Promoting the work of ‘A Sense of Place’

Last night Felicity and I actually had an opportunity to share news of the Sense of Place project via an ‘old fashioned’ presentation, as opposed to virtually though our blog and other online media. It’s important to mention here that it was Greta who arranged this talk and had spent time planning it but was unfortunately unable to attend.

We presented a summary of the project and progress made so far to the University of Reading’s Women’s Club.  The Women’s Club was established in 1948 and membership is open to all women who have a connection with the University. The aim of the Club is to provide opportunities for social interaction, with particular emphasis on supporting those who are combining a career and family life and on welcoming newcomers and their families to the University.

They hold various events throughout the year and have a range of interest visiting speakers, talking about a range of topics.

Felicity and I were able to show some examples of the object record files that we have been using to enhance the database with and explain more about how reliant we are on the details which are recorded at the time of acquisition, as well as through research over the years.

We then moved on to demonstrate the applications of our work on Historypin where we have begun to plot some of our collections, alongside photographs.  As previously mentioned, we’ve focused on the area of Bucklebury initially so have therefore been able to make use of the ‘collection’ tool on Historypin, by pulling together some information about George Lailey.  Have a look and you can try it out for yourself!

The talk went well and it was really enjoyable to present our work to a non-museum audience and see that it really is of interest to those who may not be so familiar with accessing this kind of information through the internet and mobile devices.

Apparently, many members of the Club were keen to get online and explore these developments for themselves.  Success!

Cataloguing 20th Century Rural Culture

As mentioned in previous posts, the Sense of Place team have been cataloguing parts of the collection in a number of ways.  We have worked in a chronological order but we have also identified various defined collections to ensure that we can trial some outcomes of the project in a usable way.

Lately we have begun cataloguing some relatively recently acquired objects which has made a pleasant change for us. This material was actively collected as part of the Heritage Lottery funded Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture project which began in 2008 and still continues.  The purpose of the project was to acquire material that builds, decade by decade, a picture of the countryside in the twentieth century.  MERL has been looking for signal items that speak powerfully of their day and illustrate the wider cultural influence of the countryside on English society. There is another fantastic and informative blog on this project, written by Roy Brigden, which is still live on the MERL website, for you to catch up on.

These items could range from works of art that somehow express a mood of the time down to everyday objects that instantly connect with a particular era in the countryside. Perhaps it might be an object with a special story to tell, and an association with an event or a person. For each one, MERL would like to develop an expert narrative to place it in context and construct an overall story.  Many of the objects acquired are actually on permanent display in MERL right now.  Make sure you visit to take a look!

I just wanted to quickly share with you, something which I have been working on today, which beautifully demonstrates what we are trying to achieve with this project.  When we are tidying up the records, we are trying to add detailed geographical data into 3 specific fields of the database; place made, place used and place acquired.  Despite our desire to do this, it is rarely possible to complete all three fields and this is simply because the data is not there to find in the paper records.  In fact, this is the first time I personally have come across an example where I have been able to do so.

This poster from 1931 is advertising a sale at Manor Farm Redbourne, Lincolnshire.  Mr E. Owen Ayre’s lease has expired meaning that everything is up for sale, including all stock and equipment.  The date indicates that this may be due to the agricultural depression of the inter-war years.  Mr Ayre can’t be moving to another farm, because he’s selling all he has, nor is he handing over to a son, because the lease is not being renewed.

The poster was printed or made in Brigg, Lincolnshire, used at and around Manor Farm Redbourne, which according to the poster is 6 miles from Brigg and 17 miles from Lincoln, and acquired from an Antique shop in Bedale, North Yorkshire. We don’t have any information regarding where the poster may have been between 1931 and 2010, when it was acquired, but wouldn’t it be great to find out more!  Of course, if you know anything, do leave us a comment to fill in the gaps.


The team welcomes our resident Historypinner!

Anyone who has followed the Sense of Place blog since day 1 back in February will recall that I mentioned working with Historypin, a website which encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

I also explained that one of the aims of the Sense of Place project is to work with Historypin in finding a method of also pinning MERL object collection data onto these maps, to provide them with an enhanced geographical context.

Although it appears that we have gone a little quiet on this front, we have been making steady progress behind the scenes and are pleased to announce that we now have our very own ‘History pinner in Residence,’ Rebekkah Abraham.  Rebekkah is the Historypin Content Manager for We Are What We Do and currently has the pleasure of travelling out to Reading every so often to work alongside the Sense of Place team at MERL.  We are very pleased to be working with her too.

She is now busily working away on the technicalities of exporting data from our object cataloguing system, Adlib, through to Historypin, to ensure that information from the relevant fields is transferred successfully providing as much information as possible for the user.  This will include the object name, a brief description and history, the maker and production date where applicable.  These exports will mean that when updates or amendments are made to our records, they are automatically updated in Historypin.

This project presents a new challenge for Rebekkah and Historypin as the website is currently only designed to upload photographs and their related information, which means some development is required.  However, once this is achieved, there will hopefully be scope for many other museums from around the world to plot their collections geographically in a similar way.

A visible development of this work is now available to explore in the form of a MERL Historypin ‘channel’ which holds everything from the MERL collections which has been uploaded so far.  Do take a look as its far better to grasp what Historypin is capable of by trying it out, rather me rambling on about it in a blog post!

For a number of reasons, which have been mentioned in several previous blog posts, the village of Bucklebury in Berkshire has been identified as an ideal location to begin plotting photographic and object content to on Historypin via this channel.  This will then allow us to have a defined geographical area which we can try-out various Historypin functionality with.  These could be tours, collections, stories and potentially a mobile phone app, which will highlight the rich collections that the museum is lucky to own, originating from Bucklebury.

Bucklebury also has a thriving History Group and they now have their own channel too.  This means that they can begin to upload the many images which they have collected over the years, making them more accessible to anyone who is interested.  They already have some beautiful photographs from the 1953 Coronation celebrations which took place in the village.
Of course, there are some problems for us to iron out.  These things are never as straight forward as you might imagine. Many of the objects in the MERL collection have multiple places associated with them (where they are made, used, acquired etc) and representing this complex biography is one of the objectives of the project.  We still need to work out how this will work in practice when they are plotted to a map, ensuring we do not end up confusing researchers and other interested parties further.

Historypin also currently works by plotting photographs in a location and at a specific historic date.  Many of the objects in the collection have no or very little information regarding the date they were made or used and it would be difficult to add this data to such a large selection of objects accurately, within the constraints of this project.

Nevertheless, it feels exciting to be able to share some progress with you, which you can actually have a look at and explore further!

The Bucklebury Experience

As Greta mentioned yesterday in her blog post, What did you do at work today…Updated, the Sense of Place Project team have experienced a fact-filled visit to Bucklebury today and have only just returned, hence this very quick blog post, which I am writing towards the end of a rather tiring but enjoyable day.

The team visiting the former site of George Lailey’s hut

Some keen members of Bucklebury History Group, Helen, David and Allayne, kindly devoted the best part of their day to giving us a tour of Bucklebury.  And who better to do it? Their knowledge and enthusiasm for the place in which they live, is impressive, infectious and quite enviable.  Especially to someone like me, who has not settled in one area (or even county or region) of the UK for more than 2 out of the last 12 years!

Whilst it might sound like a simple task to show someone around Bucklebury, we have learnt that Bucklebury Parish actually has a 26 mile boundary and encompasses Bucklebury Village, Upper Bucklebury, Chapel Row, Bucklebury Common (Upper and Lower), plus areas such as The Slade, Mile’s Green and Turner’s Green, amongst others. So cataloguing an object from ‘Bucklebury’ may not be quite as straightforward as we first thought!  It certainly calls for more work on our geographical keyword hierarchy, which Felicity discussed the complexities of, in an earlier blog post, Cataloguing ‘place’.

But having now undergone a comprehensive tour of Bucklebury and seen it with our own eyes, we have a much greater understanding of how the places within the Parish boundary relate to each other.  This will naturally lead to a better understanding of the objects and photographs we are cataloguing, which were made, used or acquired in Bucklebury.

As well as those mentioned by Greta yesterday, these include a large collection of items relating to the late George Lailey, a Bucklebury man said to have been England’s last traditional bowl turner. It is believed that his work came to have a profound impact on early twentieth century craft.  Lailey’s bowl turning lathe is on open display at MERL, along with many of the hand tools and bowls found in Lailey’s workshop, where it forms an important part of the story of rural life in England. The artefacts in this display include an incomplete bowl sitting on the lathe, which Lailey is said to have been working on at the time of his death in 1958.

Anyway, there will be far more details of Bucklebury’s history and its related objects and photographs from the MERL collection to follow in future blog posts, along with more details of what we are planning to do with all of this information.  For now, I will leave you with some images from our day out.  I know Felicity and Greta have also taken plenty of photographs so I wouldn’t be surprised if you hear more about their own versions of the Bucklebury Experience too!


Foundry House, Bucklebury Village

Behind the Foundry, over the River Pang, Bucklebury Village

The grave of George Lailey, Upper Bucklebury cemetery

George Lailey’s commemorative plaque, Turner’s Green, Bucklebury Common

The grave of Harry Wells, Bucklebury handle-maker

Example of an iron grave marker, made at Bucklebury Village Foundry

Working with iMuse and Historypin

In the last blog post, we mentioned that we have been working with a local charity called iMuse who work to support people with disabilities to make better use of ICT.   You can find out more about iMuse and the work they do by visiting their website

By collaborating with an organisation such as iMuse, a significant opportunity has been created for MERL to trial the delivery of its collection data both to this specific set of users and to a wider set of handheld owners and operators.  Annette Haworth and Lorna Woodman from iMuse have already been very busy testing out some of the activities they have developed so far within the gallery spaces at MERL.  They have also done a great job of reporting on their progress through their website and blogs, available to view on their website.

We also mentioned that we have been in dialogue with We are What we Do, the owners and managers of HistoryPin. Here Google forms the main partner in a scheme that encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

Historypin already has some experience in working in this way through their local projects, one of which was conducted in Reading with Reading Museum.   When working closely with local people, voluntary groups, community organisations, archives, businesses and associations, lots of interest can be generated which results in a large number of photographic contributions. This can be continued for years to come, building the record of local history. To see more about this previous project visit

It is hoped that MERL object collection data could be deliverable through a resource based on this model and there has been plenty of discussion as to how this work may develop.

Welcome to the new ‘A Sense of Place’ project blog

The purpose of this blog is to keep you updated with progress on a project called A Sense of Place, which has recently begun at the Museum of English Rural life (MERL).

As you may already know, MERL (part of the University of Reading’s Museums and Special Collections Service) was awarded the largest grant in the first round of the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund, via the Museums Association, for A Sense of Place.

The aim of the project is to turn the traditional museum catalogue into a more flexible and interactive resource, engaging and connecting audiences with our collections in terms of relevance to geographical, historical and cultural contexts.

MERL, like almost every museum, faces the challenge of how to help visitors interpret their experience of historical artefacts removed from their original contexts. To achieve this we need to explore new forms of user-friendly Information and Communications Technology (ICT) that will help audiences access and make use of our collections data in new and more meaningful ways.

We have already consulted a range of organisations and individuals. These include We are What we Do, the owners and managers of HistoryPin, a scheme that encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps powered by Google.  We have also been collaborating with iMuse, a local charity that works to support people with disabilities to make better use of ICT.  We will discuss the involvement of such organisations in further blog posts.

A Sense of Place will be delivered through a steering group, consisting of staff, specialist advisers and other stakeholders, including volunteers and museum visitors.

So firstly, let me introduce the team to you:

The project director is MERL’s Curator of Collections & Engagement, Isabel Hughes.  The day to day activity will be led by the Assistant Curator, Ollie Douglas, who will be the line manager for the three project officers, Greta Bertram, Felicity McWilliams and I, Danielle Evans.   It will be the three of us who will generally be keeping you informed with the project news so you will get to know us quite well.  We took up our posts in January 2012 and will work on the project until January 2013.