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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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Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

Project 1: A cherrywood butter knife.

One of MERL’s latest acquisitions is a beech spoon carved by spoon-carver Martin Damen during an oral history interview conducted for the Reading Connections project. Martin is a regular at the MERL village fete (he’ll be here again this year on Saturday 31 May) and the MERL traditional crafts fair, and is also a strong supporter of the Heritage Crafts Association. Ever since I first met Martin and saw his beautiful spoons I’ve wanted to have a go, and this weekend I finally had the chance when I went on a two-day course with him. I love trying out different crafts I encounter – because it makes cataloguing easier when you understand how things are used, because I just love having a go at different things, and because I’m hoping to discover the craft that really suits me.
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 1.

The course was brilliant – Martin is a great teacher and explained everything really clearly (and you even got a knife and a course book with instructions and diagrams to take away with you). We began by looking at the two key tools – a knife and an axe – and practising the different techniques for using them. Martin makes it look so easy but you do need significant amounts of force/power – hardly surprising given that, even though you are using very green wood, you are using wood. The first day was spent making a butter knife in cherrywood. On the second day we were introduced to another tool – the hook knife, which is used for hollowing the bowl of the spoon – and made our very own spoons out of hazel (I think). Martin was really good at encouraging us to think about how a spoon functions and to consider the shape and form needed to make a spoon comfortable and practical to use (e.g. the shape and depth of the bowl, the thickness of the rim, the crank of the handle etc).
Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2.

Project 2: Making a spoon, part 2. It’s not quite finished – I still need to take the edges off.

It was really really hard work and I felt like I was struggling the whole time – definitely not something that came naturally to me (although obviously a lot of it is down to practise and familiarity with using knives and wielding axes). I’m really glad that I had a go and am very pleased with my pieces (which did admittedly receive quite a lot of help from Martin – I was very slow and would never have completed them otherwise). We got to take some wood away so I am hoping to try again in my spare time – although I think I’ll stick to butter knives for the time being!

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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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The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

The conference took place in the city’s cultural centre, which is housed in an amazing red brick building which was formerly a ceramics factory.

Last week I was lucky enough to represent MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at Sharing Cultures 2013, an international conference on intangible cultural heritage (ICH), held in the city of Aveiro in Portugal.

Usually, whenever I tell people I’m interested in intangible heritage I get a blank look and have to explain what I mean – so, what is ICH? Normally, when we think of cultural heritage we think of tangible, physical things such as buildings, monuments, sites and museum objects. The concept of intangible cultural heritage recognises that there are many non-physical things which are also a part of our heritage. This concept was formalised by UNESCO in its 2003 Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, which set out five domains of ICH – oral traditions and expressions; performing arts; social practices, rituals and festive events; knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe; and traditional craftsmanship.

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

The salt pans at the Ecomuseu Marinha da Troncalhada

There were two days of parallel sessions on the five domains of intangible heritage, plus sessions on education and ICH, musealisation of ICH, and safeguarding and managing ICH. I gave a paper on craftsmanship as heritage in the UK, using basketry as an example craft to explore ideas of applying values-based approaches usually used in the management and safeguarding of tangible heritage to intangible heritage, and looked out how such an approach can inform the work of the HCA.

There was also a day of workshop visits to see local expressions of intangible heritage in the Aveiro region – including visits to see the making of ‘ovos moles’ (a traditional Portuguese sweet), salt harvesting at the city’s ecomuseum, traditional painting of ‘moliceiros’ boats, and an ethnographic museum with demonstrations of traditional skills such as basketmaking, netmaking, plant-grafting, and adobe brick making. Read more about the visits on the HCA blog here.

A picture panel on a 'moliceiro' boat.

A picture panel on a ‘moliceiro’ boat.

Various papers caught my attention for different reasons – in my work at MERL, in my HCA capacity, and for my own personal interest – although there weren’t as many papers on craftsmanship as I would have liked! Some of the musealisation papers were of particular relevance to ideas we’ve been exploring in some of the projects at MERL, particularly one by Ferenc Kiss on the use of new technologies for providing multimedia interpretation experiences not only in museums but out and about, making use of smart phones, QR codes (which we’ve briefly experimented with in A Sense of Place), and other multimedia functions. There was also a paper by Sabine Marschall about a project called eNanda Online, a website for digitally recording and sharing oral history and living cultural heritage of a Zulu community in South Africa (which may relate to some of the work we’ve been doing on Reading Connections). Read more about the papers on the HCA blog here.

All in all it was a fascinating conference and it was great to have the chance to meet other people who are interested in and involved in ICH work.

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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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A typical depiction of a ‘kishie’, a traditional basket used in Shetland for carrying.

Apologies for the recent silence on the blog front – it’s been that time of year when everyone is away on their summer holidays. I spent last week in Scotland representing MERL and the Heritage Crafts Association at ‘Woven Communities’, an international basketry symposium held at the University of St. Andrews. The overall project, of which the symposium was a part, seeks to document basket weaving communities in Scotland, both heritage and contemporary, and to create a publicly available compendium of the vast wealth of information that springs from this process. The idea for the project grew out of the Scottish Basketmakers Circle, and has been funded by a research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.

We had two packed days of speakers, which included a mix of basketmakers, curators and academics, with presentations along two key themes. The first day centred on different communities associated with basketmaking, such as makers, growers and curators. The second day had a more temporal theme, looking at basketry in the past through the archaeological records, in the present and in the future, with a focus on ideas of sustainability. I was lucky enough to have been invited to speak, and gave a talk on the topic of intangible heritage and heritage craft which focused on issues of relevance, sustainability and values in associated with heritage craft. Have a look at my HCA Day One and Day Two blog posts to find out more about the conference in general.

Ewan Balfour making a kishie and enjoying the presentations.

The conference also included a chance for participants to have a go at making one or two simple things, and we were welcome to carry on throughout the conference – it was great to see people working away with their hands, exploring materials and having an experiment while listening to the talks. Ewan Balfour, a landscape architect and basketmaker from Shetland, could be seen on the first day making what seemed like an endless length of rope, and on the second day he made a ‘kishie’, a traditional Shetland basket used for carrying, most commonly for peat.

I made this piece of rush rope at one of the hands-on sessions.

There was a familiar cry coming from the museum cohort at the conference: we need basketmakers to come in to our museums and tell us about our basketry collections – what materials they’re made from, how they were made, how they were used etc. – as most museums, including MERL, don’t have the knowledge and expertise in-house. The challenge is to find a systematic way of working with basketmakers and recording the information they are able to give, rather than on the ad hoc basis which more often takes place when researchers come to visit collections and share titbits of information. There is perhaps the making of a project somewhere in this.

Felicity Wood, an Oxfordshire basketmaker and collector, has been working with the Pitt Rivers Museum to put together a website about their basketry collections. Having noticed that many people wrongly identify the materials used in a basket, she has also compiled a ‘materials identification toolkit’, with samples of willow, cane, rush etc. – I’m sure this error has also occurred at MERL. I think this could be a useful tool for museums with significant basketry collections.

As a result of the conference, I think I might need to revisit some of the cataloguing work I did on baskets, especially the kishies, which I had thought were always used for carrying peat, when in fact they can be used to carry almost anything. This encapsulates what the ‘Woven Communities’ project is about – it’s about sharing knowledge.

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Our office decoration - complete with counties and unitary authorities.

MERL has a sizeable collection of rural craft objects, both finished items and the tools needed to make them. The craft collections are one of the things that first attracted me to the Museum, and my first visit to MERL was to interview the former Keeper, Roy Brigden, about craft and intangible heritage in museums for my Museum Studies dissertation (ultimately I wrote it about craft as intangible heritage in the UK). This means that I’m always on the look out to do things at MERL connected with the craft collections.

Here in the Sense of Place project office we’re using the word ‘mapping’ quite a lot. Work is being carried out on Adlib this afternoon, which means no cataloguing, so I thought it would be a good opportunity to write a post about mapping – and will do so in the context of craft. It’s a bit of a stream-of-consciousness post so apologies if it jumps from here to there!

Our project is called ‘A Sense of Place’ – it clearly has something to do with places, with geography. As you’re no doubt aware, we’re enhancing the Museum’s catalogue with information about place – where the objects in the collection were made, used and collected – so that we can ultimately plot them on a map. This will enable us to ‘see’ where our objects have come from. This forms part of the work we’re doing with Historypin and trialling in Bucklebury, Berkshire. Plotting our collections in this way will not only provide visitors with new ways to search the collections but will also enable us, the Museum, to see the geographical spread of our objects and identify places from which we have many/few/no objects. This also has the potential to feed into MERL’s acquisitions and disposals policies – we may want to acquire objects from areas in England that aren’t currently very well represented, or we may question why we have objects from other countries (such as an Israeli ard) when we are the Museum of English Rural Life.

MERL's Israeli ard (61/3/1-3). Incidentally, this is one of the 60 series of black and white negatives that are being scanned by a team of volunteers for the JISC digitisation project that Felicity and I are also working on.

Although we tend to think of mapping (and maps) in a geographical context, it isn’t all about plotting places on maps and connecting things/ideas to places. Mapping has different meanings in different fields (this is where I now struggle to explain them, but you can see that they’re not to do with geography/maps in the conventional sense). In computer programming you can ‘map’ drives and software so that you can have access to them from different places, in maths ‘mapping’ is another word for ‘function’, you can ‘map out’ or plan your future and you can make something well known or ‘put it on the map’. It’s not all about geography.

In my life outside MERL, I’m a trustee of the Heritage Crafts Association (HCA), the advocacy body for traditional heritage crafts. It aims to support and promote traditional crafts as a fundamental part of our living heritage in the UK and ensure that those craft skills are carried on into the future. As part of my work for the HCA I sit on the steering group of a ‘mapping’ project commissioned by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills and run by Creative and Cultural Skills. This piece of research seeks to ‘map’ the occupations, skills and economic contribution of the heritage craft sector in England. So this project is about gaining a deeper understanding, building a better a picture, understanding the size/shape/form/spread etc. rather than looking at craft in terms of place or in a geographical sense. I do hope, however, that the final report will include some regional analysis so that we can understand how the craft sector differs across the country.

Back to more conventional ‘mapping’, I really would like to see the traditional crafts of the UK plotted on a map. The HCA does have a craft map showing where traditional craftspeople are across the country, but I’d like a map to show the multitude of crafts which are strongly tied to particular areas, be it saddle making in Walsall, shoe making in Northampton, cutlery in Sheffield, willow basket making in Somerset, straw plaiting and hat making in Bedfordshire, chair bodging in High Wycombe etc. – the list goes on. There’s a good blog about regional crafts here. This relationship between place and craft has developed for all sorts of reasons – the materials available, the natural landscape, the ways of living, the development of industry – and understanding where something comes from is key to understanding why that thing is the way it is. This is not only true of the crafts, but is also true of other groups of objects we have at MERL, such as ploughs and wagons, the design of which is informed by the type of soil and the terrain of the areas in which they were used.

The HCA's map of traditional craftspeople - available on the HCA website (www.heritagecrafts.org.uk)

I feel that the UK is quite behind in making that link between craft and place. Last summer I went to Japan for a few weeks (having studied Japanese at university and visited several times) with the idea of travelling around and looking at traditional crafts as I went. I did start to blog about it, and would definitely like to see more in the future. Japan has been preserving its intangible cultural heritage since the 1950s and they really look after their traditional crafts, with an Association for the Promotion of Traditional Craft Industries, a Centre for Traditional Crafts (renamed Japan Traditional Crafts Aoyama Square), a Folk Crafts Museum, craft museums in most prefectures, a Living National Treasures scheme etc. I started my journey with a visit to the Centre for Traditional Crafts in Tokyo and picked up a fantastic map of Japan with all of the regional crafts plotted on it. It was the first time I’d seen anything like it and I thought it was brilliant. Once you start to know where a craft comes from, you can begin to understand why it developed there. I recently saw something similar on the BBC’s ‘Our Food’ programme which plotted local foods on a map of the UK, and the programme explored the relationship between place and food. Maps like these can really help us start to think about things in new ways – by ‘seeing’ that relationship with place represented on a map, we realise that relationship exists and can begin to understand and explore it.

A screenshot from BBC2's 'Our Food' programme (http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01fkcdp/sign/Our_Food_Norfolk)

In my spare time (there doesn’t seem to be much of it left) I’ve started compiling a list so that I can create one of these maps myself – any contributions are very welcome! And in my work time, I’m hoping to explore that relationship with place in the basket collections.

The Team has now divvied up some of the different strands of the Sense of Place project and we are moving our focus away from chronological cataloguing to concentrate on testing various uses for the enhanced catalogue. In our chronological cataloguing, I’m part way through 1955 while Felicity is working on 1956, and we do hope to make it out of the 1950s by the end of the year. Danielle will be concentrating on our work with Bucklebury History Group and Historypin, while Felicity will look at the use of QR codes and augmented reality as ways of accessing information about the displays in the Museum. I’m a bit more of a technophobe and am going to be looking at using the ‘exhibitions tool’ on Adlib, which will hopefully allow us to pull out information from our enhanced catalogue records to produce an online exhibition. I’m hoping to put together an exhibition on regional baskets as I’m quite a fan – I used baskets as a case study craft for my dissertation. I think MERL has about 425 baskets in the collection. My plan is to catalogue them, map them in the traditional geographic sense so that I can see where they’ve all come from), and then explore the relationship between the baskets and those places. This is still very much in the pipeline but I’m really excited about it! I will, of course, continue to contribute to the Bucklebury efforts.

And I haven’t forgotten that I still need to blog about the Massingham Collection that was part of my 1951 cataloguing. I want to find out a bit more about Massingham before I attempt to write anything so his book, ‘Country Relics’, is on my (ever-growing) reading list.

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