Berkshire Show

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MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

MERL activities at the Berkshire Show

September has come around again and so has the Royal County of Berkshire Show. I spent this Saturday helping out on the University of Reading’s stand, where this year’s theme was fruit. There were Berkshire varieties of apples on display, single-variety apple juices to sample, old films from the MAFF Advisory films service about pruning fruit trees and storing apples to watch, a ‘bumble-arium’ with live bees buzzing around and a bee-expert on hand to answer all the bee-related questions, and fun activities including making a bee hotel (or should that be a Bee & Bee ?), making a fruity fizzy drink and pedalling your own smoothie on the smoothie bike. The stand was really popular and did really well again – winning two first prizes at the Show.

When not helping out with the activities and telling people about MERL I had the chance to wander around the Show and take a look at what else was on offer. The Show is absolutely massive so I barely got a chance to see anything but I did come across some really interesting things which I wanted to share – although I’m sure you’ll notice a bit of the usual craft-bias coming through…

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice...

Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers Ltd. have a new apprentice…

Having just catalogued the thatching collections at MERL (we’ve got about 200 thatching objects, mostly tools), I’ve developed a bit of an interest in thatch. There were two Master Thatchers at the Show, and I managed to have a quick chat with both of them. One, Jack Challis of Little Thatch, specialises in scaling down the thatched roof for smaller structures such as garden sheds, dog kennels and even bird boxes – a great way to experience thatch if you don’t live in a thatched house! The other, Ben Fowler of Fowler & Sons Master Thatchers, let me have a quick go at thatching their display roof… not sure I was quite up to scratch but definitely the highlight of my day!

I also met a Cotswolds dry stone waller. What differentiates Cotswolds dry stone walling from that in the north of England is the shape of the stones used – they tend to be much flatter and squarer, giving the wall a distinct stratified appearance. Mark Roberts has been building the wall at the Newbury Showground for the past fifteen years or so – he only works on it for the two days of the Show each year but it continues to grow and most be over 100m by now.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

The Cotswolds dry stone wall at Newbury Showground grows by just a few metres every year.

There was also a coracle maker – Peter Faulkner – who specialises in making coracles with a skin/hide covering. I find there’s a certain romanticism attached to the coracle and I’ve long been tempted by a coracle-making course at the Weald and Download Museum, but am yet to go on one. We do have two here at MERL (one of which we’ll be getting out for the pop-up exhibition on Friday 8 November) but ours are very different from Peter’s.

We were also keeping an eye out for apple presses for MERL’s Apple Day on Saturday 19 October, so were alert to all things apple. We came across a really interesting stand called My Apple Juice. I hate waste, especially wasting food, and was told that 90% of apples in private gardens go to waste – I was shocked! Richard Paget, who runs My Apple Juice, wants to recreate the Italian village olive press and have one communal apple press every twenty miles to address the issue of waste. He runs a service where you can take your apples and have them pressed, bottled and pasteurised, and even labelled with your own ‘brand’… MERL apple juice anyone?

So all in all, a fun day out with lots to think about!

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MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we're hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but no nothing about its construction and the techniques used in it.

MERL 68/202. This round basket with handle is one of the baskets we’re hoping to look at as part of Stakeholders. We know that it was made by Excell Brothers of Ruscombe, Berkshire, from willow, but know nothing about its construction and the techniques used.

It’s been as busy as ever at MERL over the past few weeks, what with putting up the new temporary exhibition, Collecting the Countryside: 20th century rural cultures, and preparations for the Berkshire Show this weekend, amongst other things. However, I’ve managed to find some time to start planning for Stakeholders, our new basketry project, and it turns out that there’s an awful lot to think about!

My priority over the past few weeks has been to find the ‘established’ and ‘emergent’ basketmakers to participate in the project. I’ve nearly got everyone confirmed, and will hopefully introduce them to you in a few weeks’ time. My next priority has been to identify the baskets that we intend to study in the course of Stakeholders, and establish what information we already know about them and what we want to find out. This is a work in progress.

As well as the logistical side of things, there’s also a lot of other preparation that needs doing in advance of the two-day hands-on workshop at MERL to study the baskets. I’m slightly worried about how many baskets it’s actually possible for ten people to look at in two days, so I want to make a list of those baskets that I feel it’s essential to look at (e.g. the ones we know least about, or the ones that seem to be the most interesting) so that we can prioritise them. I also want to pool together any readily accessible existing information about these baskets/types of baskets, e.g. from the MERL Library and Classifieds. I then need to think about what information we want to record about the baskets (e.g. materials and techniques in particular), how to record that information during the workshop, and how to incorporate that information into the database. Thankfully, the visit from Basketry and Beyond in May gave me some experience for how to run such a session.

In the longer term, I also need to think about the commissions aspect of the project and the final outcomes including, we hope, some form of temporary or touring exhibition.

Lots to think about, so I’d better get back to it…

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We’re now nine months into the Sense of Place project, and time is certainly flying by. As we’re getting to know the MERL collections better we’ve been getting involved in wider work within the Museum, on top of our day to day cataloguing work, so I thought it was time for another update on ‘What did you do at work today?’. See here and here for previous posts on this topic.

Enquiries

Over the past few weeks, Felicity and I have been taking on more of the object-based enquiries that MERL receives. These include requests to identify mystery objects, looking to see if we have particular objects in the museum, and handling offers of objects to the Museum. Enquiries really show how useful having a thorough online catalogue is, and what a difference it can make to the day to day work of museum staff. It’s so much easier to answer an enquiry when you can search on the catalogue and know that any information the Museum holds about that object will be there. Unfortunately for us, there are still large chunks of the collection waiting to be catalogued, so you can’t guarantee that searching on Adlib will bring up everything you’re looking for. This means that there’s still quite a lot of rummaging in files to do.

Exhibitions

This Lilliput Lane model was purchased as part of the Collecting Cultures project and was photographed recently for use on an exhibition banner.

We’ve also been getting some experience on putting together a loan exhibition based on the objects collected by MERL as part of the Collecting 20th Century Rural Culture project. Danielle wrote in a previous post about the cataloguing work we’ve been doing on this material, and the differences we’ve noticed in cataloguing context-rich, information heavy recent acquisitions compared with older material with very little or no information in the accession records. It took us nearly two months to catalogue the 350–400 objects. Since finishing the cataloguing we’ve been spending a bit of time identifying objects to be photographed, developing themes for the exhibition, drafting text and choosing images, sorting out copyright issues, and arranging objects to be loaned.

The Berkshire Show

The University of Reading stand at the Berkshire Show

I think by far the most unusual thing we’ve done recently is to dress up as milkmaids and milk a wooden cow at the Royal County of Berkshire Show. The University of Reading had a stand on the theme of dairying and cheese production, with a wide variety of activities for children and adults alike. The Guernsey cow was painted by MERL’s Gallery Assistant, Morryce Maddams, and had a realistic udder mechanism for children to have a go at milking a cow (and many of them were far better than us). There were cheese and yoghurt samples made at the University’s Department of Food and Nutritional Sciences, a cheese-making demonstration, a ‘battle of the bacteria’ activity where children were making plasticine bacteria, an art activity making butter print designs (based on those in the Museum), and a smoothie bike. We had a great day, even if we did feel a bit foolish in the outfit, and to cap it off the stand won two first prizes!

Felicity posing on her milking stool.

Cataloguing

We’re still ploughing our way through the cataloguing, and have reached a total of 7500 enhanced records. Now that we’ve finished the Collecting Cultures cataloguing (2008–2011), we’re finishing 2006–2007 and then going back to 1956 to carry on with the chronological cataloguing. We’re also hoping to make a start in the next few weeks on accessioning some of the material that has come into the Museum over the past few months. So there are plenty of things to keep us occupied, and plenty of variety to keep the project interesting.

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