Rural Museums Network

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Last week I attended the AGM and conference of the Rural Museums Network. The RMN, of which MERL is a member, is an organisation which exists to support and promote the work of museums with collections relating to the UK’s rural heritage. This year the two-day event was held in Worcestershire, the first day at S.E. Davis & Son Ltd in Redditch and the second day at Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove.

S.E. Davis is a family owned company which is thought to have the biggest private collection of historic agricultural and earth-moving machinery in the country. They hosted the first day of presentations, during which we heard talks on the debate about conservation versus operation of historic machinery, the work of heritage farming ‘Skills for the Future’ trainees in East Anglia, and the conservation of a windmill at Avoncroft Museum. It was fascinating to take a tour of the collection at S.E. Davis – I was stunned by the scale of it, and its significance both nationally and internationally. Just a few items that stand out in my memory are dredgers used on the Suez Canal, and a tractor used on HMS Arc Royal to push redundant jets into the sea. The collection must have required enormous inputs of time and money from the Davis family, with many of the vehicles and machines having been saved from scrap merchants at the last minute. It was interesting to discuss the different challenges facing museums and private collectors, and the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

S E Davis

One small part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

The conference dinner was held at a pub not far from S.E. Davis. I arrived, conventionally, by car, but some lucky attendees were delivered to the pub in a trailer pulled by one of the family’s working steam engines. They might have had all the fun, but some were looking a little splattered with oil and soot by the time they arrived!

Traction engine

A working historic vehicle being put to good use as pub transportation.

The next day was the AGM of the network and I was able to update the other network members about the redevelopment work going on at MERL. Several other member organisations are also undergoing redevelopment so it was interesting and useful to compare notes and hear about work going on in other parts of the sector. We also had the opportunity to look around the buildings at Avoncroft, in particular the windmill which we had heard about the previous day. I used to volunteer at Avoncroft when I was a high school student, so it was lovely to have the chance to see what had changed since my last visit.

Caterpillar

The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

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MERL Class 2013

For those of you who have been following my posts (here, here and here) on revising the MERL Classification, you’ll be pleased to hear that yesterday afternoon I finally finished the hard work on it!!! It’s now ready for a final round of consultation before I begin building it properly in Lexaurus, our vocabulary software. I’ve circulated the revised Classification to the Rural Museums Network mailing list, but if you’re not on the list and would like to see it, please send me an email.

As well as putting together the final Classification, and providing scope notes to help define the primary and secondary headings, I have also mapped each of the primary and secondary headings in the existing version to the new version, so that the changes can be implemented easily when everything has been finalised.

Having been immersed in the Classification for so long, it’s quite hard to take a step back so consultation will be really useful in ensuring that everything is clear and makes sense. For example, is it obvious what the primary and secondary headings mean and what falls under them? Are the scope notes clear and accurate, or do we need to add to the definitions and examples? Does the mapping between the existing and the new versions work? Are there any further mappings to be made between the MERL Classification and SHIC (Social History and Industrial Classification).

Despite being rather wary of the Classification at first, I’ve really enjoyed this process and I am really looking forward to seeing it when it’s done. And it will be great to hear what the rest of the rural museums sector thinks – from both those who use the MERL Classification (either in its current or previous form), and those who don’t.

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Although we are only part-way through, we have already begun to disseminate ideas generated through this project and activity that the team have undertaken to date. Last Thursday I spoke briefly about the Sense of Place project at the AGM of the Rural Museums Network (RMN), which was held at Acton Scott Historic Working Farm.

Presentation slide - Sense of Place

Opening slide from Sense of Place presentation

This was an ideal opportunity to guage wider interest in the project and to get an idea of what other approaches were circulating with regards digital approaches to rural collections. I was asked about how successful our experiments with QR codes had been as, perhaps unsurprisingly, other institutions have also begun to dabble in using this technology. I’m afraid to say I didn’t yet have much to report but ‘watch this space’ as they say. As our partnership with iMuse moves forward and our own experiments with Qr codes and other forms of access kick into action, we’ll be able to offer more practical pointers and ideas.

In many respects this was the perfect forum in which to talk about the wider aims of the project and to raise the important question of how best to approach the mapping of rural material culture. Thankfully, nobody voiced concern with our basic approach and the consensus seemed to be that this was an interesting and useful departure for MERL, as well as something that the wider sector might buy-into in the future. The project will certainly have an airing at future RMN events but I was left with the feeling that perhaps this idea might well have legs beyond the lifetime of this project and that maybe our partnership with HistoryPin will generate a portal through which more members of this Subject Specialist Network wiull be able to promote and raise the profile of their own rich collections.

I was suprised how few members had heard of HistoryPin but perhaps this is not so surprising. The ‘street view’ driven aspects of the experience of this resource do arguably preference urban users and, as I’ve noted elsewhere, it can be a little frustrating trying to ‘pin’ items to a rural spot. If anyone in the RMN who heard my presentation was left in the dark about what HistoryPin is and how it works, why not check out this nifty little explanatory video, or this talk by its founder and CEO, Nick Stanhope. The latter film actually reveals the inspiration behind the whole HistoryPin idea which, interestingly enough, actually pertains to a very rural narrative.

In a timely fashion, we actually have a meeting with Nick and his colleagues tomorrow to discuss the direction that we’d like to take our partnership with them in. So keep an eye out here for future developments on this front. In the meantime, I’ll leave you with a nice photograph that I took at Acton Scott, and with a small note to myself that I must remember to ask Nick if he is in any way related to Lord Stanhope, inventor of an obscure photographic device known as a Stanhope Peep – I’ve been meaning to ask him this since I first heard his name mentioned. It would seem strangely appropriate if he were linked by more than name to this historical photographic device.

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

Members of the RMN on the site visit at Acton Scott Working Farm

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