, though, we were initially unable to export the latitude and longitude for places added as ‘associated places’ (rather than as a ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’).  This problem has since been solved by extra changes to the databases, but it highlights how projects working with technology such as this require a significant amount of technical work behind the scenes to get museum data online.  It is not always just a case of looking at the accession files and then bunging it all on a computer.

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We’re now nine months into the Sense of Place project, and time is certainly flying by. As we’re getting to know the MERL collections better we’ve been getting involved in wider work within the Museum, on top of our day to day cataloguing work, so I thought it was time for another update on ‘What did you do at work today?’. See here and here for previous posts on this topic.

Enquiries

Over the past few weeks, Felicity and I have been taking on more of the object-based enquiries that MERL receives. These include requests to identify mystery objects, looking to see if we have particular objects in the museum, and handling offers of objects to the Museum. Enquiries really show how useful having a thorough online catalogue is, and what a difference it can make to the day to day work of museum staff. It’s so much easier to answer an enquiry when you can search on the catalogue and know that any information the Museum holds about that object will be there. Unfortunately for us, there are still large chunks of the collection waiting to be catalogued, so you can’t guarantee that searching on Adlib will bring up everything you’re looking for. This means that there’s still quite a lot of rummaging in files to do.

Exhibitions

This Lilliput Lane model was purchased as part of the Collecting Cultures project and was photographed recently for use on an exhibition banner.

We’ve also been getting some experience on putting together a loan exhibition based on the objects collected by MERL as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture project. Danielle wrote in a previous post about the cataloguing work we’ve been doing on this material, and the differences we’ve noticed in cataloguing context-rich, information heavy recent acquisitions compared with older material with very little or no information in the accession records. It took us nearly two months to catalogue the 350–400 objects. Since finishing the cataloguing we’ve been spending a bit of time identifying objects to be photographed, developing themes for the exhibition, drafting text and choosing images, sorting out copyright issues, and arranging objects to be loaned.

The Berkshire Show

The University of Reading stand at the Berkshire Show

I think by far the most unusual thing we’ve done recently is to dress up as milkmaids and milk a wooden cow at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. The University of Reading had a stand on the theme of dairying and cheese production, with a wide variety of activities for children and adults alike. The Guernsey cow was painted by MERL’s Gallery Assistant, Morryce Maddams, and had a realistic udder mechanism for children to have a go at milking a cow (and many of them were far better than us). There were cheese and yoghurt samples made at the University’s Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, a cheese-making demonstration, a ‘battle of the bacteria’ activity where children were making plasticine bacteria, an art activity making butter print designs (based on those in the Museum), and a smoothie bike. We had a great day, even if we did feel a bit foolish in the outfit, and to cap it off the stand won two first prizes!

Felicity posing on her milking stool.

Cataloguing

We’re still ploughing our way through the cataloguing, and have reached a total of 7500 enhanced records. Now that we’ve finished the Collecting Cultures cataloguing (2008–2011), we’re finishing 2006–2007 and then going back to 1956 to carry on with the chronological cataloguing. We’re also hoping to make a start in the next few weeks on accessioning some of the material that has come into the Museum over the past few months. So there are plenty of things to keep us occupied, and plenty of variety to keep the project interesting.

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Volunteers have been making the headlines over the past six weeks at the Olympic and Paralympic Games, with everyone saying that it was the volunteers who made London 2012 such a success. So I thought I’d take the opportunity to celebrate some of the volunteers at MERL who have been helping us on the A Sense of Place project, and say thank you for their help.

Like many museums, MERL relies heavily on volunteers to help us get everything done. We have a wide range of volunteers at MERL – from students at the University, to special interest groups and local residents – and the University of Reading Museums and Special Collections Service (which includes MERL) was recently awarded the Investing in Volunteers Standard from Volunteer England. Click here to find out more about volunteering at MERL.

Our project office is always bustling with volunteers. As well as regular volunteers who come in once or twice a week for an extended period of time, we also have interns who work with us more intensely for a shorter period of time, and work experience students who are with us for just a day or two. Different volunteers help us on different parts of the project.

Team Latitude/Longitude

Ron and Carl are our longitude-and-latitude-looker-uppers. When we add a new place to our thesaurus, we also have to add the latitude and longitude so that it can be pinned to a map. At the start of the project we were taking our lats/longs from the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names but, as well as not listing many smaller places, we discovered that Getty wasn’t always very accurate with its coordinates. Since that discovery, Ron and Carl have dedicated a few hours a week to looking up places in GoogleMaps to find their coordinates. Carl also helps us track down the lats/longs of more specific places, like historic farms.

Team Polehead

Christina heads up ‘Team Polehead’.

Christina has been volunteering at MERL for over a year and she is at the heart of Team Polehead. Following on from cataloguing the Shickle Collection, we’ve been trying to catalogue the rest of the poleheads (we have over 900 in total). Christina has taken on this task and is fast becoming an expert in all things polehead – she’s already done 280 out of 380 in the Allen Collection. She’s also been training up other volunteers to help her, which is a big help to me.

Team Negatives

As well as being a tour guide and doing volunteering in other parts of the Museum, David helps us with scanning one morning a week.

The majority of our volunteers have been working away since February on digitising our old black and white negatives. This was initially for the JISC project but, having met the target of 3750 scans, they’ve carried on. They’ve now done over 4800 scans of the 60 series negatives and 775 of the 35 series negatives. We’re hoping that they won’t mind carrying on, as it’s a great way to get images for Adlib without having to take new photographs (which are very expensive and time consuming). Team Negatives includes Stuart, Emma, Steve, Anna, Nina, David and Josh.

Interns

Matthew, one of the interns who has been helping us for two days a week for the past six weeks.

Over the past six weeks we’ve had two interns from the archives working with us part time. Matthew and George have done various things to help us – a bit of negative scanning, some new photography, some transcribing, some polehead cataloguing etc. Matthew has also been scanning two folders of correspondence from the 1930s between Harold John Massingham and Mr Greening, a master carpenter from Winchcombe in Gloucestershire.

 

Thank you volunteers!!! We really do appreciate your hard work!

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A small sample of the 361 model toys I've been cataloguing this week.

We catalogued our 7000th record this morning!!! It always feels good to reach a cataloguing milestone, and even better when you reach one on a Friday – it really adds to that ‘Friday Feeling’. It’s been less than a month since we reached 6000, and the quick progress has largely been down to cataloguing collections (in fact, we’ve catalogued 600 records this week) – Felicity has been working on a set of 345 printing blocks, while I’ve been working on a set of 361 model toys. Although they’re quick to catalogue, as much of the information is the same for each record, we’re starting to look crazier and crazier at the end of every day so it will be good to have them done and move onto things with a bit more variety. Fingers crossed we get them finished today, and then the Friday Feeling will be complete!

 

 

As we’re approaching the end of the week, and I’m trying to stop myself from getting distracted by news of all the Olympic medals that are being won today, I think it’s probably time for another short blog post to update you on one of the things I’ve been working on over the past couple of weeks.

We’ve currently got an intern working with us on Wednesday afternoons, George, who is helping us with some new object photography.  We’ve talked in some previous posts about our work with Historypin, and this object photography is a part of that.  Every object we pin to the Historypin map needs to have a photograph, and we’ve started by making sure that we have one for each of the roughly 300 objects we have from Bucklebury in the collection.  We already have some digital photographs, and we are filling in many of the gaps by scanning old photographic negatives.  We’re now in the process of taking new photographs of the 55 remaining objects for which we currently have no photograph or negative.

 

Wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry

2006/47/5, a wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry.

To start with, we have focused on photographing the objects which are easily accessible on the mezzanine object store.  With a lot of help from MERL’s Conservator, Fred, who set up a rather snazzy mini-studio for us, we’ve taken photographs of roughly 50 objects from Bucklebury.  Largely, this set of objects consists of wooden patterns from Hedges Foundry and some wooden bowls turned by George Lailey.  Next on the ‘to-do’ list are the remaining Bucklebury objects which are on display, and shortly we will also start photographing some of the objects donated to the Museum in the early 1950s with another intern, Matthew, who will be helping from tomorrow.

 

Our 'pop-up' photography studio

The photography set-up.

 

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As mentioned in previous posts, the Sense of Place team have been cataloguing parts of the collection in a number of ways.  We have worked in a chronological order but we have also identified various defined collections to ensure that we can trial some outcomes of the project in a usable way.

Lately we have begun cataloguing some relatively recently acquired objects which has made a pleasant change for us. This material was actively collected as part of the Heritage Lottery funded Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture project which began in 2008 and still continues.  The purpose of the project was to acquire material that builds, decade by decade, a picture of the countryside in the twentieth century.  MERL has been looking for signal items that speak powerfully of their day and illustrate the wider cultural influence of the countryside on English society. There is another fantastic and informative blog on this project, written by Roy Brigden, which is still live on the MERL website, for you to catch up on.

These items could range from works of art that somehow express a mood of the time down to everyday objects that instantly connect with a particular era in the countryside. Perhaps it might be an object with a special story to tell, and an association with an event or a person. For each one, MERL would like to develop an expert narrative to place it in context and construct an overall story.  Many of the objects acquired are actually on permanent display in MERL right now.  Make sure you visit to take a look!

I just wanted to quickly share with you, something which I have been working on today, which beautifully demonstrates what we are trying to achieve with this project.  When we are tidying up the records, we are trying to add detailed geographical data into 3 specific fields of the database; place made, place used and place acquired.  Despite our desire to do this, it is rarely possible to complete all three fields and this is simply because the data is not there to find in the paper records.  In fact, this is the first time I personally have come across an example where I have been able to do so.

This poster from 1931 is advertising a sale at Manor Farm Redbourne, Lincolnshire.  Mr E. Owen Ayre’s lease has expired meaning that everything is up for sale, including all stock and equipment.  The date indicates that this may be due to the agricultural depression of the inter-war years.  Mr Ayre can’t be moving to another farm, because he’s selling all he has, nor is he handing over to a son, because the lease is not being renewed.

The poster was printed or made in Brigg, Lincolnshire, used at and around Manor Farm Redbourne, which according to the poster is 6 miles from Brigg and 17 miles from Lincoln, and acquired from an Antique shop in Bedale, North Yorkshire. We don’t have any information regarding where the poster may have been between 1931 and 2010, when it was acquired, but wouldn’t it be great to find out more!  Of course, if you know anything, do leave us a comment to fill in the gaps.

 

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