Greta Bertram

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For those of you who don’t get up early in order to think about rural places and ponder countryside issues, you may have missed our very own Greta Bertram (Sense of Place Project Officer) on this morning’s edition of the BBC Radio 4 series Farming Today. Don’t worry though, you can still listen to her interview online.

As a Trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association, Greta’s interests within the Sense of Place project are increasingly centred on the diversity of  intangible heritage represented by the material holdings at MERL and how these skills may be seen to link to the places where such crafts first emerged or are still maintained in the present day. In her interview Greta hints at the potential for renewed vigour within the extant networks of regional craft skills.

As the project develops Greta will hopefully develop some of these ideas and issues and bring them to bear on the mapping of MERL’s historical holdings.

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Just in time for a well-deserved Easter break, Project Officer Greta Bertram has just completed improvements to catalogue information associated with all the artefacts that entered the museum’s collection during its founding year of 1951. This is no small achievement, entailing as it has the enhancement of some 1344 records in the collection database. Well done Greta!

The initial object in this run of entries was a humble animal bell, which had been allocated the accession number ‘MERL 51/1‘ to indicate that it was the first item to be formally acquired during the year 1951. Undertaking research for a recent temporary exhibition I had the opportunity to speak with the man who gave this object to the museum. Back then he was a student in the University of Reading’s Department of Agriculture and he remains a local farmer, still living in the same place he did when the object was donated. In order to track him down I simply searched for the farm name online and gave one of the phone numbers I found a try, not really expecting to have very much luck. In actual fact, his wife answered the phone and, after my long-winded explanation for ringing, she told me that he was in the next room and got him to come to speak with me.

Animal bell - the museum's first object

The first artefact to be recorded in 1951

The object donor remembered giving the object but had no idea that it had become the first item to be formally recorded in the museum’s accession register. Some of the details that Greta has added to this artefact’s catalogue entry stem directly from this conversation. Of course, many farms are also family businesses and are therefore owned or operated by the same close-knit group of people for generations. This kind of successive connection represents a powerful attachment to place that rural museums should seek to capitalise on and harness when attempting to foster a stronger sense of stakeholdership in their collections.

Earlier today I was reminded of that same conversation whilst visiting another potential object donor who, as it happens, was also a student in the Department of Agriculture during the 1950s. He too had lived in much the same area for over 30 years and, although he was a newcomer all those decades ago, he had become very much ‘hefted’ to his current home. He’s a basket specialist and collector, which is really more Greta’s area of interest and expertise than mine. After editing the 1000-plus records pertaining to the ’51 objects, I think Greta deserves a break from her computer screen. So, I’m going to encourage her to visit his collection, giving her the opportunity to find out more about the University in the 1950s, but more importantly to help contribute towards shaping the MERL collection for future generations.

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