Getting from place to place – Part 1

I’ve been following a series of blog posts by the artist Justin Partyka, which relate to photographic work he has been commissioned by the museum to undertake as part of Project Berkshire. Here Justin writes about the dramatic variations in landscape on a journey from his current fieldwork site in Berkshire back to his home in East Anglia. Justin has, of course, been getting out of his car to explore the countryside in a more direct way. Nevertheless, all of his explorations necessarily begin and end with this road-based perspective on our rural surroundings. Justin’s words hint at the valuable role that highways, byways, and other route-based means of traversing the countryside can play in the construction of ideas about place.

These themes form the backbone of various pieces of recent research activity, which variously link to the commuter experience, and to the abstracted conception of place that may be seen to emerge from such perspectives. Examples of this that the museum has become aware of over the last couple of years include the work of artist Felicity Ford which seeks to interpret the A4074 route between Oxford and Reading through the medium of sound, the PhD research of Rosie Emeny relating to how people experience the countryside from the confines of their car, and a whole series of artefacts acquired through the museum’s ongoing Heritage Lottery Fund project Collecting 20th Century Rural Cultures.

Jigsaw puzzle depicting motorway

Jigsaw puzzle depicting a motorway

I think there may be some value in thinking about how museum objects may connect to such routes, or how such routes might form a useful platform for building links between collections and audiences. I commute by train through the varied landscape between Oxford and Reading. I often wonder what items there are amongst the collections I work with that either stem from or connect to the many different places I see each day I travel along this route.

Walking and museum collections

Professor Simon Dentith recently delivered a talk as part of the MERL Seminar series entitled Cobbett’s ‘Rural Rides’: country writing at a time of change, in which he drew interesting parallels between the early 19th century travel writing of William Cobbett and the more recent exploits of the writer Will Self. This comparison was rich with insight into the complexity of literary explorations of the landscape, as well as of the places encountered along the way. For me this raised interesting questions about the rich seam of material referents that are so key to the construction of ideas about the rural past and the rural present.

As part of the project we have been giving some consideration to the ways in which ramblers and walkers might wish to explore the MERL collections, perhaps making use of online resources whilst out in the landscape itself. I was reminded of this (and of Simon Dentith’s talk) when I spoke just now to Felicity Ford about a project that she is currently undertaking with her partner Mark Stanley, entitled Walk2012. This will see them walk, not out of London as Will Self did, but into the Olympic capital, recording and charting the things they encounter on the way. As part of their exciting project they walked through a landscape that reminded them of this Museum and of things they had seen during a recent guided tour of the galleries. What more perfect a justification for the Sense of Place project could there be?

Felicity has already commented on the ‘Hefting’ posts on this blog, offering further endorsement of my hill farming metaphor. I very much hope she will continue to contribute to this discussion as Walk2012 progresses.