The MERL Classification

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging – Felicity and I have been spending quite a lot of time at Reading Museum recently as part of the new joint project between MERL and Reading Museum, Reading Connections. I promised a long time ago to write about a post about the MERL Classification, which we’re reviewing and updating as part of Countryside21, and which we hope will be a starting point for developing new ways in which to keyword our collections.

Until the start of Countryside21 I had never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it was used. As part of the review process, I have been looking into the history of the Classification to understand how it came about and how it has evolved over time.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, specifically for the circumstances at MERL and was determined by the nature and content of the object collections. It was informed by existing classifications at the time, such as those used by the National Museum of Denmark, the Welsh Folk Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Classification was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result the classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. It was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections (photos of objects are classified according to their sphere of use; other photos are classified according to their subject content).

The MERL Classification was built on the premise that a classification should be as simple as possible, with the caveats that it must be workable and must bring material together in the right groups.  It originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, with new divisions being created only when an accumulation of similar items made it clear what the heading should be. By 1978 the Classification had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31, and today the Classification is only used for objects – it is no longer used for photographs.

The review work on the Classification is nearly complete. This has involved consulting the wider rural museums sector to see if there are any institutions still using the MERL Classification (it has always been publicly available); considering how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums; and looking at how we can streamline the primary headings. Hopefully, we will be making some final decisions tomorrow, and will be publishing the revised Classification in due course.

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