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!

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!).

Another project finished!

Negatives blog

It’s taken 2 years and 4 months, but we have finally finished scanning all of the black and white 60-series negatives of objects in the collection. I say ‘we’, but Felicity and I probably only did about 5% of the scanning – the other 95% was done by a brilliant and extremely dedicated team of volunteers. In total, we’ve worked our way through 23 boxes of negatives to do a whopping 10265 scans!

The project started back in February 2012 as a short project funded by JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee), with the aim of digitising 3500 negatives. Working on the principle that a black and white image is infinitely better than no image, we rapidly realised that this was a brilliant way of adding images to the catalogue (as taking new photographs is very time-consuming and expensive). So we decided to just carry on, with the aid of our volunteers, until we’d done all of the negatives of objects.

Not only have we finished all of the scanning, we have also added all of these negatives to Adlib, our catalogue, and they are all available to view online (either through Adlib or Enterprise). This is thanks to one tireless volunteer, Carl, who has spent week after week after tedious week copying and pasting links. This project has made a huge difference to the percentage of our object records which now have an image attached.

So I’d like to say an enormous thank you to Alex, Anna, Anne, Anne, Becca, Beth, Carl, Charlotte, Christina, David, Diana, Doug, Emily, Emma, George, Josh, Juliet, Megan, Nina, Pablo, Phoebe, Rebecca, Steve, Stuart and Tom. THANK YOU!!!!!

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!

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!

Another 3000 records done!

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:



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.

Where has July gone?!?!

From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity's poker.

From right to left: Tim Goddard, Blacksmith; Felicity, Trainee Blacksmith; Felicity’s poker.

Felicity and I have been working on so many different and exciting things recently that we’ve got a bit of a blog-backlog, so I thought I’d give you a quick update on some of the things we’ve been up to (and hopefully more detailed posts will follow when we get a chance).

At the beginning of July, Felicity and I went on a one-day blacksmithing course at Avoncroft Museum near Bromsgrove as part of our bid to try out different crafts so that we have a better understanding of them and can catalogue them more accurately. We both made beautiful pokers – and the glorious weather we’ve been having recently has given us a chance to test them out on the BBQ.

The following week, we had two days of photography training at Reading Museum’s store – learning all about lenses, apertures, shutter speeds, focusing and so many other things – and then began photographing their 600 shortlisted Historic World Objects as part of the Reading Connections project.

Last week, six of us were lucky enough to go to Sweden (generously funded by ERASMUS) to visit the Nordic Museum and Skansen (one of the world’s oldest open air museums) in Stockholm. We also had a chance to visit the Gustavanium at the University of Uppsala. The main purpose of the visit was to exchange ideas and inform plans for future development at MERL – but we all had our own areas of focus. Felicity was concentrating on the presentation of ethnographic material, particularly relating to the Sami, while I was looking at how craft was represented.

This weekend, Felicity attended an international conference at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford (thanks to funding from the PRM and Oxford ASPIRE) on the topic of The Future of Ethnographic Museums. She gave a poster and presentation on the work of A Sense of Place and its links to museum ethnography. (Ollie has written an interesting post for the Our Country Lives blog about how the ethnographic discourse relates to MERL.) The conference was the culmination of a five year project funded by the European Commission called Ethnography Museums and World Cultures.

And this week (thanks to funding from ERASMUS and the HCA) I’m attending Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible heritage, where I’ll be presenting a paper on basketry as heritage in the UK. The conference includes a day of workshop visits, and also has sessions on intangible heritage and traditional craft, and intangible heritage and museology, all of which I’m really looking forward to.

In the meantime, Laura has been doing a fantastic job with enhancing object records and giving them the ‘Sense of Place treatment’. She’s well on her way to getting us to the 1970s – at which point we’re planning a celebration 1970s style!

So there’s plenty to blog about and hopefully you’ll hear more about all of this soon.

Horses, potions and amulets

MERL 66/8/26

MERL 66/8/26

Whilst doing my usual cataloguing of 1966, we had an enquiry into a set of bottles discovered beneath a farrier’s workshop in Great Shelford, Cambridgeshire (66/8/1–48). Having recently catalogued the collection I was given the opportunity to investigate the matter further. The researcher wanted to know if the contents of the bottles were known and if there was any record of the jars being buried for superstitious reasons – with my background in archaeology I found this incredibly intriguing. Horse shoes are known widely as lucky charms, but there are many more interesting superstitions that surround blacksmithing.

So I began my research by looking in the accession file, where there was a newspaper cutting from the Cambridge Independent Press (12 Nov, 1965) explaining that the discovery was made by Stan Webb, who was descended from a long line of blacksmiths and farriers. He and his assistant were breaking up the brick base of his old forge, which they were removing in order to make improvements to his shop. Having cleared several tons of brick the assortment of bottles, jars, earthenware and phials were unearthed from the centre of the forge. The items must have something to do with the family business, which had already been there for around 200 years by 1965.

Mr Reginald Lambeth, the Rural Industries Organiser for the Cambridgeshire and Isle of Ely Community Council and the person who donated the collection to the Museum, heard of the discovery and set about identifying the items and their contents in an article he wrote for The Farriers’ Journal. Lambeth identified the jars as ranging in date from 1640–1780, some still containing residue of their contents. The ceramic jars range from lead glazed Delft ware to ginger beer bottles. Many were labelled with various herbs and oils including Tincture of Opium, Tincture of Myrrh, Oil of Rosemary and Digitalis Powder (Foxglove). Alongside the bottles a few ammonites and amulets were discovered. With this information about the contents I went on to research their use.

Until the eighteenth century farriers would often act as the village vet, explaining the vast amount of potion bottles discovered. I also found that many of the herbal contents were used to ‘jade’ horses. I also discovered that horses were often fed ginger cake to calm them – somehow the scent of the cake masks any smells that unsettle the horses. Thus it’s possible that Webb’s ancestors used ginger beer in a similar way.

Now what makes us think that the collection is to do with witchcraft and farrier superstition? Firstly, they were discovered beneath the hearth area of the forge, a hotspot for ritual burials and offerings across many cultures. In addition to the jars and bottles, some ammonites and two amulets were found which unfortunately we don’t have in our collection. George Ewart Evans’ The Pattern under the Plough explains that horseman would traditionally hang amulets in stables to prevent sprites, hobgoblins and witches from riding the horses at night. The amulets act in a similar way as the ‘all seeing eye’ used by various cultures to protect against evil. Having said all this, it could just be the case that the previous generations wished to protect their top secret horse-curing blends, or Webb’s father had simply wanted to get rid of all the old jars and plonked them in a pit. However I prefer the theory that Webb’s ancestors were protecting the forge against attacks from sprites, hobgoblins and witches.

Introducing Laura


I’d like to introduce our readers (rather belatedly) to Laura, who joined A Sense of Place at the end of April for five months. She’s taken over cataloguing as Felicity and I moved onto our other projects, Countryside21 and Reading Connections, and she’s been doing an amazing job so far! It’s so good to know that the cataloguing is carrying on, even though we’re no longer working on it – having a detailed and accurate, easily searchable catalogue makes such a difference to all aspects of museum work! As well as enhancing the records and continuing the work of A Sense of Place, Laura will also be helping to answer object-related enquiries and blogging – look out for a post from her soon.

Skills sharing day at MERL – 24 April 2013


On Wednesday 24 April 2013 we’re holding a Skills Sharing Day at MERL to discuss some of the recent collections development projects which have been taking place at MERL. This includes some of the projects we’ve been working on and blogging about over the past year – A Sense of Place, Collecting Rural Cultures and Countryside21. The day offers a unique opportunity to hear more about these projects and help us shape our future displays.

Please get in touch if you are interested in attending and would like to find out more.


Outline programme for the day

10.30: Arrival, registration, and coffee

11.00: Welcome and introduction to the day

11.15 Collecting Rural Cultures – case study and discussion

11.45 A Sense of Place – case study and discussion

12.15 Countryside21 – case study and discussion

12.45 Lunch and opportunity to view online resources, a selection of recent acquisitions and the current museum galleries

13.45 Our Country Lives – an introduction to key themes outlines in the Museum’s Round One bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund followed by facilitated discussion

14.45 Closing remarks and tea