swill basket

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This weekend I went to the Dartington Estate near Totnes, Devon, for the Basketry & Beyond Festival – three days of basket madness on the themes of fishing, farming and fashion. Throughout the weekend there were various demonstrations and have-a-go workshops for both beginners and professional basketmakers, as well as an illustrated talk from Mary Butcher (President of the Basketmakers’ Association, and recent winner of a national Craft Skills Champion award). The Festival ended with a wearable basketry fashion parade, with people wearing things they’d made throughout the weekend.

I was in the ‘Heritage Hall’ representing the Heritage Crafts Association, but also telling everyone about the wonderful basketry collections we have at MERL. Our stand was next to that of Dave French, fifth-generation lobster pot maker. Dave has commented on this blog in the past and shared details of his craft, so it was great to meet him and watch him at work. There’ll definitely be a post in the next couple of weeks on lobster pots, as I learned loads, and need to make some amendments to my cataloguing. On Sunday Dave was joined by two other pot-makers, each making pots in a different way. The Heritage Hall was also home to an exhibition about south west fishing baskets, which was based on some of the research that Basketry & Beyond did when they came to MERL a couple of months ago to see our south west baskets.

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From left to right: Mick Male, bee skeps; Dave French, lobster pots; Alan Lander, lobster pots; salmon putchers.

There was an ‘International Hall’ with French, German, Spanish, American, Japanese and Danish basketmakers – it’s surprising how different basketry from around the world can be when it’s all based on the same fundamental techniques. The International Hall was definitely a place that made you say ‘wow’!

As well as the lobster pot making, I really enjoyed seeing how other things we have in the MERL collections are made – such as salmon putchers, oak swills, bee skeps and wattle hurdles. One of my favourite parts of the weekend was getting to meet the craft legend that is Owen Jones, the last professional swill basketmaker in the UK. Owen was featured in MERL’s Rural Crafts Take Ten project, and you can watch a video of him making his basket online and in the Museum, where you can also see one of his swills. There’s also a good blog describing how he does it. I could watch him working for hours and it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him, and in the end I bought my very own swill – I can’t wait to use it!

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Owen Jones making swills, and testing the strength of my new acquisition!

 

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Every time I look at the Historypin website, the number of channels has increased, with many museums and archives across the world having their own Historypin channel. I’ve had a quick look at some of them, and most seem to be plotting their photographic collections, which is how Historypin was intended to be used. Here at MERL, however, we’re trying to plot out object collections. Danielle explained some of the issues in doing this in her previous post – particularly those relating to the fact that objects are often associated with multiple places. However, there is a third approach to Historypin that I wanted to write about today, as it sprang both from the work we’re doing here at MERL and a post I wrote a while ago about mapping craft.

 

I have mentioned the Potter, Wright and Webb blog before, which looks at traditional regional crafts in the UK. Rachel has written posts on swill basketmaking in Cumbria, sanquhar knitting in Dumfriesshire, Orkney chairs in the Orkney Islands and bodging in Buckinghamshire. When I wrote about mapping craft, I mentioned that I would really like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map, and this is exactly what the Potter, Wright and Webb Historypin channel which Rachel set up is attempting to do. (Also have a look at Rachel’s blog post about it here).

 

Potter Wright and Webb's Historypin channel

While other museums are looking to plot where a particular photograph was taken on a map (and also position the photo on street view to enable fading in and out), and while MERL is trying to plot where a particular object was made, used and acquired, Rachel is taking a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the particular, she is looking at the general – at typologies of objects rather than individual objects.

 

MERL 68/595, Southport boat basket

 

Let’s take the example of a Southport boat basket, a basket designed originally for marketing butter and eggs. This is one of the few baskets for which there is a known inventor and date. It was designed in 1830 by Mr Cobham of Mawdesley, Lancashire, and the manufacture was developed by Thomas Cowley, a local basketmaking firm. However, because the design of a basket cannot be patented, the Southport boat has been copied all over the world.

 

We have eight of them in the collection at MERL. We would pin each of these separately to Historypin – pinning each to the place(s) where it was made, used and collected, and would have a separate photo of each basket. Rachel, on the other hand, would have one photograph (which needn’t be any specific Southport boat, just a Southport boat) and would pin it generally to Southport/Lancashire.

 

This approach could be used for all sorts of things. For example, billhooks, wagons and ploughs are often regional in design, and the typology of each could be pinned to that place. So, on Rachel’s map a generic ‘Dorset wagon’ would be pinned to Dorset, whereas on the MERL map a specific Dorset wagon would be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of wagon 61/43 at MERL, that would be Bridport and Broadoak in Dorset (where it was made) and Newhouse Farm in Broadoak (where it was acquired)). Likewise, a generic ‘Sussex billhook’ would be pinned to Sussex on Rachel’s map, whereas on the MERL map a specific Sussex billhook we be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of billhook 54/704 that would be Birmingham (where it was made) and Camden (where it was acquired)).

MERL 61/43, Wiltshire wagon

Rachel is only in the early stages of using Historypin for this purpose and there are still many things to consider, such as whether she is plotting historic traditional regional crafts, or those that survive today, or both. It’s necessary to have a date to pin something to Historypin, and it’s possibly to filter by date so these functions could help tackle this issue. Another  question is how to deal with crafts such as blacksmithing which occur everywhere.

 

Cumbrian swill basket as pinned on Potter, Wright and Webb's Historypin channel.

Even though there are still things to think about, I think this is a great way to use Historypin, and there is potential for cross over with the work we’re doing at MERL, especially when plotting our craft collections. And what’s really good to know is that people are reading our blog, and that it is inspiring them to do similar things. We’d be really interested to hear from any museum already mapping its object collections, or looking to do something similar!

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