Dorothy Wright

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Our beautiful commissions in a mixture of plain and arty shots (thanks Adam!). Top, L-R: Annemarie O'Sullivan, Bunty Ball, Sue Kirk. Bottom L-R: Maggie Smith, Karen Lawrence, the Meazzanine.

Our beautiful commissions in a mixture of plain and arty shots (thanks Adam!). Top L-R: Annemarie O’Sullivan, Bunty Ball, Sue Kirk. Bottom L-R: Maggie Smith, Karen Lawrence, the Mezzanine.

On Saturday we welcomed 50 basketmakers to MERL for the Basketmakers’ Association (BA) annual Summer Meeting. For me, it was a very important day as it felt like the culmination of the work I’ve been doing with MERL’s basketry collections over the past 2.5 years, and it was great to have the chance to share our wonderful collection with the people to whom it means the most.

The day consisted of a mixture of formal and informal sessions, with plenty of time for everyone to catch up with each other and share news. It was a gloriously sunny day, so we were able to make the most of the garden and had demonstrations in the sunshine from Rae Gillott making a willow waste paper basket, and Sheonagh Winterbourne doing rush chair seating.

I gave a talk on the history of the basketry collection at MERL (including my recent discovery of the Dorothy Wright archive – although I think this was only news to me), and the work I’ve been doing with the collections through A Sense of Place and Stakeholders. Bunty Ball talked about the BA’s Traditional Basketry Project, which essentially aims to document every traditional basket in the country – an enormous undertaking! Contact the BA if you want to find out more or want to get involved.

I also gave tours of the basketry collections in the stores. There was a selection of baskets out on the table for everyone to look at, along with accompanying documentation. This included baskets that were studied during the Stakeholders project, examples of baskets in different materials (e.g. rush, straw and marram grass) and baskets that have received a lot of interest over the past couple of years (e.g. a Devon splint basket and the artillery shell basket). We had some original photos from the Rural Industries Bureau from the 1930s out on display, and also some basketmakers’ ‘Lists of Sizes and Prices’, including one which dates from 1850. There was also the chance to look at the rest of the baskets in the store. Everyone was so informative and I’ve now got pages of notes full of information to add the catalogue!

The highlight of the day for me was, without a doubt, the arrival of some of the commissioned pieces from Stakeholders. They’re just absolutely wonderful and I’m so so so so thrilled with them! I’ll be blogging in more detail about each of them over the coming weeks, but here’s an overview. We received pottles from Annemarie O’Sullivan; a miniature version of Bunty Ball’s famous Sutton Hoo helmet; a panel entitled ‘Loosen the Corset’ from Karen Lawrence using white willow skeins woven using complex linking; a contemporary shopping style basket from Sue Kirk made using local (to Sue near Peterborough) willow and hazel, and inspired by the packing on some of our 1950s baskets; and a nest of three baskets made from every single part of the willow from roots to leaves and using 17 techniques, including some not normally associated with willow, from Maggie Smith. I love all of them, and can’t wait to get some proper photos of them!

Unfortunately I didn’t get a chance to take any photos during the day as I was rushed off my feet, but the atmosphere was wonderful  and I think everybody had a great time. The BA were as organised as ever, and came armed with books, noticeboards, information leaflets and (most importantly) cake! I’d like to say a huge thank you to the BA for choosing MERL as a venue, and to my colleague Phillippa for helping to organise the day and ensure it all ran smoothly.

 

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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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Following on from my previous post about Basketry & Beyond’s visit to MERL yesterday, I just wanted to quickly post the list of information we think it’s important to record about baskets in museum collections. When I attended the Woven Communities basketry symposium last year, several museum curators mentioned the lack of expert knowledge about baskets embedded in their catalogues, and the need to work with basketmakers to better understand their collections. This was also the case with the collections at MERL, although baskets acquired prior to 1970 had been examined by Dorothy Wright, who recorded information systematically in her ‘Catalogue of Baskets’ forms. Building on those forms and the experience I had enhancing the catalogue records for MERL’s basketry collections (see earlier post), I compiled the following list in preparation for Basketry & Beyond’s research visit and for future research visits by other basketmakers. Hopefully this can be used to inform future work about baskets both at MERL and at other institutions. I’d be interested to know if anyone has anything else to add!

General information

  • Standard name of basket
  • Dialect names and where they were used

 Information about this specific basket

  • Creator (who made this basket)
  • Place made (where was this basket made)
  • Date made (when was this basket made)
  • Acquisition source (who was this basket acquired from)
  • Acquisition place (where was this basket acquired from)
  • Acquisition date (when was this basket acquired)
  • User (who used this basket)
  • Place used (where was this basket used)
  • Date used (when was this basket used)
  • Use (what was this basket used for)
  • Materials (what is this basket made from)
  • Construction method/techniques (what is the construction of this basket)
  • Shape (what is the shape of this basket)
  • Dimensions (what are the dimensions of this basket)
  • Unusual features (unusual features of this basket, compared with other baskets of this type)
  • Associated information (anything else relating to this basket)

 Information about this type of basket

  • Materials (what was this type of basket commonly made from, if specific example is different)
  • Construction method/techniques (what was the construction of this type basket, if specific example is different)
  • Period in use (when was this type of basket used)
  • Use (what was this type of basket used for)
  • Distribution (where was this type of basket made/used)
  • Makers (who made this type of basket)
  • Current makers (is anyone still making this type of basket – who are they, where are they based)
  • References (books, articles etc. referring to this type of basket)
  • Images and other media (video, audio etc.) representing this type of basket
  • Wider historical context relating to this type of basket
  • Unusual features (unusual features of this type of basket compared with other types of baskets)
  • Associated information (anything else relating to this type of basket)
  • Other museums representing this type of basket

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Bulk upload

Since February last year we’ve had a team of volunteers working on digitising our old black and white negatives. This was initially part of the JISC project, but we’ve been carrying on the project as it’s a great way to get images for the catalogue without having to take new photographs (which are very expensive and time consuming). We’ve now scanned about 7100 negatives, of which 6100 have been uploaded to the catalogue this week! There are still another 10 boxes of negatives to scan (23 in total), but we’re past the halfway mark.

In addition to the negatives, we also scanned the documentation in the accession files for 150 objects as part of the JISC project. This totalled nearly 2100 scans, and these too have now been uploaded to the catalogue.

And all of the scanning I did for the basketry collection, which included Dorothy Wright’s ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms and transcripts of an interview with Jack Rowsell, the last Devon splint basketmaker, and slides of Jack making the baskets, have also been uploaded.

So do take a look at our online catalogue and let us know what you think!

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I’ve spent the past nine weeks enhancing the catalogue records for the basketry collection at MERL in preparation for trialling an online exhibition using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on our database, Adlib. Our basketry collection, comprising 637 baskets and basketmaking tools, is, like all of the collections at MERL, Designated as being of national importance. They are also national in scope, with baskets from England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The basketry collection is one of our most popular and most visited collections at MERL. While we hold quite a lot of information about the collection, very little of it was available on Adlib… until now! In the 1960s Dorothy Wright, author of ‘The Complete Book of Baskets and Basketry’ and an authority on all things basket-related, studied the collection and completed detailed ‘Catalogue of baskets’ forms. She also played an important role in acquiring baskets for the Museum.

Key subsets of the baskets include:

  • Emily Mullins Collection – Emily Mullins was a Reading basketmaker who gave about 200 baskets and tools to the Museum, making baskets specifically for MERL and donating the contents of her workshop.
  • British Council Collection – these baskets toured Australia and New Zealand in the early 1950s as examples of traditional British craftsmanship.
  • Pilcher Collection of Victorian Baskets
  • Dorothy Wright Collection

A MERL 'Catalogue of baskets' form completed by Dorothy Wright.

My task has been to put all that information into the catalogue, taking into account the different needs of the basket specialist and non-specialist. This is what I have been putting in:

  • Production: who made it, where, when
  • Usage: who used it, where, when
  • Acquisition: who gave it to MERL, from where, when
  • Description: information for the non-specialist – a description of the shape of the basket, what it is made from, what it was used for, who used it, dialect names etc.
  • Scan of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – this includes additional information about material, construction technique, dimensions, distribution, sources of reference. It also shows numerous crossings out and amendments which may be of interest to the specialist.
  • Transcription of the MERL ‘Catalogue of baskets’ form: information for the specialist – a transcription of the form in the ‘Object History Note’ field enables the information in the form to be searched
  • Photograph

The photograph and scans of the form are still waiting to be uploaded, but this is what the records should now all look like:

The 'Rapid Object Entry' screen for a fully enhanced basket record.

I spent a very long time thinking about how to name the baskets and tools in a simple and searchable way. I think Felicity must be fed up of hearing me talk about object names for baskets! In fact, we could easily write a long post on the trials of naming objects!  We consulted SPECTRUM, the standard for museum cataloguing, for guidance on object names, confirming that an object can have multiple names, and for guidance on the use of titles.  In terms of searchability, we had to consider what ways and terms people will use to search the catalogue and whether the object name will bring up the desired results. In terms of simplicity, we had to consider the variety of object names used and whether we wanted an infinite number or a restricted number (as Ollie envisages eventually having a drop down list of object names for the whole Museum).

Tools were fairly easy to name and each was given two names – the name of the tool (e.g. Bodkin; Needle; Chisel; Shave; Cleave) and the name ‘Tool, basketry’. The baskets themselves were more challenging. We looked at various ways of naming them – the detailed names given by Dorothy Wright, names based on the content (e.g. Basket, herring), the process they were used in (e.g. Basket, fishing), the accepted name (e.g. Basket, herring cran) etc. Eventually we opted mainly for a simplified content-based approach (e.g. Basket, fish; Basket, animal; Basket, fruit) with some exceptions (e.g. Basket, shopping; Basket, bicycle; Basket, gardening). For objects that aren’t specifically ‘baskets’ (as in vessels for containing things) they were given two object names (e.g. Basket, chair and Basketwork; Trap, eel and Basketwork). Commonly accepted names such as ‘Devon splint basket’, ‘trug’ and ‘kishie’ were added as Titles. Hopefully, any further information is captured in the description.

If you’re a basketmaker reading this, please have a look at our online catalogue, Enterprise, and let me know what you think! (Although we have been experiencing problems with Adlib re-naming objects of its own accord, so there might be a few anomalies until we get that sorted.)

But my work with the baskets isn’t over yet – there are still some baskets which need accessioning and then I need to experiment with the exhibitions tool and look at putting together an online exhibition.

Top left: 63/602 'Basket, fish' - Quarter cran herring basket. Top right: 65/205 'Basket, fruit' - Kentish kibsey. Bottom left: 77/321 'Basket, gardening' - Trug. Bottom right: 91/38 'Basket, potato' 'Basket, feeding' - Devon splint.

 

 

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