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Today's teaching session in the MERL stores.

Today’s teaching session in the MERL stores.

We had a visit this morning, led by Prof. Martin Bell, from some Coastal and Maritime Archaeology students who had come to look at a selection of fishing-related objects. We got out a selection of basketwork eel traps of different shapes (63/171, 63/173, 63/606), some simple willow ties (63/75, 64/152), a selection of eel and fish spears of different designs (51/7, 51/1198, 53/258), a Welsh coracle with paddle and club (56/187/1, 56/187/2. 60/641), and a replica ard (a rudimentary plough) (63/610). The students also looked at some salmon traps (64/22, 64/23) in the gallery. You can find out more about these objects by searching the online catalogue.

It was really good to see MERL’s collections being used as a teaching resource – it would be great to have more of these visits! I hope everyone found it as interesting as I did – I really enjoyed listening and finding out about comparable objects found in the archaeological record. It’s visits like these which highlight the different ways which museum collections can be used, and which help us to understand and interpret our collections in new ways. And it makes for a good break from cataloguing!

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MERL P DX289 PH1_967

MERL P DX289 PH1_967

As the Sense of Place project draws to a close (although it’s not over yet!), Felicity and I are making a start on our next project, Countryside21. The project is funded by Arts Council England’s (ACE) Designation development fund and will run until October 2013. It’s quite a technical project and it’s taken a while for us to get our heads around it. It’s not a very exciting project to explain (although the outcomes will make life a lot easier), but I’ll give it a go!

The project has three main strands. The first is about collating and managing MERL’s digital content. Over the years the Museum has run various digitisation projects which have created about 50,000 digital copies (known technically as ‘virtual surrogates’) of items within the collections, such as scans of old photos and paper records, images of objects and documents, and copies of films and sound recordings. These have built up rather chaotically, so Countryside21 aims to locate them all in a single, structured system to help us better manage our digital content and give users better access to it. To do this, we’re going to integrate the MERL catalogue (Adlib) with the University of Reading’s existing ‘digital asset management’ system (AssetBank).

The second strand is about increasing the accessibility of the collections by making it easier for users (and us) to search them. We’re going to be doing this by improving the range and quality of the keywords we use when cataloguing things on Adlib. This will be a combination of reworking old keywords based on the MERL Classification (a blog post on this topic will follow shortly) and the current subject thesaurus, and adding new, more emotive keywords to describe content in new ways based on the idea of ‘aboutness’ (look out for a blog post on this in the near future too).

The final strand is about developing MERL’s existing image bank service.

Ultimately, Countryside21 is about ensuring that users, both inside and outside the Museum, have the greatest possible chance of identifying what they’re looking for in the collections.

You can read a slightly more detailed overview of Countryside21 on the project page. We’ll hopefully start blogging on a more regular basis again over the coming weeks – so please keep following the blog!

 

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You may have noticed over the past couple of months that our blog posts and updates have slowed down as we approach the end of the Sense of Place project.  But don’t despair!  We’ve all enjoyed contributing to the blog so much that we’ve decided to keep it going, in its new role as a MERL Projects blog!

We hope that you’ve enjoyed following the progress of the Sense of Place project, and we’ve really valued the comments and feedback we’ve received so far.  We’ve still got quite a bit more to tell you about the final stages of the project, but we’ll also be telling you about other projects that are happening at MERL.  In the very near future, Greta will be writing a post to introduce the new project that we have both started working on, Countryside21.

So keep reading, and keep commenting!

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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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2012 is drawing to a close and so is the Sense of Place project, with just a few more weeks when we come back in 2013.

We’re frantically trying to reach 9000 records before the end of the year – we have about six hours of work left and 30 records to go. I think we can do it! As well has finishing all the cataloguing from the 1950s, we’ve now also finished cataloguing everything that’s been accessioned in the 2000s. So that just leaves 40 years’ worth of objects which need their records enhancing – unfortunately, it’s beyond the scope of the project! But hopefully someone will get a chance to work on the catalogue once A Sense of Place finishes.

The new year will see us winding up A Sense of Place. We still have a little bit more cataloguing we’d like to do before we finish (I’d like to finish the British Council traditional craft collection) and then there’s all the other things to be done – user testing of the enhanced catalogue records, evaluation of the project, launching the Bucklebury App, updating the cataloguing manuals we put together at the start of the project, tidying up object names, going back to records we’ve only partially enhanced because of ‘issues’, and writing our final blog posts.

Until then, we wish everyone a very happy Christmas and New Year!

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Next week, the Sense of Place team will have another chance to tell people about the work we have been doing as part of the project.  We will be giving an informal lecture, ‘A Sense of Place: putting MERL’s objects on the map’, as part of the Museum’s popular Lunchtime Talk series.  We will give guests an introduction to the project, an update of our progress so far through interesting case studies, and a demonstration of some of the resources that we have created.

The talk will take place at the Museum on Wednesday 5th December, from 1-2pm.  It is an informal event, so do feel free to bring your lunch with you.  You can book in advance from the Museum website but don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to book – come along on the day anyway.

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The 1960s.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The Chinese cultural revolution began.  The first series of Star Trek was aired.  MERL acquired object number 60/1/1-2, a pair of candle snuffers from Binfield.  I know this because we have just finished cataloguing every object accessioned to the Museum in the 1950s! 

Our first main motivational target (‘leave the 1950s’) has therefore been reached!  This leaves us with our main personal target remaining: finish 10,000 records by the end of the project.  We’re currently at 8570, so I’d better get started on those candle snuffers…

 

Candle snuffers

60/1/1-2: Candle snuffers from Binfield.

 

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 As you might have guessed from recent blog posts, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy.  Over the last few weeks, then, it has been a real relief to get back to some solid days of cataloguing again, and as a result we have finally reached another milestone – 8000 records enhanced!  Hopefully we’ll pick up pace again over the next couple of months, as we really want to reach that target of 10,000 records by the end of the project. 

 

54/45

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an object record that always makes me smile. Whenever I’m getting fed up of cataloguing yet another auger or chisel, I return to this sketch for a bit of cheering up.

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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’re now nine months into the Sense of Place project, and time is certainly flying by. As we’re getting to know the MERL collections better we’ve been getting involved in wider work within the Museum, on top of our day to day cataloguing work, so I thought it was time for another update on ‘What did you do at work today?’. See here and here for previous posts on this topic.

Enquiries

Over the past few weeks, Felicity and I have been taking on more of the object-based enquiries that MERL receives. These include requests to identify mystery objects, looking to see if we have particular objects in the museum, and handling offers of objects to the Museum. Enquiries really show how useful having a thorough online catalogue is, and what a difference it can make to the day to day work of museum staff. It’s so much easier to answer an enquiry when you can search on the catalogue and know that any information the Museum holds about that object will be there. Unfortunately for us, there are still large chunks of the collection waiting to be catalogued, so you can’t guarantee that searching on Adlib will bring up everything you’re looking for. This means that there’s still quite a lot of rummaging in files to do.

Exhibitions

This Lilliput Lane model was purchased as part of the Collecting Cultures project and was photographed recently for use on an exhibition banner.

We’ve also been getting some experience on putting together a loan exhibition based on the objects collected by MERL as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture project. Danielle wrote in a previous post about the cataloguing work we’ve been doing on this material, and the differences we’ve noticed in cataloguing context-rich, information heavy recent acquisitions compared with older material with very little or no information in the accession records. It took us nearly two months to catalogue the 350–400 objects. Since finishing the cataloguing we’ve been spending a bit of time identifying objects to be photographed, developing themes for the exhibition, drafting text and choosing images, sorting out copyright issues, and arranging objects to be loaned.

The Berkshire Show

The University of Reading stand at the Berkshire Show

I think by far the most unusual thing we’ve done recently is to dress up as milkmaids and milk a wooden cow at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. The University of Reading had a stand on the theme of dairying and cheese production, with a wide variety of activities for children and adults alike. The Guernsey cow was painted by MERL’s Gallery Assistant, Morryce Maddams, and had a realistic udder mechanism for children to have a go at milking a cow (and many of them were far better than us). There were cheese and yoghurt samples made at the University’s Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, a cheese-making demonstration, a ‘battle of the bacteria’ activity where children were making plasticine bacteria, an art activity making butter print designs (based on those in the Museum), and a smoothie bike. We had a great day, even if we did feel a bit foolish in the outfit, and to cap it off the stand won two first prizes!

Felicity posing on her milking stool.

Cataloguing

We’re still ploughing our way through the cataloguing, and have reached a total of 7500 enhanced records. Now that we’ve finished the Collecting Cultures cataloguing (2008–2011), we’re finishing 2006–2007 and then going back to 1956 to carry on with the chronological cataloguing. We’re also hoping to make a start in the next few weeks on accessioning some of the material that has come into the Museum over the past few months. So there are plenty of things to keep us occupied, and plenty of variety to keep the project interesting.

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