Source communities

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Many of you will no doubt already know that it was Open Farm Sunday yesterday. Along with friends and family I made a somewhat last minute plan to visit one of the places participating in this scheme. The site in question was Sandy Lane Farm, near Tiddington, Oxfordshire. Here we enjoyed a tour by tractor and a series of talks delivered by the farmer, Charles Bennett, as well as indulging in the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake. There was also much more on offer and, all in all, our visit provided us not only with a great afternoon’s entertainment but also proved to be highly informative.

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

It struck me during the afternoon that there is really no substitute for a genuine ‘onsite’ sense of place. In other words, for me at least, being ‘in’ a place is always going to be more powerful and enlightening than being at a remove. Even the very best interpretation in the world cannot replace the multi-sensory feeling and direct material engagement of actually being there, in a place where rural lives both did and still do play out. In a similar and more obvious vein, a muddy and oily Ferguson tractor that kids can clamber on and pretend to drive is always going to win out over the sanitised but sacrosanct TE20 that we have on display at MERL. On the flip side of this, jumping around in the hay – as my kids and those of my friends did yesterday – is not going to explain how meadows were managed in the past, or enlighten them as to the people or technologies involved in hay production past or present. It takes intervention and an interpretive voice, whether this be the onsite words of the farmer or the gallery-based musings of a curator.

Jumping in the hay

Playing in the hay at Sandy Lane Farm

Simple as these observations may seem, I think they raise significant questions for museums, most of whose collections are inherently connected with a whole series of other places. So, the next step on from this Project and its process of re-connecting museum-held things to original contexts of manufacture, use, and collection has to be one of deepening contextualisation. It has to be a process of engagement with the people now in (or once from)  these original contexts. It has to be a process of reaching out to the rural people whose heritage is housed and represented in the Museum. It has to be an invitation to members of these ‘source communities’ to help MERL (and by proxy the wider public) to better understand the rich depth and complexity of rural history as a whole. It has to deliver inventive and creative mechanisms through which to communciate how the seemingly static holdings of the gallery and store actually connect to a whole host of dynamic and vibrant external sites and places, where rural life continues apace.

Thanks to all at Sandy Lane Farm for a great day out and a very nice cup of tea, for giving me food for thought and a fun way to exacerbate my hayfever (yes, I am a farmer’s son who suffers from hayfever!). Oh, and I checked the database and MERL has only one artefact from Tiddington, this being a type of chain used to hold restless cattle that dates to the mid-19th century. Mr and Mrs Bennett and their family appeared to dabble in farming pretty much everything but cattle. However, I still think it would still be interesting to hear what their thoughts are on this object and on the ways in which life in Tiddington has changed since the 1840s when this object was made, the interwar period when it was first acquired by H. J. Massingham, and 1951 when it came to Reading.

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Despite the obvious relevance to the subject matter of this museum and links to my own personal heritage, what particularly intrigues me about the practice of hefting is the degree to which it’s proponents and practitioners (by which I mean the shepherds and rural people who maintain it rather than the sheep!) have as powerful and marked a sense of place as their ovine charges. This simple observation runs parallel to Roy Brigden’s reflections on hefting. He used the term to characterise the degree to which he had come to find himself indelibly linked to his adoptive countryside home. As individuals, we are hefted to many places for many different reasons. Many of us retain a strong sense of connection to the place(s) we grew up and most of us develop a new sense of belonging in other places as our lives progress. In addition, there are complex generational links to place, such as the sense of connection I feel to Stadhampton, Oxfordshire, where my mother grew up on a dairy farm. The project team have already enhanced data associated with at least one artefact from this village and, although it is a simple mouldboard from a plough, the fact that it comes from Stadhampton gives it a certain significance for me.

Catalogue card for a mouldboard

The original index card for a mouldboard from Stadhampton, Oxfordshire

I think that the simple metaphor of the ‘heft’ has much to offer social history museums (perhaps especially those of rural history) in terms of characterising the place-related ways in which audiences connect with collections. Thinking of things in these more lyrical and emotive ways may help us to create a more nuanced sense of place in relation to the collections we look after. Potential stakeholders in the MERL collections are numerous and include specialist interest groups and local audiences, both of which have often been fore-grounded in past engagement activities and projects. However, in recent years, ethnographic ideas and have brought the notion of source communities increasingly to the fore. Museum collections offer potential for tangible engagement with the pasts associated with places to which people are indelibly hefted through both familial ties and other connections. They also offer a means for people to begin to connect themselves to new locales, perhaps using material culture held in museums as a means of familiarising themselves with a new place of residence, and thereby cultivating a deeper sense of place.

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