Reading Engaged

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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!

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Our first in-gallery object handling session

Our first in-gallery object handling session

As part of the Reading Engaged project, MERL is looking to develop a handling collection and programme of object handling sessions which can take place in a variety of settings: whether it be in-gallery, elsewhere on site, or off-site. We have been working with freelance curator and consultant Charlotte Dew to help us develop the collection, the sessions, and all the accompanying policies and procedures.

On Saturday we held an Information Day about Our Country Lives, MERL’s major redisplay (NB. The Museum will be closing to the public at the end of October for approximately one year, but the Library, Archives and Reading Room will remain open throughout. You can find out more about the redevelopment here) and took the opportunity to trial some of our ideas for a session based around looking at the relationship between craft tools and the finished items, i.e. how a tool is used to make something. Although we’ve been developing this session as a facilitated session for adult learners in the teaching space/studio area, we decided to test out some of the objects in an in-gallery setting.

We had four objects available for handling: two relating to lace-making, and two relating to bodging. The lace-making pair consisted of four bone bobbins (MERL 55/205/1–4) and a piece of handmade lace (MERL 59/290/8), each in a small Perspex box. The bodging pair consisted of a chisel (MERL 51/112 – we didn’t want to shy away from trying out objects perceived as ‘dangerous’ or ‘high risk’) and a turned spindle from a Windsor chair (MERL 51/63). Nitrile gloves were provided for handling this latter pair of objects.

We had a table set up in the Temporary Exhibition space, and each pair of objects was set out in a tray lined with acid-free tissue paper. We also had a copy of the ‘Object handling rules’ displayed by each tray, and boxes of nitrile gloves in small, medium and large were also set out on the table. There were two of us running the session, each taking charge of a pair of objects. I had prepared some background information for us both to look at in advance which detailed the purpose of the session, the objects we would be using, and some background information about the crafts and what sort of things we might want to discuss with visitors.

24 people (ranging from the very young to the not-so young) came up to us throughout the afternoon – and I thought this would be a good chance to critique how the session went, so here goes:

  • Although everyone said they thought handling opportunities were a good idea, very few people seemed to want to pick up the objects:
  • —–Were they not interested?
  • —–Did they not realise they could?
  • —–Was the set-up off-putting?
  • —–Was the need to wear gloves off-putting?
  • —–Should we have had ‘Please touch’ signs?
  • More people seemed willing to pick up the lace-making objects than the bodging objects:
  • —–Was this because they were in Perspex boxes so gloves weren’t required?
  • —–Was this because they were smaller so you needed to pick them up for a closer look?
  • —–Was this because they were somehow ‘more interesting’ objects (they were certainly more colourful)?
  • —–Was this because they were more easily identifiable objects?
  • The opportunity to handle real objects didn’t seem to be as important as the opportunity to discuss the objects and find out more about them on a one-to-one basis/in-depth level
  • The level of background knowledge of the facilitators is really important, especially when dealing with adult audiences (and I was really glad that Jenny and I had both read up a bit on the crafts)
  • Perhaps we should have asked questions that necessitated touching – e.g. feel the weight of the tool, how does the tool sit in your hand etc.

It would be great to hear your thoughts! What makes object handling appealing, and what makes it off-putting? What could we do to make it a better experience or a more successful session? Do you want to handle real museum objects?

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Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

I just wanted to say an enormous thank you to Marshall Scheetz, historian and journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, for coming to MERL and giving us such a wonderful introduction to coopers and cooperage.

We began the day with a visit to the Museum stores, where we looked at the various coopering objects in the collection, from an array of tools to various coopered items such as buckets, butter churns and measures. Marshall then gave a fascinating talk about his work at Colonial Williamsburg, the history of coopering, the process of making a barrel , and the different trades and industries that coopering has been associated with ­– including whaling, tobacco and gunpowder. The day ended with Marshall talking us through the coopering video on display in the galleries and pointing out the tools used in each process. The highlight for me was the way that Marshall used the part-made cask, truss hoops and cresset that we have at MERL to illustrate his talk – it really showed how you make a cask, the movements and actions involved etc.

Colonial Williamsburg sounds like a truly amazing place, and I’m really grateful to Marshall for taking the time to visit us here in Reading and tell us more about it. It’s a ‘living history’ museum set in the time period of the 1770s, but what makes it so exciting for me is that the museum has twenty trade and craft workshops (e.g. basket-makers, coopers, dyers, wig-makers etc.) where the trades/crafts are practised as they were in the late-eighteenth century. Craftspeople undergo apprenticeships to learn their craft, and make items primarily for use within the historic areas of the museum. Most of the workshops have about four full time staff, who take turns talking to the public and carrying out their work. The drawback to this system, however, is that production rates are really low – in fact, just enough to keep the skills alive. Colonial Williamsburg is now firmly on my list of places to visit!

We had a great turn out on the day, so thank you to everyone for coming.

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Image from the Farmers Weekly Collection at MERL.

Image from the Farmers Weekly Collection at MERL.

Since May I’ve been working on the Reading Engaged project to research content for the new galleries which will form part of MERL’s redevelopment project, Our Country Lives. True to my passions as ever, I’ve been taking the opportunity to focus on researching craft, as we’re hoping to dedicate a large part of one of the galleries to craft. We hope to use different crafts that we have examples of in our collections to highlight key issues affecting the heritage craft sector, bearing in mind that there is no one-size-fits-all story for craft. We also want to ensure that the galleries are up to date and reflect the current state of making and show the many varied and vibrant ways in which these crafts exist today.

One of the crafts I’ve researched so far is coopering. The only things I knew before I started came from the headline ‘only one Master Cooper left in England’ and from watching the fantastic video of a cooper knocking up a cask that we currently have on display in the Museum. When you start to think about it, you realise how incredible coopering really is. Ken Kilby, author of several books on the craft, describes the barrel as ‘the greatest invention of all time’ for without it ‘most goods would have remained right where they were made, or not have been made at all.’

Casks (the term ‘barrel’ describes a particular size of cask) were used to transport all sorts of goods, wet and dry. Over the centuries, coopering gradually divided itself into three main branches, with an acceptance among coopers that certain branches were more skilled than others. The main categories are dry coopering (least skilled), white coopering and wet coopering (most skilled). When you think about it, it really is quite incredible to be able to make a watertight cask of a specified size which can withstand long years of rough handling with no glue or sealants, and hardly any measurements! Another great Ken Kilby quote: ‘There are no amateur barrel makers.’

By the end of the nineteenth century, the majority of cooperages were found in breweries, when Britain was brewing approximately 37 million gallons of beer. In 1889, Bass’s Brewery at Burton on Trent employed 400 coopers; and circa 1900 Shooters, Chippingdale and Colliers employed 630 coopers! Until World War II, coopering had seemed a secure occupation but by the 1950s most of the independent cooperages in Britain had closed, and during the 1950s–1970s wooden casks were phased out of the larger breweries. By 2010 only 4 breweries still employed a qualified cooper, and today Theakston’s are the only brewery to do so.

We have about 80 coopering tools at MERL, along with various coopered products including cider kegs, butter churns, cheese moulds and buckets. The majority of the tools come from two sets: one from the cooper’s shop at H. & G. Simonds Ltd., known as the Bridge Street Brewery, in Reading; the other from a cooper who served his apprenticeship at Reading Brewery 1948–1952 (we also have his certificate of indenture for his apprenticeship). The first set is currently on display in the Museum galleries. Take a look at the tools on our online database.

I’ve been working to create a ‘content pack’ for each craft I research. This includes reading up on the subject and writing introductory notes, looking at the related objects we have in the collections and identifying particular objects which can be used to illustrate specific points and, with the help of Danni and Caroline, investigating the Archives to see what we have in terms of documents and photographs.  I’ve also been in contact with Alistair Simms, England’s only Master Cooper (to become a Master Cooper you must have successfully trained an apprentice), who I’m hoping to visit in September, and Theakston’s Brewery.

If you want to find out more about coopering, come along to MERL on Saturday 23 August when Marshall Scheetz, historian and Journeyman Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, will be giving ‘An introduction to cooperage’. The talk is free. Details here.

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Over the past few weeks I’ve been getting stuck in to research for the Reading Engaged project. Along with others in the museum and archive team, I’ll be spending the rest of the year researching content that will hopefully be featured in the re-displayed museum galleries. I’ve made a start by really getting to grips with the yearly round of agricultural and rural processes, from ploughing to harvesting and everything in-between. I’ve been focussing on everything from the story of agricultural mechanisation to the politics of agricultural labourers’ unions to oral histories and personal stories.

Maths of ploughing!

A rather terrifying page I encountered whilst researching ploughing!

Two of the topics I’ve researched so far have particularly captured my imagination: hop picking and charcoal burning. I can’t wait to read more about hop picking and the stories of the huge variety of people who joined the migrant labour force in the hop gardens of Kent and other counties every year. There seem to be varying accounts of whether it actually made anybody any money and whether it was viewed as work or a holiday, but thousands of families kept going for generations regardless.

Hop pickers.

An archive image of hop pickers.

If I’m totally honest with myself, too, the main reason I was so keen to research charcoal burning was my memories of watching the charcoal burning scene in the 1974 film adaptation of Arthur Ransome’s Swallows & Amazons. I was somewhat disappointed to find no reference in my research to the practice of keeping an adder in a cigar box for good luck like Old Billy and Young Billy did! I think, though, that if I can be fascinated by charcoal burning because it featured in my favourite childhood book, it is because the story provides a familiar hook to what is essentially a process with very little connection to my life. For many of our visitors we hope be able to provide similar hooks, whether that’s the engaging personal story of a migrant hop-picker from London’s east end, a demonstration of how to use a particular hand tool, or a discussion of the links between farm mechanisation and wider world events.

We’ll continue to keep you updated throughout our research, particularly if we come across any particularly interesting objects or stories.

P.S. For others who haven’t grown out of loving Swallows & Amazons, here’s some fascinating posts on Sophie Neville’s blog about filming the charcoal burning scene (Sophie played Titty Walker in the 1974 film).

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