Context

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Many of you will no doubt already know that it was Open Farm Sunday yesterday. Along with friends and family I made a somewhat last minute plan to visit one of the places participating in this scheme. The site in question was Sandy Lane Farm, near Tiddington, Oxfordshire. Here we enjoyed a tour by tractor and a series of talks delivered by the farmer, Charles Bennett, as well as indulging in the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake. There was also much more on offer and, all in all, our visit provided us not only with a great afternoon’s entertainment but also proved to be highly informative.

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

It struck me during the afternoon that there is really no substitute for a genuine ‘onsite’ sense of place. In other words, for me at least, being ‘in’ a place is always going to be more powerful and enlightening than being at a remove. Even the very best interpretation in the world cannot replace the multi-sensory feeling and direct material engagement of actually being there, in a place where rural lives both did and still do play out. In a similar and more obvious vein, a muddy and oily Ferguson tractor that kids can clamber on and pretend to drive is always going to win out over the sanitised but sacrosanct TE20 that we have on display at MERL. On the flip side of this, jumping around in the hay – as my kids and those of my friends did yesterday – is not going to explain how meadows were managed in the past, or enlighten them as to the people or technologies involved in hay production past or present. It takes intervention and an interpretive voice, whether this be the onsite words of the farmer or the gallery-based musings of a curator.

Jumping in the hay

Playing in the hay at Sandy Lane Farm

Simple as these observations may seem, I think they raise significant questions for museums, most of whose collections are inherently connected with a whole series of other places. So, the next step on from this Project and its process of re-connecting museum-held things to original contexts of manufacture, use, and collection has to be one of deepening contextualisation. It has to be a process of engagement with the people now in (or once from)  these original contexts. It has to be a process of reaching out to the rural people whose heritage is housed and represented in the Museum. It has to be an invitation to members of these ‘source communities’ to help MERL (and by proxy the wider public) to better understand the rich depth and complexity of rural history as a whole. It has to deliver inventive and creative mechanisms through which to communciate how the seemingly static holdings of the gallery and store actually connect to a whole host of dynamic and vibrant external sites and places, where rural life continues apace.

Thanks to all at Sandy Lane Farm for a great day out and a very nice cup of tea, for giving me food for thought and a fun way to exacerbate my hayfever (yes, I am a farmer’s son who suffers from hayfever!). Oh, and I checked the database and MERL has only one artefact from Tiddington, this being a type of chain used to hold restless cattle that dates to the mid-19th century. Mr and Mrs Bennett and their family appeared to dabble in farming pretty much everything but cattle. However, I still think it would still be interesting to hear what their thoughts are on this object and on the ways in which life in Tiddington has changed since the 1840s when this object was made, the interwar period when it was first acquired by H. J. Massingham, and 1951 when it came to Reading.

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Leaving my own thoughts on what a ‘sense of place’ means to another time, I’m going to talk a little bit about the practical issues we have encountered when putting geographic context about objects onto our database.

Having plenty of geographical context in the paper accession files, we had to decide how to put that information onto the database, and how to make it searchable.  We decided to create a hierarchy of places so that any specific place would, ideally, be linked to a county, region and country. Adlib, the database we’re working with, has a hierarchical capacity which enables us to do this. So, the geographical keyword (i.e. place) ‘Reading’ could be linked to ‘Berkshire’, for example.  This brought up the issue, however, of deciding what form our hierarchy should take.  Should we use a current list of contemporary administrative units, which include ‘unitary authorities’?  Or should we use the still commonly used ceremonial counties?  Long discussions threw up more and more ‘but what if…’ problems.  How would we put ‘the Cotswolds’ into a hierarchy, for example?  What about an object which arrived in the 1950s from Middlesex, a county which completely ceased to exist in the 1960s?

Throughout the course of these discussions, I discovered that my own understanding of the county system in the United Kingdom was woefully inaccurate.  In my defence, it really is quite confusing.  The ‘County of Herefordshire’, for example, is also a unitary authority, and the ‘City of London’ is apparently also a ceremonial county.  Aside from showing up my own lack of geographical understanding though, our discussions did raise an important point – how do our visitors, who will hopefully be using ‘place’ as a way to search and access the collections, understand ‘place’?

Eventually, we decided that the only way to achieve any sort of consistency in our cataloguing was to use a hierarchy based on contemporary administrative boundaries, and we have based ours on the hierarchy used in the online ‘Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names’.  Bearing in mind some of the ‘problem places’ mentioned above, though, we have added in a number of other hierarchy levels.  These will hopefully enable us to both more accurately represent the level of contextual detail contained in the accession records, and make the hierarchy fit with as many understandings of ‘place’ as possible.

Places are therefore linked first to their ‘administrative unit’, but then also to their ceremonial county (if relevant) and region.  So ‘Reading’ is linked up to ‘Reading [unitary authority]’, which is linked to ‘Berkshire’, which is linked to ‘South East England’, and so on.  A lower level may also be added, that of ‘specific locale’, such as farm names, estate names and, where relevant, street names.  The problem places such as now non-existent counties and vague areas such as the ‘Cotswolds’ are still entered, but link straight to the country/countries they are in.  They are listed as ‘non-preferred terms’, showing that they should only be used when no other information is available, and also have a note which defines the area that they refer to.

It’s certainly not a perfect system, and we still regularly encounter new ‘but what if…’ problems, but we hope that eventually it will enable visitors to access information about ‘place’ in our collections in a way that is both consistent and logical, but also meaningful to them.

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