Catalogue

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Next week, the Sense of Place team will have another chance to tell people about the work we have been doing as part of the project.  We will be giving an informal lecture, ‘A Sense of Place: putting MERL’s objects on the map’, as part of the Museum’s popular Lunchtime Talk series.  We will give guests an introduction to the project, an update of our progress so far through interesting case studies, and a demonstration of some of the resources that we have created.

The talk will take place at the Museum on Wednesday 5th December, from 1-2pm.  It is an informal event, so do feel free to bring your lunch with you.  You can book in advance from the Museum website but don’t worry if you haven’t had chance to book – come along on the day anyway.

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The 1960s.  Neil Armstrong walked on the moon.  The Chinese cultural revolution began.  The first series of Star Trek was aired.  MERL acquired object number 60/1/1-2, a pair of candle snuffers from Binfield.  I know this because we have just finished cataloguing every object accessioned to the Museum in the 1950s! 

Our first main motivational target (‘leave the 1950s’) has therefore been reached!  This leaves us with our main personal target remaining: finish 10,000 records by the end of the project.  We’re currently at 8570, so I’d better get started on those candle snuffers…

 

Candle snuffers

60/1/1-2: Candle snuffers from Binfield.

 

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 As you might have guessed from recent blog posts, the past couple of months have been incredibly busy.  Over the last few weeks, then, it has been a real relief to get back to some solid days of cataloguing again, and as a result we have finally reached another milestone – 8000 records enhanced!  Hopefully we’ll pick up pace again over the next couple of months, as we really want to reach that target of 10,000 records by the end of the project. 

 

54/45

To celebrate, I thought I’d share with you an object record that always makes me smile. Whenever I’m getting fed up of cataloguing yet another auger or chisel, I return to this sketch for a bit of cheering up.

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We’ve gone a bit quiet over recent months on the progress of our work with Historypin, so I thought it was perhaps time for an update on what we’ve been doing behind the scenes.  If you go to the MERL Historypin channel you will be able to see some of the first objects we have pinned to the map.  Most of these are from the Berkshire village of Bucklebury, but there are also some wagons and ploughs from a wider geographic area.

Inevitably, these first trial uploads have thrown up some technical issues that we hadn’t considered.  When we export data from our own Adlib database, we want to minimise the alterations made to that data before it is then uploaded to Historypin.  The fewer changes we make in that intermediate stage, the more manageable and future proof the whole process becomes.

Initially, we had exported our data into a CSV file (it stands for ‘comma separated values’, apparently).  When we looked at the resulting pins on Historypin, we realised the limitations of this approach.  Whilst most of our objects have only one known ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’ (if at all), there are some objects for which we have more complete object biographies, where we know perhaps two or three previous owners.  Similarly, there might be a composite object, with multiple parts made by different people.

Fork - 60/290

This fork (60/290) was made in multiple places. Its handle was made by Bucklebury handle-maker Harry Wells, whilst the metal head was made by a local blacksmith.

Because of the way they work (something to do with being ‘comma separated values’) CSV files can only export one occurrence of each database field.  We had to find a new method of exporting which would enable us to pin objects to all the places with which they are associated.  We are currently trialling the use of XML files as an alternative.  We’ve yet to try uploading to Historypin in this way, but our first tests show that we can at least export multiple occurrences using this type of file.  So, we’re making progress.

Another problem we’ve been working through is trying to find a way to export latitude and longitude data for associated places.  Focussing on place has already necessitated the addition of extra fields to the database – initially we recorded latitude and longitude in the notes field of the thesaurus records, but specific fields for grid references have since been added, and we now record the information there.  Due to the way the database works, though, we were initially unable to export the latitude and longitude for places added as ‘associated places’ (rather than as a ‘place made’, ‘place used’ or ‘place acquired’).  This problem has since been solved by extra changes to the databases, but it highlights how projects working with technology such as this require a significant amount of technical work behind the scenes to get museum data online.  It is not always just a case of looking at the accession files and then bunging it all on a computer.

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Just another quick message to let you know that this afternoon we reached another milestone total – 6000 records have now been enhanced!  For something nice to look at, too, I’ve added a photo of one of the nicest (and certainly most detailed) pencil sketches I’ve come across whilst working through the catalogue records.

 

Accession file sketch of a wagon

A pencil sketch of 55/300, a cart used in Hampshire for taking goods to market.

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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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If anyone has been following the progress of our cataloguing, you might like to know that today, we reached another milestone: 4000 records have now been enhanced!  Out of interest, the 4000th record was one of a small collection of materials and tools used in fishing fly tying.  Fly tying is, I must admit, a topic that until about an hour ago, I knew absolutely nothing about.  Whilst cataloguing, we’re learning a lot about the collection, so we’ll continue to blog about certain objects or collections that we each find particularly interesting.  For me, rather inexplicably, this has been wagons and wheelwrighting.  Expect a post in the near future…

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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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Leaving my own thoughts on what a ‘sense of place’ means to another time, I’m going to talk a little bit about the practical issues we have encountered when putting geographic context about objects onto our database.

Having plenty of geographical context in the paper accession files, we had to decide how to put that information onto the database, and how to make it searchable.  We decided to create a hierarchy of places so that any specific place would, ideally, be linked to a county, region and country. Adlib, the database we’re working with, has a hierarchical capacity which enables us to do this. So, the geographical keyword (i.e. place) ‘Reading’ could be linked to ‘Berkshire’, for example.  This brought up the issue, however, of deciding what form our hierarchy should take.  Should we use a current list of contemporary administrative units, which include ‘unitary authorities’?  Or should we use the still commonly used ceremonial counties?  Long discussions threw up more and more ‘but what if…’ problems.  How would we put ‘the Cotswolds’ into a hierarchy, for example?  What about an object which arrived in the 1950s from Middlesex, a county which completely ceased to exist in the 1960s?

Throughout the course of these discussions, I discovered that my own understanding of the county system in the United Kingdom was woefully inaccurate.  In my defence, it really is quite confusing.  The ‘County of Herefordshire’, for example, is also a unitary authority, and the ‘City of London’ is apparently also a ceremonial county.  Aside from showing up my own lack of geographical understanding though, our discussions did raise an important point – how do our visitors, who will hopefully be using ‘place’ as a way to search and access the collections, understand ‘place’?

Eventually, we decided that the only way to achieve any sort of consistency in our cataloguing was to use a hierarchy based on contemporary administrative boundaries, and we have based ours on the hierarchy used in the online ‘Getty Thesaurus of Geographic Names’.  Bearing in mind some of the ‘problem places’ mentioned above, though, we have added in a number of other hierarchy levels.  These will hopefully enable us to both more accurately represent the level of contextual detail contained in the accession records, and make the hierarchy fit with as many understandings of ‘place’ as possible.

Places are therefore linked first to their ‘administrative unit’, but then also to their ceremonial county (if relevant) and region.  So ‘Reading’ is linked up to ‘Reading [unitary authority]’, which is linked to ‘Berkshire’, which is linked to ‘South East England’, and so on.  A lower level may also be added, that of ‘specific locale’, such as farm names, estate names and, where relevant, street names.  The problem places such as now non-existent counties and vague areas such as the ‘Cotswolds’ are still entered, but link straight to the country/countries they are in.  They are listed as ‘non-preferred terms’, showing that they should only be used when no other information is available, and also have a note which defines the area that they refer to.

It’s certainly not a perfect system, and we still regularly encounter new ‘but what if…’ problems, but we hope that eventually it will enable visitors to access information about ‘place’ in our collections in a way that is both consistent and logical, but also meaningful to them.

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