News

General news and updates from the project as it progresses.

Towards the end of last month I got to attend a training day run by Share Museums East called ‘The Wood from the Trees’. It was a day of training and advice about identifying and understanding different types of timber and their uses.

We started the day by going through some common terminology relating to wood, some of which I was familiar with and some of which was entirely new to me. I knew about softwood and hardwood, but not about the difference between sapwood and heartwood, and knew about knots and rings but not rays!

The next topic was the features and uses of eight common timber types: oak, ash, beech, sycamore, pine, mahogany, walnut and elm. Once we’d discussed their qualities and identifying features, we were given eight samples of wood to identify. My group got all eight right, but of course the task was made easier as we knew that they were each one of the specified eight that we had already talked about.

Wood identification samples

Wood samples and objects to practice our new-found identification skills on.

More difficult, but a more useful skill for someone working in a museum, was the next task. We were given a selection of wooden artefacts and asked to identify what they were made of.  My developing knowledge of baskets and basket-making gleaned from working with a basket enthusiast/obsessive helped me with the object in the photograph – a bicycle basket made of split oak by Owen Jones. The other objects we had to work with were much harder – objects are often polished and stained, making it harder to identify the wood by colour and texture.

The day was rounded off by a series of tasks designed to test how well we understood the different properties of types of wood. We imagined we were timber merchants offering advice to customers who wanted the right type of wood for a particular purpose. These skills should help me to make an educated guess at a wood I can’t directly identify, based on what the object was used for. My favourite fact from the day was that mahogany would actually be a brilliant wood for general-purpose outdoor functional uses. As a tropical hardwood it is very durable and good in wet conditions, but because it is so expensive you’d probably get some odd looks if you tried to make a farm gate out of it!

For anybody who’d like to find out more about wood identification, the course leader Robin Hill recommended the book ‘What Wood is that? The Manual of Wood Identification’ by Herbert L. Edlin.

Tags: , , , , , , ,

MERL P DX289 PH1/668. Ewes and lambs in the lambing pen, Kiddington, Oxfordshire. Taken by Eric Guy.

MERL P DX289 PH1/668. Ewes and lambs in the lambing pen, Kiddington, Oxfordshire. Taken by Eric Guy.

In the last of MERL’s seminars in the ‘Untouchable England’ series last week, Ollie spoke about MERL on the BBC in the 1950s. Over the past few days I’ve come to notice how many programmes there are about farming on the BBC at the moment. I’m a lifelong Radio4 fan and, although I’m not normally up in time for Farming Today, I am (although I’m not sure whether I should be admitting it) a regular listener of The Archers. I don’t normally get the chance to watch much TV, but last week I came across a programme on BBC2 called The Hill Farm, which follows Gareth Wyn Jones and his family for a year on their hill farm in North Wales (a far cry from the type of farming there is in the are I grew up in – in the flat Fens surrounded by fields full of sugar beet). And this week I’ve made my first foray into BBC2’s Lambing Live (16 million sheep will be born in the UK this spring), this year following the Dykes Family on the farm in Scotland.

I probably sound very ignorant and very naïve, which I don’t deny (rural crafts rather than farming are my area of expertise at MERL). I’ve found both programmes really fascinating, and they’ve brought to life lots of the objects, terms and practices that I’ve come across during my two years at MERL – such as tupping, drenching and hefting (which Ollie wrote a blog post on back when we started the Sense of Place project). And I do like Kate Humble’s bobble hat! I’ve also really appreciated the fact that The Hill Farm doesn’t shy away from the bloody, brutal and very ‘real’ side of farming that is undoubtedly not really thought about by most of us (the total farming labour force in the UK in 2006 was 534,000 out of a population of 60.6 million).

Both programmes show the importance of community, and especially of family, in the running of many farms – as does The Archers. I discovered today that 2014 has been officially named by the United Nations as the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) – and it is estimated that there are 500 million family farms (those that rely primarily on family members for labour and management) across the globe. The UN states that the initiative “aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.”

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also Countryfile on BBC1 on Sunday evenings, which regularly attracts more than 5 million viewers! It’s great to see that there is such a public interest in rural matters – and I hope that programmes like these really do help us better understand the important role that farming plays in all of our lives.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Tool Tales

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

On Saturday the Heritage Crafts Association held its fourth annual Spring Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Tool Tales’. What better theme could there be for a craft conference? Almost every craftsperson needs at least one tool – and some need hundreds!

It was a very packed day, with five speakers, an AGM, awards and an instant gallery of delegates’ favourite tools to fit in. Some of my favourite quotes came from Professor Trevor Marchand, who spoke about problem-solving in bench-side learning – ‘craft is problem-solving and ‘hand work is intelligent work’ – and Dr Phil Harding in his appropriately titled talk, ‘Getting a Handle on Prehistory’ – ‘a tool with no handle is a useless tool’. And Grace Horne, knife-maker and corset-maker, who described herself as having an extra-marital affair with scissors, reminded us that scissors are so much more than ‘two knives attached by a screw’.

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as 'embroidery' and was rather confused!)

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as ‘embroidery’ and was rather confused!)

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company made everyone laugh with his stories of spending his days transporting, dismantling and rebuilding large numbers of nineteenth-century industrial looms (there’s always a few pieces leftover – ready to form part of the next loom). And Roger W. Smith wowed us all with his incredible patience and precision – watch-making is a craft that involves 34 separate trades, all of which Roger undertakes at his workshop where they make only eleven watches a year!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company - he's addicted to rebuilding looms!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company – he’s addicted to rebuilding looms!

In July 2013 the HCA launched its own suite of Heritage Crafts Awards, building on existing awards, and the winners were announced on Saturday. They included local boat-builder Colin Henwood of Henwood & Dean, who won the ‘Maker of the Year’ award. Colin is based in Henley-on-Thames and specialises in the restoration, rebuilding and maintenance of classic wooden Thames boats – and he was recently interviewed by Phillippa, MERL’s Public Programmes Manager, for the oral histories element of the Reading Connections project.

This week I’m setting myself the challenge of getting to grips with social media – and there’s loads out there about Tool Tales. Why not take a look at the HCA Facebook page to see photos from the day, Pinterest to see photos of tools for the instant gallery, and Storify to see some of the tweets about the day.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

MERL 50/563/1-2. Our very own curling stones, made by the same company as those used in the Winter Olympics.

MERL 50/563/1-2. Our very own curling stones, made by the same company as those used in the Winter Olympics.

Curling is in the spotlight today – Great Britain will play Canada in the men’s Winter Olympic final in Sochi this afternoon. And this morning there was an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme with the Managing Director of Kays, a family firm in Scotland which has been making curling stones since 1851 (you can listen on BBC iplayer here at 2:41:00). We have two curling stones at MERL made by Kays (MERL 60/563/1-2), acquired from the British Council in 1960.

Kays make all of the curling stones for the Olympics. The stones are made from granite from Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island off the coast of Ayrshire. I learnt this morning from the interview that they are made from two types of Ailsa Craig granite – common green is used for the body of the stone because of its insulating properties, keeping the running edge cool; while blue hone is used around the edge. The two stones at MERL are marked ‘No. 1’, weighing 30lbs, and ‘No.2’, weighing 38lbs.

Curling became an Olympic sport in 1998, and transformed the fortunes over the firm. In 1998 there were only 25 countries involved in the sport, but today that figure has nearly doubled. Kays produces 1200–1500 new stones every year, and also repair and upgrade existing stones.

And the stones aren’t the only curling-related material we have at MERL. We’ve also got a wonderful advert for Cooper’s Dip showing men in tweed dancing in delight as they celebrate a curling victory. Let’s hope that’s what Team GB will be doing later today (although without the tweed!).

Let's hope it's victory like this for Team GB this afternoon!

Let’s hope it’s victory like this for Team GB this afternoon!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost - as the sun breaks through on New Year's day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost – as the sun breaks through on New Year’s day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

Happy 2014 to all of you MERL Projects Blog readers!

I can’t believe how quickly 2013 went (or how long it is since I last did a blog post). The start of a new year is always a good time to look back at what you’ve achieved over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what you want to achieve in the coming months. Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a lovely break, so I took the opportunity to write a January-February 2014 To Do list – and there’s an awful lot on it!

A Sense of Place: We just managed to enhance 9000 records at the end of 2012, and our current total at the end of 2013 stands at 15805 records. This progress is largely thanks to Laura, who was working on the project for several months over the summer while Felicity and I moved on to other projects (although we did manage to fit in some cataloguing too). This means that there’s only another 3000 records to go until every record has been enhanced – something I’d really like to see done! I’ve also been starting to tidy up (and hopefully massively reduce) the list of object names (and their numerous variants) when I have a spare moment or two.

Countryside21: This has been a bit of a stop-and-start project, and we’ve made really good progress on some elements and virtually none on others. The positives include nearly finishing the Time Based Media survey (I’m aiming to have it signed off by the end of January), renaming thousands upon thousands of files and restructuring the way they’re organised (all Felicity’s work), revising the MERL Classification, rationalising our use of subject keywords in Adlib, and finally beginning to implement the new Classification and the associated keywords (I’ve already managed to do this for 3400 records in the space of two weeks). We’ve also updated the ‘Geographical Keywords Manual’ and will be putting together guidelines on how to use other types of keywords in the coming weeks.  The ‘To Do’ list includes selecting and keywording images for commercial purposes, and arranging the technical side of the project such as the Digital Asset Management software and the e-commerce.

Reading Connections: While we don’t blog about the Reading Connections project here (it has a separate blog) this has been occupying a lot of mine and Felicity’s time throughout 2013. We spent the summer photographing 600 of Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, and since then Felicity has been spending several days a week at Reading Museum researching and writing detailed descriptions of these objects. Meanwhile I’ve been working on cataloguing craft here at MERL and have enhanced/tidied/cross-referenced all of the records for clay, leather, metal, stone, straw and textile crafts, leaving just wood crafts to go in 2014.

Stakeholders: We had a hugely successful two day study visit from ten basketmakers at the start of December to kick the project off. We’ll be photographing all of the baskets we studied in a couple of weeks, and then it’s a case of adding all the new information that we gathered to Adlib, commissioning pieces from the participating makers, and putting together some banners for a pop-up exhibition in the future.

Our Country Lives: While not officially one of Felicity’s and my projects, we’ve both been involved in the plans for the re-development of MERL over the last couple of months of 2013. It’s been a really eye-opening experience and we’re very much looking forward to how it progresses.

Miscellaneous: And as ever, we’ve been working on lots of other bits and pieces too. Our volunteers have continued to scan the 60-series negatives and add them to Adlib. 3000 negatives were scanned in 2013, leaving only another 5 boxes (out of a total of 23) left to do. I’ve been adding any existing colour photos to Adlib which for some reason weren’t already on there – I’ve done the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, leaving just the 1950s and 1960s to go.

So, all in all, a very busy year just gone (with much more than I’ve managed to mention), and another busy year to come (again, with much more than I’ve managed to mention)! But, at least I can say that I’m really looking forward to 2014 here at MERL and all there is to do. Wishing everyone all the best for 2014!

Tags: , , , , , , ,

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Radcliffe Trust baskets

Some of the baskets to be studied in ‘Stakeholders’. Clockwise form top left. MERL 69/196, MERL 70/224, MERL 96/94, MERL 97/94.

For those of you who have been following the MERL Projects blog, you’ll know that we’ve been doing quite a bit of work with MERL’s basketry collections over the past eighteen months. We now have the opportunity to build on that work with Stakeholders, a new project generously funded by The Radcliffe Trust, which will explore the collection in more detail.

MERL has an excellent and extensive basketry collection comprising over 620 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. However, of these, approximately 100 baskets have never been studied by a specialist, meaning there is a significant gap in knowledge about these baskets. The aim of Stakeholders is to address this gap and provide much-needed enhancements to the knowledge we hold in relation to the collection, and to the collection itself.

Stakeholders will entail an intensive two-day hands-on workshop at MERL with established and up-and-coming makers to examine this subset of un-studied baskets, to support two strands of activity.

  • Strand 1 will facilitate peer to peer (i.e. established maker to up-and-coming maker) and specialist to non-specialist (i.e. maker to Museum staff) sharing of skills- and materials-based knowledge, relating largely to basket construction, history and use.
  • Strand 2 will result in the commissioning of new pieces from emerging makers to address gaps and/or produce replicas of vulnerable baskets in the wider MERL collection. These items will be accessioned into the MERL collection.

Stakeholders will not only contribute to our understanding of the collection, but will also enable us to enhance our resources, inspire creativity, and foster community stewardship amongst emergent makers.

I’ll hopefully be posting regular updates on the progress of the project here, and have grouped all previous basket-related posts under the category ‘Stakeholders’ to make searching for basket-related blog content a lot easier.

Tags: , , , , , ,

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

Last week I was lucky enough to represent MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), held in the city of Aveiro in Portugal.

Usually, whenever I tell people I’m interested in intangible heritage I get a blank look and have to explain what I mean – so, what is ICH? Normally, when we think of cultural heritage we think of tangible, physical things such as buildings, monuments, sites and museum objects. The concept of intangible cultural heritage recognises that there are many non-physical things which are also a part of our heritage. This concept was formalised by UNESCO in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which set out five domains of ICH – oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

There were two days of parallel sessions on the five domains of intangible heritage, plus sessions on education and ICH, musealisation of ICH, and safeguarding and managing ICH. I gave a paper on craftsmanship as heritage in the UK, using basketry as an example craft to explore ideas of applying values-based approaches usually used in the management and safeguarding of tangible heritage to intangible heritage, and looked out how such an approach can inform the work of the HCA.

There was also a day of workshop visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage in the Aveiro region – including visits to see the making of ‘ovos moles’ (a traditional Portuguese sweet), salt harvesting at the city’s ecomuseum, traditional painting of ‘moliceiros’ boats, and an ethnographic museum with demonstrations of traditional skills such as basketmaking, netmaking, plant-grafting, and adobe brick making. Read more about the visits on the HCA blog here.

A picture panel on a 'moliceiro' boat.

A picture panel on a ‘moliceiro’ boat.

Various papers caught my attention for different reasons – in my work at MERL, in my HCA capacity, and for my own personal interest – although there weren’t as many papers on craftsmanship as I would have liked! Some of the musealisation papers were of particular relevance to ideas we’ve been exploring in some of the projects at MERL, particularly one by Ferenc Kiss on the use of new technologies for providing multimedia interpretation experiences not only in museums but out and about, making use of smart phones, QR codes (which we’ve briefly experimented with in A Sense of Place), and other multimedia functions. There was also a paper by Sabine Marschall about a project called eNanda Online, a website for digitally recording and sharing oral history and living cultural heritage of a Zulu community in South Africa (which may relate to some of the work we’ve been doing on Reading Connections). Read more about the papers on the HCA blog here.

All in all it was a fascinating conference and it was great to have the chance to meet other people who are interested in and involved in ICH work.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

You might have heard recently that the Museum has been successful in a round one HLF application for a project called Our Country Lives.  Over the course of the year, we will be researching and planning for a major redisplay of the gallery, aiming to put stories about people and experiences of rural life at the centre of the new displays.

The 'tree' - the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The ‘tree’ – the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The main MERL blog has also changed to reflect the work of Our Country Lives, and you can follow updates on the progress of the project, as well as other features which will give you more of an insight into what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the Museum, Library and Archive.  There will be posts that show how other projects at MERL are feeding into the redevelopment work, including a recent post in the ‘Focus on Collections’ series about how the work of A Sense of Place might be contributing to the redisplay of the wagons.

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

D2568

It’s that time of year again already… this Saturday, 1 June, is the annual MERL Village Fete!

This year’s Fete has a traditional crafts theme, inspired by the craft collections in the Museum and supported by the Heritage Crafts Association. There’ll be demonstrations from a spoon carver, blacksmith, bodger, saddler and willow weaver, and have-a-go craft workshops. There’s plenty of food and drink on offer, with a hog roast, cream teas and a beer tent. Entertainment will be provided by Armaleggan morris dancers and the Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band.

The Fete is held at the Museum 10.00-16.30. Admission is £2.50 for adults and free for children. There’s more information on the MERL Fete webpage, and the MERL Facebook page.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

« Older entries