News

General news and updates from the project as it progresses.

I spent last Thursday to Sunday in Killarney, Co. Kerry, at the annual conference of the Society for Folk Life Studies. Having just assumed that, in Ireland in September, it would probably be raining, I turned up with waterproof and boots, only to find the entire weekend was hot and sunny! The conference was held at the beautiful Lake Hotel in Killarney and Muckross House, a heritage site which includes a stately home, traditional farm and working craftspeople. (And two adorable Irish wolfhounds called Sadhbh and Saoirse – alas, too big for Ryanair hand-luggage).

The conference's beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse!

The conference’s beautiful setting at Killarney. And of course, Sadhbh and Saoirse! (Images by the author)

The conference proper began on Friday morning with papers covering such topics as the impact of people on landscape, Kerry calendar customs and the 1930s Irish Schools’ Folklore Collection Scheme. I was also particularly interested to hear Brian Coakley and Deidre McCarthy’s paper The folklore and folklife of a section of the Kerry Way. Their project used mobile technology to make folklore/life content available to tourists walking the Kerry Way trail and I found it interesting to compare their experiences with MERL’s A Sense of Place project and our similar experiments with mapping and mobile technology.

Friday afternoon saw us on a tour of Muckross House and Traditional Farms. The farms contain a number of authentically re-created buildings such as a labourer’s cottage and a strong farmer’s house and barn, as well as traditionally grown crops and reared livestock. We saw a number of demonstrations including blacksmithing and straw-rope making, and were able to try soda bread made in the cottages with unpasteurised milk from the farms’ cows.

The after-dinner entertainment on Friday included a surprise performance from a local ‘Biddy Group’, a St. Brigid’s Day custom we had heard about from Patricia O’Hare in the morning session which involves local group rivalry, dressing up and disguise, music and dance, and the collection of funds from well-wishers (traditionally used for a feast but now more commonly collected for charity).

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a performance from a local Biddy Group.

Muckross House Traditional Farms and a local Biddy Group. (Images by the author)

Saturday morning’ papers informed us about the conservation of the Kerry bog pony, the archaeology of Irish bog butter and understanding nineteenth century Irish marriage traditions through art. Our afternoon excursion took us to Ross Castle, the ancestral home of the O’Donoghue clan on the shores of Lough Leane, as well as Aghadoe ecclesiastical remains, Ogham stones at Beaufort and the scenic Gap of Dunloe. In the evening we were treated to a wonderful dinner and night of Irish folk music, dance and storytelling in the strong farmer’s house at Muckross.

The weekend’s final papers covered the history of the creamery in rural Ireland, farming and the landscape and the traditional music of North Kerry. The conference was action-packed from start to end and by the end I felt ready for a holiday just to recover, but the varied papers, fascinating excursions, stimulating conversations and beautiful setting made the exhaustion well worth-it! Next year’s conference will be held at the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley, and based on this year’s experience, I will definitely be attending.

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year - the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied!

From a national park in County Kerry this year, to the industrial heritage of the West Midlands next year – the Society for Folk Life Studies is nothing if not varied! (Image by the author; BCLM photograph reproduced courtesy of http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/424167)

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The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

In what seems like an endless crisscrossing of the country, I spent Friday in Aberystwyth at a symposium about craft, heritage and woodland. The symposium was the culmination of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’, a joint project between Ceredigion Museum, Tir Coed (a charity which works to improve the quality of life for rural communities in Wales) and the local community, and was funded by the Happy Museum. I was there to talk about the work MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association have been doing to support crafts – the former in relation to craft objects, and the latter in relation to craft skills.

Like MERL, Ceredigion Museum has a large collection of objects relating to local craft and industry. And like MERL, Ceredigion Museum struggles to interpret the objects and to connect them to the processes by which they were made or used. One strand of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ has involved working with people with experience in greenwood crafts and woodland management to share knowledge about the craft objects in the collection. And one of the aims of the project is to promote social enterprise through traditional crafts, by creating a range of wood craft products which relate to the Museum’s collections to sell in the Museum shop (and hopefully helping to kick-start the participants’ self-employed careers).

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

The morning started with an introduction to the project from Alice Briggs, Assistant Curator at Ceredigion Museum. She explained the importance of marketing the new products in the right way, like emphasising that they were made by local craftspeople using local materials sourced from properly managed woodlands, and linking the products to the collections, the stories of the makers, and the tools used to make them. I think there is potential for a lot of ideas-sharing between Ceredigion and MERL in this respect, as I would like the MERL shop to feature more crafts and complement our collections.

Hilary Jennings from the Happy Museum Commission who, as ‘Happiness Associate’ possibly has the best job title ever, briefly explained the idea behind the Happy Museum project. She was followed by Ffion Farnell, Director of Tir Coed – which sounds like a really inspirational organisation! They use woodlands as a resource for social, economic and environmental enrichment, and even offer apprenticeships and accreditation. We then heard from Bob Shaw, a long-term woodsman, and Stuart Evans, designer and technician at the Museum.

Bob Shaw showed us how to 'bodge' a chair leg.

Bob Shaw showed us how to ‘bodge’ a chair leg.

The symposium was held at the Cwm Rheidol Visitor Centre in a beautiful valley with stunning scenery – and there was even a steam train passing by. It was a gorgeous day, and thankfully we were able to spend quite a bit of time outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and the woods. Bob talked us through the craft of bodging and gave us a demonstration of making a chair leg – from cleaving a log with a froe, to trimming with a side axe, rough shaping with a drawknife on a shave horse, and final shaping using gouges and chisels on a pole lathe. And in the afternoon, Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour around the Cwm Rheidol woods and explained the work he has been doing to manage the woods in a sustainable way, working on the principle of ‘continuous cover’ (where you only fell selected trees within an area, rather than clear-felling an area).

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

I’m keen to see what types of products are made and how they’re marketed, as I think there’s a lot that MERL can learn from this aspect of the project. But ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ more generally really appeals to me – particularly as it gives the Museum a role in supporting craft skills and craft careers, and also traditional woodland management practices and careers. So I’m really keen to see what comes of it!

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Negatives blog

It’s taken 2 years and 4 months, but we have finally finished scanning all of the black and white 60-series negatives of objects in the collection. I say ‘we’, but Felicity and I probably only did about 5% of the scanning – the other 95% was done by a brilliant and extremely dedicated team of volunteers. In total, we’ve worked our way through 23 boxes of negatives to do a whopping 10265 scans!

The project started back in February 2012 as a short project funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), with the aim of digitising 3500 negatives. Working on the principle that a black and white image is infinitely better than no image, we rapidly realised that this was a brilliant way of adding images to the catalogue (as taking new photographs is very time-consuming and expensive). So we decided to just carry on, with the aid of our volunteers, until we’d done all of the negatives of objects.

Not only have we finished all of the scanning, we have also added all of these negatives to Adlib, our catalogue, and they are all available to view online (either through Adlib or Enterprise). This is thanks to one tireless volunteer, Carl, who has spent week after week after tedious week copying and pasting links. This project has made a huge difference to the percentage of our object records which now have an image attached.

So I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Alex, Anna, Anne, Anne, Becca, Beth, Carl, Charlotte, Christina, David, Diana, Doug, Emily, Emma, George, Josh, Juliet, Megan, Nina, Pablo, Phoebe, Rebecca, Steve, Stuart and Tom. THANK YOU!!!!!

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Last week I attended the AGM and conference of the Rural Museums Network. The RMN, of which MERL is a member, is an organisation which exists to support and promote the work of museums with collections relating to the UK’s rural heritage. This year the two-day event was held in Worcestershire, the first day at S.E. Davis & Son Ltd in Redditch and the second day at Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove.

S.E. Davis is a family owned company which is thought to have the biggest private collection of historic agricultural and earth-moving machinery in the country. They hosted the first day of presentations, during which we heard talks on the debate about conservation versus operation of historic machinery, the work of heritage farming ‘Skills for the Future’ trainees in East Anglia, and the conservation of a windmill at Avoncroft Museum. It was fascinating to take a tour of the collection at S.E. Davis – I was stunned by the scale of it, and its significance both nationally and internationally. Just a few items that stand out in my memory are dredgers used on the Suez Canal, and a tractor used on HMS Arc Royal to push redundant jets into the sea. The collection must have required enormous inputs of time and money from the Davis family, with many of the vehicles and machines having been saved from scrap merchants at the last minute. It was interesting to discuss the different challenges facing museums and private collectors, and the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

S E Davis

One small part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

The conference dinner was held at a pub not far from S.E. Davis. I arrived, conventionally, by car, but some lucky attendees were delivered to the pub in a trailer pulled by one of the family’s working steam engines. They might have had all the fun, but some were looking a little splattered with oil and soot by the time they arrived!

Traction engine

A working historic vehicle being put to good use as pub transportation.

The next day was the AGM of the network and I was able to update the other network members about the redevelopment work going on at MERL. Several other member organisations are also undergoing redevelopment so it was interesting and useful to compare notes and hear about work going on in other parts of the sector. We also had the opportunity to look around the buildings at Avoncroft, in particular the windmill which we had heard about the previous day. I used to volunteer at Avoncroft when I was a high school student, so it was lovely to have the chance to see what had changed since my last visit.

Caterpillar

The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

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After working with Greta for two-and-a-half years, I suppose it was inevitable that some of her enthusiasm for baskets would rub off on me.  Spurred on by this and the success of last year’s introduction to blacksmithing day at Avoncroft Museum, I spent a very pleasant Saturday last month making my very first basket. I attended an ‘Introduction to Willow Weaving’ course run by Jon Ridgeon at Winterbourne House & Garden in Birmingham.

Basket-making

The all-important tea break, after completing the base of my basket.

Being somewhat familiar with basketry tools, terms and techniques from my involvement with the Stakeholders project, the craft felt oddly familiar for something that I had never attempted before. We made simple little round-based baskets with pretty arched handles. If I remember correctly, we used twining to make the circular base then added in the vertical stakes which would form the basis of the basket’s sides. The sides consisted of a combination of ‘french randing’ and a ‘three-rod wale’. Finally we finished the sides off with a rim and added a hazel handle. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of my complete basket to share with you but I promise that while identifiably having been made by a complete beginner, it wasn’t too terrible! It was a brilliant day, and it was really interesting to see how different all our baskets looked, given that we had followed the same instructions!

I’m hoping to go along to some more of Jon’s courses in the coming months and hopefully also have a go at some other crafts. I’m happy to take recommendations as to what to have a go at next – and if it’s a craft with relevant collections at MERL, all the better!

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Yesterday was one of the Best Days Ever! At the suggestion of Sarah Le Breton, one of the basketmakers who took part in the Stakeholders project, I went to visit the Willow and Wetlands Visitor Centre in Stoke Saint Gregory, Somerset – the home of P. H Coate & Son, willow growers and basketmakers.

Coates started out in 1819 and is still a family business. I met Jonathan and Nicola Coate, and Jonathan’s mother Anne. Sarah and I started the day with a wonderful tour by Anne (I just wanted to scribble down everything she was saying), which included the history of willow-growing in the Somerset Levels and the history of the business, the museum collection of baskets (one of the main reasons for my visit), the methods of processing willow and, finally, the workshop where five makers were hard at work.

In the afternoon, Nicola drove us round the withy beds which were badly affected by the flooding earlier in the year. Miraculously, Coates managed to harvest about 80% of its willow, but the silt on the stems of the unharvested willow showed just how bad the flooding was.

Two baskets at MERL made at Coates circa 1945. (L) MERL 60/457, potato hopper. MERL 60/459, potato planting basket.

Two baskets at MERL made at Coates circa 1945. (L) MERL 60/457, potato hopper. (R) MERL 60/459, potato planting basket.

With the collapse of the basketmaking industry after World War Two, Coates have had to diversify their offer over the decades – making new types of baskets (e.g. willow coffins), finding new markets (e.g. for films, TV and theatre), making new products altogether (in the 1960s Coates began to make artists charcoal), keeping beef cattle (it was traditional in the Levels for cattle or sheep to graze on the harvested withy beds to eat any early shoots) and, obviously, becoming a tourist attraction.

Coates is an amazing place and offers a really unique experience. I sometimes feel like a bit of a heretic in the museum world because my true passion lies in keeping craft skills alive, rather than in keeping craft objects forever. I’m particularly interested in whether museums can play a role in ensuring the survival of a craft and what that role can be. I’m also really interested in exploring what can be done with smaller craft collections (be they in museums or otherwise) and the different ways they can be used.

A beach chair, for protecting holiday-makers from the wind. They were available for hire in the same way as deck chairs are today.

A beach chair, for protecting holiday-makers from the wind. They were available for hire in the same way as deck chairs are today.

So for me, Coates is so wonderful because you can see the craft of basketmaking in its full context and appreciate that the survival of a craft relies on so much more than just the making of the end product. At Coates you can see the whole chain of basketmaking – from growing the willow, to harvesting it, and to processing it, and then using it. It’s a great combination – the focus is very much on the making (it is a business after all), which keeps the craft alive and ensures that skills are passed on, and is supported by the collection of historic English willow baskets which present the history of the craft from a museological angle.

I came away full of ideas, and my mind was buzzing on the train home making links and connections between the baskets at Coates and those here at MERL. It was reaffirming to see similar baskets in both – it shows to me that MERL’s collection contains the right sorts of baskets. It was great to see crossovers – bushel baskets, picnic baskets, sparrow traps, singlesticks etc. It also confirms my love of baskets justification – that ‘anything and everything was made out of basketry’ – from pans for scales, to carriages for spinal patients, to hireable windproof beach chairs! The visit has also given me loads of ideas for blog posts and avenues to explore – I’ve been meaning to write something about our artillery shell basket for a while now and Coates had numerous wartime baskets, the most intriguing of which is a willow aeroplane seat from World War I, and Anne showed me a World War II government publication entitled ‘Baskets into Battle / from Willow to Weapons’.

Thank you so much to Anne, Nicola, Jonathan and Sarah for making it such a wonderful day! I really hope I can visit again.

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Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

One of MERL’s latest acquisitions is a beech spoon carved by spoon-carver Martin Damen during an oral history interview conducted for the Reading Connections project. Martin is a regular at the MERL village fete (he’ll be here again this year on Saturday 31 May) and the MERL traditional crafts fair, and is also a strong supporter of the Heritage Crafts Association. Ever since I first met Martin and saw his beautiful spoons I’ve wanted to have a go, and this weekend I finally had the chance when I went on a two-day course with him. I love trying out different crafts I encounter – because it makes cataloguing easier when you understand how things are used, because I just love having a go at different things, and because I’m hoping to discover the craft that really suits me.
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

The course was brilliant – Martin is a great teacher and explained everything really clearly (and you even got a knife and a course book with instructions and diagrams to take away with you). We began by looking at the two key tools – a knife and an axe – and practising the different techniques for using them. Martin makes it look so easy but you do need significant amounts of force/power – hardly surprising given that, even though you are using very green wood, you are using wood. The first day was spent making a butter knife in cherrywood. On the second day we were introduced to another tool – the hook knife, which is used for hollowing the bowl of the spoon – and made our very own spoons out of hazel (I think). Martin was really good at encouraging us to think about how a spoon functions and to consider the shape and form needed to make a spoon comfortable and practical to use (e.g. the shape and depth of the bowl, the thickness of the rim, the crank of the handle etc).
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2. It’s not quite finished – I still need to take the edges off.

It was really really hard work and I felt like I was struggling the whole time – definitely not something that came naturally to me (although obviously a lot of it is down to practise and familiarity with using knives and wielding axes). I’m really glad that I had a go and am very pleased with my pieces (which did admittedly receive quite a lot of help from Martin – I was very slow and would never have completed them otherwise). We got to take some wood away so I am hoping to try again in my spare time – although I think I’ll stick to butter knives for the time being!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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