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Anyone who has followed the Sense of Place blog since day 1 back in February will recall that I mentioned working with Historypin, a website which encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

I also explained that one of the aims of the Sense of Place project is to work with Historypin in finding a method of also pinning MERL object collection data onto these maps, to provide them with an enhanced geographical context.

Although it appears that we have gone a little quiet on this front, we have been making steady progress behind the scenes and are pleased to announce that we now have our very own ‘History pinner in Residence,’ Rebekkah Abraham.  Rebekkah is the Historypin Content Manager for We Are What We Do and currently has the pleasure of travelling out to Reading every so often to work alongside the Sense of Place team at MERL.  We are very pleased to be working with her too.

She is now busily working away on the technicalities of exporting data from our object cataloguing system, Adlib, through to Historypin, to ensure that information from the relevant fields is transferred successfully providing as much information as possible for the user.  This will include the object name, a brief description and history, the maker and production date where applicable.  These exports will mean that when updates or amendments are made to our records, they are automatically updated in Historypin.

This project presents a new challenge for Rebekkah and Historypin as the website is currently only designed to upload photographs and their related information, which means some development is required.  However, once this is achieved, there will hopefully be scope for many other museums from around the world to plot their collections geographically in a similar way.

A visible development of this work is now available to explore in the form of a MERL Historypin ‘channel’ which holds everything from the MERL collections which has been uploaded so far.  Do take a look as its far better to grasp what Historypin is capable of by trying it out, rather me rambling on about it in a blog post!

For a number of reasons, which have been mentioned in several previous blog posts, the village of Bucklebury in Berkshire has been identified as an ideal location to begin plotting photographic and object content to on Historypin via this channel.  This will then allow us to have a defined geographical area which we can try-out various Historypin functionality with.  These could be tours, collections, stories and potentially a mobile phone app, which will highlight the rich collections that the museum is lucky to own, originating from Bucklebury.

Bucklebury also has a thriving History Group and they now have their own channel too.  This means that they can begin to upload the many images which they have collected over the years, making them more accessible to anyone who is interested.  They already have some beautiful photographs from the 1953 Coronation celebrations which took place in the village.
Of course, there are some problems for us to iron out.  These things are never as straight forward as you might imagine. Many of the objects in the MERL collection have multiple places associated with them (where they are made, used, acquired etc) and representing this complex biography is one of the objectives of the project.  We still need to work out how this will work in practice when they are plotted to a map, ensuring we do not end up confusing researchers and other interested parties further.

Historypin also currently works by plotting photographs in a location and at a specific historic date.  Many of the objects in the collection have no or very little information regarding the date they were made or used and it would be difficult to add this data to such a large selection of objects accurately, within the constraints of this project.

Nevertheless, it feels exciting to be able to share some progress with you, which you can actually have a look at and explore further!

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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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