Articles by Greta Bertram

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MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it's made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it’s made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

We’re nearly ready to welcome the ten basketmakers to MERL next week to take part in the two-day study visit as part of the Stakeholders project. I’m very excited that it’s finally happening – it seems an awfully long time since July when we heard the project was going ahead!

I’ve nearly completed all the preparations for the session. I’ve finally managed to organise the baskets into high, medium and low priority categories, and I’ve created a recording form which I hope is easy to use and reasonably consistent with forms that have been used in the past. For each basket, I have printed out the current Adlib record and photocopied the form onto the back – this way, we’ve got ready access to the information we already know about each basket and can easily identify the gaps that need filling. There are still a few remaining bits and pieces to do – like making sure there’s room in the Museum store for us all, getting the first few baskets out, and making sure we have enough pencils – but I think we should be good to go on Tuesday morning! I think it’s going to be a very busy two days, but hopefully I’ll find time next week to blog about how it all went.

Although it’s going to be very intense, I think that in some ways the study visit is the easy part of the project. I think the challenging part will be inputting all the information we’ve gathered into the catalogue in a logical, consistent, searchable and user-friendly way (which will hopefully tie into the work I’ve been doing with thesaurus terms as part of the Countryside21 project). I’m also hoping to do some follow-up research in the MERL Library and Archives where necessary. Then there’s the commissions aspect of Stakeholders still to think about, arranging photography of the baskets which currently have no photos, and putting together some form of exhibition from the project – be it online, or in the form of banners for a pop-up or temporary exhibition. But challenging or not, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in!

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The amazing array of baskets we got to look at and (very unusually for people who work in a museum) handle freely!

The amazing array of baskets we got to look at and (very unusually for people who work in a museum) handle freely!

Life at MERL is a little bit manic at the moment as Our Country Lives has somewhat taken over all of our lives, and finding time to make progress on all of the other projects we’re working on isn’t easy! However, while everyone else spent Monday battling with storylines, themes, subthemes and object selection, I spent the day at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse in Norfolk learning how to read a basket – all in the cause of Stakeholders of course! The training was hosted by SHARE Museums East and run by Mary Butcher, President of the Basketmakers’ Association and font of basketmaking knowledge, who will be joining us at MERL next month for Stakeholders. The training was intended for museum staff and volunteers to help us identify the basics or our basketry collections, such as key materials and techniques.

Mary talked us through the six key basketry techniques – coiling, twining, plaiting, netting/knotting, stake and strand, and assembly – and then set us the challenge of grouping the baskets she’d brought in from her own collection of world basketry. There were some spectacular baskets and it was quite a challenge in some cases.

Next up was materials. Willow, cane and rush are the most common materials used in British basketry. There are three ‘types’ of willow – white willow (cut and then peeled between April and June – the fancy stuff), buff willow (boiled and then peeled – the everyday stuff) and brown willow (cut and dried with the bark on – the rough stuff). Cane is a general term for rattan, and is identified by the distinctive ‘nodes’ where the leaves had once been. Cane can be used as whole cane, split cane, and centre cane. We also touched on some of the different materials used around the world – Mary had examples of dockage (dock leaf stalks – Shetland), birch bark (northern Scandinavia, Russia and Canada), esparto grass (Spain), pine root and orchid root.

Basketmaking tools are quite simple.

Basketmaking tools are quite simple.

Mary also gave us some tips on how to spot an English basket. For example, the way the handle is fixed is a key indicator – English baskets often have a ‘cross’ handle while Eastern European ones are lapped. Another difference can be seen in the way the stakes are positioned in the base of an oval basket – in English baskets they poke directly into the base at right angles to the edge whereas in every other country they are bent to the side so that they are parallel to the edge (I think!).

Mary also showed us the range of tools used in basketmaking (all fairly low-technology) and I was pleased to know that I recognised most of them from last summer’s cataloguing work. She also gave us a demonstration of making willow skeins – splitting the rod into three with a cleave, and passing it repeatedly through a shave to remove the pith and make it thinner and thinner and thinner.

The best – and most unexpected – bit of the day was the hands-on element. We got to make some rush rope in the morning, and in the afternoon we made a Catalan serving tray. I’ve seen these made a few times so it was really fun to finally have a go myself. As Mary said, having a go with the materials is the best way to understand them!

Some of the Catalan serving platters we made on the day - mine is middle left.

Some of the Catalan serving platters we made on the day – mine is middle left.

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MERL 90/43. A military shell basket, for protecting artillery shells, dating from World War I.

MERL 90/43. A military shell basket, for protecting artillery shells, dating from World War I.

Following on from last week’s post, I’d like to introduce the remaining five participants of Stakeholders.

Karen Lawrence started her basketmaking with a variety of short courses. She then took the Creative Basketry course at the City Lit, and is now part of a group called The Basktery Collective. She works in willow, rush and cane.

Sarah Le Breton is a willow sculptor and tutor, who creates life size or larger willow animals and teaches sculpture workshops for adults and children. Recently Sarah has started to develop her artistic skills and knowledge by studying and exploring the craft of basketry and in doing so has discovered her passion for preserving the skills and heritage of the craft.

Annemarie O’Sullivan took the Creative Basketry course at the City Lit, and in 2010 was part of the Emerging Makers Programme run by the Crafts Council. She has a deep respect for ancient crafts, and is attracted to the sturdiness of agricultural baskets. Her studies have included coracles, split wood basketry, frame baskets, living willow structures and bamboo structures. Annemarie is passionate about all things woven, knotted and netted, and transfers the traditional skills of basketmaking into larger woven forms, working mainly with willow and coppiced ash. She also works in schools and teaches traditional basketmaking skills to adults.

Maggie Smith became interested in basketry in the 1980s and she later went on to study Creative Basketry at the City Lit. She is passionate about traditional craftsmanship and her work, both traditional and contemporary, is rooted in the traditional basketry techniques. Her more traditional work includes functional baskets and garden structures, while her contemporary work focuses on using materials in new ways, often starting with a found object.

Angie Tavernor is a vet, and teaches veterinary anatomy at the Cambridge vet school. She has a passion for 3D crafts – having tried anything from welding to felt-making – and had her first go at basketmaking eighteen months ago when she attend Sue Kirk’s summer school (Sue is also joining us in Stakeholders). Angie has continued to attend Sue’s workshops, and makes baskets and garden sculptures at home.

I mentioned in last week’s post that I was going to the Basketmakers’ Association AGM on Saturday 19 October. It was a really interesting day, and it was great to meet some of the people taking part in Stakeholders, as well as many other basketmakers. The theme of this year’s AGM was participation and there were talks from Prue Thimbleby, Debbie Hall and Caroline Gregson on their work in basketmaking in the community/community basketmaking. I also met a basketmaker who is trying to make a military shell basket – a basketwork casing for an artillery shell. It just so happens that we have one of these at MERL – and it’s one of the baskets that we’ll be looking at in Stakeholders.

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MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson - two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

MERL 86/147/2. A lipwork basket made by Alec Coker and Doris Johnson – two craftspeople who were experts in straw work. We have a few lipwork baskets that might be examined during the Stakeholders study visit. However, these baskets are nothing compared to the impressive lipwork chairs I saw at St Fagans.

Apologies for the absence of a Stakeholders post last week. We’ve all been kept very busy with the Our Country Lives project (for the redevelopment of MERL) – although I did escape on Tuesday to visit St Fagans National History Museum in Cardiff, where I was lucky enough to have a guided tour around the basketry collection (lots of amazing lipwork chairs, beautiful cyntells, and some thought-provoking lobster pots). I do, however, have some good Stakeholders news – all of the participants have now been confirmed! So today I’d like to introduce you to five of them.

Bunty Ball is Vice-President and Past Chairman of the Basketmakers’ Association, and was given a lifetime achievement award this year by the Worshipful Company of Basketmakers in recognition of her contribution to and support for basketmaking – as an art, a craft and a trade. She specialises in and teaches chair-seating – in cane, rush, willow and skein willow.

Hilary Burns originally trained as a fabric weaver, before taking up basketmaking in the 1980s. She works mainly with willow and hedgerow materials, producing both functional and sculptural pieces inspired by her study of traditional basketry techniques. Hilary is a co-founder of Basketry and Beyond, a voluntary organisation in the South West which promotes the use of natural materials and sustainable construction, and visited MERL as part of the organisation’s preparation for their Festival in May this year. She also teaches basketry to adults and children.

Mary Butcher is President of the Basketmakers’ Association. She was awarded an MBE last year for her services to basketmaking, and became a ‘Crafts Skills Champion’ at the Craft Skills Awards in May this year. Mary started out as a willow specialist, learning local traditional work from apprenticed makers, but now makes traditional and contemporary work in a wide range of materials, and using a wide range of techniques. She is committed to the transmission of basketry knowledge – researching the history of basketry, writing on the craft from both a historical and practical perspective, and teaching and mentoring. Mary has also curated and exhibited in innumerable exhibitions (solo and collaborative) and installations.

Sue Kirk describes herself as an ecological basketmaker. She works in willow, using a mixture of organically home-grown willow (she grows over fifteen varieties) and Somerset willow, making traditional and contemporary baskets and sculptures. Sue also teaches and runs workshops for beginners and improvers.

John Page began his basketmaking career with a City & Guilds course in creative basketry at the City Lit, having been greatly impressed by the Crafts Council’s Contemporary International Basketry exhibition. He now teaches rushwork at the City Lit and coordinates the course, and brings his students to MERL to view the basketry collections. He also edits the Basketmakers’ Association newsletter, and repairs harps.

I’m off to the Basketmakers’ Association AGM at the Artworkers’ Guild in London tomorrow, so hope to see some of you there! If you’re in Reading tomorrow, don’t forget to come along to Apple Day at MERL, 13.00-17.00.

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Just some of the work I've been doing on the MERL Classification...

Just some of the work I’ve been doing on the MERL Classification…

After a bit of a hiatus over the summer, Countryside21 has started picking up again and I’m finally getting ready to implement the changes we made to the MERL Classification back in July (see previous posts). As with every aspect of this project, there’s quite a lot to think about before you can make any changes, and it’s not always apparent what you need to consider until you get started. Be warned – this is a rather dense and technical post!!!

To re-cap, all objects in the collection have a MERL Classification based on the object’s sphere of use. The existing Classification contained a mixture of processes and products. We have now revised the Classification to separate out the two, making the Classification purely process-driven and with separate term lists for the products. In the course of this, the Classification has been reduced from 31 to 19 primary terms.

Each term in the Classification has a numerical code, and this is what has been recorded in Adlib until now. We want to change this so that the Classification appears in both numbers (as a code) and text (as a subject keyword). So how do we go about implementing all of these changes?

Step 1 – Creating thesaurus records for the Classification

A thesaurus record has been created for each primary and secondary term in the Classification, with a scope note which states that they are part of the MERL Classification and which details the Classification Code, how the new term corresponds to the old Classification, definition/explanations about what the term covers, and whether the term should be used in conjunction with a plant/animal/product term list.

When you create a thesaurus record you have to assign the record a ‘term type’ – this is dependent not only on what the term relates to, but where you want the term to appear in Adlib. We want the Classification to appear as an ‘associated subject’, of which there are several types – we have opted to make the Classification terms an ‘activity’.

We have also started to create thesaurus records for the plant/animal/product term lists – as ‘plant’, ‘animal’ and ‘subject’ term types respectively. However, this is still a work in progress as we haven’t come up with any definitive lists for these terms yet and there will be quite a bit of cross-over with other term types (e.g. ‘stone’ might have the term types ‘subject’ and ‘object name’). However we end up going about it, we need to give these records a scope note which states that they can be part of the MERL List of Plants (for example), that they can be used in conjunction with the MERL Classification, and that they can be used as stand-alone terms.

This whole process has been complicated by the fact that other UMASCS collections have recently been added to Adlib, which means that the thesaurus terms don’t just apply to the MERL objects collections and MERL archives – they also apply to zoology collections (Cole Museum), archaeology collections (Ure Museum), typography collections, art collections, geology collections etc.

Step 2 – Putting the new Classification into Adlib

We believe it’s important to retain the existing Classification Code in Adlib, as this is how everything has been classified until now. Therefore, to differentiate between the old and new codes, I have globally edited all of the records so that any code currently in Adlib is defined as the ‘pre-2013 MERL Classification’. When I start adding the new codes, these will be defined simply as ‘MERL Classification’.

Another challenging part of this process is going to be assigning new Classifications to the objects. In some cases, the old and new classifications correspond very clearly (e.g. crafts), whereas there are others which are much more complicated and each object will have to be appraised individually. This is further complicated by the need to add terms from the plant/animal/product term lists where appropriate, and by the decision to give objects multiple classifications where appropriate (previously each object had only one).

Then there are the actual practicalities of how to go about adding the new codes and keywords into Adlib – I think I’m going to be busy for quite a while!

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MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four 'Southport boat' baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

MERL 70/223 and 70/224. Two of the four ‘Southport boat’ baskets included in Stakeholders. Are all in Southport boats made using the same materials and the same construction techniques?

107 baskets have been initially selected for study in the Stakeholders project. These are baskets that have never been looked at by a basketmaker, or someone with expert knowledge. By and large, they are baskets which do not have one of Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms (transcribed and scanned as part of A Sense of Place). With a few exceptions, they were all acquired by MERL after 1970.

107 seems like an awful lot of baskets for 10 makers to look at it in 2 days, so I’ve started the process of prioritising them. I haven’t used any set criteria for these, but have tried to take the following into account:

  • Whether we already know something about the materials – bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether we already know something about the techniques – again bearing in mind that there could be errors
  • Whether the basket has a complicated weave or combinations of weaves – I’m going on a course called ‘How to Read Baskets’ at Gressenhall Farm & Workhouse in November where I’ll learn to recognise different materials and identify basic techniques
  • Whether the basket is of particular interest for some reason – such as having an interesting use or provenance, or an unusual appearance etc.

There are some baskets which I’ve instantly catgegorised as low priority. These include:

  • Samples
  • Miniatures
  • Spale baskets  – the construction/techniques are obvious
  • Assembly baskets (such as trugs and Devon splint baskets) – again, the construction/techniques are obvious

There are still some baskets I’m unsure about. For instance, 4 ‘Southport boat’ baskets are included in Stakeholders but are they all the same? Are they all made in the same way using the same construction/weave? Do we need to look at all of them or will one do? And how do I choose which one?

I’m still working on this process – I currently have about 55 in the high priority category (which seems a bit too many), 17 as medium priority, and 44 as low priority.

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Laura joined A Sense of Place in April and finished her work on the project last month. Here’s a post from Laura summing up her time on the project:

 

75_16

MERL 75/16/1-2

So I’ve come to the end of my time working on the Sense of Place project. Having spent the last 4 months cataloguing I have managed to enhance 3126 records, bringing the grand total to 14703!! My records included 100 fire insurance plaques, 90 horse brasses and 272 plant labels.

During my time cataloguing I came across a number of interesting objects I didn’t even know we had. One of the most unusual items was the plaster-cast of Joseph Arch’s hands (MERL 75/16/1–2). Arch was a hedger and ditcher who went on to found the National Agricultural Labourers Union (1872–1892). It was the first successful union to be established, and at its peak in 1874 had 86,214 members. What is particularly interesting is that we hold no information as to how the hands were cast. You can find out more about the hands here.

I also enjoyed following up an enquiry around a set of various bottles found beneath the hearth of farrier’s workshop in Shelford, Cambridgeshire (MERL 66/8/1–48). The objects contents and location suggested magic and superstition were involved in their use – see my previous post.

I have also been able to get a grasp of our handy but sometimes temperamental database, Adlib. I have learned the importance of recording information, especially about provenance such as where the item was made and used. Having come across many records where even the most basic information is missing, it has made me realise how crucial information is in order for the object to resonate and engage with audiences.

I am now about to start my new role at MERL as the Operations and Administration Assistant. As part of this I will be able to continue cataloguing in my spare time, so hopefully I will be able to help the team reach their target of having a fully digitised catalogue.

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MERL 70/149. A 'malt skep', used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging it across the malthouse floor.

MERL 70/149. A ‘malt skep’, used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to the working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging the skep across the malthouse floor.

This week I’ve started thinking about how best to record the information that we gather during the project. I’ve been exploring the functionality of Adlib, our collections database, to see what sort of things we can record and where. Adlib has specific fields for ‘materials’ and ‘techniques’ which we don’t currently use – these are something I want to experiment with during Stakeholders (which might also benefit other work, such as the craft cataloguing for another project I’m working on, Reading Connections). The advantage of these fields is that they are searchable and, because they are terminology-controlled, the terms used can be standardised.

I’ve also been thinking about how to record some of the more detailed information that we’ll hopefully gather. My current thoughts are to complete a detailed recording form for each basket which can then be attached to the database record, in a similar manner to Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms, but hopefully with slightly more detail. We could fill in everything we already know, add to it during the workshop visit, and circulate to participants afterwards for them to check and add any additional information. However, this wouldn’t be searchable as an attachment but it would mean that the information was there – I need to discuss this idea with Ollie and see what he thinks.

I’ll also need to think about how to record more general and perhaps tangential information that will inevitably emerge – things like memories and reminiscences, makers’ personal experiences, related photos and films etc.

I’ve also been taking advantage of the MERL Library to look for basket-related books and have started to compile a list of key terms – focusing on materials, techniques, and names for parts of a basket. So far, I’ve been through the Basketmakers’ Association’s list of terms, Mary Butcher’s Willow Work, and Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer’s The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques. If anyone has any other recommendations, or knows of any good existing lists of terms, please let me know!

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MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

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MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we're hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but no nothing about its construction and the techniques used in it.

MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we’re hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but know nothing about its construction and the techniques used.

It’s been as busy as ever at MERL over the past few weeks, what with putting up the new temporary exhibition, Collecting the Countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and preparations for the Berkshire Show this weekend, amongst other things. However, I’ve managed to find some time to start planning for Stakeholders, our new basketry project, and it turns out that there’s an awful lot to think about!

My priority over the past few weeks has been to find the ‘established’ and ‘emergent’ basketmakers to participate in the project. I’ve nearly got everyone confirmed, and will hopefully introduce them to you in a few weeks’ time. My next priority has been to identify the baskets that we intend to study in the course of Stakeholders, and establish what information we already know about them and what we want to find out. This is a work in progress.

As well as the logistical side of things, there’s also a lot of other preparation that needs doing in advance of the two-day hands-on workshop at MERL to study the baskets. I’m slightly worried about how many baskets it’s actually possible for ten people to look at in two days, so I want to make a list of those baskets that I feel it’s essential to look at (e.g. the ones we know least about, or the ones that seem to be the most interesting) so that we can prioritise them. I also want to pool together any readily accessible existing information about these baskets/types of baskets, e.g. from the MERL Library and Classifieds. I then need to think about what information we want to record about the baskets (e.g. materials and techniques in particular), how to record that information during the workshop, and how to incorporate that information into the database. Thankfully, the visit from Basketry and Beyond in May gave me some experience for how to run such a session.

In the longer term, I also need to think about the commissions aspect of the project and the final outcomes including, we hope, some form of temporary or touring exhibition.

Lots to think about, so I’d better get back to it…

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