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Earlier this week I spent four days in beautiful Sussex, three of them at the Weald & Downland Museum in Singleton.

Left: MERL 56/187/1. Right: MERL 60/535/1

Left: MERL 56/187/1. Right: MERL 60/535/1

I’ve been wanting to make a coracle for years (no idea why!) and finally got the chance this weekend at the Weald & Downland (a fantastic place for craft courses!). Coracles are found across the world and are often one-person vessels used for fishing. In Britain, the wooden framework of coracles would originally have been covered with animal skins, but are today covered with calico or canvas which is waterproofed with bitumen paint. The design of coracles varied across Britain; we have two in the MERL collection – one is made of ash laths woven together (MERL 56/187) and the other is made of a hazel and willow frame (MERL 60/535). Traditionally two coracles would work together when fishing, with the fisherman in each vessel steering with the paddle in one hand whilst holding onto the net stretched out between them with the other. Turns out there’s a coracle museum in Cenarth in Wales!

My coracle at the end of the course - it still needs waterproofing and a bit more woodwork and then we're ready to paddle!

My coracle at the end of the course – it still needs waterproofing and a bit more woodwork and then we’re ready to paddle!

The course was run by Kevin Grimley, with the help of his son Nathan, and was absolutely brilliant. The first day was spent constructing the wooden frame of our coracles (with the aid of some power tools). The frame is made of ash laths, constructed around the pine seat. I was a bit worried about lagging behind everyone else as it’s been years since I’ve done much woodwork, but my practice drilling, hammering and sawing a few weeks ago stood me in good stead!

On the second day, we covered the frame in calico – pulling it taut and stapling it to the rim, and then stitching the seams. We need to finish our coracles off at home with a few layers of bitumen paint and then another lath around the inside and outside of the rim.

Test driving one of Kevin's coracles on the mill pond at the Weald & Downland Museum

Test driving one of Kevin’s coracles on the mill pond at the Weald & Downland Museum

Because ours wouldn’t be finished over the weekend, Kevin had brought along some completed coracles for us to have a go in on the Museum’s mill pond – it was great fun! The coracle felt quite stable, but the figure-of-eight paddling takes a little getting used to. Can’t wait to have a go in mine when it’s done!

I was then back at the Weald & Downland on Tuesday for a conference on ‘The history of woodworking tools’, which was held in collaboration with the Tools and Trades History Society (TATHS) in celebration of the 50th anniversary of W. L. Goodman’s seminal book of that name. It was a great conference (although I didn’t quite fit the typical delegate demographic) and was divided into the sections of Goodman’s book – rules and measures, compasses and squares, boring tools (or ‘not so boring tools’), trestles and benches, saws, planes, edge tools, and chisels and gouges.

I really liked the portable display cases that TATHS used. This display was entitled 'Not so boring tools'!

I really liked the portable display cases that TATHS used. This display was entitled ‘Not so boring tools’!

As ever, when I attend these kinds of things, I realise how little I knew when I did the A Sense of Place cataloguing and how many mistakes I must have made. My latest wish is to have the time to spend focusing on tool manufacturers – looking at the objects, noting down the manufacturer’s marks, cross-referencing them with the various permutations of manufacturer’s names over the years and trying to date them. Alas, I doubt I’ll ever have the time! The first speaker, Jane Rees, made a very good point – that a lot of the detailed research into the subject of the conference is done by dedicated and interested amateurs, rather than museum professionals or academics and I know why – we just never have the time (especially when working on a project basis!).

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Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

Marshall Scheetz explaining the making of a cask.

I just wanted to say an enormous thank you to Marshall Scheetz, historian and journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, USA, for coming to MERL and giving us such a wonderful introduction to coopers and cooperage.

We began the day with a visit to the Museum stores, where we looked at the various coopering objects in the collection, from an array of tools to various coopered items such as buckets, butter churns and measures. Marshall then gave a fascinating talk about his work at Colonial Williamsburg, the history of coopering, the process of making a barrel , and the different trades and industries that coopering has been associated with ­– including whaling, tobacco and gunpowder. The day ended with Marshall talking us through the coopering video on display in the galleries and pointing out the tools used in each process. The highlight for me was the way that Marshall used the part-made cask, truss hoops and cresset that we have at MERL to illustrate his talk – it really showed how you make a cask, the movements and actions involved etc.

Colonial Williamsburg sounds like a truly amazing place, and I’m really grateful to Marshall for taking the time to visit us here in Reading and tell us more about it. It’s a ‘living history’ museum set in the time period of the 1770s, but what makes it so exciting for me is that the museum has twenty trade and craft workshops (e.g. basket-makers, coopers, dyers, wig-makers etc.) where the trades/crafts are practised as they were in the late-eighteenth century. Craftspeople undergo apprenticeships to learn their craft, and make items primarily for use within the historic areas of the museum. Most of the workshops have about four full time staff, who take turns talking to the public and carrying out their work. The drawback to this system, however, is that production rates are really low – in fact, just enough to keep the skills alive. Colonial Williamsburg is now firmly on my list of places to visit!

We had a great turn out on the day, so thank you to everyone for coming.

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The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

The Cwm Rheidol Valley.

In what seems like an endless crisscrossing of the country, I spent Friday in Aberystwyth at a symposium about craft, heritage and woodland. The symposium was the culmination of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’, a joint project between Ceredigion Museum, Tir Coed (a charity which works to improve the quality of life for rural communities in Wales) and the local community, and was funded by the Happy Museum. I was there to talk about the work MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association have been doing to support crafts – the former in relation to craft objects, and the latter in relation to craft skills.

Like MERL, Ceredigion Museum has a large collection of objects relating to local craft and industry. And like MERL, Ceredigion Museum struggles to interpret the objects and to connect them to the processes by which they were made or used. One strand of ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ has involved working with people with experience in greenwood crafts and woodland management to share knowledge about the craft objects in the collection. And one of the aims of the project is to promote social enterprise through traditional crafts, by creating a range of wood craft products which relate to the Museum’s collections to sell in the Museum shop (and hopefully helping to kick-start the participants’ self-employed careers).

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

There were lots of examples of greenwood-work on display.

The morning started with an introduction to the project from Alice Briggs, Assistant Curator at Ceredigion Museum. She explained the importance of marketing the new products in the right way, like emphasising that they were made by local craftspeople using local materials sourced from properly managed woodlands, and linking the products to the collections, the stories of the makers, and the tools used to make them. I think there is potential for a lot of ideas-sharing between Ceredigion and MERL in this respect, as I would like the MERL shop to feature more crafts and complement our collections.

Hilary Jennings from the Happy Museum Commission who, as ‘Happiness Associate’ possibly has the best job title ever, briefly explained the idea behind the Happy Museum project. She was followed by Ffion Farnell, Director of Tir Coed – which sounds like a really inspirational organisation! They use woodlands as a resource for social, economic and environmental enrichment, and even offer apprenticeships and accreditation. We then heard from Bob Shaw, a long-term woodsman, and Stuart Evans, designer and technician at the Museum.

Bob Shaw showed us how to 'bodge' a chair leg.

Bob Shaw showed us how to ‘bodge’ a chair leg.

The symposium was held at the Cwm Rheidol Visitor Centre in a beautiful valley with stunning scenery – and there was even a steam train passing by. It was a gorgeous day, and thankfully we were able to spend quite a bit of time outdoors, enjoying the sunshine and the woods. Bob talked us through the craft of bodging and gave us a demonstration of making a chair leg – from cleaving a log with a froe, to trimming with a side axe, rough shaping with a drawknife on a shave horse, and final shaping using gouges and chisels on a pole lathe. And in the afternoon, Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour around the Cwm Rheidol woods and explained the work he has been doing to manage the woods in a sustainable way, working on the principle of ‘continuous cover’ (where you only fell selected trees within an area, rather than clear-felling an area).

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

Phil Morgan of Sustainable Forest Management gave us a tour of the woods and explained how he was managing these woods.

I’m keen to see what types of products are made and how they’re marketed, as I think there’s a lot that MERL can learn from this aspect of the project. But ‘Harvesting the Knowledge’ more generally really appeals to me – particularly as it gives the Museum a role in supporting craft skills and craft careers, and also traditional woodland management practices and careers. So I’m really keen to see what comes of it!

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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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Tool Tales

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

The Tool Tales instant gallery.

On Saturday the Heritage Crafts Association held its fourth annual Spring Conference, and this year’s theme was ‘Tool Tales’. What better theme could there be for a craft conference? Almost every craftsperson needs at least one tool – and some need hundreds!

It was a very packed day, with five speakers, an AGM, awards and an instant gallery of delegates’ favourite tools to fit in. Some of my favourite quotes came from Professor Trevor Marchand, who spoke about problem-solving in bench-side learning – ‘craft is problem-solving and ‘hand work is intelligent work’ – and Dr Phil Harding in his appropriately titled talk, ‘Getting a Handle on Prehistory’ – ‘a tool with no handle is a useless tool’. And Grace Horne, knife-maker and corset-maker, who described herself as having an extra-marital affair with scissors, reminded us that scissors are so much more than ‘two knives attached by a screw’.

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as 'embroidery' and was rather confused!)

Phil Harding getting a handle on pre-history (which I initially mis-read as ’embroidery’ and was rather confused!)

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company made everyone laugh with his stories of spending his days transporting, dismantling and rebuilding large numbers of nineteenth-century industrial looms (there’s always a few pieces leftover – ready to form part of the next loom). And Roger W. Smith wowed us all with his incredible patience and precision – watch-making is a craft that involves 34 separate trades, all of which Roger undertakes at his workshop where they make only eleven watches a year!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company - he's addicted to rebuilding looms!

Daniel Harris of the London Cloth Company – he’s addicted to rebuilding looms!

In July 2013 the HCA launched its own suite of Heritage Crafts Awards, building on existing awards, and the winners were announced on Saturday. They included local boat-builder Colin Henwood of Henwood & Dean, who won the ‘Maker of the Year’ award. Colin is based in Henley-on-Thames and specialises in the restoration, rebuilding and maintenance of classic wooden Thames boats – and he was recently interviewed by Phillippa, MERL’s Public Programmes Manager, for the oral histories element of the Reading Connections project.

This week I’m setting myself the challenge of getting to grips with social media – and there’s loads out there about Tool Tales. Why not take a look at the HCA Facebook page to see photos from the day, Pinterest to see photos of tools for the instant gallery, and Storify to see some of the tweets about the day.

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MERL 70/149. A 'malt skep', used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging it across the malthouse floor.

MERL 70/149. A ‘malt skep’, used at Warwick & Richardsons Brewery in Newark-upon-Trent for moving barley from the cistern to the working floor and green malt from the floor to the kiln. The ropes are for dragging the skep across the malthouse floor.

This week I’ve started thinking about how best to record the information that we gather during the project. I’ve been exploring the functionality of Adlib, our collections database, to see what sort of things we can record and where. Adlib has specific fields for ‘materials’ and ‘techniques’ which we don’t currently use – these are something I want to experiment with during Stakeholders (which might also benefit other work, such as the craft cataloguing for another project I’m working on, Reading Connections). The advantage of these fields is that they are searchable and, because they are terminology-controlled, the terms used can be standardised.

I’ve also been thinking about how to record some of the more detailed information that we’ll hopefully gather. My current thoughts are to complete a detailed recording form for each basket which can then be attached to the database record, in a similar manner to Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms, but hopefully with slightly more detail. We could fill in everything we already know, add to it during the workshop visit, and circulate to participants afterwards for them to check and add any additional information. However, this wouldn’t be searchable as an attachment but it would mean that the information was there – I need to discuss this idea with Ollie and see what he thinks.

I’ll also need to think about how to record more general and perhaps tangential information that will inevitably emerge – things like memories and reminiscences, makers’ personal experiences, related photos and films etc.

I’ve also been taking advantage of the MERL Library to look for basket-related books and have started to compile a list of key terms – focusing on materials, techniques, and names for parts of a basket. So far, I’ve been through the Basketmakers’ Association’s list of terms, Mary Butcher’s Willow Work, and Sue Gabriel and Sally Goymer’s The Complete Book of Basketry Techniques. If anyone has any other recommendations, or knows of any good existing lists of terms, please let me know!

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D2568

It’s that time of year again already… this Saturday, 1 June, is the annual MERL Village Fete!

This year’s Fete has a traditional crafts theme, inspired by the craft collections in the Museum and supported by the Heritage Crafts Association. There’ll be demonstrations from a spoon carver, blacksmith, bodger, saddler and willow weaver, and have-a-go craft workshops. There’s plenty of food and drink on offer, with a hog roast, cream teas and a beer tent. Entertainment will be provided by Armaleggan morris dancers and the Waltham St Lawrence Silver Band.

The Fete is held at the Museum 10.00-16.30. Admission is £2.50 for adults and free for children. There’s more information on the MERL Fete webpage, and the MERL Facebook page.

Hope to see you on Saturday!

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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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Every time I look at the Historypin website, the number of channels has increased, with many museums and archives across the world having their own Historypin channel. I’ve had a quick look at some of them, and most seem to be plotting their photographic collections, which is how Historypin was intended to be used. Here at MERL, however, we’re trying to plot out object collections. Danielle explained some of the issues in doing this in her previous post – particularly those relating to the fact that objects are often associated with multiple places. However, there is a third approach to Historypin that I wanted to write about today, as it sprang both from the work we’re doing here at MERL and a post I wrote a while ago about mapping craft.

 

I have mentioned the Potter, Wright and Webb blog before, which looks at traditional regional crafts in the UK. Rachel has written posts on swill basketmaking in Cumbria, sanquhar knitting in Dumfriesshire, Orkney chairs in the Orkney Islands and bodging in Buckinghamshire. When I wrote about mapping craft, I mentioned that I would really like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map, and this is exactly what the Potter, Wright and Webb Historypin channel which Rachel set up is attempting to do. (Also have a look at Rachel’s blog post about it here).

 

Potter Wright and Webb's Historypin channel

While other museums are looking to plot where a particular photograph was taken on a map (and also position the photo on street view to enable fading in and out), and while MERL is trying to plot where a particular object was made, used and acquired, Rachel is taking a completely different approach. Instead of looking at the particular, she is looking at the general – at typologies of objects rather than individual objects.

 

MERL 68/595, Southport boat basket

 

Let’s take the example of a Southport boat basket, a basket designed originally for marketing butter and eggs. This is one of the few baskets for which there is a known inventor and date. It was designed in 1830 by Mr Cobham of Mawdesley, Lancashire, and the manufacture was developed by Thomas Cowley, a local basketmaking firm. However, because the design of a basket cannot be patented, the Southport boat has been copied all over the world.

 

We have eight of them in the collection at MERL. We would pin each of these separately to Historypin – pinning each to the place(s) where it was made, used and collected, and would have a separate photo of each basket. Rachel, on the other hand, would have one photograph (which needn’t be any specific Southport boat, just a Southport boat) and would pin it generally to Southport/Lancashire.

 

This approach could be used for all sorts of things. For example, billhooks, wagons and ploughs are often regional in design, and the typology of each could be pinned to that place. So, on Rachel’s map a generic ‘Dorset wagon’ would be pinned to Dorset, whereas on the MERL map a specific Dorset wagon would be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of wagon 61/43 at MERL, that would be Bridport and Broadoak in Dorset (where it was made) and Newhouse Farm in Broadoak (where it was acquired)). Likewise, a generic ‘Sussex billhook’ would be pinned to Sussex on Rachel’s map, whereas on the MERL map a specific Sussex billhook we be pinned to the places(s) it was made, used and acquired (in the case of billhook 54/704 that would be Birmingham (where it was made) and Camden (where it was acquired)).

MERL 61/43, Wiltshire wagon

Rachel is only in the early stages of using Historypin for this purpose and there are still many things to consider, such as whether she is plotting historic traditional regional crafts, or those that survive today, or both. It’s necessary to have a date to pin something to Historypin, and it’s possibly to filter by date so these functions could help tackle this issue. Another  question is how to deal with crafts such as blacksmithing which occur everywhere.

 

Cumbrian swill basket as pinned on Potter, Wright and Webb's Historypin channel.

Even though there are still things to think about, I think this is a great way to use Historypin, and there is potential for cross over with the work we’re doing at MERL, especially when plotting our craft collections. And what’s really good to know is that people are reading our blog, and that it is inspiring them to do similar things. We’d be really interested to hear from any museum already mapping its object collections, or looking to do something similar!

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