What have we been up to? An Our Country Lives update

This gallery contains 9 photos.

A common reaction from people when we tell them that our galleries are closed is ‘Does that mean you’re all on holiday?’ Well, we’ve actually been intensely busy behind the scenes since November creating the new MERL! Here’s a round-up of some of the things we’ve been doing:   1. While the galleries have been closed, […]

Dog Carts: Travel in style

Written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

In my mind the idea of a dog cart is fairly funny. The idea of, say, a Pug or a French Bulldog pulling along bespoke, miniature carts is absurd, endearing and yet a little unsettling, like performing animals at the zoo.

They are also some of my favourite objects at MERL. Nothing else has confronted me so immediately with its oddity: when did we use dogs as draught animals? Why was that okay? Who made these carts, and who used them?

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Vincent de Vos – The Dog Cart – Williamson art gallery and museum

It is the ethical issues, however, that I enjoy the most. Why is it one rule for one animal and a different one for another? Docking dog tails is restricted or banned in most countries, but it’s fine for sheep. Is it hypocritical to think of dog carts as cruelty to animals when we still use horses and oxen to pull carts?

 L.M. Frobisher - Belgian Dog Cart - Bushley Museum and Art Gallery

L.M. Frobisher – Belgian Dog Cart – Bushley Museum and Art Gallery

The Victorians were the first to take issue with it, originally banning it in 1839 through the Metropolitan Police Act, which forbade the use of dog carts within fifteen miles of Charing Cross. As well as being thought of as cruel to animals it was thought that overworked dogs were more susceptible to rabies, cases of which did indeed drop by 1841. It was also in that year that dog-carts were banned across the United Kingdom. It did not pass unopposed, although most arguments against it were concerned with the effect it would have on small traders, who used dog carts as a cheaper way of transporting goods. Indeed, some of the opposition ridiculed the ‘trivial’ bill, saying that if small animals should not draw carts then Shetland ponies should also be banned. (And considering that 1841 was the same year in which the Abolition of Slavery Act was passed, they may have had a point.)

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MERL/63/231

The Act for the prevention of Cruelty to Animals has since been updated without mention of using dogs for draught purposes so I’m not sure if it even is illegal anymore. Perhaps it’s simply because it would be such a rare occurrence for someone in the modern age to construct a cart and conscript a canine that it is pointless to legislate against.

A google, however, reveals that dog carts are still sold in the USA. So if you want to be driven around by a dog for some reason, try there. Just don’t use ours.

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MERL/63/101 – This one is actually French, so it’s a little strange that we have it..

Our Country Lives update: How we research

written by Adam Koszary, Project Officer.

You may have noticed that we’ve been a bit quiet recently about our HLF-funded redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. This is because we’re waiting for a response from the Heritage Lottery Fund due on June 13th (fingers crossed), but also because a lot of us have been busy catching up on other projects such as Reading Connections, Countryside21 and Sense of Place. country lives logoLast week, however, has seen the project kick-started again with a couple of meetings focusing on how we should be researching the stories and objects we want to put into the new displays, as well as how we should be marketing the new MERL. We’re also reaching a stage where I can give more detailed project updates, and this series of posts will probably focus more on the research-side of things, as well as some behind-the-scenes of how we go about delivering such a huge project as Our Country Lives. To recap our research so far, we spent a lot the 2013 winter and spring of 2014 getting to grips with the huge amount of objects and archives in the MERL collection. As well as trying to make sure we’re representing the countryside in all of its complexity and diversity, we have to make sure that we’re choosing the best objects and archives for the job, backed up by solid and current research.

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

One of our current gallery layouts (very much subject to change).

The stories we want to tell about rural life are sometimes driven by our objects, archival documents, video footage, or other types of media. Sometimes a problem can be that we do not have any objects to illustrate stories we want to tell, but in our case our problem is having too many objects. Did you know we have around 26,000 objects, archives covering 4,500 linear metres and a library of over 50,000 volumes? It’s obviously a good thing that we have such a large and diverse collection, but this is also a double-edged sword. Our museum has no off-site storage, and so everything has to fit into the galleries, mezzanine storage, and a new duplicate store which is being built at the back. Because of this, much of our work so far has been trying to find a place for all of our objects so that our designers could decide where to put essential things such as walls and doorways.

This is one of the reasons why we are putting our wagons in a line along the north wall; as well as being a new and interesting way of exploring this nationally important collection, it is also one of the only ways to fit them all into the galleries. The only other option was to have a few wagons in every single gallery, which we thought would overshadow the other collections. As for the rest of the collection, we have been combing through our catalogue and placing our objects into the galleries and storylines best suited for them. You can see an example of one of our spreadsheets below, which will be the base from which we decide where and why to put our objects, including how they fit in with key messages, generic learning outcomes and storylines. We will also work from these lists to engage in more detailed research on specific objects and subjects contained within the new galleries. The storylines and topics we want to explore are by no means final, however, and so we will also be spending a lot of time in the coming months ironing out our topics, consulting with experts, and having lengthy debates about what is in and what is out.

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

An example of one of our object spreadsheets

Essentially, the planning and delivery an almost entirely new museum is difficult and complicated, but it is also a rewarding and refreshing experience. If you would like to know a bit more about this aspect of the project or the project as a whole, feel free to drop me an email at a.j.koszary@reading.ac.uk , and keep an eye out for future updates.

Student Spotlight #4: Joseph Arch hand casts

Maria Rabbani is a 2nd year Archaeology student at the University of Reading.

The objects which I have chosen are the white plaster casts of Joseph Arch’s right and left hand. The length of the casts is 18cm and their breadth (across the knuckles) is 12cm. His hands look small and delicate, which may be because of the plaster (which smooths roughness), making them look less real. Even though the use of plaster cast has declined nowadays, largely due to photography and film, it is still used by some artists.

Joseph Arch (1826-1919) was the leader of the National Agricultural Labourers Union (1872-1892), which was the first successful union to be established. Born in 1826 in Barford, Warwickshire, he worked from the age of 25 as a farm worker. At the age of 55 in 1851 he became the President of the Farm Workers Union and became the first labourer to become a Member of Parliament when he was 59 years old.

Plaster casts of Joseph Arch's hands (MERL 75/16/1-2)

Plaster casts of Joseph Arch’s hands (MERL 75/16/1-2)

Prior to the forming of the National Agricultural Labourers Union, the agricultural labourer faced many difficulties such as underpayment, malnutrition and little to no education. While the condition of workmen in other industries improved, the condition of agricultural labourer remained the same. This discontent led to the establishment of the Union which helped to improve the conditions of the agricultural labourer such as gaining the right to vote and so become a free man. The union, which started with small numbers, eventually became a successful union with its peak in membership totalling 86,214 in 1874, mostly due to Arch’s leadership and inspiring speeches which encouraged people to join the union.

Portrait of Joseph Arch (Wikipedia)

Portrait of Joseph Arch (Wikipedia)

The union, although it collapsed in 1896, was resurrected as the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers in 1906, which represented farmworkers until 1982. After merging with other unions, over time, it eventually formed the Unite the Union in 2007.

Unfortunately nothing is known about the casting process except that the plaster cast hands were made during the last quarter of the 19th century. Due to the fact that the plaster cast hands do not look not like the hands of an agricultural labourer, which are heavy, calloused and weather-beaten, this indicates that these casts were made when Joseph Arch was no longer a practising labourer but when he started working as a representative of labourers (Sayer 2013).

The exact reason why the casts were made is unknown but maybe they were part of a statue. Even though no other parts of the statue were found, and the fact that he is not holding any tool of his trade in his hand, I do not think this provides enough evidence to claim that these hands were not made to become part of a statue. I think that the way the plaster hands are portrayed resemble hands when they are used to write something. Therefore, it could be possible that it was thought to make a statue of Joseph Arch where he wrote one of his inspiring speeches. Maybe it was intended to add any tool such as a pen after the sculpture was finished. It may be possible that for some unknown reason the production was stopped.

Another possibility as to why these plaster casts were created could be explained by the increasing interest in publicly displaying plaster casts during the 19th century in England to improve art and architecture as well as use them for teaching and research. However, as there is no written record which could explain why these plaster cast hands were created, only speculations can be made.

Student Spotlight #3: Lave Net

Mubariz Rabbani is a second year Archaeology student at the University of Reading.

I have chosen to write about a lave fishing (pictured below) net as the fishing industry is an important part of the British economy as well as a contemporary issue, as increased fishing may result in environmental damage and may affect the economy and employment all across the UK. I also chose the lave net because of its simplicity and flexibility; for instance you can catch a large number of fish or sometimes even different species whether you stand on the bank to fish or trawl from a boat.

A lave net fisherman in the Severn Estuary in South Wales.

A lave net fisherman in the Severn Estuary in South Wales (Daily Express)

The tradition of lave net fishing has been in use since ancient times, being the only traditional fishing practice to have survived into the 21st century. The number of lave net fishermen has, however, gone into significant decline to about 25 people, who try to catch salmon at the Severn River. Their number has fallen because it has become difficult to earn a living from a diminishing fish stock. In 1914, for example, there were 150 lave net fishermen, with catches peaking as high as 36,000 fish annually, earning up to £150 per week (which was a huge amount at that time).

Lave net fishing also faces extinction from  the Environment Agency which has suggested the complete abandonment of this ancient technique, as overfishing and poor quality water have led to a decrease in the numbers of fish stocks in the river. On the other hand, the Black Rock fishermen claim that their season is so limited, not just by law but by the power of the tides and the winds, that they are no threat to the salmon population. Secretary of the Black Rock association Martin Morgan argues that they already catch so few salmon and that they are keen to keep their lave net tradition alive. The association also argues that out of the about 15,000 fish in the upper regions of the Severn River, only 0.3 per cent is caught during one season. Peter Kavanagh of the Severn Estuary Fishermen’s Association also argues that future generations should be given the opportunity to be able to do it and see it taking place in the river. For the moment, the number of lave fishing licences has been decreased to 25, with each fisherman allowed to catch five salmon only in a season and only in the moths of June and July.

Therefore, it is possible that in the near future this unique, effective and ancient technique becomes abandoned and part of our history. As a result, this would be a great opportunity to visit the Museum of English Rural Life and view one of the remaining intact lave nets which could become rare and difficult to find in the future.

The lave net currently on display in the Museum of English rural life was used by salmon fishers believed to have been used only on the River Severn before 1966. The net was built using wood and string in the local area.

Psychology students’ research project: children’s word recognition in museums

Over the Autumn Term we had the pleasure of hosting a psychology research project at the Museum of English Rural Life for two University of Reading undergraduates, Alex Tait and Laura Postlethwaite. Alex and Laura used a selection of objects from the Museum’s collection to explore how children learn new words in a museum setting. In this guest post, they explain their research…

There have been many studies exploring how children use a museum, including many looking into a parent and children’s interaction in a museum. This research is useful as the findings can be used by the museum itself to improve their services – such as through information packs or museum layout – so that their collections can become more effective for children.

When we were planning our third year project, there was an option to carry out a project at MERL – no specific outline was set as to what would be carried out and so we had an initial meeting with a few of the staff from the museum, to come up with an idea that would incorporate both our requirements for our project, but also one that would benefit the museum in some way. After much discussion and working out what was achievable for us, we came up with a project looking at how children learn names of novel objects, and whether words and/or pictures would aid this learning or not. This links to our studies about a child’s word learning and will also benefit the museum and help their plans for their redevelopment. Hopefully, the museum will be able to use our findings to develop useful resources for children to use when visiting the museum.

Following the generation of this idea, we came up with a standardised procedure that we could use to test a child’s word learning. We then chose 10 novel objects that we could teach a child the names of – we had to ensure that the children would not know the names of these objects prior to this study. These were then placed in a case in the museum (seen in the picture) for use during the research. Information cards containing words and/or pictures of these objects were then prepared and then the research could start!

 

Psychology objects

We carried out a pilot study in the museum on Apple Day, and started our actual research after a few alterations in October half term so that we could carry out the research on children of our target age as they visited. Our next steps are to collate all of the data we collected over the week in the museum and see if we found any significant results.

Hopefully our findings will be useful and able to inform the museum on how to usefully interpret their collections for this age of audience during their potential redevelopment next year! We look forward to sharing our results in due course.

 

Alex Tait and Laura Postlethwaite

Research tip #2: a secret MERL library resource …

Although they are known as the Classified Information Files, the MERL library’s collection of cuttings does not contain top secret information and is not kept under lock and key either, but is freely available for readers to browse in the Special Collections Service reading room! The collection contains articles and cuttings from local and national newspapers and periodicals, including some titles which the library does not hold. The cuttings are kept in folders in the filing cabinets in the reading room, and are organised by the MERL subject classification in alphabetical order. This scheme is used for objects and photographs: it is different from the MERL library classification scheme. A subject card index to the cuttings is available in the reading room.  The collection is currently being reorganised into the MERL library classification number order (with subject names added) but is fully accessible and available to browse during this work.

Exploring the MERL library’s cuttings files in the reading room

Exploring the MERL library’s cuttings files in the reading room

Although the collection is only added to occasionally, it is a useful way of retrieving information published in periodicals and newspapers which don’t justify the full cataloguing treatment and which might otherwise be difficult to find. Subjects covered by the clippings include material on agricultural machinery, farm livestock and rural crafts as well as articles and cuttings on more obscure subjects including ancient rural traditions such as ‘beating the bounds’, rural superstitions and the phenomenon of ‘will-o’-the-wisps’ in the countryside. When all else fails with a research query, a quick search of the cuttings files can sometimes yield an important snippet of information or perhaps you might come across an interesting subject for a piece of research. Have a browse and see what you can find!

MERL project news #1 – Hugh Sinclair papers now available

written by Hayley Whiting, Hugh Sinclair Project Archivist

 

The papers of Dr Hugh Macdonald Sinclair DM, DSc, FRCP (1910-90) are now available at MERL.  This marks the end of nearly five years of work by me, the Hugh Sinclair Project Archivist. It has been a very interesting, challenging, and rewarding project funded by the Hugh Sinclair Trust at the University of Reading and I’m going to give an overview of the archive and the work I have done.

First a quick look at the career of Dr Sinclair, as many of you will not have heard of him but may have benefited from his ideas. Dr Sinclair was an academic and pioneer in human nutrition who is best known for his theories on Essential Fatty Acids (EFAs), pioneering the link between Omegas 3 and 6 and human health. In 1979 he took this idea to extremes and undertook his “Eskimo Diet Experiment”. Dr Sinclair consumed only seal meat and fish for 100 days and tested his blood clotting times each day. This was not funded as the ethics committees consulted were not convinced this self-experimentation was a good idea!  Dr Sinclair even had seal meat cooked for him at Magdalen College, Oxford, where he was a fellow, which was not popular with the other diners.

Hugh Sinclair teaching

Hugh Sinclair teaching

The Hugh Sinclair Archive covers this work on EFAs as and all areas of his life and career. The most significant part of the collection are the papers of the Oxford Nutrition Survey. Sinclair was asked by the government to set up the survey which worked throughout the Second World War carrying out nutrition surveys on many different groups for the Government to ensure the health of the nation. This work was also carried out in Germany and the Netherlands after the war and was vital in assisting the starving people there.

Hugh Sinclair

Hugh Sinclair at work

After his time at Oxford Sinclair set up the International Institute of Human Nutrition at his home in Sutton Courtenay and spent the rest of his life trying to raise funds for what he saw as a key research institute for the study of nutrition. The IHN never became what he had hoped for but research continued there until the early 1990s. As I mentioned earlier, Dr Sinclair was a fellow at Magdalen College and taught many students there. He is also remembered by staff and students at the University of Reading where he was a visiting fellow during the 1970s and 80s.

Dr Sinclair’s career never fulfilled its potential and when he wrote about his theories on EFA’s he was often ridiculed. However, towards the end of his life, he began to receive the recognition he deserved and many conferences were held in his honour.

After that whistle-stop tour of Sinclair’s career let me briefly outline the work I have done on the archive, In 2008 I began work on this project and was presented with over 1100 office storage boxes of papers with no list or real sense of what they might contain. So began the long process of going through every box and writing a list of their contents. Every day would bring a new surprise and my favourites have to be a large plastic mackerel, photographs of Dr Sinclair’s time overseas in the 1940s and a diary kept by Sinclair’s mother detailing his first few years with all the baby and toddler milestones described. My least favourite would be envelopes of hair and a half-full container of 30 year old mackerel oil!

Once the listing was completed I moved on to cataloguing material identified for permanent preservation and disposing of the rest. There were boxes of material to return to originating institutions such as Magdalen College and the Worshipful Society of Apothecaries, and a great deal of routine material as Dr Sinclair was quite a hoarder. Now this work is done the papers are catalogued and stored in archivally sound folders and boxes.

Hugh Sinclair's office

Hugh Sinclair’s office

It is rewarding to know that these papers are finally available and I’m excited to see what research will be done using them.

Professor Ian Rowland, Head of the Hugh Sinclair Unit of Human Nutrition at the University of Reading, said: “The archive of Dr Sinclair is potentially an extremely valuable, untapped source of data for researchers in the field of nutrition. The ONS surveys were of contemporary importance in ensuring adequate nutrition of the population, but may be of equal significance in the present day.”

The papers can be viewed in the reading room at MERL.  Please note that restrictions may apply to some records.  The full catalogue can be found on the University’s online catalogue  Select the ‘Archives – Museum of English Rural Life’  box and search for the catalogue reference D HS.

All enquiries relating to the papers should be sent to merl@reading.ac.uk or visit our website for details of visiting the reading room