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Our first in-gallery object handling session

Our first in-gallery object handling session

As part of the Reading Engaged project, MERL is looking to develop a handling collection and programme of object handling sessions which can take place in a variety of settings: whether it be in-gallery, elsewhere on site, or off-site. We have been working with freelance curator and consultant Charlotte Dew to help us develop the collection, the sessions, and all the accompanying policies and procedures.

On Saturday we held an Information Day about Our Country Lives, MERL’s major redisplay (NB. The Museum will be closing to the public at the end of October for approximately one year, but the Library, Archives and Reading Room will remain open throughout. You can find out more about the redevelopment here) and took the opportunity to trial some of our ideas for a session based around looking at the relationship between craft tools and the finished items, i.e. how a tool is used to make something. Although we’ve been developing this session as a facilitated session for adult learners in the teaching space/studio area, we decided to test out some of the objects in an in-gallery setting.

We had four objects available for handling: two relating to lace-making, and two relating to bodging. The lace-making pair consisted of four bone bobbins (MERL 55/205/1–4) and a piece of handmade lace (MERL 59/290/8), each in a small Perspex box. The bodging pair consisted of a chisel (MERL 51/112 – we didn’t want to shy away from trying out objects perceived as ‘dangerous’ or ‘high risk’) and a turned spindle from a Windsor chair (MERL 51/63). Nitrile gloves were provided for handling this latter pair of objects.

We had a table set up in the Temporary Exhibition space, and each pair of objects was set out in a tray lined with acid-free tissue paper. We also had a copy of the ‘Object handling rules’ displayed by each tray, and boxes of nitrile gloves in small, medium and large were also set out on the table. There were two of us running the session, each taking charge of a pair of objects. I had prepared some background information for us both to look at in advance which detailed the purpose of the session, the objects we would be using, and some background information about the crafts and what sort of things we might want to discuss with visitors.

24 people (ranging from the very young to the not-so young) came up to us throughout the afternoon – and I thought this would be a good chance to critique how the session went, so here goes:

  • Although everyone said they thought handling opportunities were a good idea, very few people seemed to want to pick up the objects:
  • —–Were they not interested?
  • —–Did they not realise they could?
  • —–Was the set-up off-putting?
  • —–Was the need to wear gloves off-putting?
  • —–Should we have had ‘Please touch’ signs?
  • More people seemed willing to pick up the lace-making objects than the bodging objects:
  • —–Was this because they were in Perspex boxes so gloves weren’t required?
  • —–Was this because they were smaller so you needed to pick them up for a closer look?
  • —–Was this because they were somehow ‘more interesting’ objects (they were certainly more colourful)?
  • —–Was this because they were more easily identifiable objects?
  • The opportunity to handle real objects didn’t seem to be as important as the opportunity to discuss the objects and find out more about them on a one-to-one basis/in-depth level
  • The level of background knowledge of the facilitators is really important, especially when dealing with adult audiences (and I was really glad that Jenny and I had both read up a bit on the crafts)
  • Perhaps we should have asked questions that necessitated touching – e.g. feel the weight of the tool, how does the tool sit in your hand etc.

It would be great to hear your thoughts! What makes object handling appealing, and what makes it off-putting? What could we do to make it a better experience or a more successful session? Do you want to handle real museum objects?

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Every time I look at the Historypin website, the number of channels has increased, with many museums and archives across the world having their own Historypin channel. I’ve had a quick look at some of them, and most seem to be plotting their photographic collections, which is how Historypin was intended to be used. Here at MERL, however, we’re trying to plot out object collections. Danielle explained some of the issues in doing this in her previous post – particularly those relating to the fact that objects are often associated with multiple places. However, there is a third approach to Historypin that I wanted to write about today, as it sprang both from the work we’re doing here at MERL and a post I wrote a while ago about mapping craft.

 

I have mentioned the Potter, Wright and Webb blog before, which looks at traditional regional crafts in the UK. Rachel has written posts on swill basketmaking in Cumbria, sanquhar knitting in Dumfriesshire, Orkney chairs in the Orkney Islands and bodging in Buckinghamshire. When I wrote about mapping craft, I mentioned that I would really like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map, and this is exactly what the Potter, Wright and Webb Historypin channel which Rachel set up is attempting to do. (Also have a look at Rachel’s blog post about it here).

 

Potter Wright and Webb's Historypin channel

While other museums are looking to plot where a particular photograph was taken on a map (and also position the photo on street view to enable fading in and out), and while MERL is trying to plot where a particular object was made, used and acquired, Rachel is taking a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the particular, she is looking at the general – at typologies of objects rather than individual objects.

 

MERL 68/595, Southport boat basket

 

Let’s take the example of a Southport boat basket, a basket designed originally for marketing butter and eggs. This is one of the few baskets for which there is a known inventor and date. It was designed in 1830 by Mr Cobham of Mawdesley, Lancashire, and the manufacture was developed by Thomas Cowley, a local basketmaking firm. However, because the design of a basket cannot be patented, the Southport boat has been copied all over the world.

 

We have eight of them in the collection at MERL. We would pin each of these separately to Historypin – pinning each to the place(s) where it was made, used and collected, and would have a separate photo of each basket. Rachel, on the other hand, would have one photograph (which needn’t be any specific Southport boat, just a Southport boat) and would pin it generally to Southport/Lancashire.

 

This approach could be used for all sorts of things. For example, billhooks, wagons and ploughs are often regional in design, and the typology of each could be pinned to that place. So, on Rachel’s map a generic ‘Dorset wagon’ would be pinned to Dorset, whereas on the MERL map a specific Dorset wagon would be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of wagon 61/43 at MERL, that would be Bridport and Broadoak in Dorset (where it was made) and Newhouse Farm in Broadoak (where it was acquired)). Likewise, a generic ‘Sussex billhook’ would be pinned to Sussex on Rachel’s map, whereas on the MERL map a specific Sussex billhook we be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of billhook 54/704 that would be Birmingham (where it was made) and Camden (where it was acquired)).

MERL 61/43, Wiltshire wagon

Rachel is only in the early stages of using Historypin for this purpose and there are still many things to consider, such as whether she is plotting historic traditional regional crafts, or those that survive today, or both. It’s necessary to have a date to pin something to Historypin, and it’s possibly to filter by date so these functions could help tackle this issue. Another  question is how to deal with crafts such as blacksmithing which occur everywhere.

 

Cumbrian swill basket as pinned on Potter, Wright and Webb's Historypin channel.

Even though there are still things to think about, I think this is a great way to use Historypin, and there is potential for cross over with the work we’re doing at MERL, especially when plotting our craft collections. And what’s really good to know is that people are reading our blog, and that it is inspiring them to do similar things. We’d be really interested to hear from any museum already mapping its object collections, or looking to do something similar!

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