1951

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Many of you will no doubt already know that it was Open Farm Sunday yesterday. Along with friends and family I made a somewhat last minute plan to visit one of the places participating in this scheme. The site in question was Sandy Lane Farm, near Tiddington, Oxfordshire. Here we enjoyed a tour by tractor and a series of talks delivered by the farmer, Charles Bennett, as well as indulging in the obligatory cup of tea and slice of cake. There was also much more on offer and, all in all, our visit provided us not only with a great afternoon’s entertainment but also proved to be highly informative.

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

Charles Bennett explains his potato crop

It struck me during the afternoon that there is really no substitute for a genuine ‘onsite’ sense of place. In other words, for me at least, being ‘in’ a place is always going to be more powerful and enlightening than being at a remove. Even the very best interpretation in the world cannot replace the multi-sensory feeling and direct material engagement of actually being there, in a place where rural lives both did and still do play out. In a similar and more obvious vein, a muddy and oily Ferguson tractor that kids can clamber on and pretend to drive is always going to win out over the sanitised but sacrosanct TE20 that we have on display at MERL. On the flip side of this, jumping around in the hay – as my kids and those of my friends did yesterday – is not going to explain how meadows were managed in the past, or enlighten them as to the people or technologies involved in hay production past or present. It takes intervention and an interpretive voice, whether this be the onsite words of the farmer or the gallery-based musings of a curator.

Jumping in the hay

Playing in the hay at Sandy Lane Farm

Simple as these observations may seem, I think they raise significant questions for museums, most of whose collections are inherently connected with a whole series of other places. So, the next step on from this Project and its process of re-connecting museum-held things to original contexts of manufacture, use, and collection has to be one of deepening contextualisation. It has to be a process of engagement with the people now in (or once from)  these original contexts. It has to be a process of reaching out to the rural people whose heritage is housed and represented in the Museum. It has to be an invitation to members of these ‘source communities’ to help MERL (and by proxy the wider public) to better understand the rich depth and complexity of rural history as a whole. It has to deliver inventive and creative mechanisms through which to communciate how the seemingly static holdings of the gallery and store actually connect to a whole host of dynamic and vibrant external sites and places, where rural life continues apace.

Thanks to all at Sandy Lane Farm for a great day out and a very nice cup of tea, for giving me food for thought and a fun way to exacerbate my hayfever (yes, I am a farmer’s son who suffers from hayfever!). Oh, and I checked the database and MERL has only one artefact from Tiddington, this being a type of chain used to hold restless cattle that dates to the mid-19th century. Mr and Mrs Bennett and their family appeared to dabble in farming pretty much everything but cattle. However, I still think it would still be interesting to hear what their thoughts are on this object and on the ways in which life in Tiddington has changed since the 1840s when this object was made, the interwar period when it was first acquired by H. J. Massingham, and 1951 when it came to Reading.

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Since we’ve gone a bit quiet about our progress on the cataloguing front recently, I thought I would let you know how we’ve been getting on over the past month or so.  We have slowed down somewhat as other aspects of the project start to pick up pace, but our current total sits at just above 4,500 records.  Initially progressing chronologically, we have worked through the records from 1951, when the Museum was founded, to 1954 in full, and have also completed parts of 1955 and 1956.  More recently, though, our focus has shifted to other areas of the collection.  Greta has been working her way through the Museum’s collection of baskets (about which I think she is planning a separate post), whilst Danielle and I have been completing the objects in the collection from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, in preparation for our work with Historypin.

There are between 300 and 350 objects from Bucklebury in the collection.  It is hard to give a more precise figure, because more information becomes available as we work our way through the records.  We have just one object record file for objects from the Hedges Foundry, for example, but this actually relates to 26 individual wooden patterns.  In addition to the objects from the Hedges Foundry, which was situated in Bucklebury Village, much of the rest of the material comes from the bowl turner George Lailey and the handle maker Harry Wells.

I spoke in a previous post, Cataloguing ‘place’, about our geographical hierarchy, which is largely based on the Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names, with a few alterations and additions.  In the case of the Bucklebury material, we have decided to add still further levels of detail into our hierarchy.  This reflects the fact that we are in a sense using Bucklebury as a trial area, exploring some of the ways in which this approach can be implemented in collaboration with local communities, and we want to make our hierarchy as relevant as possible to their understanding of ‘place’ in Bucklebury.  Of course, in order to do this, we had to get a good grip on how ‘Bucklebury’ works, which was one of the main reasons for our visit a few weeks ago.

The church gate lantern in Bucklebury Village, made at the Foundry

When we first met the Bucklebury History Group, I naïvely asked ‘So, how exactly is Bucklebury laid out?’  My question was met with knowing smiles.  We had a look at a huge map of the parish, and immediately saw part of the problem, which Danielle also described in her earlier post, The Bucklebury Experience.  Bucklebury Village itself, situated on the banks of the River Pang, is actually quite small.  Upper Bucklebury, where many of the more modern houses are situated, is up to two miles away down narrow country lanes, in the middle of the Common.  A further hamlet, Chapel Row, sits to the eastern edge of the Lower Common.  A smaller hamlet, The Slade, sits on the western edge of the Upper Common.  And then, dotted in between, are other clusters of houses, each with distinct names and identities, but all considered to be a part of ‘Bucklebury’.  These include Turner’s Green, where Lailey’s workshop was situated, Byles Green, Miles’s Green, Workhouse Green, and the grandly named hamlet of ‘Scotland’.

Knowing this, it seemed insufficient to give ‘Bucklebury’ just one listing in the hierarchy.  Besides, the given latitude and longitude on the Getty Thesaurus was situated in a somewhat obscure spot in a field in the parish, which hardly seemed to reflect the complexity of the village’s geography.  Our tour of Bucklebury was incredibly useful.  Physically walking and driving around and between the places in Bucklebury gave us a far better understanding of the place than simply looking at a map.  Obviously this approach is impossible on a larger scale, but for the purposes of our work with the Bucklebury History Group and Historypin, it was invaluable.  The hierarchy we have come up with will hopefully enable the collections to be pinned to the map with as much accuracy as possible, reflecting the level of information we have about places in Bucklebury. 

One of two ancient fish ponds on the Lower Common

The broadest ‘Bucklebury’ thesaurus term in our hierarchy relates to everything within the parish boundary.  At a lower level, we list the larger distinct places: ‘Bucklebury Village [Bucklebury]’, ‘Chapel Row [Bucklebury]’, ‘Bucklebury Common [Bucklebury]’ and ‘Upper Bucklebury [Bucklebury]’.  Some hamlets, such as ‘Bushnells Green [Bucklebury]’ are also listed at this level because they are isolated within the parish, but other hamlets, such as Turner’s Green are first linked to bigger places with which they are associated.  For example, Turner’s Green is situated on the Common, so is listed as ‘Turner’s Green [Bucklebury Common [Bucklebury]]’.  The essence of our approach is to include as much detail as possible, so that we can find the precise latitude and longitude for distinct villages, hamlets, and even houses, which will ultimately enable the collections to be mapped as accurately as possible to the places with which they are associated.  It does feel as though we might have picked the most complicated village in England to use as a case study, but perhaps I am just expecting (or even hoping for) a logical simplicity that simply doesn’t reflect the realities of place.

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Just in time for a well-deserved Easter break, Project Officer Greta Bertram has just completed improvements to catalogue information associated with all the artefacts that entered the museum’s collection during its founding year of 1951. This is no small achievement, entailing as it has the enhancement of some 1344 records in the collection database. Well done Greta!

The initial object in this run of entries was a humble animal bell, which had been allocated the accession number ‘MERL 51/1‘ to indicate that it was the first item to be formally acquired during the year 1951. Undertaking research for a recent temporary exhibition I had the opportunity to speak with the man who gave this object to the museum. Back then he was a student in the University of Reading’s Department of Agriculture and he remains a local farmer, still living in the same place he did when the object was donated. In order to track him down I simply searched for the farm name online and gave one of the phone numbers I found a try, not really expecting to have very much luck. In actual fact, his wife answered the phone and, after my long-winded explanation for ringing, she told me that he was in the next room and got him to come to speak with me.

Animal bell - the museum's first object

The first artefact to be recorded in 1951

The object donor remembered giving the object but had no idea that it had become the first item to be formally recorded in the museum’s accession register. Some of the details that Greta has added to this artefact’s catalogue entry stem directly from this conversation. Of course, many farms are also family businesses and are therefore owned or operated by the same close-knit group of people for generations. This kind of successive connection represents a powerful attachment to place that rural museums should seek to capitalise on and harness when attempting to foster a stronger sense of stakeholdership in their collections.

Earlier today I was reminded of that same conversation whilst visiting another potential object donor who, as it happens, was also a student in the Department of Agriculture during the 1950s. He too had lived in much the same area for over 30 years and, although he was a newcomer all those decades ago, he had become very much ‘hefted’ to his current home. He’s a basket specialist and collector, which is really more Greta’s area of interest and expertise than mine. After editing the 1000-plus records pertaining to the ’51 objects, I think Greta deserves a break from her computer screen. So, I’m going to encourage her to visit his collection, giving her the opportunity to find out more about the University in the 1950s, but more importantly to help contribute towards shaping the MERL collection for future generations.

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The project team have just completed their 3000th entry. This is fantastic news. The speed at which they have been working echoes the rapid expansion of the museum in its early years.

First public opening of the museum, 1955

So many objects and so little space!

Following its establishment in January 1951, the first few years saw expansive growth of the artefact holdings at MERL. Despite modest beginnings the response from object donors and other institutions was huge. By late 1954 the Museum already held over 3500 objects. Its first public displays opened in 1955, by which time the collections had already doubled in size to 7000 items. Perhaps this incredibly rapid expansion meant there was no other space available other than a wagon from which to hold the speeches at the public opening!

The Sense of Place team are currently working on material acquired in the early 1950s during this phase of rapid growth. I hope you will join me in congratulating our Project Officers for such swift, efficient, and effective cataloguing!

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