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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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Our office decoration - complete with counties and unitary authorities.

MERL has a sizeable collection of rural craft objects, both finished items and the tools needed to make them. The craft collections are one of the things that first attracted me to the Museum, and my first visit to MERL was to interview the former Keeper, Roy Brigden, about craft and intangible heritage in museums for my Museum Studies dissertation (ultimately I wrote it about craft as intangible heritage in the UK). This means that I’m always on the look out to do things at MERL connected with the craft collections.

Here in the Sense of Place project office we’re using the word ‘mapping’ quite a lot. Work is being carried out on Adlib this afternoon, which means no cataloguing, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a post about mapping – and will do so in the context of craft. It’s a bit of a stream-of-consciousness post so apologies if it jumps from here to there!

Our project is called ‘A Sense of Place’ – it clearly has something to do with places, with geography. As you’re no doubt aware, we’re enhancing the Museum’s catalogue with information about place – where the objects in the collection were made, used and collected – so that we can ultimately plot them on a map. This will enable us to ‘see’ where our objects have come from. This forms part of the work we’re doing with Historypin and trialling in Bucklebury, Berkshire. Plotting our collections in this way will not only provide visitors with new ways to search the collections but will also enable us, the Museum, to see the geographical spread of our objects and identify places from which we have many/few/no objects. This also has the potential to feed into MERL’s acquisitions and disposals policies – we may want to acquire objects from areas in England that aren’t currently very well represented, or we may question why we have objects from other countries (such as an Israeli ard) when we are the Museum of English Rural Life.

MERL's Israeli ard (61/3/1-3). Incidentally, this is one of the 60 series of black and white negatives that are being scanned by a team of volunteers for the JISC digitisation project that Felicity and I are also working on.

Although we tend to think of mapping (and maps) in a geographical context, it isn’t all about plotting places on maps and connecting things/ideas to places. Mapping has different meanings in different fields (this is where I now struggle to explain them, but you can see that they’re not to do with geography/maps in the conventional sense). In computer programming you can ‘map’ drives and software so that you can have access to them from different places, in maths ‘mapping’ is another word for ‘function’, you can ‘map out’ or plan your future and you can make something well known or ‘put it on the map’. It’s not all about geography.

In my life outside MERL, I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. It aims to support and promote traditional crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage in the UK and ensure that those craft skills are carried on into the future. As part of my work for the HCA I sit on the steering group of a ‘mapping’ project commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and run by Creative and Cultural Skills. This piece of research seeks to ‘map’ the occupations, skills and economic contribution of the heritage craft sector in England. So this project is about gaining a deeper understanding, building a better a picture, understanding the size/shape/form/spread etc. rather than looking at craft in terms of place or in a geographical sense. I do hope, however, that the final report will include some regional analysis so that we can understand how the craft sector differs across the country.

Back to more conventional ‘mapping’, I really would like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map. The HCA does have a craft map showing where traditional craftspeople are across the country, but I’d like a map to show the multitude of crafts which are strongly tied to particular areas, be it saddle making in Walsall, shoe making in Northampton, cutlery in Sheffield, willow basket making in Somerset, straw plaiting and hat making in Bedfordshire, chair bodging in High Wycombe etc. – the list goes on. There’s a good blog about regional crafts here. This relationship between place and craft has developed for all sorts of reasons – the materials available, the natural landscape, the ways of living, the development of industry – and understanding where something comes from is key to understanding why that thing is the way it is. This is not only true of the crafts, but is also true of other groups of objects we have at MERL, such as ploughs and wagons, the design of which is informed by the type of soil and the terrain of the areas in which they were used.

The HCA's map of traditional craftspeople - available on the HCA website (www.heritagecrafts.org.uk)

I feel that the UK is quite behind in making that link between craft and place. Last summer I went to Japan for a few weeks (having studied Japanese at university and visited several times) with the idea of travelling around and looking at traditional crafts as I went. I did start to blog about it, and would definitely like to see more in the future. Japan has been preserving its intangible cultural heritage since the 1950s and they really look after their traditional crafts, with an Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, a Centre for Traditional Crafts (renamed Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square), a Folk Crafts Museum, craft museums in most prefectures, a Living National Treasures scheme etc. I started my journey with a visit to the Centre for Traditional Crafts in Tokyo and picked up a fantastic map of Japan with all of the regional crafts plotted on it. It was the first time I’d seen anything like it and I thought it was brilliant. Once you start to know where a craft comes from, you can begin to understand why it developed there. I recently saw something similar on the BBC’s ‘Our Food’ programme which plotted local foods on a map of the UK, and the programme explored the relationship between place and food. Maps like these can really help us start to think about things in new ways – by ‘seeing’ that relationship with place represented on a map, we realise that relationship exists and can begin to understand and explore it.

A screenshot from BBC2's 'Our Food' programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01fkcdp/sign/Our_Food_Norfolk)

In my spare time (there doesn’t seem to be much of it left) I’ve started compiling a list so that I can create one of these maps myself – any contributions are very welcome! And in my work time, I’m hoping to explore that relationship with place in the basket collections.

The Team has now divvied up some of the different strands of the Sense of Place project and we are moving our focus away from chronological cataloguing to concentrate on testing various uses for the enhanced catalogue. In our chronological cataloguing, I’m part way through 1955 while Felicity is working on 1956, and we do hope to make it out of the 1950s by the end of the year. Danielle will be concentrating on our work with Bucklebury History Group and Historypin, while Felicity will look at the use of QR codes and augmented reality as ways of accessing information about the displays in the Museum. I’m a bit more of a technophobe and am going to be looking at using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on Adlib, which will hopefully allow us to pull out information from our enhanced catalogue records to produce an online exhibition. I’m hoping to put together an exhibition on regional baskets as I’m quite a fan – I used baskets as a case study craft for my dissertation. I think MERL has about 425 baskets in the collection. My plan is to catalogue them, map them in the traditional geographic sense so that I can see where they’ve all come from), and then explore the relationship between the baskets and those places. This is still very much in the pipeline but I’m really excited about it! I will, of course, continue to contribute to the Bucklebury efforts.

And I haven’t forgotten that I still need to blog about the Massingham Collection that was part of my 1951 cataloguing. I want to find out a bit more about Massingham before I attempt to write anything so his book, ‘Country Relics’, is on my (ever-growing) reading list.

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

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

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

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

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

Silver Jubilee Street Party Vine Crescent Reading, 1977

Silver Jubilee Street Party, Vine Crescent, Reading, 1977

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

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