Countryside21

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It’s been a long time coming but last week I finally finished re-classifying all 18900 records in the objects database on Adlib as part of Countryside 21!!! I’ve been working on this on and off since mid-December so it’s great to have finally completed it – especially as actually completing anything is somewhat of a rarity of at MERL. The project target was to re-classify and add associated keywords to 10,000 records. However, it seemed to me that the process would only be worth it if all the records were re-classified – so that’s what I did!

Until this work to review the MERL Classification began, all objects had a single classification based on an object’s sphere of use – they can now have multiple classifications, all of which are process-driven (see previous posts on the Classification). The new classifications have been added in numerical form (as were the old classifications – which have been retained in Adlib), and have also been added textually as associated subject keywords (a new step). All of the existing associated subject keywords have been deleted from all of the object records – they were a jumbled mess and had not been applied in a consistent or logical manner so weren’t much help when searching. The associated subject keywords now consist of the following types:

  • Activity: textual versions of the Classification, plus additional activities (e.g. farriery and particular craft specialisms)
  • Animal: animals to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Geography: associated places
  • Object name: generally objects depicted in paintings and photographs
  • Plant: plants (crops, fruit, vegetables etc.) to which the objects relate or, in the case of paintings/photographs, depict
  • Subject: materials, products, and some useful subject groupings (e.g. shooting – which brings together all objects relating to shooting, whether they relate to hunting, sport, regulation and control, personal use etc.)

The actual process of applying the revised Classification to the object collections has revealed some flaws in the new Classification. For example, there is nowhere to put objects which relate to agriculture generally rather than specifically to Cultivating (3.00) or Harvesting (9.00) – this was also true of the old Classification. Lighting that isn’t for domestic purposes is now a bit of a problem – previously lighting was a primary heading of its own, but it now falls under the primary heading Domestic and family life (4.00). However, these are all things that can be reviewed in due course.  

My application of the Classification and keywords may not be perfect but it’s about 95% consistent and logical – which should make an enormous difference to anyone searching the collection. The revised Classification and other associated activity keywords have been published on the MERL website and are available here.

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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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P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost - as the sun breaks through on New Year's day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

P TAR PH3/2/13/3/24. John Tarlton Collection. Black and white photograph entitled Great Frost – as the sun breaks through on New Year’s day the ice glistens on every blade and branch, Exmoor.

Happy 2014 to all of you MERL Projects Blog readers!

I can’t believe how quickly 2013 went (or how long it is since I last did a blog post). The start of a new year is always a good time to look back at what you’ve achieved over the past 12 months, and to look ahead to what you want to achieve in the coming months. Yesterday was my first day back in the office after a lovely break, so I took the opportunity to write a January-February 2014 To Do list – and there’s an awful lot on it!

A Sense of Place: We just managed to enhance 9000 records at the end of 2012, and our current total at the end of 2013 stands at 15805 records. This progress is largely thanks to Laura, who was working on the project for several months over the summer while Felicity and I moved on to other projects (although we did manage to fit in some cataloguing too). This means that there’s only another 3000 records to go until every record has been enhanced – something I’d really like to see done! I’ve also been starting to tidy up (and hopefully massively reduce) the list of object names (and their numerous variants) when I have a spare moment or two.

Countryside21: This has been a bit of a stop-and-start project, and we’ve made really good progress on some elements and virtually none on others. The positives include nearly finishing the Time Based Media survey (I’m aiming to have it signed off by the end of January), renaming thousands upon thousands of files and restructuring the way they’re organised (all Felicity’s work), revising the MERL Classification, rationalising our use of subject keywords in Adlib, and finally beginning to implement the new Classification and the associated keywords (I’ve already managed to do this for 3400 records in the space of two weeks). We’ve also updated the ‘Geographical Keywords Manual’ and will be putting together guidelines on how to use other types of keywords in the coming weeks.  The ‘To Do’ list includes selecting and keywording images for commercial purposes, and arranging the technical side of the project such as the Digital Asset Management software and the e-commerce.

Reading Connections: While we don’t blog about the Reading Connections project here (it has a separate blog) this has been occupying a lot of mine and Felicity’s time throughout 2013. We spent the summer photographing 600 of Reading Museum’s Historic World Objects, and since then Felicity has been spending several days a week at Reading Museum researching and writing detailed descriptions of these objects. Meanwhile I’ve been working on cataloguing craft here at MERL and have enhanced/tidied/cross-referenced all of the records for clay, leather, metal, stone, straw and textile crafts, leaving just wood crafts to go in 2014.

Stakeholders: We had a hugely successful two day study visit from ten basketmakers at the start of December to kick the project off. We’ll be photographing all of the baskets we studied in a couple of weeks, and then it’s a case of adding all the new information that we gathered to Adlib, commissioning pieces from the participating makers, and putting together some banners for a pop-up exhibition in the future.

Our Country Lives: While not officially one of Felicity’s and my projects, we’ve both been involved in the plans for the re-development of MERL over the last couple of months of 2013. It’s been a really eye-opening experience and we’re very much looking forward to how it progresses.

Miscellaneous: And as ever, we’ve been working on lots of other bits and pieces too. Our volunteers have continued to scan the 60-series negatives and add them to Adlib. 3000 negatives were scanned in 2013, leaving only another 5 boxes (out of a total of 23) left to do. I’ve been adding any existing colour photos to Adlib which for some reason weren’t already on there – I’ve done the 1970s, 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, leaving just the 1950s and 1960s to go.

So, all in all, a very busy year just gone (with much more than I’ve managed to mention), and another busy year to come (again, with much more than I’ve managed to mention)! But, at least I can say that I’m really looking forward to 2014 here at MERL and all there is to do. Wishing everyone all the best for 2014!

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MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it's made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

MERL 64/200. This is one of the High Priority baskets. Although we have some information on the materials it’s made from, we have no details about its construction. It is thought that this basket may have been used for samples by the Water Board.

We’re nearly ready to welcome the ten basketmakers to MERL next week to take part in the two-day study visit as part of the Stakeholders project. I’m very excited that it’s finally happening – it seems an awfully long time since July when we heard the project was going ahead!

I’ve nearly completed all the preparations for the session. I’ve finally managed to organise the baskets into high, medium and low priority categories, and I’ve created a recording form which I hope is easy to use and reasonably consistent with forms that have been used in the past. For each basket, I have printed out the current Adlib record and photocopied the form onto the back – this way, we’ve got ready access to the information we already know about each basket and can easily identify the gaps that need filling. There are still a few remaining bits and pieces to do – like making sure there’s room in the Museum store for us all, getting the first few baskets out, and making sure we have enough pencils – but I think we should be good to go on Tuesday morning! I think it’s going to be a very busy two days, but hopefully I’ll find time next week to blog about how it all went.

Although it’s going to be very intense, I think that in some ways the study visit is the easy part of the project. I think the challenging part will be inputting all the information we’ve gathered into the catalogue in a logical, consistent, searchable and user-friendly way (which will hopefully tie into the work I’ve been doing with thesaurus terms as part of the Countryside21 project). I’m also hoping to do some follow-up research in the MERL Library and Archives where necessary. Then there’s the commissions aspect of Stakeholders still to think about, arranging photography of the baskets which currently have no photos, and putting together some form of exhibition from the project – be it online, or in the form of banners for a pop-up or temporary exhibition. But challenging or not, I’m really looking forward to getting stuck in!

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Just some of the work I've been doing on the MERL Classification...

Just some of the work I’ve been doing on the MERL Classification…

After a bit of a hiatus over the summer, Countryside21 has started picking up again and I’m finally getting ready to implement the changes we made to the MERL Classification back in July (see previous posts). As with every aspect of this project, there’s quite a lot to think about before you can make any changes, and it’s not always apparent what you need to consider until you get started. Be warned – this is a rather dense and technical post!!!

To re-cap, all objects in the collection have a MERL Classification based on the object’s sphere of use. The existing Classification contained a mixture of processes and products. We have now revised the Classification to separate out the two, making the Classification purely process-driven and with separate term lists for the products. In the course of this, the Classification has been reduced from 31 to 19 primary terms.

Each term in the Classification has a numerical code, and this is what has been recorded in Adlib until now. We want to change this so that the Classification appears in both numbers (as a code) and text (as a subject keyword). So how do we go about implementing all of these changes?

Step 1 – Creating thesaurus records for the Classification

A thesaurus record has been created for each primary and secondary term in the Classification, with a scope note which states that they are part of the MERL Classification and which details the Classification Code, how the new term corresponds to the old Classification, definition/explanations about what the term covers, and whether the term should be used in conjunction with a plant/animal/product term list.

When you create a thesaurus record you have to assign the record a ‘term type’ – this is dependent not only on what the term relates to, but where you want the term to appear in Adlib. We want the Classification to appear as an ‘associated subject’, of which there are several types – we have opted to make the Classification terms an ‘activity’.

We have also started to create thesaurus records for the plant/animal/product term lists – as ‘plant’, ‘animal’ and ‘subject’ term types respectively. However, this is still a work in progress as we haven’t come up with any definitive lists for these terms yet and there will be quite a bit of cross-over with other term types (e.g. ‘stone’ might have the term types ‘subject’ and ‘object name’). However we end up going about it, we need to give these records a scope note which states that they can be part of the MERL List of Plants (for example), that they can be used in conjunction with the MERL Classification, and that they can be used as stand-alone terms.

This whole process has been complicated by the fact that other UMASCS collections have recently been added to Adlib, which means that the thesaurus terms don’t just apply to the MERL objects collections and MERL archives – they also apply to zoology collections (Cole Museum), archaeology collections (Ure Museum), typography collections, art collections, geology collections etc.

Step 2 – Putting the new Classification into Adlib

We believe it’s important to retain the existing Classification Code in Adlib, as this is how everything has been classified until now. Therefore, to differentiate between the old and new codes, I have globally edited all of the records so that any code currently in Adlib is defined as the ‘pre-2013 MERL Classification’. When I start adding the new codes, these will be defined simply as ‘MERL Classification’.

Another challenging part of this process is going to be assigning new Classifications to the objects. In some cases, the old and new classifications correspond very clearly (e.g. crafts), whereas there are others which are much more complicated and each object will have to be appraised individually. This is further complicated by the need to add terms from the plant/animal/product term lists where appropriate, and by the decision to give objects multiple classifications where appropriate (previously each object had only one).

Then there are the actual practicalities of how to go about adding the new codes and keywords into Adlib – I think I’m going to be busy for quite a while!

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Laura

I’d like to introduce our readers (rather belatedly) to Laura, who joined A Sense of Place at the end of April for five months. She’s taken over cataloguing as Felicity and I moved onto our other projects, Countryside21 and Reading Connections, and she’s been doing an amazing job so far! It’s so good to know that the cataloguing is carrying on, even though we’re no longer working on it – having a detailed and accurate, easily searchable catalogue makes such a difference to all aspects of museum work! As well as enhancing the records and continuing the work of A Sense of Place, Laura will also be helping to answer object-related enquiries and blogging – look out for a post from her soon.

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8_mm_film_types

Countryside21 is a project full of challenges – mostly conceptual ones, in that it we’re largely working in unfamiliar territory and it takes us quite a while to get our heads around each of the things we’re supposed to be doing. As mentioned in previous posts, the project has numerous strands of activity involving a variety of tasks. One of those is to carry out a survey of the time-based media in the MERL archives. Before we started the project, I had never heard of time-based media (TBM). The Tate, which has a really interesting page on its website about the conservation of TBM art, defines it as media which ‘depends on technology and has duration as a dimension’, although this definition could be extended to include anything which is vulnerable to deterioration. TBM includes film, video, audio, slides, transparencies, discs, and computer-based technologies such as digital files.

The world of technology is constantly changing, with many TBM formats and the equipment needed to view them becoming obsolete. For this reason, it is desirable to transfer the TBM to newer formats. The aim of the survey is to find out exactly what TBM we have and develop an action plan for its conservation. There are three stages to the survey:

Step 1 – Identify the TBM.  After several days of solid work I have just finished this stage, which has involved looking through the hard copy accessions registers for any mention of TBM and then conducting endless searches on Adlib for any term which might bring up TBM. Hopefully this has captured most of it, but there will inevitably be some that have slipped through – either because it wasn’t mentioned in the register, hasn’t been catalogued in detail on Adlib, or because I don’t fully understand how things on the archives side of MERL work!

Step 2 – Conduct the survey. This will involve finding out exactly what we have by looking through box after box of archive material to see what type of media, what format, how much of it there is, its age, and its condition. This is going to require some research into old media formats – I only go back as far as the cassette and the VHS! It’s also going to require some research into understanding where things are kept in the archives.

Step 3 – Develop an action plan for conserving the TBM. I don’t really know what this will involve, but I think it will be up to the archivists rather than Felicity and me.

As with almost everything we’ve done so far relating to Countryside21, this strand of activity has taken quite a bit of time for me to get my head round. Hopefully I’m starting to get to grips with it but I think conducting the survey will prove quite a challenge!

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MERL Class

Following on from my post last week about the MERL Classification and its history, I thought I would explain some of the work that we’ve been doing on it. We held Round 1 of ‘Decision Time’ (making final decisions on how to update the Classification) last week, but were a bit optimistic on how long we would need (we got about two thirds of the way through) so will have to hold Round 2 soon.

We had done quite a lot of work in preparation for ‘Decision Time’. The main issue we have with the Classification as it stands is that it contains a mixture of processes and products (things to which the processes are done). We’ve decided to separate the two out, making the Classification purely process-driven, and to have separate thesauri/vocabularies for the products, e.g. plants, animals, materials etc. This should help us apply the Classification in a more consistent and systematic way as the basis of a new subject keyword index.

The first step was to remove all the products from the Classification. Rather than coming up with our own hit-and-miss list of products, we’ve been looking for existing thesauri/vocabularies which we can draw on, such as lists of crops, trees and other plants from the MAFF Classification (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food), Defra (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) and the Forestry Commission. We’ll hopefully be re-visiting these lists in Round 2.

The next step was to reduce the number of primary headings, making sure that they are all process-driven. Having removed the products it was then possible to start grouping existing primary headings together. For example, Drainage, Fencing and Landscape are now grouped together under a new category of Land Management; Employment, Marketing and Science & Research are now grouped together under a category relating to economics.  We’re now down to 19 categories from 31.

The next step, and this is what we were concentrating on in ‘Decision Time’, was to agree on which secondary terms to include, again ensuring that they are all process-driven. This has involved moving some of the secondary headings about, grouping some of them together, re-naming some of them so that they have more of an emphasis on process, checking how many objects we have under each of them and removing those that aren’t actually being used, and thinking of other terms that we might want to add etc.

There was a lot to get through in three hours – no wonder we didn’t finish. But I have to say that ‘Decision Time’ was a lot more enjoyable than any of us had anticipated and we’re actually all looking forward to Round 2! We’ll keep you updated with how we get on.

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The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

The 1978 version of the MERL Classification was published in hard copy.

Apologies for the recent lack of blogging – Felicity and I have been spending quite a lot of time at Reading Museum recently as part of the new joint project between MERL and Reading Museum, Reading Connections. I promised a long time ago to write about a post about the MERL Classification, which we’re reviewing and updating as part of Countryside21, and which we hope will be a starting point for developing new ways in which to keyword our collections.

Until the start of Countryside21 I had never paid much attention to the Classification and how, or why, it was used. As part of the review process, I have been looking into the history of the Classification to understand how it came about and how it has evolved over time.

Classification systems are used by museums to organise data about their collections. The MERL Classification was devised by John Higgs, the first Keeper at MERL, specifically for the circumstances at MERL and was determined by the nature and content of the object collections. It was informed by existing classifications at the time, such as those used by the National Museum of Denmark, the Welsh Folk Museum and the Royal Anthropological Institute. The Classification was based on the idea that MERL is a folk museum and deals primarily with people and their lives, rather than with objects. As a result the classification of an object is driven by its sphere of use. It was initially used for the Object Collections, and later expanded to the Photographic Collections (photos of objects are classified according to their sphere of use; other photos are classified according to their subject content).

The MERL Classification was built on the premise that a classification should be as simple as possible, with the caveats that it must be workable and must bring material together in the right groups.  It originally had 24 primary headings, which could be sub-divided into secondary, tertiary and quaternary headings, each with a numerical notation. The Classification was intended to grow and develop with the expansion of the collection, with new divisions being created only when an accumulation of similar items made it clear what the heading should be. By 1978 the Classification had expanded to 33 primary headings. A review in the 1990s reduced this down to 31, and today the Classification is only used for objects – it is no longer used for photographs.

The review work on the Classification is nearly complete. This has involved consulting the wider rural museums sector to see if there are any institutions still using the MERL Classification (it has always been publicly available); considering how it compares with the Social History and Industrial Classification (SHIC) used by many other rural museums; and looking at how we can streamline the primary headings. Hopefully, we will be making some final decisions tomorrow, and will be publishing the revised Classification in due course.

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skills

On Wednesday 24 April 2013 we’re holding a Skills Sharing Day at MERL to discuss some of the recent collections development projects which have been taking place at MERL. This includes some of the projects we’ve been working on and blogging about over the past year – A Sense of Place, Collecting Rural Cultures and Countryside21. The day offers a unique opportunity to hear more about these projects and help us shape our future displays.

Please get in touch if you are interested in attending and would like to find out more.

 

Outline programme for the day

10.30: Arrival, registration, and coffee

11.00: Welcome and introduction to the day

11.15 Collecting Rural Cultures – case study and discussion

11.45 A Sense of Place – case study and discussion

12.15 Countryside21 – case study and discussion

12.45 Lunch and opportunity to view online resources, a selection of recent acquisitions and the current museum galleries

13.45 Our Country Lives – an introduction to key themes outlines in the Museum’s Round One bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund followed by facilitated discussion

14.45 Closing remarks and tea

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