Collections

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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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Last week I attended the AGM and conference of the Rural Museums Network. The RMN, of which MERL is a member, is an organisation which exists to support and promote the work of museums with collections relating to the UK’s rural heritage. This year the two-day event was held in Worcestershire, the first day at S.E. Davis & Son Ltd in Redditch and the second day at Avoncroft Museum in Bromsgrove.

S.E. Davis is a family owned company which is thought to have the biggest private collection of historic agricultural and earth-moving machinery in the country. They hosted the first day of presentations, during which we heard talks on the debate about conservation versus operation of historic machinery, the work of heritage farming ‘Skills for the Future’ trainees in East Anglia, and the conservation of a windmill at Avoncroft Museum. It was fascinating to take a tour of the collection at S.E. Davis – I was stunned by the scale of it, and its significance both nationally and internationally. Just a few items that stand out in my memory are dredgers used on the Suez Canal, and a tractor used on HMS Arc Royal to push redundant jets into the sea. The collection must have required enormous inputs of time and money from the Davis family, with many of the vehicles and machines having been saved from scrap merchants at the last minute. It was interesting to discuss the different challenges facing museums and private collectors, and the potential of greater collaboration between the two.

S E Davis

One small part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

The conference dinner was held at a pub not far from S.E. Davis. I arrived, conventionally, by car, but some lucky attendees were delivered to the pub in a trailer pulled by one of the family’s working steam engines. They might have had all the fun, but some were looking a little splattered with oil and soot by the time they arrived!

Traction engine

A working historic vehicle being put to good use as pub transportation.

The next day was the AGM of the network and I was able to update the other network members about the redevelopment work going on at MERL. Several other member organisations are also undergoing redevelopment so it was interesting and useful to compare notes and hear about work going on in other parts of the sector. We also had the opportunity to look around the buildings at Avoncroft, in particular the windmill which we had heard about the previous day. I used to volunteer at Avoncroft when I was a high school student, so it was lovely to have the chance to see what had changed since my last visit.

Caterpillar

The Caterpillar ‘Molly May’, part of the collection at S. E. Davis.

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After working with Greta for two-and-a-half years, I suppose it was inevitable that some of her enthusiasm for baskets would rub off on me.  Spurred on by this and the success of last year’s introduction to blacksmithing day at Avoncroft Museum, I spent a very pleasant Saturday last month making my very first basket. I attended an ‘Introduction to Willow Weaving’ course run by Jon Ridgeon at Winterbourne House & Garden in Birmingham.

Basket-making

The all-important tea break, after completing the base of my basket.

Being somewhat familiar with basketry tools, terms and techniques from my involvement with the Stakeholders project, the craft felt oddly familiar for something that I had never attempted before. We made simple little round-based baskets with pretty arched handles. If I remember correctly, we used twining to make the circular base then added in the vertical stakes which would form the basis of the basket’s sides. The sides consisted of a combination of ‘french randing’ and a ‘three-rod wale’. Finally we finished the sides off with a rim and added a hazel handle. I’m afraid I don’t have a picture of my complete basket to share with you but I promise that while identifiably having been made by a complete beginner, it wasn’t too terrible! It was a brilliant day, and it was really interesting to see how different all our baskets looked, given that we had followed the same instructions!

I’m hoping to go along to some more of Jon’s courses in the coming months and hopefully also have a go at some other crafts. I’m happy to take recommendations as to what to have a go at next – and if it’s a craft with relevant collections at MERL, all the better!

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One word I’d never heard until I started working on the Countryside21 project is ‘aboutness’. It may sound a bit like it’s not really a word but it is actually a very useful concept. We’re using it to help us better keyword the photographs that will be made accessible on the new Digital Asset Management system. The idea is to make the photographic collections much more easily searchable to picture researchers, which means that we have to put a lot more thought into what sorts of terms people might use to search for images.

Boy feeding a lamb.

A photograph of a young boy feeding a lamb.

The essence of ‘aboutness’ is that there is often a difference between what a photograph is ‘of’ and what it is ‘about’. As an example, take this image. We can say that it is ‘of’ a young boy feeding a lamb under a blossoming tree, watched by an adult standing in the background. How many picture researchers will specifically look for an image of a child feeding a lamb? Perhaps a few. But there is more to the image. We might suggest that it is also ‘about’: nurturing, innocence, confidence, learning, supervision, safety and childhood. Tagging an image with keywords based on emotions and concepts as well as physical things will, we hope, widen up its potential appeal and vastly increase its searchability.

The main aim of this part of the project is to keyword three-thousand images from the collection (including a number of photographs of museum objects) with such ‘aboutness’ keywords. So far, we’ve run an initial focus group with volunteers to help us test the concept and work out how best to organise the process of ‘tagging’ each image with the appropriate keywords. Another focus group will be run in the next few weeks, after which we’ll be ready to get started with the main set of images. In the meantime, here’s a few of the selected images – do comment and let us know what you think they’re ‘about’!

dx289_0011a, dx289_0344 and dx289_0626

What are these images ‘about’?

 

 

 

 

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You might have heard recently that the Museum has been successful in a round one HLF application for a project called Our Country Lives.  Over the course of the year, we will be researching and planning for a major redisplay of the gallery, aiming to put stories about people and experiences of rural life at the centre of the new displays.

The 'tree' - the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The ‘tree’ – the heart of the wood section in the current displays.

The main MERL blog has also changed to reflect the work of Our Country Lives, and you can follow updates on the progress of the project, as well as other features which will give you more of an insight into what’s going on ‘behind the scenes’ in the Museum, Library and Archive.  There will be posts that show how other projects at MERL are feeding into the redevelopment work, including a recent post in the ‘Focus on Collections’ series about how the work of A Sense of Place might be contributing to the redisplay of the wagons.

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If you’ve seen any recent news updates from the Museum you might know that MERL was recently awarded funding from Arts Council England for a major project in collaboration with Reading Museum, called Reading Connections.

The project started in April, and we’ve got lots to tell you about the different things that are going to be happening.  There are a number of themes to the project, including world cultures, local collections, craft, and Reading in conflict.  This will include collections work and engagement, including events, exhibitions and online resources.  In particular there will be a series of events to commemorate the centenary of the start of WWI in 2014.  But I shan’t go any further here – to find out more, go along to the Reading Connections blog.  (There’s a separate blog for this new project to reflect that fact that it is a partnership with Reading Museum.)  If you’ve enjoyed following this blog (which will continue to run, don’t worry!), do take a look at Reading Connections, and see what’s happening!

Evacuees at Reading Station

Evacuees at Reading Station.

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As you will have read from Greta’s post Crowdsourcing with the Bucklebury History Group, we’ve been doing a lot of work over the past couple of weeks on our MERL Historypin channel.  A large number of the Collier photographs of Bucklebury have been re-pinned to more precise locations, and some of them are even pinned to street-view, where possible.  The next stage for us was to start to make proper use of some of the other features of Historypin, so Danielle and I spent an afternoon this week experimenting with ‘Tours’ and ‘Collections’.

Bucklebury ford

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury ford, recently re-pinned to street-view.

Tours and Collections are essentially features that enable users to group together and highlight particular sets of ‘pins’, according to whatever theme they choose.  The Collections feature is particularly suited to grouping pins by theme.  A Collection could be created to show a set of photographs taken by a particular photographer, or a set of similar objects.  The user can add some introductory text to explain the rationale of the collection and any other information they want to include.  The selected pins can then be viewed either in list-form or as a slideshow.

The ‘Tour’ feature initially appears to be similar, but its potential lies in the use of pins that are pinned to street-view.  Where relevant, the pins appear in the slideshow automatically in street-view, with a small map showing their location and a small space for extra text to its left.   If all the pins are on street-view, then, a tour can enable the user to virtually ‘walk’ down a street, fading pins in and out of view and following their progress on a map.

Describing the features doesn’t quite convey their potential to enhance a Historypin channel, so the best thing to do would be to take a look at some of the tours and collections Danielle and I created this week, on the MERL and Bucklebury History Group channels.  Simply go to the channels and select the ‘Collections’ or ‘Tours’ tabs.

MERL Channel collection

The ‘George Lailey, Bucklebury Craftsman’ collection, on the MERL Historypin channel.

The ‘History Walk around Bucklebury’ tour on the Bucklebury History Group channel is a particularly good example of what these features can do.  You’ll see that the tour includes photographs and objects pinned by MERL as well as those pinned by the History Group.  In this way, users are not confined to their own content, but can make use of any photographs and objects pinned on the website.

Bucklebury History Walk Tour

A Collier photograph of Bucklebury pinned to street-view, as seen in the ‘Bucklebury History Walk’ tour.

And there are a lot of pins to choose from.  According to the counter on the homepage, there are, to date, over 210,000 pins and comments on Historypin, and this can sometimes make the website (and individual channels) a victim of its own success.  The more that is pinned the better, but this makes it harder to sift through the content to find particular images.  If you look at the main list of pins on the MERL channel, for example, you will have to trawl through a lot of pages of object pins before you reach the Collier photo pins, which were added at an earlier date.  A major benefit of the tours and collections features is that they provide solutions to this problem.  They can highlight particular sub-sets of pins and make it much easier for their users to find what they might be looking for.  We think they also make the channel more interactive, informative and enjoyable to browse.

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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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