object biography

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The Sense of Place team pointed out to me earlier this week that I had been notably quiet in terms of posting on the project blog. In return I admitted that I had been secretly blogging quite a lot but on another blog that we have recently launched. Readers of the Sense of Place discussion posted here may also be interested to learn about this other ongoing project at the Museum, which culminates this week in the opening of a new temporary exhibition.

The exhibition is entitled What to Look For? Ladybird, Tunnicliffe, and the hunt for meaning and runs from 6 October 2012 until 14 April 2013. It represents the labours of many people including myself and my co-curator in this enterprise, Dr Neil Cocks of the University of Reading’s Department of English Language and Literature. By working with a range of colleagues and specialists, Neil and I have sought to present a diverse  range of responses to a single illustration of rural life. Indeed, the whole this focusses on just one small watercolour by the artist Charles F. Tunnicliffe.

The Huntsman

‘The huntsman, on his dappled grey..’ by Charles Tunnicliffe (Image © Ladybird Books Ltd)

This was one of many artworks created by him for Ladybird children’s books. The painting featured in What to Look For in Autumn, published in 1960. This was part of a four-book series printed between 1959 and 1961. It was written by the biologist Elliot Lovegood Grant Watson and charted seasonal change in the countryside.

The original Ladybird artwork is held alongside the collections of the Museum. This juxtaposition inspired us to invite specialists to examine a countryside image. Their responses form the core of the exhibition and together offer different answers to the question of What to Look For. They reveal the diverse stories that one illustration can tell.

This is not simply a history of Tunnicliffe’s artwork or an exploration of the rural history underpinning this particular image but seeks to be much more. Indeed, much like A Sense of Place it aims to stimulate debate and discussion and to raise a wider set of questions concerning what the Museum holds and how these rich resources might best be understood. With this in mind, the project blog related to the exhibition asks its readership how they might choose to look at this image or read the accompanying text? As the exhibition progresses we hope that you will share your responses and join the conversation here.

By way of apology to my Sense of Place colleagues and to you, our enthusiastic readers, for allowing my blogging efforts to be channelled in another direction, I offer you this link to a posting that I made earlier today in relation to the exhibition. It is concerned with the notion of object biographies and with the important role of ‘place’ in governing how we might come to think about the history of and value of material things. It therefore touches directly on ideas that have proven such an inspiration and driving force in this context and stands as testament to the influence that the Sense of Place team themselves have exterted on this parallel project.

I’ll be away for a couple of weeks but I’m sure the project team will be blogging in my absence, and I promise to join in this important discussion when I return. I might still write an occasional post on the other blog too!

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We’ve gone a bit quiet over recent months on the progress of our work with Historypin, so I thought it was perhaps time for an update on what we’ve been doing behind the scenes.  If you go to the MERL Historypin channel you will be able to see some of the first objects we have pinned to the map.  Most of these are from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, but there are also some wagons and ploughs from a wider geographic area.

Inevitably, these first trial uploads have thrown up some technical issues that we hadn’t considered.  When we export data from our own Adlib database, we want to minimise the alterations made to that data before it is then uploaded to Historypin.  The fewer changes we make in that intermediate stage, the more manageable and future proof the whole process becomes.

Initially, we had exported our data into a CSV file (it stands for ‘comma separated values’, apparently).  When we looked at the resulting pins on Historypin, we realised the limitations of this approach.  Whilst most of our objects have only one known ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’ (if at all), there are some objects for which we have more complete object biographies, where we know perhaps two or three previous owners.  Similarly, there might be a composite object, with multiple parts made by different people.

Fork - 60/290

This fork (60/290) was made in multiple places. Its handle was made by Bucklebury handle-maker Harry Wells, whilst the metal head was made by a local blacksmith.

Because of the way they work (something to do with being ‘comma separated values’) CSV files can only export one occurrence of each database field.  We had to find a new method of exporting which would enable us to pin objects to all the places with which they are associated.  We are currently trialling the use of XML files as an alternative.  We’ve yet to try uploading to Historypin in this way, but our first tests show that we can at least export multiple occurrences using this type of file.  So, we’re making progress.

Another problem we’ve been working through is trying to find a way to export latitude and longitude data for associated places.  Focussing on place has already necessitated the addition of extra fields to the database – initially we recorded latitude and longitude in the notes field of the thesaurus records, but specific fields for grid references have since been added, and we now record the information there.  Due to the way the database works, though, we were initially unable to export the latitude and longitude for places added as ‘associated places’ (rather than as a ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’).  This problem has since been solved by extra changes to the databases, but it highlights how projects working with technology such as this require a significant amount of technical work behind the scenes to get museum data online.  It is not always just a case of looking at the accession files and then bunging it all on a computer.

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