Spoons galore!

Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

One of MERL’s latest acquisitions is a beech spoon carved by spoon-carver Martin Damen during an oral history interview conducted for the Reading Connections project. Martin is a regular at the MERL village fete (he’ll be here again this year on Saturday 31 May) and the MERL traditional crafts fair, and is also a strong supporter of the Heritage Crafts Association. Ever since I first met Martin and saw his beautiful spoons I’ve wanted to have a go, and this weekend I finally had the chance when I went on a two-day course with him. I love trying out different crafts I encounter – because it makes cataloguing easier when you understand how things are used, because I just love having a go at different things, and because I’m hoping to discover the craft that really suits me.
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

The course was brilliant – Martin is a great teacher and explained everything really clearly (and you even got a knife and a course book with instructions and diagrams to take away with you). We began by looking at the two key tools – a knife and an axe – and practising the different techniques for using them. Martin makes it look so easy but you do need significant amounts of force/power – hardly surprising given that, even though you are using very green wood, you are using wood. The first day was spent making a butter knife in cherrywood. On the second day we were introduced to another tool – the hook knife, which is used for hollowing the bowl of the spoon – and made our very own spoons out of hazel (I think). Martin was really good at encouraging us to think about how a spoon functions and to consider the shape and form needed to make a spoon comfortable and practical to use (e.g. the shape and depth of the bowl, the thickness of the rim, the crank of the handle etc).
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2. It’s not quite finished – I still need to take the edges off.

It was really really hard work and I felt like I was struggling the whole time – definitely not something that came naturally to me (although obviously a lot of it is down to practise and familiarity with using knives and wielding axes). I’m really glad that I had a go and am very pleased with my pieces (which did admittedly receive quite a lot of help from Martin – I was very slow and would never have completed them otherwise). We got to take some wood away so I am hoping to try again in my spare time – although I think I’ll stick to butter knives for the time being!

Time-based media and digital preservation


Way back in May last year I posted about one of the many challenges we’ve faced in the Countryside21 project – conducting a survey of the time-based media (TBM) in the MERL Archives. There were three stages to the survey: 1) identifying what TBM there is, 2) finding it, and 3) developing an action plan for its conservation.

It felt like we spent a good part of the summer rummaging around in the Archives, moving boxes, opening tins and doing an awful lot of counting, but we eventually got there and have, fingers crossed, found all the TBM. Having not fully understood how the Archives work in terms of duplicates (films have master copies, viewing copies and preservation copies – all of which are kept in different locations and not always obviously labelled) we opted for keeping really detailed notes of what we found, in the hope that someone else would know what it all means, and this has proved a sensible plan!

We have now come up with totals for all of the different types of media – e.g. audio cassette tapes, reel to reel tapes, CDs, DVDs, film (8mm, 16mm etc.), floppy disks, gramophone records, videos (VHS, betacam, umatic etc.), hard drives etc. – and are working out what to do next. Some things we can transfer to a digital format in-house. I’ve managed to dig out an external floppy disk drive from home and have been converting those. I was quite surprised that a Windows7 computer was able to read a floppy disk from the 1990s. Other things will need specialist equipment to transfer and will have to be done externally. But obviously we have to prioritise as these things are very costly.

To help us in this process, several of us (Felicity and me, and two of the University archivists) went on a digital preservation training course, run by the Digital Preservation Coalition. Digital preservation was described as ‘the series of managed activities necessary to ensure that digital materials remain accessible beyond the limits of obsolescence’. The course focused on the preservation of born-digital material (material that has only ever existed in digital format) rather than digital surrogates (hard copy things which have been digitised). The vast majority of the digital material at MERL is digital surrogates, but there were still many useful points for us.

These included the need to think about what it is you want to achieve through preservation, and the need to think in terms of who will use the data, rather than in terms of preserving data itself. Another point was that you need to maintain software, hardware and people, all of which change, in order to preserve digital material. We were introduced to different approaches to digital preservation (migration, emulation, hardware preservation, etc.) and different tools for doing it, and also to methodologies for conducting risk assessments and developing preservation plans. And a really key point was that OK is sometimes good enough, i.e. don’t wait for perfection in digital preservation, just get started!

Cataloguing the Stakeholders baskets

MERL 60/202 - photographs

MERL 60/202 – photographs

It’s been a long time since I’ve written a post about the Stakeholders project – indeed, it’s been a long time since I’ve had a chance to do any work on the project – but in the past couple of weeks I’ve finally been able to turn my attention back to my beloved baskets and have now added all the information that we gathered during the study visit to the catalogue. This isn’t the sort of skim-the-surface cataloguing that I’ve done for other projects at MERL – it’s much more in-depth. There’s now so much detail about the baskets that it’s like going from one extreme to the other.

I’ve typed up the recording forms that were completed during the visit, making a few amendments for clarity, so that all the details are available and can be brought up in a free text search. I’ve also attached scans of the original forms as well. I’ve then focused on adding the overall/general technique used*** (coiled, stake and strand, knotted or netted, plaited, twined, assembled), the main materials used, and providing more detailed dimensions. I’ve also edited the general descriptions I wrote when I catalogued the baskets first time round in summer 2012 to incorporate the additional information gained through the project and to ensure that all the details are correct.

The records now also have a really good set of photos attached to them – both general and close-up shots. Back in January we spent a very long day taking photos of about 65 baskets (the Stakeholders baskets plus those without colour photos) and ended up taking over 650 photos! And finally, as part of another project, I’ve been working through the entire collection (nearly 19,000 records) to give everything a new and standardised set of keywords – as a result, all the baskets, basketwork items and basketry tools now have keyword ‘basketry’, which can be used as another way to find them on the online catalogue (using the ‘subject’ field in the advanced search).

So have a look at the online catalogue and explore some of the baskets!

Stakeholders blog

MERL 68/202 – cataloguing work (internal catalogue view)

*** Technique refers to the overall construction of the basket. I did think about keywording for all the different techniques (e.g. slewing, randing, pairing, fitching, waling, etc.) but there were several issues with this: 1) I don’t fully understand them, which makes cataloguing a challenge; 2) I’m wary of filling the thesaurus with extremely niche keywords; 3) one basket can use so many techniques – indeed, one part of a basket can use so many techniques – so it all becomes extremely complicated to catalogue and makes the records unwieldy; and 4) I’m not sure there’s an awful lot of benefit to cataloguing in quite so much detail, especially as that information is present in the recording form (both the scan and the transcription).

Farming on the BBC

MERL P DX289 PH1/668. Ewes and lambs in the lambing pen, Kiddington, Oxfordshire. Taken by Eric Guy.

MERL P DX289 PH1/668. Ewes and lambs in the lambing pen, Kiddington, Oxfordshire. Taken by Eric Guy.

In the last of MERL’s seminars in the ‘Untouchable England’ series last week, Ollie spoke about MERL on the BBC in the 1950s. Over the past few days I’ve come to notice how many programmes there are about farming on the BBC at the moment. I’m a lifelong Radio4 fan and, although I’m not normally up in time for Farming Today, I am (although I’m not sure whether I should be admitting it) a regular listener of The Archers. I don’t normally get the chance to watch much TV, but last week I came across a programme on BBC2 called The Hill Farm, which follows Gareth Wyn Jones and his family for a year on their hill farm in North Wales (a far cry from the type of farming there is in the are I grew up in – in the flat Fens surrounded by fields full of sugar beet). And this week I’ve made my first foray into BBC2’s Lambing Live (16 million sheep will be born in the UK this spring), this year following the Dykes Family on the farm in Scotland.

I probably sound very ignorant and very naïve, which I don’t deny (rural crafts rather than farming are my area of expertise at MERL). I’ve found both programmes really fascinating, and they’ve brought to life lots of the objects, terms and practices that I’ve come across during my two years at MERL – such as tupping, drenching and hefting (which Ollie wrote a blog post on back when we started the Sense of Place project). And I do like Kate Humble’s bobble hat! I’ve also really appreciated the fact that The Hill Farm doesn’t shy away from the bloody, brutal and very ‘real’ side of farming that is undoubtedly not really thought about by most of us (the total farming labour force in the UK in 2006 was 534,000 out of a population of 60.6 million).

Both programmes show the importance of community, and especially of family, in the running of many farms – as does The Archers. I discovered today that 2014 has been officially named by the United Nations as the International Year of Family Farming (IYFF) – and it is estimated that there are 500 million family farms (those that rely primarily on family members for labour and management) across the globe. The UN states that the initiative “aims to raise the profile of family farming and smallholder farming by focusing world attention on its significant role in eradicating hunger and poverty, providing food security and nutrition, improving livelihoods, managing natural resources, protecting the environment, and achieving sustainable development, in particular in rural areas.”

And if that wasn’t enough, there’s also Countryfile on BBC1 on Sunday evenings, which regularly attracts more than 5 million viewers! It’s great to see that there is such a public interest in rural matters – and I hope that programmes like these really do help us better understand the important role that farming plays in all of our lives.

Tool Tales

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

On Saturday the Heritage Crafts Association held its fourth annual Spring Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Tool Tales’. What better theme could there be for a craft conference? Almost every craftsperson needs at least one tool – and some need hundreds!

It was a very packed day, with five speakers, an AGM, awards and an instant gallery of delegates’ favourite tools to fit in. Some of my favourite quotes came from Professor Trevor Marchand, who spoke about problem-solving in bench-side learning – ‘craft is problem-solving and ‘hand work is intelligent work’ – and Dr Phil Harding in his appropriately titled talk, ‘Getting a Handle on Prehistory’ – ‘a tool with no handle is a useless tool’. And Grace Horne, knife-maker and corset-maker, who described herself as having an extra-marital affair with scissors, reminded us that scissors are so much more than ‘two knives attached by a screw’.

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as 'embroidery' and was rather confused!)

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as ’embroidery’ and was rather confused!)

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company made everyone laugh with his stories of spending his days transporting, dismantling and rebuilding large numbers of nineteenth-century industrial looms (there’s always a few pieces leftover – ready to form part of the next loom). And Roger W. Smith wowed us all with his incredible patience and precision – watch-making is a craft that involves 34 separate trades, all of which Roger undertakes at his workshop where they make only eleven watches a year!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company - he's addicted to rebuilding looms!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company – he’s addicted to rebuilding looms!

In July 2013 the HCA launched its own suite of Heritage Crafts Awards, building on existing awards, and the winners were announced on Saturday. They included local boat-builder Colin Henwood of Henwood & Dean, who won the ‘Maker of the Year’ award. Colin is based in Henley-on-Thames and specialises in the restoration, rebuilding and maintenance of classic wooden Thames boats – and he was recently interviewed by Phillippa, MERL’s Public Programmes Manager, for the oral histories element of the Reading Connections project.

This week I’m setting myself the challenge of getting to grips with social media – and there’s loads out there about Tool Tales. Why not take a look at the HCA Facebook page to see photos from the day, Pinterest to see photos of tools for the instant gallery, and Storify to see some of the tweets about the day.

It’s all about the curling!

MERL 50/563/1-2. Our very own curling stones, made by the same company as those used in the Winter Olympics.

MERL 50/563/1-2. Our very own curling stones, made by the same company as those used in the Winter Olympics.

Curling is in the spotlight today – Great Britain will play Canada in the men’s Winter Olympic final in Sochi this afternoon. And this morning there was an interview on Radio 4’s Today programme with the Managing Director of Kays, a family firm in Scotland which has been making curling stones since 1851 (you can listen on BBC iplayer here at 2:41:00). We have two curling stones at MERL made by Kays (MERL 60/563/1-2), acquired from the British Council in 1960.

Kays make all of the curling stones for the Olympics. The stones are made from granite from Ailsa Craig, an uninhabited island off the coast of Ayrshire. I learnt this morning from the interview that they are made from two types of Ailsa Craig granite – common green is used for the body of the stone because of its insulating properties, keeping the running edge cool; while blue hone is used around the edge. The two stones at MERL are marked ‘No. 1’, weighing 30lbs, and ‘No.2’, weighing 38lbs.

Curling became an Olympic sport in 1998, and transformed the fortunes over the firm. In 1998 there were only 25 countries involved in the sport, but today that figure has nearly doubled. Kays produces 1200–1500 new stones every year, and also repair and upgrade existing stones.

And the stones aren’t the only curling-related material we have at MERL. We’ve also got a wonderful advert for Cooper’s Dip showing men in tweed dancing in delight as they celebrate a curling victory. Let’s hope that’s what Team GB will be doing later today (although without the tweed!).

Let's hope it's victory like this for Team GB this afternoon!

Let’s hope it’s victory like this for Team GB this afternoon!

MERL lunchtime seminar – Basketry skills as intangible heritage

Collections on mezzanine 011 compressed

If you happen to be in Reading today with nothing to do (4 February 2014) why not pop along to MERL at 13.00 for our lunchtime seminar? This series of talks, entitled ‘Untouchable England’, looks at how different forms of intangible heritage might help us explore and better understand rural England.

Today’s seminar will be given by… me! And I’ll be talking about basketry skills as intangible heritage, examining the idea of heritage craft, exploring values that basketmakers ascribe to their work, and looking to the future of intangible craft skills. After the talk there’ll also be an informal pop-up exhibition of baskets in the Museum’s mezzanine store and a chance to talk more about MERL’s current Stakeholders project.


Happy New Year

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost - as the sun breaks through on New Year's day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost – as the sun breaks through on New Year’s day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

Happy 2014 to all of you MERL Projects Blog readers!

I can’t believe how quickly 2013 went (or how long it is since I last did a blog post). The start of a new year is always a good time to look back at what you’ve achieved over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what you want to achieve in the coming months. Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a lovely break, so I took the opportunity to write a January-February 2014 To Do list – and there’s an awful lot on it!

A Sense of Place: We just managed to enhance 9000 records at the end of 2012, and our current total at the end of 2013 stands at 15805 records. This progress is largely thanks to Laura, who was working on the project for several months over the summer while Felicity and I moved on to other projects (although we did manage to fit in some cataloguing too). This means that there’s only another 3000 records to go until every record has been enhanced – something I’d really like to see done! I’ve also been starting to tidy up (and hopefully massively reduce) the list of object names (and their numerous variants) when I have a spare moment or two.

Countryside21: This has been a bit of a stop-and-start project, and we’ve made really good progress on some elements and virtually none on others. The positives include nearly finishing the Time Based Media survey (I’m aiming to have it signed off by the end of January), renaming thousands upon thousands of files and restructuring the way they’re organised (all Felicity’s work), revising the MERL Classification, rationalising our use of subject keywords in Adlib, and finally beginning to implement the new Classification and the associated keywords (I’ve already managed to do this for 3400 records in the space of two weeks). We’ve also updated the ‘Geographical Keywords Manual’ and will be putting together guidelines on how to use other types of keywords in the coming weeks.  The ‘To Do’ list includes selecting and keywording images for commercial purposes, and arranging the technical side of the project such as the Digital Asset Management software and the e-commerce.

Reading Connections: While we don’t blog about the Reading Connections project here (it has a separate blog) this has been occupying a lot of mine and Felicity’s time throughout 2013. We spent the summer photographing 600 of Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, and since then Felicity has been spending several days a week at Reading Museum researching and writing detailed descriptions of these objects. Meanwhile I’ve been working on cataloguing craft here at MERL and have enhanced/tidied/cross-referenced all of the records for clay, leather, metal, stone, straw and textile crafts, leaving just wood crafts to go in 2014.

Stakeholders: We had a hugely successful two day study visit from ten basketmakers at the start of December to kick the project off. We’ll be photographing all of the baskets we studied in a couple of weeks, and then it’s a case of adding all the new information that we gathered to Adlib, commissioning pieces from the participating makers, and putting together some banners for a pop-up exhibition in the future.

Our Country Lives: While not officially one of Felicity’s and my projects, we’ve both been involved in the plans for the re-development of MERL over the last couple of months of 2013. It’s been a really eye-opening experience and we’re very much looking forward to how it progresses.

Miscellaneous: And as ever, we’ve been working on lots of other bits and pieces too. Our volunteers have continued to scan the 60-series negatives and add them to Adlib. 3000 negatives were scanned in 2013, leaving only another 5 boxes (out of a total of 23) left to do. I’ve been adding any existing colour photos to Adlib which for some reason weren’t already on there – I’ve done the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, leaving just the 1950s and 1960s to go.

So, all in all, a very busy year just gone (with much more than I’ve managed to mention), and another busy year to come (again, with much more than I’ve managed to mention)! But, at least I can say that I’m really looking forward to 2014 here at MERL and all there is to do. Wishing everyone all the best for 2014!

Stakeholder success!

Hard at work

Hard at work

We followed up the success of the first day of the Stakeholders workshop visit with an even more successful second day. Working in pairs throughout the two days, our expert makers looked at over 45 baskets and recorded incredibly detailed information about each of them. I was really pleased that we managed to get through all of the ‘high priority’ baskets, and made a good start on the ‘medium priority’ ones – as well as giving everyone the opportunity have a look at anything they were particularly interested in. The recording forms have all been scanned and I will hopefully be attaching them to the records next week. I won’t get a chance to do the proper cataloguing until the new year but in the meantime I will endeavour to post about some of the baskets that were looked at and share what we’ve learned about them.

One of the most fascinating elements of the visit was listening to the conversations that were going on and the questions that everyone was asking of each other – ‘what would you call this?’, ‘have you ever seen anything like this before?’, ‘is this typical of English work?’ and so on. The main focus of the whole project is the sharing of skills and knowledge, and it was wonderful to see this in action.

As well as the rich information recorded during the visit, I’ve also gathered various tips and pointers on places to look for further information, which books to look in, well-known names to look out for and that sort of thing.

We were all pretty exhausted by the end of the two days – a lot of concentration on behalf of the makers, and a lot of to-ing and fro-ing on our part getting all the baskets out and putting them away again. I hope that everyone went away feeling satisfied and inspired! It will be interesting to look at everyone’s work in a year or so to see if it has been shaped or influenced in any way by the things that everyone saw at MERL. A huge thank you to all the makers!!!!

One day down…

Just a very quick post to say that we’ve had a really successful first day of the Stakeholders workshop visit to MERL. Our basketmakers have been great – so enthusiastic, and so knowledgeable! We’ve probably looked at about twenty baskets so far (good thing I prioritised them) and everybody’s written such detailed notes, and it’s been wonderful listening to everyone sharing their expertise. We’ve looked at some truly amazing baskets – and some truly hideous ones too! We’re all looking forward to another basket-packed day tomorrow.

MERL 78/48 A Victorian work basket avoided by everyone...

MERL 78/48 A Victorian work basket avoided by everyone…


... MERL 70/196 And a folding post office basket which packs down to about 4 inches in height. This is a to-scale model, but the full sized version was never made.

… MERL 70/196 And a folding post office basket which packs down to about 4 inches in height. This is a to-scale model, but the full sized version was never made.