Articles by Felicity McWilliams

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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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Next week, the Sense of Place team will have another chance to tell people about the work we have been doing as part of the project.  We will be giving an informal lecture, ‘A Sense of Place: putting MERL’s objects on the map’, as part of the Museum’s popular Lunchtime Talk series.  We will give guests an introduction to the project, an update of our progress so far through interesting case studies, and a demonstration of some of the resources that we have created.

The talk will take place at the Museum on Wednesday 5th December, from 1-2pm.  It is an informal event, so do feel free to bring your lunch with you.  You can book in advance from the Museum website but don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to book – come along on the day anyway.

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The 1960s.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The Chinese cultural revolution began.  The first series of Star Trek was aired.  MERL acquired object number 60/1/1-2, a pair of candle snuffers from Binfield.  I know this because we have just finished cataloguing every object accessioned to the Museum in the 1950s! 

Our first main motivational target (‘leave the 1950s’) has therefore been reached!  This leaves us with our main personal target remaining: finish 10,000 records by the end of the project.  We’re currently at 8570, so I’d better get started on those candle snuffers…

 

Candle snuffers

60/1/1-2: Candle snuffers from Binfield.

 

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 As you might have guessed from recent blog posts, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy.  Over the last few weeks, then, it has been a real relief to get back to some solid days of cataloguing again, and as a result we have finally reached another milestone – 8000 records enhanced!  Hopefully we’ll pick up pace again over the next couple of months, as we really want to reach that target of 10,000 records by the end of the project. 

 

54/45

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an object record that always makes me smile. Whenever I’m getting fed up of cataloguing yet another auger or chisel, I return to this sketch for a bit of cheering up.

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We’ve gone a bit quiet over recent months on the progress of our work with Historypin, so I thought it was perhaps time for an update on what we’ve been doing behind the scenes.  If you go to the MERL Historypin channel you will be able to see some of the first objects we have pinned to the map.  Most of these are from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, but there are also some wagons and ploughs from a wider geographic area.

Inevitably, these first trial uploads have thrown up some technical issues that we hadn’t considered.  When we export data from our own Adlib database, we want to minimise the alterations made to that data before it is then uploaded to Historypin.  The fewer changes we make in that intermediate stage, the more manageable and future proof the whole process becomes.

Initially, we had exported our data into a CSV file (it stands for ‘comma separated values’, apparently).  When we looked at the resulting pins on Historypin, we realised the limitations of this approach.  Whilst most of our objects have only one known ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’ (if at all), there are some objects for which we have more complete object biographies, where we know perhaps two or three previous owners.  Similarly, there might be a composite object, with multiple parts made by different people.

Fork - 60/290

This fork (60/290) was made in multiple places. Its handle was made by Bucklebury handle-maker Harry Wells, whilst the metal head was made by a local blacksmith.

Because of the way they work (something to do with being ‘comma separated values’) CSV files can only export one occurrence of each database field.  We had to find a new method of exporting which would enable us to pin objects to all the places with which they are associated.  We are currently trialling the use of XML files as an alternative.  We’ve yet to try uploading to Historypin in this way, but our first tests show that we can at least export multiple occurrences using this type of file.  So, we’re making progress.

Another problem we’ve been working through is trying to find a way to export latitude and longitude data for associated places.  Focussing on place has already necessitated the addition of extra fields to the database – initially we recorded latitude and longitude in the notes field of the thesaurus records, but specific fields for grid references have since been added, and we now record the information there.  Due to the way the database works, though, we were initially unable to export the latitude and longitude for places added as ‘associated places’ (rather than as a ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’).  This problem has since been solved by extra changes to the databases, but it highlights how projects working with technology such as this require a significant amount of technical work behind the scenes to get museum data online.  It is not always just a case of looking at the accession files and then bunging it all on a computer.

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As we’re approaching the end of the week, and I’m trying to stop myself from getting distracted by news of all the Olympic medals that are being won today, I think it’s probably time for another short blog post to update you on one of the things I’ve been working on over the past couple of weeks.

We’ve currently got an intern working with us on Wednesday afternoons, George, who is helping us with some new object photography.  We’ve talked in some previous posts about our work with Historypin, and this object photography is a part of that.  Every object we pin to the Historypin map needs to have a photograph, and we’ve started by making sure that we have one for each of the roughly 300 objects we have from Bucklebury in the collection.  We already have some digital photographs, and we are filling in many of the gaps by scanning old photographic negatives.  We’re now in the process of taking new photographs of the 55 remaining objects for which we currently have no photograph or negative.

 

Wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry

2006/47/5, a wooden pattern from Bucklebury Foundry.

To start with, we have focused on photographing the objects which are easily accessible on the mezzanine object store.  With a lot of help from MERL’s Conservator, Fred, who set up a rather snazzy mini-studio for us, we’ve taken photographs of roughly 50 objects from Bucklebury.  Largely, this set of objects consists of wooden patterns from Hedges Foundry and some wooden bowls turned by George Lailey.  Next on the ‘to-do’ list are the remaining Bucklebury objects which are on display, and shortly we will also start photographing some of the objects donated to the Museum in the early 1950s with another intern, Matthew, who will be helping from tomorrow.

 

Our 'pop-up' photography studio

The photography set-up.

 

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Given that we spend so much of our time looking at places on maps, it is hard not to pay attention to some of the more memorable place names.  There are some gems in the English countryside: places such as Nether Wallop in Hampshire, Wyre Piddle in Worcestershire, and my personal favourite address in Berkshire, Rotten Row, Tutts Clump.  It certainly leads one to think about the origins and etymology of those names.  We notice patterns when cataloguing collections from particular counties; there are lots of places in Sussex with the name component –hurst, and lots in Somerset that include Coombe or Combe.  Incidentally, hurst is a reference to a ‘wooded hill’, and Combe essentially means ‘valley’ (see below for a link to a great website you can search for information like this). 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I have recently spent a lot of time cataloguing ploughs, and one of the most interesting things about the earlier ploughs is that their names often include the name of the county in which they were designed to be used.  Ploughs might be heavy or light for different soil types or the gradient of the landscape.  It is interesting to think that the names of the places in which those ploughs might have been used often reflect those same features of the landscape.  At school in Redditch we were often told that the town was named for the bright red clay that passes for soil in the local area, and like Combe above, many other place names relate to hill and valley features.  As objects often show the links between people and places, so too do the names we call those places.

 

Gloucestershire Long Plough (54/91)

This is a Gloucestershire Long Plough (54/91), used at Bangrove Farm, Winchcombe. The farmer who used it said that the heavy plough was made to cope with the local clay-like soil, and that he had to hitch five Suffolk punch horses to it to get it going 'full pelt'.

Reading, like many other places, is formed of a personal name and the –ing component – it means ‘the people of Reada’.  Reada, according to an article in The Independent, was ‘an otherwise forgotten man… whose name suggests that he had red hair’.  This feels appropriate, given that I am a redhead myself.  Another somewhat amusing place name etymology is that of Nottingham.  It is formed of a personal name, the ­–ing component, and the –ham component.  In total, it formed Snotta-ingas-ham – the village of Snot’s people.  Nottingham is, all things considered, a rather better name.

It is outside the scope of this project to start recording the origins of the place names we are entering into a hierarchy.  A project which is carrying out this valuable task is the Survey of English Place Names, at the English Place-Name Society and the Institute for Name-Studies at the University of Nottingham (or, the University of the village of Snot’s people).  On their website, you can search a map with information about the origins of English place names.  There is also a wealth of websites and books out there with information about this fascinating area.  For me, it remains an interesting side topic to the main geographical cataloguing I do.  Noticing these sorts of patterns in the names of places in different areas of the country helps me to get an even better appreciation of the significance of place and the landscape for people’s lives, and consequently, the objects in MERL’s collections.

Perhaps there are some other great place names out there that you know about, or places that mean something to you – do comment on this post and share them.  We might even have catalogued an object from there – we can let you know!

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Just another quick message to let you know that this afternoon we reached another milestone total – 6000 records have now been enhanced!  For something nice to look at, too, I’ve added a photo of one of the nicest (and certainly most detailed) pencil sketches I’ve come across whilst working through the catalogue records.

 

Accession file sketch of a wagon

A pencil sketch of 55/300, a cart used in Hampshire for taking goods to market.

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Apologies for the Wizard of Oz reference in the title – I couldn’t help myself.  To finish the week, I thought I’d post an update on what I have been working on over the past couple of weeks.  We recently asked some of our MERL tour guides for feedback about what sort of objects visitors seem to be most interested in, with a particular interest in place.  The answer that came back was “wagons and ploughs”.  This didn’t really surprise me, as I remember on my own first visit to the museum I immediately wanted to find a wagon from Worcestershire, the county in which I grew up.  As it turns out, we don’t actually have a wagon from Worcestershire, but we do have plenty from many other counties.  I spent a few days enhancing the catalogue records for all the wagons in MERL’s collection, and after than moved on to the ploughs.

Cataloguing in this way does have certain advantages.  Spending a number of days immersed in information about a particular type of object gives you a much better chance of getting to understand those objects, and what is most relevant and important to record about them.  This is particularly useful when trying to tidy up the object name thesaurus for such objects.  In contrast, if you only catalogue one wagon in every 300 records it is much harder to get an overall picture of wagons and their variations.  Of course, it does help when you are interested in the objects you are spending up to week cataloguing exclusively.  On the other hand, cataloguing chronologically gives a really good insight into the history of the collection and how it developed over time, as well as being a logical and consistent way to progress towards our goal of 10,000 records by the end of the year.  It is interesting to consider how the order in which we catalogue objects might be influencing the way in which we are cataloguing them.

As well as the wagons and ploughs, I have also catalogued the objects in one particular gallery location: the saddlery case in the ‘Leather’ section of the Museum.  This is part of a small part of the project I am working on, where we’re trying to think of ways of making the enhanced catalogue records more accessible to visitors who are actually standing in the Museum, looking at the objects.  One of the ways we are thinking of doing this is using QR codes.  This is one outcome of our work with iMuse (see Working with iMuse and Historypin), and we have been able to think a lot about the benefits and practicalities of using QR code technology in a museum context.  Now that all of the objects in the saddlery case have been enhanced, we will be able to generate a QR code which, when scanned using a smartphone, will direct the visitor to the enhanced database entries for those objects.  As a starting point, this should enable them to access far more information about the objects than would be possible with in-gallery text labels.  Of course, QR codes aren’t perfect: not all of our visitors will have smartphones, for a start.  As an initial idea to trial, though, we hope that it will give us some useful feedback with which to move forward.

Saddlery Case

One of the displays in the Saddlery Case, one area of the gallery in which we will be trialling the use of QR codes.

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In the absence of a ‘Blue Peter’ style counter, I am confined to a mere blog post to let you know that we have now catalogued over 5000 records!  Next target: 6000.

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