Basketry

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A typical depiction of a ‘kishie’, a traditional basket used in Shetland for carrying.

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog front – it’s been that time of year when everyone is away on their summer holidays. I spent last week in Scotland representing MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at ‘Woven Communities’, an international basketry symposium held at the University of St. Andrews. The overall project, of which the symposium was a part, seeks to document basket weaving communities in Scotland, both heritage and contemporary, and to create a publicly available compendium of the vast wealth of information that springs from this process. The idea for the project grew out of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle, and has been funded by a research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

We had two packed days of speakers, which included a mix of basketmakers, curators and academics, with presentations along two key themes. The first day centred on different communities associated with basketmaking, such as makers, growers and curators. The second day had a more temporal theme, looking at basketry in the past through the archaeological records, in the present and in the future, with a focus on ideas of sustainability. I was lucky enough to have been invited to speak, and gave a talk on the topic of intangible heritage and heritage craft which focused on issues of relevance, sustainability and values in associated with heritage craft. Have a look at my HCA Day One and Day Two blog posts to find out more about the conference in general.

Ewan Balfour making a kishie and enjoying the presentations.

The conference also included a chance for participants to have a go at making one or two simple things, and we were welcome to carry on throughout the conference – it was great to see people working away with their hands, exploring materials and having an experiment while listening to the talks. Ewan Balfour, a landscape architect and basketmaker from Shetland, could be seen on the first day making what seemed like an endless length of rope, and on the second day he made a ‘kishie’, a traditional Shetland basket used for carrying, most commonly for peat.

I made this piece of rush rope at one of the hands-on sessions.

There was a familiar cry coming from the museum cohort at the conference: we need basketmakers to come in to our museums and tell us about our basketry collections – what materials they’re made from, how they were made, how they were used etc. – as most museums, including MERL, don’t have the knowledge and expertise in-house. The challenge is to find a systematic way of working with basketmakers and recording the information they are able to give, rather than on the ad hoc basis which more often takes place when researchers come to visit collections and share titbits of information. There is perhaps the making of a project somewhere in this.

Felicity Wood, an Oxfordshire basketmaker and collector, has been working with the Pitt Rivers Museum to put together a website about their basketry collections. Having noticed that many people wrongly identify the materials used in a basket, she has also compiled a ‘materials identification toolkit’, with samples of willow, cane, rush etc. – I’m sure this error has also occurred at MERL. I think this could be a useful tool for museums with significant basketry collections.

As a result of the conference, I think I might need to revisit some of the cataloguing work I did on baskets, especially the kishies, which I had thought were always used for carrying peat, when in fact they can be used to carry almost anything. This encapsulates what the ‘Woven Communities’ project is about – it’s about sharing knowledge.

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I’ve spent the past nine weeks enhancing the catalogue records for the basketry collection at MERL in preparation for trialling an online exhibition using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on our database, Adlib. Our basketry collection, comprising 637 baskets and basketmaking tools, is, like all of the collections at MERL, Designated as being of national importance. They are also national in scope, with baskets from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL. While we hold quite a lot of information about the collection, very little of it was available on Adlib… until now! In the 1960s Dorothy Wright, author of ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry’ and an authority on all things basket-related, studied the collection and completed detailed ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms. She also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

Key subsets of the baskets include:

  • Emily Mullins Collection – Emily Mullins was a Reading basketmaker who gave about 200 baskets and tools to the Museum, making baskets specifically for MERL and donating the contents of her workshop.
  • British Council Collection – these baskets toured Australia and New Zealand in the early 1950s as examples of traditional British craftsmanship.
  • Pilcher Collection of Victorian Baskets
  • Dorothy Wright Collection

A MERL 'Catalogue of baskets' form completed by Dorothy Wright.

My task has been to put all that information into the catalogue, taking into account the different needs of the basket specialist and non-specialist. This is what I have been putting in:

  • Production: who made it, where, when
  • Usage: who used it, where, when
  • Acquisition: who gave it to MERL, from where, when
  • Description: information for the non-specialist – a description of the shape of the basket, what it is made from, what it was used for, who used it, dialect names etc.
  • Scan of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – this includes additional information about material, construction technique, dimensions, distribution, sources of reference. It also shows numerous crossings out and amendments which may be of interest to the specialist.
  • Transcription of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – a transcription of the form in the ‘Object History Note’ field enables the information in the form to be searched
  • Photograph

The photograph and scans of the form are still waiting to be uploaded, but this is what the records should now all look like:

The 'Rapid Object Entry' screen for a fully enhanced basket record.

I spent a very long time thinking about how to name the baskets and tools in a simple and searchable way. I think Felicity must be fed up of hearing me talk about object names for baskets! In fact, we could easily write a long post on the trials of naming objects!  We consulted SPECTRUM, the standard for museum cataloguing, for guidance on object names, confirming that an object can have multiple names, and for guidance on the use of titles.  In terms of searchability, we had to consider what ways and terms people will use to search the catalogue and whether the object name will bring up the desired results. In terms of simplicity, we had to consider the variety of object names used and whether we wanted an infinite number or a restricted number (as Ollie envisages eventually having a drop down list of object names for the whole Museum).

Tools were fairly easy to name and each was given two names – the name of the tool (e.g. Bodkin; Needle; Chisel; Shave; Cleave) and the name ‘Tool, basketry’. The baskets themselves were more challenging. We looked at various ways of naming them – the detailed names given by Dorothy Wright, names based on the content (e.g. Basket, herring), the process they were used in (e.g. Basket, fishing), the accepted name (e.g. Basket, herring cran) etc. Eventually we opted mainly for a simplified content-based approach (e.g. Basket, fish; Basket, animal; Basket, fruit) with some exceptions (e.g. Basket, shopping; Basket, bicycle; Basket, gardening). For objects that aren’t specifically ‘baskets’ (as in vessels for containing things) they were given two object names (e.g. Basket, chair and Basketwork; Trap, eel and Basketwork). Commonly accepted names such as ‘Devon splint basket’, ‘trug’ and ‘kishie’ were added as Titles. Hopefully, any further information is captured in the description.

If you’re a basketmaker reading this, please have a look at our online catalogue, Enterprise, and let me know what you think! (Although we have been experiencing problems with Adlib re-naming objects of its own accord, so there might be a few anomalies until we get that sorted.)

But my work with the baskets isn’t over yet – there are still some baskets which need accessioning and then I need to experiment with the exhibitions tool and look at putting together an online exhibition.

Top left: 63/602 'Basket, fish' - Quarter cran herring basket. Top right: 65/205 'Basket, fruit' - Kentish kibsey. Bottom left: 77/321 'Basket, gardening' - Trug. Bottom right: 91/38 'Basket, potato' 'Basket, feeding' - Devon splint.

 

 

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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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