Historypin

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Things have come a long way since my first blog post back in February about what we do in our work at MERL. No longer do we spend our days solidly cataloguing! In fact, it sometimes feels that a week goes by with hardly any cataloguing at all. So I thought I’d write a bit about some of the other things that we’ve been doing.

JISC Project

We’re working on a joint digitisation project with University College London, funded by the Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC), as part of Object Based Learning 4 Higher Education (OBL4HE). We’re digitising two things – 60mm negatives of objects in the collection, and documentation relating to 150 selected objects. This involves scanning and some basic editing in Photoshop. Our target is to digitise about 3500 negatives, and we’ve already done 3150, but we’re hoping to carry on and see how far we get – there are 23 boxes of these negatives in the archives, and we’re only on Number 7! We have a wonderful team of volunteers who have done most of the work on the negatives – Felicity and I only spend two or three hours each a week on it. If you’d like to get involved, take a look at our Volunteering page. Felicity and I started scanning the documentation last week and have already scanned 370 documents for 47 objects (there’s often a big chunk of letters and forms in each object file). Have a look at the OBL4HE blog to find out more about.

Me posing for my scanning negatives shot. It's actually quite a relaxing task.

Tour Guiding

MERL offers guided tours to visitors on Wednesday afternoons and weekends, so we’ve taken up the opportunity to be trained as tour guides. As well as practising the general museum tour we’ve also developed a project-focussed ‘Sense of Place’ tour which draws out connections between the displays and the work that we’re doing. We’ve already given our tour twice, but still need a bit more practise.

Felicity posing for her tour guide training shot. Here she's highlighting the regional differences in wagon design.

Bucklebury

As mentioned in earlier posts, we’re working with the Bucklebury History Group on various aspects of the project. Danielle has been enhancing the catalogue records for objects from Bucklebury, concentrating at the moment on the Wells Collection. Harry Wells was a handle maker working in Bucklebury for about forty years until 1950, and we have lots of his tools. I’ve been scanning the Collier Collection of glass plate negatives of Bucklebury. Phillip Osborne Collier was a commercial photographer and postcard publisher working in Reading from 1905. We have around 6000 glass plate negatives of photographs he took in Berkshire, Hampshire and Oxfordshire. The Bucklebury photographs were taken 1905–1960s – they’re beautiful and we’re hoping that the members of the History Group can help us pinpoint more exactly where they were taken. The History Group visited MERL a couple of weeks ago and we’re off to Bucklebury tomorrow for a guided tour to help us get to grips with its geography – there’s  Bucklebury, Upper Bucklebury, Bucklebury Common, Chapel Row, The Slade and numerous other places – and we need to understand how they fit together in order to catalogue them properly. Bucklebury History Group will be at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 9 June, and Felicity, Danielle and I will be scanning photos of Bucklebury which could be uploaded to Historypin, so do bring any along if you have them. We’ll also be scanning your royal photographs to add to Historypin’s ‘Pinning the Queen’s History‘ page so bring those along too.

General work

We’re also getting to have a go at other curatorial tasks. This includes editing label text for our new exhibition, Our Sporting Life, which runs until 16 September, responding to enquiries, looking into possible acquisitions for the Museum, and supervising visits from researchers and interested groups. Felicity has signed up for various technical training courses as she’s rapidly becoming our technical whizzkid.

And finally…

And finally, we are still doing a bit of cataloguing, although at a considerably reduced rate. Danielle is focussing on Bucklebury objects, Felicity is cataloguing objects from particular cases which can be linked to QR codes and I’m happily cataloguing baskets.

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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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Just in case you weren’t listening to Radio Berkshire yesterday afternoon you can catch up with what Greta and I had to say to Bill Buckley on the History Hour. We talked in detail about A Sense of Place and discussed other ongoing projects at MERL. Go to http://bbc.in/HEQUOL – the interview begins at 1.06.55 and continues for several segments of the show.

Amongst other things, we spoke in more detail about Lavinia Smith and her collections from East Hendred, as well as some of the other ongoing digitisation work being undertaken at the museum – Rural Images Discovered and OBL4HE – and about the forthcoming MERL Village Fete, which sees the museum turn its attention to a fresh diamond jubilee theme. I say ‘fresh’ because MERL actually celebrated its own diamond jubilee in 2011, staging a 60th anniversary exhibition in collaboration with none other than the BBC. As the following image shows, yesterday’s broadcast on BBC Berkshire was the latest in a long line of connections between ‘Auntie’ and MERL over the years.

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Live TV broadcast from MERL, May 1954

Turning my attention back to this year’s jubilee – that of HRH Queen Elizabeth – the museum is lucky enough to be linking up with HistoryPin once more as a result of this milestone event. MERL, of course, has previously partnered with HistoryPin on a project concerned with Pinning Reading’s History, and the Sense of Place project team will be working with them over the coming months to find new ways of making the museum’s artfactual collections accessible via virtual maps.

By way of extending these existing and ongoing links with HistoryPin, we’ll be using the Village Fete as a context in which to gather content for another place-related project that they are currently developing, which is concerned with Pinning the Queen’s History. Having been born within a week of the 1977 celebrations I am what is commonly referred to as a ‘Silver Jubilee baby’ and therefore have something of a soft spot for street parties and bunting. With this in mind (and just to show how all these things seem to tie neatly together) I’ll finish with a rather pleasing photograph that somebody posted on HistoryPin, which shows a Reading-based street party held around the time I was born.

Silver Jubilee Street Party Vine Crescent Reading, 1977

Silver Jubilee Street Party, Vine Crescent, Reading, 1977

I hope you enjoy listening to Greta and me on the radio and we both look forward to seeing you at the MERL Village Fete on Saturday 9 June 2012!

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Since blogging about it, I’ve had a few conversations about the notion of hefting as a useful way of thinking about place. Extending this discussion offers a nice way for me to flag up one of the Museum’s existing partners – Historypin – and an opprtunity to encourage others to add photographic content to the Historypin site. It is particularly worth trying out some of the site’s augmented reality tools, which allow the user to overlay historic images (using Google Street View) and thus enable viewers to effectively fade between past and present. In an earlier post I also mentioned the farm in Stadhampton where my mother grew up – Brookhampton – and how this is a place that I feel a strange sense of connection to despite my only having visited since the farmhouse and steading were demolished. Historypin has enabled me to re-heft historic photos of Brookhampton, although I may need to consult family members in order to get the location exactly right!

Brookhampton Farm in the 1960s

Brookhampton Farm in the 1960s

Given my predilection for the metaphor of hefting I thought it appropriate to ‘pin’ an image of me as a youngster to the map. If you follow this link you will begin to see some of the challenges of pinning rural images and artefacts to Historypin. Rural views and objects are not necessarily connected to places that are visible from Google Street View, or indeed to easily ‘siteable’ places at all. I got my image about as close as I can manage, near to the old ‘stell’ (or dry stone sheep pen) that it depicts. If you look at the satellite view of the map you will see that there are several of these old features very close by. Although I’m fairly sure I know which one of these I am seen climbing on, I still can’t locate it precisely enough.

We hope to work closely with Historypin to begin to address some of the challenges that our project and the content it is generating might raise. We are also keen to begin pinning the museum’s artefactual collections to the places that they link to. Much like people though, objects have complex multi-sited biographies. The shepherd’s crook in the foreground of this picture is a perfect example of an artefact that is not only portable but is intended to be moved from place to place, offering a gentle reminder that outside of museum stores and displays, the things of everday life are not conveniently static!

Ollie Douglas as a youngster

At Heatherhope in the early 1980s

For those interested in the area surrounding where the image of me has been pinned, you will also see in satellite view that there is a reservoir not far to the west. This is the the old Kelso water supply. The sheep folds just to the east of where my portrait is pinned is known as Belsen. A shepherd who worked there shortly after the Second World War and who had been at the relief of Bergen-Belsen once came across the carcass of a sheep that had been left in the pen and forgotten about. He was heard to remark that the sight of this was ‘fair ******* Belsen’ and the folds has retained that name ever since. This story reminds me that there is more to place than just what we might see or the material links that we might have. The etymology and origins of placenames have a potent and valuable part to play in this discussion as well, not to mention the potential for places to gather negative as well as positive associations.

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In the last blog post, we mentioned that we have been working with a local charity called iMuse who work to support people with disabilities to make better use of ICT.   You can find out more about iMuse and the work they do by visiting their website http://www.aact.org.uk/imusehome.php

By collaborating with an organisation such as iMuse, a significant opportunity has been created for MERL to trial the delivery of its collection data both to this specific set of users and to a wider set of handheld owners and operators.  Annette Haworth and Lorna Woodman from iMuse have already been very busy testing out some of the activities they have developed so far within the gallery spaces at MERL.  They have also done a great job of reporting on their progress through their website and blogs, available to view on their website.

We also mentioned that we have been in dialogue with We are What we Do, the owners and managers of HistoryPin. Here Google forms the main partner in a scheme that encourages communities to share images of their locality by ‘pinning’ them to virtual maps.

Historypin already has some experience in working in this way through their local projects, one of which was conducted in Reading with Reading Museum.   When working closely with local people, voluntary groups, community organisations, archives, businesses and associations, lots of interest can be generated which results in a large number of photographic contributions. This can be continued for years to come, building the record of local history. To see more about this previous project visit http://www.historypin.com/reading/

It is hoped that MERL object collection data could be deliverable through a resource based on this model and there has been plenty of discussion as to how this work may develop.

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