Our Country Lives

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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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Image from the Farmers Weekly Collection at MERL.

Image from the Farmers Weekly Collection at MERL.

Since May I’ve been working on the Reading Engaged project to research content for the new galleries which will form part of MERL’s redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. True to my passions as ever, I’ve been taking the opportunity to focus on researching craft, as we’re hoping to dedicate a large part of one of the galleries to craft. We hope to use different crafts that we have examples of in our collections to highlight key issues affecting the heritage craft sector, bearing in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all story for craft. We also want to ensure that the galleries are up to date and reflect the current state of making and show the many varied and vibrant ways in which these crafts exist today.

One of the crafts I’ve researched so far is coopering. The only things I knew before I started came from the headline ‘only one Master Cooper left in England’ and from watching the fantastic video of a cooper knocking up a cask that we currently have on display in the Museum. When you start to think about it, you realise how incredible coopering really is. Ken Kilby, author of several books on the craft, describes the barrel as ‘the greatest invention of all time’ for without it ‘most goods would have remained right where they were made, or not have been made at all.’

Casks (the term ‘barrel’ describes a particular size of cask) were used to transport all sorts of goods, wet and dry. Over the centuries, coopering gradually divided itself into three main branches, with an acceptance among coopers that certain branches were more skilled than others. The main categories are dry coopering (least skilled), white coopering and wet coopering (most skilled). When you think about it, it really is quite incredible to be able to make a watertight cask of a specified size which can withstand long years of rough handling with no glue or sealants, and hardly any measurements! Another great Ken Kilby quote: ‘There are no amateur barrel makers.’

By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of cooperages were found in breweries, when Britain was brewing approximately 37 million gallons of beer. In 1889, Bass’s Brewery at Burton on Trent employed 400 coopers; and circa 1900 Shooters, Chippingdale and Colliers employed 630 coopers! Until World War II, coopering had seemed a secure occupation but by the 1950s most of the independent cooperages in Britain had closed, and during the 1950s–1970s wooden casks were phased out of the larger breweries. By 2010 only 4 breweries still employed a qualified cooper, and today Theakston’s are the only brewery to do so.

We have about 80 coopering tools at MERL, along with various coopered products including cider kegs, butter churns, cheese moulds and buckets. The majority of the tools come from two sets: one from the cooper’s shop at H. & G. Simonds Ltd., known as the Bridge Street Brewery, in Reading; the other from a cooper who served his apprenticeship at Reading Brewery 1948–1952 (we also have his certificate of indenture for his apprenticeship). The first set is currently on display in the Museum galleries. Take a look at the tools on our online database.

I’ve been working to create a ‘content pack’ for each craft I research. This includes reading up on the subject and writing introductory notes, looking at the related objects we have in the collections and identifying particular objects which can be used to illustrate specific points and, with the help of Danni and Caroline, investigating the Archives to see what we have in terms of documents and photographs.  I’ve also been in contact with Alistair Simms, England’s only Master Cooper (to become a Master Cooper you must have successfully trained an apprentice), who I’m hoping to visit in September, and Theakston’s Brewery.

If you want to find out more about coopering, come along to MERL on Saturday 23 August when Marshall Scheetz, historian and Journeyman Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, will be giving ‘An introduction to cooperage’. The talk is free. Details here.

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P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost - as the sun breaks through on New Year's day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost – as the sun breaks through on New Year’s day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

Happy 2014 to all of you MERL Projects Blog readers!

I can’t believe how quickly 2013 went (or how long it is since I last did a blog post). The start of a new year is always a good time to look back at what you’ve achieved over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what you want to achieve in the coming months. Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a lovely break, so I took the opportunity to write a January-February 2014 To Do list – and there’s an awful lot on it!

A Sense of Place: We just managed to enhance 9000 records at the end of 2012, and our current total at the end of 2013 stands at 15805 records. This progress is largely thanks to Laura, who was working on the project for several months over the summer while Felicity and I moved on to other projects (although we did manage to fit in some cataloguing too). This means that there’s only another 3000 records to go until every record has been enhanced – something I’d really like to see done! I’ve also been starting to tidy up (and hopefully massively reduce) the list of object names (and their numerous variants) when I have a spare moment or two.

Countryside21: This has been a bit of a stop-and-start project, and we’ve made really good progress on some elements and virtually none on others. The positives include nearly finishing the Time Based Media survey (I’m aiming to have it signed off by the end of January), renaming thousands upon thousands of files and restructuring the way they’re organised (all Felicity’s work), revising the MERL Classification, rationalising our use of subject keywords in Adlib, and finally beginning to implement the new Classification and the associated keywords (I’ve already managed to do this for 3400 records in the space of two weeks). We’ve also updated the ‘Geographical Keywords Manual’ and will be putting together guidelines on how to use other types of keywords in the coming weeks.  The ‘To Do’ list includes selecting and keywording images for commercial purposes, and arranging the technical side of the project such as the Digital Asset Management software and the e-commerce.

Reading Connections: While we don’t blog about the Reading Connections project here (it has a separate blog) this has been occupying a lot of mine and Felicity’s time throughout 2013. We spent the summer photographing 600 of Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, and since then Felicity has been spending several days a week at Reading Museum researching and writing detailed descriptions of these objects. Meanwhile I’ve been working on cataloguing craft here at MERL and have enhanced/tidied/cross-referenced all of the records for clay, leather, metal, stone, straw and textile crafts, leaving just wood crafts to go in 2014.

Stakeholders: We had a hugely successful two day study visit from ten basketmakers at the start of December to kick the project off. We’ll be photographing all of the baskets we studied in a couple of weeks, and then it’s a case of adding all the new information that we gathered to Adlib, commissioning pieces from the participating makers, and putting together some banners for a pop-up exhibition in the future.

Our Country Lives: While not officially one of Felicity’s and my projects, we’ve both been involved in the plans for the re-development of MERL over the last couple of months of 2013. It’s been a really eye-opening experience and we’re very much looking forward to how it progresses.

Miscellaneous: And as ever, we’ve been working on lots of other bits and pieces too. Our volunteers have continued to scan the 60-series negatives and add them to Adlib. 3000 negatives were scanned in 2013, leaving only another 5 boxes (out of a total of 23) left to do. I’ve been adding any existing colour photos to Adlib which for some reason weren’t already on there – I’ve done the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, leaving just the 1950s and 1960s to go.

So, all in all, a very busy year just gone (with much more than I’ve managed to mention), and another busy year to come (again, with much more than I’ve managed to mention)! But, at least I can say that I’m really looking forward to 2014 here at MERL and all there is to do. Wishing everyone all the best for 2014!

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You might have heard recently that the Museum has been successful in a round one HLF application for a project called Our Country Lives.  Over the course of the year, we will be researching and planning for a major redisplay of the gallery, aiming to put stories about people and experiences of rural life at the centre of the new displays.

The 'tree' - the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The ‘tree’ – the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The main MERL blog has also changed to reflect the work of Our Country Lives, and you can follow updates on the progress of the project, as well as other features which will give you more of an insight into what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the Museum, Library and Archive.  There will be posts that show how other projects at MERL are feeding into the redevelopment work, including a recent post in the ‘Focus on Collections’ series about how the work of A Sense of Place might be contributing to the redisplay of the wagons.

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