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.


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.


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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It’s been a long time coming but last week I finally finished re-classifying all 18900 records in the objects database on Adlib as part of Countryside 21!!! I’ve been working on this on and off since mid-December so it’s great to have finally completed it – especially as actually completing anything is somewhat of a rarity of at MERL. The project target was to re-classify and add associated keywords to 10,000 records. However, it seemed to me that the process would only be worth it if all the records were re-classified – so that’s what I did!

Until this work to review the MERL Classification began, all objects had a single classification based on an object’s sphere of use – they can now have multiple classifications, all of which are process-driven (see previous posts on the Classification). The new classifications have been added in numerical form (as were the old classifications – which have been retained in Adlib), and have also been added textually as associated subject keywords (a new step). All of the existing associated subject keywords have been deleted from all of the object records – they were a jumbled mess and had not been applied in a consistent or logical manner so weren’t much help when searching. The associated subject keywords now consist of the following types:

  • Activity: textual versions of the Classification, plus additional activities (e.g. farriery and particular craft specialisms)
  • Animal: animals to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Geography: associated places
  • Object name: generally objects depicted in paintings and photographs
  • Plant: plants (crops, fruit, vegetables etc.) to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Subject: materials, products, and some useful subject groupings (e.g. shooting – which brings together all objects relating to shooting, whether they relate to hunting, sport, regulation and control, personal use etc.)

The actual process of applying the revised Classification to the object collections has revealed some flaws in the new Classification. For example, there is nowhere to put objects which relate to agriculture generally rather than specifically to Cultivating (3.00) or Harvesting (9.00) – this was also true of the old Classification. Lighting that isn’t for domestic purposes is now a bit of a problem – previously lighting was a primary heading of its own, but it now falls under the primary heading Domestic and family life (4.00). However, these are all things that can be reviewed in due course.  

My application of the Classification and keywords may not be perfect but it’s about 95% consistent and logical – which should make an enormous difference to anyone searching the collection. The revised Classification and other associated activity keywords have been published on the MERL website and are available here.

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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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Way back in May last year I posted about one of the many challenges we’ve faced in the Countryside21 project – conducting a survey of the time-based media (TBM) in the MERL Archives. There were three stages to the survey: 1) identifying what TBM there is, 2) finding it, and 3) developing an action plan for its conservation.

It felt like we spent a good part of the summer rummaging around in the Archives, moving boxes, opening tins and doing an awful lot of counting, but we eventually got there and have, fingers crossed, found all the TBM. Having not fully understood how the Archives work in terms of duplicates (films have master copies, viewing copies and preservation copies – all of which are kept in different locations and not always obviously labelled) we opted for keeping really detailed notes of what we found, in the hope that someone else would know what it all means, and this has proved a sensible plan!

We have now come up with totals for all of the different types of media – e.g. audio cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes, CDs, DVDs, film (8mm, 16mm etc.), floppy disks, gramophone records, videos (VHS, betacam, umatic etc.), hard drives etc. – and are working out what to do next. Some things we can transfer to a digital format in-house. I’ve managed to dig out an external floppy disk drive from home and have been converting those. I was quite surprised that a Windows7 computer was able to read a floppy disk from the 1990s. Other things will need specialist equipment to transfer and will have to be done externally. But obviously we have to prioritise as these things are very costly.

To help us in this process, several of us (Felicity and me, and two of the University archivists) went on a digital preservation training course, run by the Digital Preservation Coalition. Digital preservation was described as ‘the series of managed activities necessary to ensure that digital materials remain accessible beyond the limits of obsolescence’. The course focused on the preservation of born-digital material (material that has only ever existed in digital format) rather than digital surrogates (hard copy things which have been digitised). The vast majority of the digital material at MERL is digital surrogates, but there were still many useful points for us.

These included the need to think about what it is you want to achieve through preservation, and the need to think in terms of who will use the data, rather than in terms of preserving data itself. Another point was that you need to maintain software, hardware and people, all of which change, in order to preserve digital material. We were introduced to different approaches to digital preservation (migration, emulation, hardware preservation, etc.) and different tools for doing it, and also to methodologies for conducting risk assessments and developing preservation plans. And a really key point was that OK is sometimes good enough, i.e. don’t wait for perfection in digital preservation, just get started!

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MERL 60/202 - photographs

MERL 60/202 – photographs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post about the Stakeholders project – indeed, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to do any work on the project – but in the past couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to turn my attention back to my beloved baskets and have now added all the information that we gathered during the study visit to the catalogue. This isn’t the sort of skim-the-surface cataloguing that I’ve done for other projects at MERL – it’s much more in-depth. There’s now so much detail about the baskets that it’s like going from one extreme to the other.

I’ve typed up the recording forms that were completed during the visit, making a few amendments for clarity, so that all the details are available and can be brought up in a free text search. I’ve also attached scans of the original forms as well. I’ve then focused on adding the overall/general technique used*** (coiled, stake and strand, knotted or netted, plaited, twined, assembled), the main materials used, and providing more detailed dimensions. I’ve also edited the general descriptions I wrote when I catalogued the baskets first time round in summer 2012 to incorporate the additional information gained through the project and to ensure that all the details are correct.

The records now also have a really good set of photos attached to them – both general and close-up shots. Back in January we spent a very long day taking photos of about 65 baskets (the Stakeholders baskets plus those without colour photos) and ended up taking over 650 photos! And finally, as part of another project, I’ve been working through the entire collection (nearly 19,000 records) to give everything a new and standardised set of keywords – as a result, all the baskets, basketwork items and basketry tools now have keyword ‘basketry’, which can be used as another way to find them on the online catalogue (using the ‘subject’ field in the advanced search).

So have a look at the online catalogue and explore some of the baskets!

Stakeholders blog

MERL 68/202 – cataloguing work (internal catalogue view)

*** Technique refers to the overall construction of the basket. I did think about keywording for all the different techniques (e.g. slewing, randing, pairing, fitching, waling, etc.) but there were several issues with this: 1) I don’t fully understand them, which makes cataloguing a challenge; 2) I’m wary of filling the thesaurus with extremely niche keywords; 3) one basket can use so many techniques – indeed, one part of a basket can use so many techniques – so it all becomes extremely complicated to catalogue and makes the records unwieldy; and 4) I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of benefit to cataloguing in quite so much detail, especially as that information is present in the recording form (both the scan and the transcription).

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One word I’d never heard until I started working on the Countryside21 project is ‘aboutness’. It may sound a bit like it’s not really a word but it is actually a very useful concept. We’re using it to help us better keyword the photographs that will be made accessible on the new Digital Asset Management system. The idea is to make the photographic collections much more easily searchable to picture researchers, which means that we have to put a lot more thought into what sorts of terms people might use to search for images.

Boy feeding a lamb.

A photograph of a young boy feeding a lamb.

The essence of ‘aboutness’ is that there is often a difference between what a photograph is ‘of’ and what it is ‘about’. As an example, take this image. We can say that it is ‘of’ a young boy feeding a lamb under a blossoming tree, watched by an adult standing in the background. How many picture researchers will specifically look for an image of a child feeding a lamb? Perhaps a few. But there is more to the image. We might suggest that it is also ‘about’: nurturing, innocence, confidence, learning, supervision, safety and childhood. Tagging an image with keywords based on emotions and concepts as well as physical things will, we hope, widen up its potential appeal and vastly increase its searchability.

The main aim of this part of the project is to keyword three-thousand images from the collection (including a number of photographs of museum objects) with such ‘aboutness’ keywords. So far, we’ve run an initial focus group with volunteers to help us test the concept and work out how best to organise the process of ‘tagging’ each image with the appropriate keywords. Another focus group will be run in the next few weeks, after which we’ll be ready to get started with the main set of images. In the meantime, here’s a few of the selected images – do comment and let us know what you think they’re ‘about’!

dx289_0011a, dx289_0344 and dx289_0626

What are these images ‘about’?





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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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