#DisabilityStories – Labelling visual impairment

How do you write a label in under 50 words on a basket made by an anonymous, visually impaired basket-maker without appearing patronising and tokenistic?

This basket was made at the Royal School for the Blind.

This basket was made at the Royal School for the Blind.

This question conveniently coincides with this week’s #CultureThemes topic of #DisabilityStories. The staff here at MERL are busily writing labels for our new galleries, covering overarching topics and themes, object groups, highlight objects and individual people.

Disability is both a hidden and common theme in the countryside depending on how you view rural history, literature and art. Historically the countryside can be viewed as a healthy place, full of people with ruddy complexions who exercise their bodies daily and eat the fat of the land. It is where we sent the wounded from the World Wars to recuperate, and it is a place we ‘escape to’ to get some fresh air.

It is also a place of grinding poverty, where starvation was only two bad harvests away and malnutrition was a fact of life. Farming was, and is, a place of hard toil where constant labour caused early arthritis and exposure to the elements and isolation from medical care caused a world of illness.

And this is where the nub of representing people with disabilities comes. We have a multitude of material to draw on to explore the lives of those whose disability was caused by accident and ill-health. To discuss disability only in terms of health, however, is tokenistic and it is often seen as demeaning to have a person’s significance in a story revolve around their disability alone. It ignores the fact that many people do not see their disabilities as disabling, but simply a part of who they are. People with disabilities were a fact of life in rural England for centuries and still are, and a disability was often the norm rather than the exception. Fields still had to be tilled, baskets made and animals fed whatever someone’s physical or mental condition.

The basket will be displayed in a case in a section named 'Craftspeople at Work'.

The basket will be displayed in a case in a section named ‘Craftspeople at Work’.

We had all of these discussions and more when trying to write a label for a basket made at the London School for the Blind in the early- to mid-twentieth century. It is well-made and is meant for feeding horses or other animals. The basket will be located in a gallery focusing on our different views and perceptions of the English countryside, and more specifically will be located in the basketry section under a theme called Craftspeople at Work. The label we ended up with is this:

This basket was used for feeding horses and was made at the Royal School for the Blind in the early twentieth century. Craftspeople rely heavily on their sense of touch to determine the correct textures, shapes and form of their work.

We made the decision not to focus on how basketry has traditionally been seen as a blind craft, nor how blind people in institutions such as the Royal School for the Blind were encouraged to make baskets as a source of income (as ‘honest work’), or how basketry is still used as a therapeutic process for people today who are newly blinded. One reason for this is the 50-word limit of our Object Highlight labels, but we also didn’t want to make the fact that a blind person could make a perfectly good basket the main point – the visitor should be able to pick this up by themselves from the information we’ve given them. Equally, we focused on ‘Craftspeople’ rather than ‘Blind people’ in the second sentence, as it is the craftsmanship that defines this object rather than the maker’s disability. Hopefully in this way we have avoided the common mistake of presenting someone ‘overcoming’ something despite their ‘disability’ and instead bring attention to the fact that basketry utilises the sense of touch more than the sense of sight.

What do you think of this label? Should we have made a lengthier label discussing these issues? Is it wrong to discuss disability in the countryside only through the lens of modern health?

Weekly What’s On: 3rd to 9th February

You can find full details of all our forthcoming events and activities in our What’s On and MERL Families guides, which are now available from the Museum or to download from our website You can also see all events on our online calendar


Stakeholders smallMERL Seminar series: Untouchable England
Basketry skills as intangible cultural heritage
Greta Bertram, Project Officer, Museum of English Rural Life
Tuesday 4th February, 1pm
Craft skills are recognised by UNESCO as intangible cultural heritage. Using the example of basketry, Greta will examine the idea of heritage craft, explore values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and look to the future of intangible craft skills. Followed by a ‘pop-up’ display of baskets from the MERL collections in the object store,a nd a chance to talk about MERL’s current ‘Stakeholders’ project.

For full details of the series, visit our website


Ricordate-croppedItaly at war: a selection from the archives
Tuesday 4th February to 30th March
NB Due to staff sickness, the opening of this exhibition has now been postponed until Tues 11th February. We apologise for any inconvenience caused.
Staircase hall, MERL
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
Highlights from the University’s fascinating records relating to Italian history. 




Black white posterBlack/White
Tuesday 4th to 7th February
Free, drop-in, normal museum opening times
An artistic intervention in the Museum galleries by University of Reading art students.





Spectacular 2008 117Guided tour
Wednesdays, Saturdays and Sundays, 3-3.45pm
Free, booking advisable
Let our fully trained tour guides tell you the stories behind the objects on display and visit the object store to see MERL’s hidden treasures.




Paper plate owlToddler time
Friday 7th February, 10-11am,
£2 per child, drop-in
Suitable for families with children aged 2-4
Come along to the Museum with your little ones and enjoy rhymes, songs and craft activities.  This week we’re making paper plate owls!




greenhamCollecting the countryside: 20th century rural cultures
Until Autumn 2014
Temporary exhibition space
Free, drop in, normal museum opening times
Since 2008 the Museum of English Rural Life has been adding even more objects to its collection, with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund’s Collecting Cultures programme, in order to represent each decade of the last century. (Find out more in Curator, Isabel Hughes’ recent post) This exhibition gives a taste of what has been acquired and challenges visitors to suggest the modern-day objects that the Museum needs to collect for the future. The exhibition will help the Museum to explore how to incorporate more recent histories and representations of the English countryside into its displays as part of the new Our Country Lives project.







Focus on Collections #3 – Baskets

written by Greta Bertram, Project Officer.

Anybody who’s been following the MERL Projects Blog over the past eighteen months will know that I love all things basket-related. My obsession began three years ago when I was writing my dissertation about craft as heritage, and needed to choose one craft to use as a case study. I’ve always been fascinated by baskets and how they are constructed so it was an easy decision. I interviewed several basketmakers and watched them at work in their studios; a few months later I went on weekend course and made two baskets; and then I was then lucky enough to get a job at MERL, where I’ve been able to bask in baskets!

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

Basketry and Beyond studying MERL’s collection of baskets from the south west.

MERL has one of the most significant basketry collections in the UK, with over 600 baskets, basketwork objects and basketmaking tools. The collection includes baskets for agricultural, industrial, fishing and domestic use, mostly from England but also from other parts of the UK. It also includes over 200 objects from Emily Mullins, a Reading basketmaker, who made numerous baskets specifically for the Museum. The collection was studied in the 1960s by Dorothy Wright, author of The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry and an authority on baskets. She produced detailed catalogue records for the collection, which are available to view online, and also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL, by basketmakers and non-basketmakers alike – visits since I’ve been here have included Basketry and Beyond researching baskets from the southwest for their festival in May this year, and from the University’s archaeology department to look at fishing baskets. I really enjoy supervising these visits – it’s great to look at the baskets more closely and to have the chance to find out more about them from people who know what they’re talking about, and I always try to feed this information back into the museum catalogue.

We’ve also had very exciting basket news recently – MERL has been awarded a grant from the Radcliffe Trust to run a project, Stakeholders, which will see us working closely with basketmakers to explore the collection and commission pieces to fill gaps in the collections. Click here to find out more.

However, while we have this amazing collection, there are actually very few baskets currently on display in the galleries. This is something that we hope will change as part of the Our Country Lives re-development, and we hope that the Stakeholders project can help inform this.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

MERL 2006/54. One of my favourite baskets at MERL, an oak swill basket made by Owen Jones.

Since being asked to write this post I’ve been thinking long and hard about my favourite baskets at MERL – there are so many to choose from! I think one of my favourites has to be the Owen Jones oak swill basket (MERL 2006/54). Owen is the only person in the country making them professionally. He 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. I could watch him working for hours and when I had the chance to meet him in May it took me a while to pluck up the courage to speak to him. There are also some really unusual baskets that have to be on my list – we have a basket that was used as a casing for artillery shells in WWI (MERL 90/43), and a pannier basket that was used  to drop supplies to the troops from the air during WW2 (MERL 60/449 & 63/70).

I hope I’ve managed to convey some of my passion for baskets! When you love baskets, MERL is one of the best places to be – now I just need to find the time to have a few more goes at making baskets myself.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.

MERL 90/43. An artillery shell basket, used to protect shells during the First World War.