Countryside21

News and updates about the Countryside21 project.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging – Felicity and I have been spending quite a lot of time at Reading Museum recently as part of the new joint project between MERL and Reading Museum, Reading Connections. I promised a long time ago to write about a post about the MERL Classification, which we’re reviewing and updating as part of Countryside21, and which we hope will be a starting point for developing new ways in which to keyword our collections.

Until the start of Countryside21 I had never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it was used. As part of the review process, I have been looking into the history of the Classification to understand how it came about and how it has evolved over time.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, specifically for the circumstances at MERL and was determined by the nature and content of the object collections. It was informed by existing classifications at the time, such as those used by the National Museum of Denmark, the Welsh Folk Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Classification was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result the classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. It was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections (photos of objects are classified according to their sphere of use; other photos are classified according to their subject content).

The MERL Classification was built on the premise that a classification should be as simple as possible, with the caveats that it must be workable and must bring material together in the right groups.  It originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, with new divisions being created only when an accumulation of similar items made it clear what the heading should be. By 1978 the Classification had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31, and today the Classification is only used for objects – it is no longer used for photographs.

The review work on the Classification is nearly complete. This has involved consulting the wider rural museums sector to see if there are any institutions still using the MERL Classification (it has always been publicly available); considering how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums; and looking at how we can streamline the primary headings. Hopefully, we will be making some final decisions tomorrow, and will be publishing the revised Classification in due course.

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skills

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

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CDs

The initial phase of a new project is always a bit fuzzy, and seems to involve what can feel like endless circular discussions and feelings of not really knowing what you’re supposed to be doing or how best to go about doing something.  Thankfully, we’re beginning to emerge from that phase with our new project, Countryside21 (although we’re not quite there yet!).

It originally felt like it was quite difficult to translate the three main strands of Countryside21 – collating and structuring digital content, improving keywording of digital content, and developing the MERL image bank (see my introductory post to the project) – into actual day to day tasks for Felicity and me to do. However, we haven’t been idle….

Our first step was to get to grips with the MERL Classification, which will be the starting point for developing how we keyword our collections. (Until now I’ve never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it has been used.) This has involved looking at how the Classification has evolved over time – from its conception in the 1950s, to a more detailed version in the 1970s, and a simplified version in the 2000s. We’ve also been trying to find out about how it’s been used externally by other museums and institutions, and to consider how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums.

We’ve also been trying to get our heads around what terms we currently have in our ‘subject keyword’ thesaurus and the best way to go about tidying them up, as we know from our cataloguing for A Sense of Place that this is basically chaos (we’ve been ignoring it for the past year). We know that some terms shouldn’t be ‘subjects’ but should instead be categorised as ‘geographical keywords’ or ‘person and institutions’, and we also know that some ‘subjects’ appear multiple times in various forms and with various spellings, e.g. harvest, harvests, harvvest, harvesting etc.

Continuing with the idea of developing our keywording, we’ve been looking at how big commercial image banks such as Getty Images and i-stock keyword their images. We want to develop more emotive keywording based on the idea of ‘aboutness’, i.e. so not just what is actually depicted in an image, but also what the image is ‘about’ – ideas, emotions, concepts etc.

We’ve also started trying to collate all of MERL’s digital content and store it in one place, and to think about how to name image files in a standardised way which also relates to the object number or archival reference code. From next week, we’ll have a new volunteer project running to help us copy 500 CDs’ worth of images digitised as part of a 2002 New Opportunities Fund (NOF) project onto the server. In preparation for this, Felicity’s been trying automatic ways of renaming large numbers of files – otherwise it could take a long time!

I think it will take a few weeks before we feel like we’re fully underway with Countryside21, and for us to fully understand what we’re doing, but it feels good to be making progress.

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MERL P DX289 PH1_967

MERL P DX289 PH1_967

As the Sense of Place project draws to a close (although it’s not over yet!), Felicity and I are making a start on our next project, Countryside21. The project is funded by Arts Council England’s (ACE) Designation development fund and will run until October 2013. It’s quite a technical project and it’s taken a while for us to get our heads around it. It’s not a very exciting project to explain (although the outcomes will make life a lot easier), but I’ll give it a go!

The project has three main strands. The first is about collating and managing MERL’s digital content. Over the years the Museum has run various digitisation projects which have created about 50,000 digital copies (known technically as ‘virtual surrogates’) of items within the collections, such as scans of old photos and paper records, images of objects and documents, and copies of films and sound recordings. These have built up rather chaotically, so Countryside21 aims to locate them all in a single, structured system to help us better manage our digital content and give users better access to it. To do this, we’re going to integrate the MERL catalogue (Adlib) with the University of Reading’s existing ‘digital asset management’ system (AssetBank).

The second strand is about increasing the accessibility of the collections by making it easier for users (and us) to search them. We’re going to be doing this by improving the range and quality of the keywords we use when cataloguing things on Adlib. This will be a combination of reworking old keywords based on the MERL Classification (a blog post on this topic will follow shortly) and the current subject thesaurus, and adding new, more emotive keywords to describe content in new ways based on the idea of ‘aboutness’ (look out for a blog post on this in the near future too).

The final strand is about developing MERL’s existing image bank service.

Ultimately, Countryside21 is about ensuring that users, both inside and outside the Museum, have the greatest possible chance of identifying what they’re looking for in the collections.

You can read a slightly more detailed overview of Countryside21 on the project page. We’ll hopefully start blogging on a more regular basis again over the coming weeks – so please keep following the blog!

 

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