Farewell to MERL!


The day has finally come when I have to say goodbye to MERL. I’ve been here for nearly three years and have loved absolutely every minute of it – it really has been a dream job!!! And, in all honesty, I think I can say that there’s only been one day when I wasn’t looking forward to going in – which is pretty good going! MERL has been wonderful place to work (largely thanks to my amazing colleagues and volunteers, and the fantastic Felicity in particular) and I’ve loved all of the different things I’ve been involved in – the various projects, the events, meeting visiting researchers, and trying to convince everyone that baskets are the Best Thing Ever!

The thought of leaving MERL and all my beloved craft collections (especially the baskets) is absolutely heart-breaking, but at the same time I’m really looking forward to my new adventures at the Polar Museum at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. But my departure from MERL certainly isn’t an end to my love affair with craft – I’ll be carrying on as a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association and will hopefully continue to try my hand at lots of crafts.

Thanks everyone!

Object handling

Our first in-gallery object handling session

Our first in-gallery object handling session

As part of the Reading Engaged project, MERL is looking to develop a handling collection and programme of object handling sessions which can take place in a variety of settings: whether it be in-gallery, elsewhere on site, or off-site. We have been working with freelance curator and consultant Charlotte Dew to help us develop the collection, the sessions, and all the accompanying policies and procedures.

On Saturday we held an Information Day about Our Country Lives, MERL’s major redisplay (NB. The Museum will be closing to the public at the end of October for approximately one year, but the Library, Archives and Reading Room will remain open throughout. You can find out more about the redevelopment here) and took the opportunity to trial some of our ideas for a session based around looking at the relationship between craft tools and the finished items, i.e. how a tool is used to make something. Although we’ve been developing this session as a facilitated session for adult learners in the teaching space/studio area, we decided to test out some of the objects in an in-gallery setting.

We had four objects available for handling: two relating to lace-making, and two relating to bodging. The lace-making pair consisted of four bone bobbins (MERL 55/205/1–4) and a piece of handmade lace (MERL 59/290/8), each in a small Perspex box. The bodging pair consisted of a chisel (MERL 51/112 – we didn’t want to shy away from trying out objects perceived as ‘dangerous’ or ‘high risk’) and a turned spindle from a Windsor chair (MERL 51/63). Nitrile gloves were provided for handling this latter pair of objects.

We had a table set up in the Temporary Exhibition space, and each pair of objects was set out in a tray lined with acid-free tissue paper. We also had a copy of the ‘Object handling rules’ displayed by each tray, and boxes of nitrile gloves in small, medium and large were also set out on the table. There were two of us running the session, each taking charge of a pair of objects. I had prepared some background information for us both to look at in advance which detailed the purpose of the session, the objects we would be using, and some background information about the crafts and what sort of things we might want to discuss with visitors.

24 people (ranging from the very young to the not-so young) came up to us throughout the afternoon – and I thought this would be a good chance to critique how the session went, so here goes:

  • Although everyone said they thought handling opportunities were a good idea, very few people seemed to want to pick up the objects:
  • —–Were they not interested?
  • —–Did they not realise they could?
  • —–Was the set-up off-putting?
  • —–Was the need to wear gloves off-putting?
  • —–Should we have had ‘Please touch’ signs?
  • More people seemed willing to pick up the lace-making objects than the bodging objects:
  • —–Was this because they were in Perspex boxes so gloves weren’t required?
  • —–Was this because they were smaller so you needed to pick them up for a closer look?
  • —–Was this because they were somehow ‘more interesting’ objects (they were certainly more colourful)?
  • —–Was this because they were more easily identifiable objects?
  • The opportunity to handle real objects didn’t seem to be as important as the opportunity to discuss the objects and find out more about them on a one-to-one basis/in-depth level
  • The level of background knowledge of the facilitators is really important, especially when dealing with adult audiences (and I was really glad that Jenny and I had both read up a bit on the crafts)
  • Perhaps we should have asked questions that necessitated touching – e.g. feel the weight of the tool, how does the tool sit in your hand etc.

It would be great to hear your thoughts! What makes object handling appealing, and what makes it off-putting? What could we do to make it a better experience or a more successful session? Do you want to handle real museum objects?

A wonderful weekend at the Weald & Downland Museum

Earlier this week I spent four days in beautiful Sussex, three of them at the Weald & Downland Museum in Singleton.

Left: MERL 56/187/1. Right: MERL 60/535/1

Left: MERL 56/187/1. Right: MERL 60/535/1

I’ve been wanting to make a coracle for years (no idea why!) and finally got the chance this weekend at the Weald & Downland (a fantastic place for craft courses!). Coracles are found across the world and are often one-person vessels used for fishing. In Britain, the wooden framework of coracles would originally have been covered with animal skins, but are today covered with calico or canvas which is waterproofed with bitumen paint. The design of coracles varied across Britain; we have two in the MERL collection – one is made of ash laths woven together (MERL 56/187) and the other is made of a hazel and willow frame (MERL 60/535). Traditionally two coracles would work together when fishing, with the fisherman in each vessel steering with the paddle in one hand whilst holding onto the net stretched out between them with the other. Turns out there’s a coracle museum in Cenarth in Wales!

My coracle at the end of the course - it still needs waterproofing and a bit more woodwork and then we're ready to paddle!

My coracle at the end of the course – it still needs waterproofing and a bit more woodwork and then we’re ready to paddle!

The course was run by Kevin Grimley, with the help of his son Nathan, and was absolutely brilliant. The first day was spent constructing the wooden frame of our coracles (with the aid of some power tools). The frame is made of ash laths, constructed around the pine seat. I was a bit worried about lagging behind everyone else as it’s been years since I’ve done much woodwork, but my practice drilling, hammering and sawing a few weeks ago stood me in good stead!

On the second day, we covered the frame in calico – pulling it taut and stapling it to the rim, and then stitching the seams. We need to finish our coracles off at home with a few layers of bitumen paint and then another lath around the inside and outside of the rim.

Test driving one of Kevin's coracles on the mill pond at the Weald & Downland Museum

Test driving one of Kevin’s coracles on the mill pond at the Weald & Downland Museum

Because ours wouldn’t be finished over the weekend, Kevin had brought along some completed coracles for us to have a go in on the Museum’s mill pond – it was great fun! The coracle felt quite stable, but the figure-of-eight paddling takes a little getting used to. Can’t wait to have a go in mine when it’s done!

I was then back at the Weald & Downland on Tuesday for a conference on ‘The history of woodworking tools’, which was held in collaboration with the Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) in celebration of the 50th anniversary of W. L. Goodman’s seminal book of that name. It was a great conference (although I didn’t quite fit the typical delegate demographic) and was divided into the sections of Goodman’s book – rules and measures, compasses and squares, boring tools (or ‘not so boring tools’), trestles and benches, saws, planes, edge tools, and chisels and gouges.

I really liked the portable display cases that TATHS used. This display was entitled 'Not so boring tools'!

I really liked the portable display cases that TATHS used. This display was entitled ‘Not so boring tools’!

As ever, when I attend these kinds of things, I realise how little I knew when I did the A Sense of Place cataloguing and how many mistakes I must have made. My latest wish is to have the time to spend focusing on tool manufacturers – looking at the objects, noting down the manufacturer’s marks, cross-referencing them with the various permutations of manufacturer’s names over the years and trying to date them. Alas, I doubt I’ll ever have the time! The first speaker, Jane Rees, made a very good point – that a lot of the detailed research into the subject of the conference is done by dedicated and interested amateurs, rather than museum professionals or academics and I know why – we just never have the time (especially when working on a project basis!).